In honor of Mother's Day, we checked in with some Northwest Arkansas-area moms to find out how life during a pandemic is going for them. The over-arching message? Be gentle on yourself, Mom. Whatever you're doing, if it works, you're doing fine.
The life of a musician is inherently risky financially, depending wholly on when the next gig will be scheduled. Bernice Hembree -- one-half of the hugely popular Northwest Arkansas duo Smokey and the Mirror and one-third of the trio that founded the Roots Fest -- helped mitigate the economic ups-and-downs of a life in music by teaching vocal lessons and offering in-school workshops through the community outreach affiliated with the Roots Fest. Then came the pandemic that, cruelly, put a stop to all facets of Hembree's career.
"Our world has been turned upside down," says Hembree from her Fayetteville home, where she's sheltering-in-place with her husband, Bryan, and 14-year-old daughter Bergen. Despite the stress of the situation, Hembree's voice is characteristically upbeat. "It's been a complete shutdown of life as usual, and we've had a significant loss of income."
One positive note on the horizon: Hembree just got word that she received a grant to do some work over the summer, which will bring some relief to the family's finances.
Hembree says she and her husband are handling the stress of the sudden shutdown in different ways.
"For me, creatively, it has definitely taken a toll," she says. "Bryan is such a go-er and a do-er, every day, and it's been hard for him not to have that daily task list of go, go, go, go. For me, even though I don't carry a lot of stress -- I'm definitely the most chill of the two of us -- I think it zapped me, mentally. I'm not as creative right now. The last thing I want to do is write a song. The first thing I want to do every day is make breakfast for my family, to make sure they're taken care of and that my home duties are all in line, and I would say that was not the case six weeks ago. I think it's just a nice sense of accomplishment and control over the crazy uncontrollable world we're living in right now."
One positive that's come out of the situation, she says, is that the family is spending more quality time together, playing games, putting together puzzles and taking walks -- both as a group and individually to get a little bit of alone time outside the house.
"I think also just talking about it with our child -- she's comprehending a lot of what's going on, and it's stressful for her. Just to let her talk about it and not try to make judgments, just listen to hear how she's taken all of this in -- it's been helpful for all of us. And one other thing we've done at home -- we've always done songs together. I play piano and she sings. We've gone through all of the Disney song books, all of the classical song books, and it has been so fun to really hone into some of those songs. We have so much fun."
Though University of Arkansas Dean Emeritus and Vice Chancellor Stacy Leeds usually teaches a class or two in addition to her other duties, this semester, she didn't, making her transition from campus to work-from-home fairly easy. Once she got her home office set up, it was just a matter of figuring out the Zoom meeting schedule between herself and her son, a sixth-grader at Owl Creek School in Fayetteville.
"The routine we had, at first, was a little bit of a free range parenting-child relationship for a while," she says with a laugh. "Reading and playing video games. We did what we could, like everybody else. We instituted a family documentary night -- people pick on a rotating basis, and we sit down and watch something that we're all going to learn from. We did what we could in those early weeks. Now, with Zoom and a little bit more structure in terms of their class postings and what-not, it feels more like a Monday through Friday work week."
Leeds is quick to acknowledge that her situation is privileged, and those that are struggling in the face of a global pandemic consume a lot of her thoughts during this time.
"I think what I'm struggling with a lot is that this moment highlights the inequities and the differences in privilege," she says. "I hesitated to talk to you a little bit, because I don't need to be celebrated as some 'magic mom' that's pulling this off, given that we have our full paycheck and food and good Wi-Fi and computers. Watching what everyone is going through in terms of small business owners and parents that have to keep working and find childcare at a time when it's almost impossible to do so and all of our health care workers -- it's just this remarkable moment where there's vast diversity in the experience to the point that talking about any inconvenience we might have in our lives feels incredibly shallow."
The stark realities of these inequities is just one of the things Leeds hopes we hold on to long after the virus threat is gone.
"I think that a lot of people take for granted nurses, doctors, the grocery store employees, the public school teachers -- people are really seeing how critical every single one of those contributions to society is," she says.
