How parents are rethinking work-life balance amid the pandemic

A silver lining of the prolonged pandemic might just be the way it rapidly reprioritized life choices toward the essentials — especially family

It sounds like a plot from a Hollywood sitcom: A new mother decides to leave her lucrative job and, along with her husband and baby, moves in with her immigrant parents who are working to keep the family business afloat. But this isn’t a script. It’s a daring, dramatic life change Erika is currently considering with her husband, thanks to the pandemic.

Erika, who lives in Philadelphia, isn’t alone in radically readjusting her life around family due to COVID-19. From work to educational choices, parents around the country are singing a similar tune: “I always wanted to make a big change, but I was scared to try. When COVID-19 came, I simply had to make certain choices, and it turned out our family is so much happier.”

To be sure, the pandemic hasn’t been easy. The loss of employment, the loss of plans and of course the loss of health and life. But a silver lining of the prolonged pandemic might just be the way it rapidly reprioritized life choices toward the essentials — especially family.

Rachel and her husband live in St. Louis. They were balancing work and school when the pandemic hit. But suddenly they were forced into being at home with their infant son around the clock. They bonded in a way they never would have planned. She told me, “While I can’t control much of what’s going on in our country and world right now, I’m finding unexpected meaning in caring full time for my son and for our home.”

Rachel put her much-anticipated career plans on hold and, like Erika, was reticent about using her last name for fear it would limit potential job prospects in the future. The decision to put her career on pause “has given our whole family more flexibility and consistency in our day-to-day life.”

Immersive motherhood — from walking to the park to “stacking blocks midday on the living room floor” — changed Rachel’s outlook, she said. She realizes not everyone can make such a situation work, and that it’s a reflection of her circumstances that she has the luxury to make certain decisions, but for her the extended period at home due to COVID-19 shifted her mindset and even opened her to the possibility of more children.

Near the very beginning of the pandemic, Matthew Continetti, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in Politico that while “paradigm shift” is among the most overused phrases in journalism when it comes to the pandemic, it really applies. The virus brought about circumstances that shift the way we look at life.

New research from an Institute for Family Studies/Wheatley Institution survey found that more than half (53%) of mothers say COVID-19 has made them more likely to prefer to work from home either most (34%) or half (19%) of the time. That’s a 20% jump in 15 years since another survey of American mothers was conducted. 

This jump could be attributed in part to the ease of working from home in the present time compared to 15 years ago. But anecdotally, it also jibes with the realization on the part of employers and employees about how in-person work can be shifted successfully at least partially to home. A New Jersey mother told me that she was better able to advocate for her desire to work from home after she proved her ability to do so over the course of a year during the pandemic.

And while Erika had hoped life would return to normal by the time she had her baby boy, the pandemic was still going. In the hospital when she gave birth, everyone wore masks; no visitors were allowed. And even though the day care she picked out last December had vaccinated caregivers, the staff remained masked. As an experienced speech-language pathologist, Erika, 38, was concerned about the developmental and emotional ramifications of her infant son spending all day without seeing faces. 

As Vinay Prasad, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, recently pointed out in The Atlantic, “Early childhood is a crucial period when humans develop cultural, language and social skills, including the ability to detect emotion on other people’s faces. Social interactions with friends, parents and caregivers are integral to fostering children’s growth and well-being.” 

Erika said her son “wasn’t making eye contact as well and was not as engaged.” They made the very difficult and personal decision to pull him out of day care. This meant Erika would need to stay home, and her husband would have to work more hours.

Currently, she’s planning to take some weekend clients as a speech therapist. She’s considering moving in with her parents in New Jersey and throwing their lot in with the family business. It’s not how she would have planned it, but she believes the fallout from COVID-19 will ultimately prove a blessing in disguise, refocusing them on what matters most.

A number of other mothers I spoke with are also rethinking their family’s education plans. Some have turned to homeschooling. In the September issue of Commentary Magazine, Christine Rosen wrote, “The U.S. Census Bureau reported in March 2021 that the number of homeschooling households had reached 11% in September 2020, more than double what it had been just six months earlier.”

Rachel Blackmore, a mother of a blended family of six in Missouri, is one of those COVID-19-inspired homeschool converts. While Blackmore always wanted to homeschool her older children, the lifestyle seemed intimidating.

But when COVID-19 hit she noticed her daughter would still have to wake up early to be on the school’s schedule. She thought, “I’m still going to be responsible for all of this.” So the family decided to piece together a homeschool curriculum. “We’ve become closer, and we have a more trusting relationship than we did before,” Blackmore told me. 

Becki Johnson, a Latter-day Saint mother of three living in Arkansas, had a similar experience. When COVID-19 forced the family into virtual schooling, Johnson thought, “I could do better.” Her husband took a new job that granted the family flexibility to travel for pleasure, education and to visit family in nearby states.

Despite her three children always doing well academically and socially in school prior to the pandemic, they’ve decided the new path is right for them. Instead of driving to and from school every day and spending the day apart, the family is now at home together. And while it’s “a lot” being together all the time, she says, the family is overall happier.

For me, the most surprising pandemic shifts are those who gave up lucrative white-collar jobs. The pandemic made them appreciate that less is more.

Raquel was a hardworking lawyer, clocking more than 40 hours a week (she also asked that I not use her last name, worried her comments about scaling back her work commitments could hurt her professionally in an industry often hostile to the idea of putting family first.) She planned to go back to work after adjusting to a cross-country move for her husband’s job. But the pandemic allowed her to try a slower pace, working part time as a lawyer and spending more time with her children.

When she worked full time the kids were in school until 3 p.m. and, on some days, aftercare until 6 p.m. Raquel told me what that meant for their family: “There was a lot of emotional toll on all of us with that many hours apart. ... There was no time to connect. I’d jump right into dinner and bedtime.”

Once the pandemic subsides, she hopes to work part time while her children are at school, dropping her commitments when it’s time to pick them up at the end of the school day. Whereas she once had no idea what was going on in school, she can now volunteer to be more involved when COVID-19 restrictions loosen.

Raquel’s positive experience working from home, and the improved work-life balance, is one that a majority of American women increasingly wish to have but not all industries perfectly accommodate. In a recent survey of employers, almost half said their employees weren’t as productive working from home.

Amada, a Catholic mother in Texas, was in her sixth year of study in a history doctorate program with the intention of becoming involved in academia. While Amada and her husband always prioritized family, COVID-19’s impact on their child care arrangements forced a shift that moved them across the country. She decided to quit pursuing her Ph.D.

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The result, however, wasn’t entirely negative. “We feel like we’re thriving more than before the pandemic. It came from the realization that we had to firmly commit to family culture.” She had hoped to balance it all, but ultimately she’s happy with how it turned out.

They see the events of this past year as providential. Amada’s father-in-law died of cancer, but the week before, she and her husband learned they would be welcoming another baby into their family. While expanding their family at the time wasn’t their intention, the happy news was a counterbalance amid the family’s grief.

For the families I spoke with, the lesson of COVID-19 was that while we can’t entirely control our circumstances, we have more control over our life choices than we sometimes realize. The disruption of routine forced many into extended periods of togetherness; and while difficult, it also often became a gift that few wanted to squander.

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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