first person

How the Hell Are Working Parents ‘Doing This’?

Photo: Getty Images

I’ve become very used to hearing “I don’t know how you do it!” from friends who don’t have children, and I’m never sure of how to respond. It’s not that I think people who don’t have children are having an easy time — I know they wrestle with the same existential dread that I do. It’s just that I don’t know how I’m doing it either. I don’t have a choice.

I have a 5-year-old , and thankfully, I have a job I can do from home. I wash dishes and do puzzles and work and clean up spilled paint and Kinetic Sand, and — like so many other parents — I’m both here and not here.

Last week, my daughter’s dad and I sat down to have a serious talk about what the hell we’re doing when it comes to school and child care. I want to show my daughter that when things are difficult and confusing, the trusted adults in her life will rise to the challenge. Be the helpers. So what about when the helpers need help?

The uncertainty is maddening and hilariously multifaceted: New York City schools will look nothing like before, that’s for sure, but what will they look like? Which days will my daughter attend? What will the hours be? How should we rethink our co-parenting schedule? How will we accommodate a total overhaul of our daily schedule when class resumes and we’re suddenly homeschooling a kindergartner part-time?

Last year, along with many prospective public-school parents in Brooklyn, we attended orientations and tours; we introduced ourselves to administrators and emailed thank-you notes. Will our daughter attend the school our research led us to hope for — at least part-time? When will we know her schedule? How does one organize a work schedule around what is sure to be an experimental model? Does anyone know exactly what that model is yet? How many families will be able to opt in to 100 percent remote work, and how soon will we have to make that decision?

These are a fraction of the worries my daughter’s dad and I mulled over. I have the perplexing luxury of not having swiped a MetroCard since March 13 — somehow we’ve been “doing this” for four and a half months. Game plans feel like a Band-Aid applied to a wailing toddler’s thumb after being slammed in the door. It doesn’t do anything but offer the appearance of a palliative, and it’s guaranteed to fall off after six minutes of semi-rough play.

My to-do lists make a mockery of me these days: a seemingly endless succession of tiny boxes to check, tasks that feel very easy to complete while perched at my desk, but, in reality, are anything but. Because between those boxes lie infinite stretches of meal prep and lesson planning and pet care and laundry and grocery shopping — and suddenly the sun is going down, the email inbox is more of a mess than it was when I woke up, and I have to come to terms with the reality of another day of this having passed. Did we go outside today? How many times did I lose my temper? I still haven’t returned that email, have I? 

I do not feel any better at functioning within this new reality — who does? — but, thankfully, better and familiar are distinct states of being. I do feel reassured by the small familiarities that come with time. Now familiar: reminding my 5-year-old to put on her mask before we walk to the park. Singing the chorus of Beyoncé’s “Love on Top” while we wash our hands as soon as we reenter the house. The kindergarten workbook I bought in March, which we’re now about a third of the way through.

I took so many things for granted before. The ease of child care: finding a friend to babysit, using an app to scroll through testimonials, stopping at an ATM for cash, thanking them as they left. The reliability of my daughter’s school day: the buzzer I used to ring to be let inside, giving her a hug and kiss before walking to the train, my brain recalibrating from Mom to Worker as I embarked on my own day, free to immerse myself wholly in my job.

Now my roles as worker and parent feel distorted and irrevocably muddled. I forget to mute myself in a Google Hangouts meeting, and my co-workers hear me scream “WHAT WAS THAT?” in response to a sudden crash in the living room (“Nothing, Mommy!”). I send work emails at 1:34 a.m. with Barbie’s pointy feet poking into my thigh, hitting send without remembering to schedule it to show up in a contact’s inbox at a normal hour. I go to sleep too late, gazing up at the ceiling, letting my mind drift along in a sea of gray static.

The year is more than half over, and still I wake up with little clue as to how I will handle the oncoming challenges of the day, much less think through the week, the month, the coming fall. Daily reality feels untenable, because it is. When there is no clear finish line, no date circled in an internal calendar to act as a beacon in these dark hours, time loses much of its significance. When you become a parent, exhortations to “live in the moment” become as commonplace as burp cloths and diaper ads. This isn’t how any of us imagined fulfilling that particular aspiration.

Still. When the sun rises, when my daughter comes thundering into my room and the cats demand to be fed, I will get up and do it all over again.

How the Hell Are Working Parents ‘Doing This’?