KUAF General Manager Leigh Woods is sheltering-in-place with her two children: Mac, who is in the second grade, and Rosemary, a kindergartner. As a single parent, Woods says she's finding the extra time with her kids infinitely valuable.
"It kind of dawned on me that I've never had time like this with them before," she explains. "My ex-husband and I separated when our youngest was 2, and we've had split custody, so I don't have 100% of the time with my kids, which has been really difficult. We've never had summers off together, and it just dawned on me: I'm spending all day with them, watching them go through things I don't normally get to watch. I get to see the wheels turning in their heads when they're understanding a lesson or the lightbulb go off when they figure out how to subtract three digit numbers. It's magical, and I realized I need to be grateful for this time. I get frustrated, there are times when I need them to go outside and leave me alone for a little while, but, overall, I feel like this is a gift that I never got when they were young."
Woods says setting up a routine has been helpful in keeping the day's events running smoothly.
"We have good days, and then we have days where not a whole lot gets done," she says. "I think structure has helped a lot. They both go to Butterfield, and they're having daily Zoom classes -- that's been tremendous in helping because it gives structure to our day. I don't know if we're doing 100%. I'm trying not to worry about it too much. I'm seeing a lot of people saying, 'Give yourself a break, and realize you're not going to be a full-time teacher while you're also a full-time employee and a full-time parent. You're just not, and get OK with that.'"
Woods says "Cosmic Kids Yoga," a free yoga program on YouTube, has been a hit with both kids and helps to keep the stress at bay.
"I can tell that my 8-year-old has anxiety about this," she says. "It displays itself in the usual ways it does in young kids, which is confusion or exhaustion or resistance. I have to remind myself that this is a big deal they're living through. I don't even understand it; I can't expect them to."
Going outside is usually a panacea for when things get tense, she says.
"I've found that if I go outside and work in the garden, eventually they'll come out and follow me and do their own thing," she notes. "Sometimes, when I focus on the thing I need to do to calm myself, they'll adapt and do that for themselves, too."
Felecia Bowen, a hair stylist who is a single mom to a 9-year-old daughter, had already grown wary of the coronavirus threat by the time her salon shut down on March 16. Underlying conditions like lupus and asthma put her in a high-risk category, and she recognized the safety of avoiding public places like crowded salons. She had no idea, however, how long the shutdown would last.
"Honestly, I have not been able to get economic relief since the shutdown," she says. "I'm trying to file for unemployment for self-employed people, but there's an overwhelming demand for it, and I can't get on the site."
As a contract employee, Bowen is eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) as provided for under the CARES act, but Arkansas' application database did not go online until this week and Bowen says she has had difficulty accessing the website because of high traffic.
Bowen says she is grateful that she currently lives with her parents, so rent is not an issue, but she has other bills that need to be paid in order to care for her daughter, whom she has raised alone since birth. Her salon owner has made the decision to stay closed until a later date in order to provide for the safety of his staff and customers, and Bowen has no idea when she will be able to go back to work. Neither does she have an answer to how she will provide childcare once that happens. Her parents are retired, but they also run the family farm.
"My parents could do my daughter's schooling, but I don't want to put that all on them," she says. "That's not fair for them either."
Bowen's situation is complicated by the fact that her daughter needs additional learning resources for dyslexia and ADHD; while she's used to receiving direct assistance in a classroom, that kind of help is harder to provide remotely.
"She's doing a couple of programs like puzzle games, where you do so many of a certain activity or hatch an egg. They definitely try to maintain fun and rewarding activities for kids like Nicole. But, for example, one reward activity that she's supposed to get at a certain point for answering correct questions -- the reward starts to load and then goes back to the questions [without the reward]. It's frustrating. It's really hard. It's a fight the entire time until we're done."
Fighting for her daughter's education is something Bowen is all too familiar with. Nicole is in third grade and has already switched schools twice. Bowen says she has to stay vigilant to make sure she's getting the resources that will help her succeed.
"You have to, if you've got a kid like my daughter, with special needs," she says. "Or she will fall through the cracks. [The schools] don't mean to do it, it just happens."
