Dividing and conquering
The biggest prepandemic issue for Sridevi Alla, MD, a hospitalist at Baptist Memorial Health in Jackson, Miss., and mother to four children – a 10-year-old, 6-year-old, 2-year-old, and a 9-month-old – was finding a babysitter on the weekend to take her kids out somewhere to burn off energy.
That’s a noticeable departure from the current demand to be not just a parent, but a teacher and a counselor too, thanks to virtual school, noted Dr. Alla. “You are their everything now,” she said. “They don’t have friends. They don’t have any other atmosphere or learning environment to let out their energy, their emotions. You have become their world.”
The beginning of the pandemic was particularly stressful for Dr. Alla, who is in the United States on an H-1B visa. “It was totally worrisome because you’re putting yourself at risk with patients who have the coronavirus, despite not knowing what your future itself is going to be like or what your family’s future is going to be like if anything happens to you,” she said. “We are fortunate we have our jobs. A lot of my immigrant friends lost theirs in the middle of this and they’re still trying to find jobs.”
Dr. Alla’s first challenge was whether to send her older two children to school or keep them at home to do virtual learning. The lack of information from the schools at first did not help that process, but she and her husband ended up choosing virtual school, a decision they still occasionally question.
Next, they had to find child care, and not just someone who could look after the younger two kids – they needed someone with the ability to also help the older ones with their homework.
Though initially the family had help, their first nanny had to quit because her roommate contracted COVID. “After that, we didn’t have help and my husband decided to work from home,” said Dr. Alla. “As of now, we’re still looking for child care. And the main issues are the late hours and the hospitalist week-on, week-off schedule.”
“It’s extremely hard,” she reflected. “At home, there’s no line. A 2-year-old doesn’t understand office time or personal time.” Still, Dr. Alla and her husband are maintaining by dividing up responsibilities and making sure they are always planning ahead.
Maintaining a routine
The greatest challenge for Heather Nye, MD, PhD, a hospitalist and professor of clinical medicine at UCSF, has been “maintaining normalcy for the kids.” She mourns the loss of a normal childhood for her kids, however temporary. “Living with abandon, feeling like you’re invincible, going out there and breaking your arm, meeting people, not fearing the world – those are not things we can instill in them right now,” she said.
The mother of an eighth grader and a second grader, Dr. Nye said their school district did not communicate well about how school would proceed. The district ended up offering only virtual school, with no plans for even hybrid learning in the future, leaving parents scrambling to plan.
Dr. Nye lucked out when her youngest child was accepted for a slot at a day camp offered through a partnership between the YMCA and UCSF. However, her eighth grader did not do well with distance learning in the spring, so having that virtual school as the only option has been difficult.
“Neither of the kids are doing really well in school,” she said. Her older one is overwhelmed by all the disparate online platforms and her youngest is having a hard time adjusting to differences like using a virtual pen. “The learning itself without question has suffered. You wonder about evaluation and this whole cohort of children in what will probably be more or less a lost year.”
Routines are the backbone of the family’s survival. “I think one of the most important things for kids in any stage of development is having a routine and being comfortable with that routine because that creates a sense of wellbeing in this time of uncertainty,” Dr. Nye said.
Neither Dr. Nye nor her husband, a geriatrician, have cut back on their work, so they are balancing a full plate of activities with parenting. Though their family is managing, “there are streaks of days where we’re like: ‘Are we failing our children?’ I’m sure every parent out there is asking themselves: ‘Am I doing enough?’” But she said, “We’re very, very lucky. We got that [camp] slot, we have the money to pay for it, and we both have flexible jobs.”