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Shawn Vestal: On Mother’s Day, Spokane moms reflect on how ‘Everybody’s doing the best they can’

UPDATED: Mon., May 10, 2021

Anna Harbine had the ultrasound procedure that showed she and her husband were expecting a daughter in March 2020, mere hours before the governor announced the first emergency shutdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic.

From that moment on, the pandemic has been a companion to Harbine’s pregnancy, the birth of her daughter and parenting life. Every week, it seemed, the guidance about the risk to pregnant women changed. Pandemic precautions changed the nature of her doctor visits and medical care, which she had to undergo without her husband, and they put the kibosh on a baby shower. Social-distancing limits in the delivery room prevented her from hiring a doula, as she had hoped.

When Saga was born in late July – at the height of a summer surge in cases – Harbine wore a mask during labor and delivery. She’d been tested, but the results weren’t back yet.

“I laugh now when people say they can’t breathe in a mask,” she said. “I gave birth in a mask and I could breathe fine.”

The pandemic threw a lot of challenges at parents, and mothers in particular, whether they were raising newborns in near isolation, juggling work with monitoring home-school, scrambling to pay bills after losing a job or unable to reunite with their grown children.

Many moms – particularly single moms – suffered financial hardship that is exacerbating existing social divisions. More women lost their jobs than men, and more have remained out of the work force even as the economy rebounds. These effects have, like COVID-19 itself, taken a larger toll on women of color.

Some moms left work to manage home-schooling and child care. As the job of care-giving for children and others became more challenging, a lot of that work in the home also fell to moms. For some, in other words, the past year has been – as one mother who left her job to care for her two young kids put it in an email – “sheer hell.”

But even moms fortunate to have jobs and support systems faced a year of parenting unlike any other. Helping kids navigate online school strained the abilities – and patience – of many. Trying to balance pandemic cautions with kids’ social lives felt impossible. The relentless togetherness could be exhausting.

On the other hand, several Spokane-area moms said there were unforeseen upsides to their experiences. Some said they enjoyed developing family hobbies to fill the time. Some used the pandemic as a teaching opportunity. Some found benefits from slowing down the rush of work and school.

After Harbine’s daughter was born, things were much different than they’d been after the birth of her older son, Odin, who is 3. Harbine’s mom couldn’t be there as a source of help and support. Family and friends had to keep their distance; visitors were few and, literally, far between.

Harbine, who is the Johnston-Fix Curator of Archives and Special Collections at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, was able to take several months off after her daughter’s birth, and she appreciated having a lot of quiet time together to bond. It was also hard and strange in many ways, of course. Saga and her grandparents met for the first time through a Plexiglas barrier.

“We just couldn’t meet family and see family and people who we care about and who care about us,” she said. “That was really straining.”

Things have begun to change with the advent of the vaccinations. Harbine’s mom can now help her watch the kids, and she’s back to work full time. But her year of pandemic motherhood has been “just surreal.”

As you might tell from one of her keepsakes.

“I still have that mask,” she said. “It’s in our baby box.”

Exhausted but optimistic

During the first few months of last year, Diane Yarbrough battled health problems that were puzzling her medical providers. She and her boyfriend decided in March that she would quit her job to focus on her health – they had a safety net covering about two months’ worth of bills.

“I turned in my notice and three days later everything got shut down,” she said. “We thought, ‘OK, this won’t last too long. We’ll be fine.’ ”

Yarbrough did find out what was ailing her and has been receiving treatment for liver disease and cysts on her spleen, she said. But it was seven full months before she was able to find another job, as the economy constricted.

She and her boyfriend struggled to pay the bills, and often could not, and their credit ratings have suffered, she said. Because she had left her job voluntarily, she didn’t receive unemployment benefits.

She was also trying to help her 21-year-old daughter, who lives at home and who has had debilitating anxiety and depression since her early teens. Her daughter was ready to enroll in Spokane Community College last year until a mix-up on the financial aid application prevented it, and then, when the pandemic closures hit, she lost her job at a day care center.

“She just closed back down,” Yarbrough said. “She went back into her shell.”