And, she points out, despite the best attempts to make it so, online education is not equitable for all students. She's worried Nicole will be behind once schools start again in the fall.
"I honestly think the whole being online thing is great, but a lot of parents can't afford Internet. If they want us to do things online, they need to have financial aid for Internet use. I live 20 minutes away from the closest hotspot. It's definitely not equal ground."
Bowen has a lot of worries on her mind right now, but the biggest message she wants to get out is one of hope.
"Every parent needs to keep on going," she says. "This will pass. We're doing the best we can, and as long as you keep trying, it's going to be OK."
Robin Wallis Atkinson
In a normal year -- that is, one without a global pandemic -- Robin Wallis Atkinson, CEO and creative director of Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week, would be finishing up the spring shows. In the vacuum created by the sudden absence of the event, Atkinson quickly pivoted and found a new community need she could fill -- she and the Arkansas Arts and Fashion Forum have hand-sewn and donated thousands of fabric masks to first responders, health care workers and those with vulnerable family members.
"We canceled NWAFW on March 12 and launched the mask project on March 20," she says. Atkinson spent the week in between "shuffling money around" to figure out how to keep people employed and, once that had been accomplished, looked forward to the future. "I texted everyone one morning at 7 a.m. with a link to an article from a newspaper in Oklahoma about a hospital asking for masks. Before they had even checked the text, I had posted about it on Facebook. I'm glad we made that pivot, because it has kept us all focused and feeling useful. Maybe more so then we did before, and that has been beneficial."
Now, Robin is directing her team from home along with her husband, a University of Arkansas professor, a 4-month-old baby and a 2-year-old toddler.
"We're really lucky, in so many ways," she says. "We are two salaried employees who didn't lose income. I'm also so lucky that I really like my husband. I've been thinking a lot about how this is a time when, if you have any cracks in the foundation of your relationship, boy, would this show that off. We have a baby that you can barely put down, she needs to be held, she's in that phase, and the other one is super energetic and needs constant supervision. She's just big enough to be dangerous. Basically, what we've done is, we're two single parents that live together. I get the baby, and he gets the 2-year-old, and that's pretty much how it's working out. It's rare that all four of us are in the same part of the house at any given time. That's the hack that we've figured out."
Atkinson says that if she could send one message out to the other moms in the same situation, it would be this: Be gentle with yourself.
"What I'm telling myself and all of my friends when they call, crying, is that whatever everyone's social media looks like, it's not real. We're only going to post the pictures when the kids look great and sweet and are sleeping in a puddle of sunshine. We're all taking the beating. Even the most high-functioning people I know, and I like to consider myself high-functioning, are literally doing this one day at a time, figuring it out hour by hour -- how to get through this next section, a week from now, six weeks from now. Unplug, take it easy on yourself, take a nap, shut your brain down. You can't beat yourself up. This is intense. We're all working harder than we ever have before."
When schools closed, Kelly Blundell didn't have the option to work from home; as a center manager for an urgent care clinic, she was considered essential personnel. So her husband, a self-employed chef and cabinet maker, put his business on hold to stay home with the kids. And although being in the medical field right now causes her some concern that she might expose her family to covid-19 germs, she says the personal precautions she takes, along with the professional precautions being taken at her clinic, help keep them all safe.
"I enter through the garage and totally get undressed there," she explains. "I have this sanitation station. All of my clothes go in this one basket, my shoes come off, get Lysoled, then I have Clorox wipes for my keys, my name badge, my cell phone. I leave my purse and attaché case and laptop in the garage, and only then do I enter the house."
While her husband takes on the role of teacher while she's at work, she says setting the routine was a dual effort.
"My husband is amazing -- he's patient and really good about sitting down and really teaching them," she says. "As far as coming up with a routine every day that works, I literally got on the Internet and found a covid-19 school schedule example. We modified it a little bit, and now we have a color-coded schedule and a chore chart. At first, I was coming home from work, and the kids would still be in nightgown or pajamas, but they definitely thrive with a routine."