Now, as things begin to open up, Yarbrough is trying to dig herself out of a financial hole. She got a job taking care of foster children with disabilities at a company that operates group homes in Spokane Valley, where she works 32 hours a week.

She started her own small business, Whimsies and Wonders, selling crystals and personalized jewelry at the Healing Boutique in the Valley.

She has helped her daughter get prepared to enroll in the nursing program at SCC in the fall and is hoping she can begin to repair her credit.

To that end, she just took another job as a server in a restaurant, and is hoping we don’t end up back in Phase 2 so she can keep it.

“I’m exhausted,” she said, “but I’m really optimistic.”

Everything comes home

When everything shut down last year, it affected Jenn Knutson and her family in ways that will sound familiar to many.

Her job moved from her office to her home, as did the all-day education and supervision of her 5- and 12-year-old sons. (She also has a 27-year-old stepson). Her husband’s job in the health care field, meanwhile, became so busy that he was working 14- and 15-hour days.

“It was just kind of a lot,” she said last week.

On top of it all, her own mother had to keep her distance.

“That was really hard for me and the kids,” she said. “She was my helper through a lot of things, the one who picked up where I couldn’t. … All of a sudden, the safety net, the support system, fell apart.”

For Knutson, a 39-year-old therapist, things have stabilized a bit. Her 12-year-old is attending school in the Mead district, which has been open since fall. She has adjusted to providing telehealth services for her clients, and her husband is also working at home, helping to manage the juggling act of work and family.

She recently asked her older son, Cody, how he thought the pandemic had affected them all. “He said, ‘I think it’s brought us really close together,’ ” she said.

And, having received their vaccinations, she and her own mom are able to be together in person again – and have a special plan to celebrate Mother’s Day.

“My mom and I are going out by ourselves to have some dinner,” she said.

‘Now what?’

Jacquelynne Sandoval viewed the pandemic and school closures as an educational opportunity for her teenage son, Malachi Davis.

Sandoval is a real estate agent, which allowed her some flexibility to structure work around parenthood. Malachi has been working as her intern, helping with administrative tasks and preparing properties for showings.

“I count a lot of it as a blessing because I’ve been able to give him more attention,” she said.

Raising a modern teenager comes with particular challenges – from the onslaught of technology and social media to the fact that many young people have it pretty easy, she said. She wanted to push back against the “coddling.”

“We need to teach them that life is going to gut-punch you sometimes,” said Sandoval, 38. “You need to pick yourself up and pivot and figure it out.”

Sandoval, who was a single mother for many years but is now married, looked at working with her son as a chance to teach him about the value of hard work, money management and self-sufficiency. In a pandemic economy where many employees were at the mercy of business owners and government officials, she placed a high value on being able to take care of yourself.

Malachi is a junior at University High, and he has stayed with the online program since in-person classes resumed. He’s earned PE credits by working with a trainer, and Sandoval has tried to bolster his education in other ways, as well. He became active in the movement that arose after the killing of George Floyd

“The biggest thing I’ve tried to take from this year is, we can’t put negativity on our kids,” she said.

Difficulties are certain, she said, and it’s important to ask yourself: “Now what?”

Creating routine

Brenda Garberg is a social worker for the state, so even though she began working at home when the shutdown came, she would still have to leave home for in-person appointments.

If an appointment ran long, say, it came with extra tension: Her sons were home alone, expecting her back.

It’s just one example of the kinds of conflict that appear continually in the loop of working and parenting at the same time. Her husband, Jeremy, works out of the home, which didn’t change during the shutdowns.

“I found it harder to have that work-life balance,” said Garberg, 36. “I would feel guilty when I would have to leave to go to work, because the boys were home all the time.

“Going from working full time out of the house to working full time in the house, with two kids who also went from doing school in-person to doing school at home … it’s just a very difficult environment working at home, especially when the kids are home.”

She tried to develop and keep to a schedule at home, getting the kids up in the morning and trying maintain some normalcy.

“It was all of us trying to create a routine,” she said.

School presented one kind of challenge. Another one – especially pressing for parents of teens – was deciding how to manage the kids’ desire to socialize, a need that conflicted with pandemic guidelines. Garberg, like many parents, tried to find a middle ground between letting her sons see friends and being careful.