Blundell says her family has been relying on a combination of projects gleaned from the Internet and getting outside to help keep their stress levels low.
"I am not Susie Homemaker -- my husband and I really are role reversed -- but I started Pinteresting things for us to do," she says. "We've made slime, we've made foam, we've cooked and baked, we've done science experiments, we've done virtual aquariums. Disney has a lot of virtual rides, and my 8-year-old loves doing that. We've got a big, fenced-in back yard, but when we feel like not being here anymore, we do something that reminds me of time with my grandparents in the summertime -- we literally go on Sunday family drives. We took three and a half hours and drove around Beaver Lake and to the dam, we went to Eureka Springs."
As a pediatric speech language pathologist, Kristina Starnes doesn't have a job that translates easily to working from home. And so, soon after most businesses started closing their doors, Starnes found her client list -- which normally hovered around 12 to 15 clients -- shrink to two, and her income was slashed by approximately 80%. The stress was enormous for the single mother of two daughters.
"Those first few weeks out of school felt like so much pressure for me," she says. "I was trying not to panic about, 'How am I going to pay the bills? How am I going to keep the kids from stressing out?' I think that's the real challenge, trying to be a decent parent and not let them see you worry too much about finances and all of the things that you might not ordinarily have to worry about."
Starnes says that her girls-- one 9-year-old and one 13-year-old -- stay with their father every other weekend; it's up to her to supervise school work while struggling to adapt to treating her clients via telehealth. She says it's a difficult prospect given how hands-on some of the therapies tend to be.
"It's a lot of planning. I can handle the whole learning process with my two therapy kids, but, even then, it's not always been successful. There are times that I've gotten off the phone and texted the mom, 'I'm sorry that was such a flop.' But I've tried to make it as fun and creative as possible."
When it comes to her own kids, dealing with daughters at differing stages of development can be complicated. Her younger daughter, Maya, says Starnes, finds it difficult to concentrate on school work at home.
"Sometimes, I've had to be lax," she says. "If we have a day when we actually complete the full load for Maya, I'm happy."
Adalyn, she says, is struggling more with the loss of her social connections.
"She really loves being with her friends," she says. "She's at the age of complete independence, where they plan their lives out a week in advance."
Starnes is hopeful that the Paycheck Protection Program loan that she was recently approved for will help relieve the financial stress on her family. She also successfully navigated the online unemployment system for self-employed workers and independent contractors this week. She says there have been other bright spots that have showed the kindness in people along the way.
"I had an incredibly nice family [of one of my clients] who were able to work from home for two weeks," she says "They said, 'We're in a fortunate position to be able to work from home, and we're going to pay for this week and next.' I said, 'Oh no, you don't have to do that,' but they sent me the money. I thought it was so nice."
Beth Bobbitt, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art's public relations director, says working from home has given her a whole new perspective on work environment.
"I have this new belief in nontraditional work days," she says. "I think I was always a little bit critical of working from home before, but I really do think people can do this from home. They can do it at weird hours. I hope this disrupts that traditional believe that people have to work from 9 to 5 and only in an office."
Bobbitt and her husband, who works in television news, are certainly making it work with their 4-year-old daughter, who is in preschool. Bobbitt's husband takes the morning shift with daughter Edie, allowing Bobbitt to conduct Zoom meetings until noon. Then her husband goes into work, and Bobbitt juggles childcare with her work responsibilities. She says a few of her secrets are to never schedule back-to-back Zoom calls and ease up a little on screen time restrictions. Blocking off time in her schedule so that she can focus solely on Edie has been beneficial for both of them.
"I stole this from a friend -- we're doing a weekly service project so we can take our mind off of our own situation and do something to help someone else," she explains. "That's anything from filling a Little Free Pantry to cleaning out the closet and giving away toys. We've also been writing letters -- I just picked up a pack of postcards from Crystal Bridges. After we write on them, they go to hospitals or senior facilities or to people who are in isolation. It's a good point of perspective, to understand where all these people are coming from in all of these different situations."
NAN Profiles on 05/10/2020