“Not that getting sick isn’t a risk,” she said, “but it’s important for them to have social interaction.”

‘Rinse and repeat’

Mary McDirmid’s balancing act was different, because her children are younger. With two daughters, ages 4 and 6, and two careers that were abruptly shifted to the home front, they had a lot to manage.

“It was really crazy when everything shut down,” she said. “We were scrambling.”

McDirmid is the managing director of a financial planning firm, and her husband, Jay, is an information technology vice president for Ace Hardware. They took a divide-and-conquer approach. Mary had the early parenting shift, and Jay managed the afternoons, and both caught up on their unfinished work during the evenings.

“Rinse and repeat for three months,” she said. “You’re just always on.”

As any parent working from home knows, the challenge of trying to do everything makes it hard to do anything.

“One minute it’s OK, I’m a parent and I’m parenting, and the next minute, OK, I’m on Zoom,” she said – and the rapid switches back and forth come all day long.

“It’s just exhausting,” she said.

There were positive experiences, too. They used their garden to help teach the girls how to grow plants, and tracked growth of a young tree by taking weekly pictures. They rode their bikes every day.

Best of all, McDirmid’s youngest daughter, Ruth, who has a rare disease that causes seizures, had a breakthrough in her treatment. She underwent brain surgery in August 2019, and then a change in medication last year. She was still recovering from these changes when the pandemic arrived – but she hasn’t had a seizure since August.

“We had such a great year with her health,” McDirmid said.

She said she knows her family is fortunate in many ways. Ruth is back in day care now, and 6-year-old Charlie has been in first grade in the Mead district this school year.

A lot of noticing

Kyla Scott was pregnant with a due date of April 1, 2020.

“When the global pandemic hit, I panicked,” she wrote in a message about her experience.

Her mother almost couldn’t get here to help her through the birth. Her husband needed to stay home to care for their 1-year-old son.

“As the pandemic wore on, I found myself grateful that my children weren’t of school age,” said Scott, 38, of Liberty Lake. “I empathized with children excited to learn and having routines disrupted all while having big feelings that they may not understand.”

She said raising two sons during the Floyd protests opened her eyes to some realities of American life. When the vaccines became available, she was grateful for the scientific community’s work to collaborate and help make people safer.

She has gone back to work in a flexible situation, as a recruiting associate for Microsoft, and is grateful to have help in her life from her husband and others. She was recently involved in a workshop where participants were asked to pay careful attention to things around them – to try and notice things that usually go unseen.

Instead, Scott thought about the fact that “mothers are always ‘noticing,’ and I’m tired of it.”

“I noticed the subtle grunts of what would be a baby sleepy enough to lay down in his crib,” she wrote. “I noticed the slight change in behavior that meant a toddler needed a snack. And this year, in particular, I have noticed that I can hold a job, a baby, the Paw Patrol theme song in my head, and grace for others all at the same time.”

‘The hardest thing’

Divorced moms sharing custody with their children’s fathers had an extra layer of difficulty during the pandemic.

For Brooklyn Gibson, this meant her co-parenting plan changed so her two daughters, ages 12 and 15, would spend one month at a time with her, and one month with their dad.

To be cautious about preventing the spread of the virus, the parent who did not have custody for the month avoided physical contact with the girls when it was the other parent’s month.

“That was the hardest thing,” she said.

Gibson, 45, had left the work force to be a stay-home mom several years ago, which she felt has been a godsend for her family.

That meant some of the hardships faced by working moms adjusting to being at home were a little less drastic.

Her daughters – the younger at Jefferson Elementary School and the older at Lewis and Clark High School – have taken pretty well to the online school, and the gradual return to classes, she said.

Like several other mothers, Gibson said the slowdown in the hectic pace of activities was, at times, a relief.

“In some ways, it’s been nice there aren’t 5,000 practices to get to and be running here there and everywhere,” she said.

As her family negotiated the co-parenting plan, handling school and deciding what kinds of interactions with other kids would be allowed, she recognized that families are all facing unique challenges.

“Nobody has all the answers,” she said, “and everybody’s doing the best they can.”

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