From left: Sawsan al-Ramemi of Amman, Jordan, is a mom of two — and expecting her third child. Her husband is working in the U.S. Nienke Pastoor of the Netherlands has been juggling her job as a dairy farmer and helping her four teenagers with their online schoolwork. Jessica Barrera of Eau Claire, Wis., is finding ways to spread joy with her son, Niko, who's a virtual student these days.
(Nadia Bseiso, Julia Gunther and Lauren Justice for NPR)
When I was growing up, I marveled at how my single mother was able to come home after a long day of work, make dinner, iron our school uniforms and help me and my sister with our homework.
I can't imagine how she would have managed during this pandemic.
What would she have done if she was laid off from her job at the airport? Would she be able to figure out — or afford — virtual school? How would she keep us safe from the virus?
Around the world, mothers have been struggling with these very challenges during the pandemic. We spoke to three mothers who shared how they've been faring: a mom of two in Jordan, expecting her third child and missing the in-person support from family; a dairy farmer with four teenage children — and 165 cows — to look after; and a single mom helping her son, who is on the autism spectrum, find joy in spite of coronavirus restrictions.
The cows rode around the milking carousel, a circular platform lined with 30 individual holding pens that slowly turn clockwise. In each pen, a black and white Holstein or brown and white Montbéliarde waited to be milked.
In the pit below the carousel, 40-year-old Nienke Pastoor stood at udder-height, attaching the milk-extracting pump to each cow as it passed her.
Pastoor, her husband Jaap and Henk, an employee, need just 90 minutes to milk all 165 of the farm's dairy cows.
Pastoor and her husband co-manage a 336-acre dairy farm. One of her many responsibilities is to help run the daily milking operation. She's also the mother of four teenage children; she cooks and cleans; and she manages the farm's books. She regularly gives tours to schoolchildren from the nearby city of Groningen, taking them around the farm and letting them milk the cows by hand.
For a while Pastoor cherished the sudden quiet and freedom that COVID-19 brought to the "Other World": the name given to the remote farming district in the far north of the Netherlands where the Pastoor family have been dairy farmers for 75 years. "We established a strange new family rhythm during the lockdown," she said on a blustery blue-skied afternoon.
The only set routines were the morning and afternoon milking of the cows, and the e-lessons of her children: Thomas, 17, Daniel, 15, and twins Emma and Paulien, 13, who like many students in the Netherlands switched to remote learning in March.
"There was less pressure," she said. "No music lessons or sports games to drive the children to. And because the weather was so nice, life definitely felt a little more relaxed." The only visitors to the farm during the lockdown, which lasted from March 15 till June 2, were the truck drivers who came by three times a week to pick up 3,079 gallons of milk, and the vet who visited every two weeks.
But the pandemic also added new tasks to Pastoor's farm routine. She suddenly had to help the children with their schoolwork. "I made sure they were sitting at their laptops when they were supposed to be. I told them, 'We all have responsibilities in life. I have to do things. And so do you. You make sure the thing you are doing is done on time.' "
The children didn't mind the sudden shift to learning at home. They were able to sleep longer in the mornings as they didn't have to bike to school. The only frustration was the frequent technical glitches — no sound, the teacher's screen not working.
Pastoor was so busy she couldn't do the books for a month. Work kept piling up on the long wooden kitchen table where she normally sits.
"In the end, I had to tell [Jaap and the children] to get out of the kitchen so I could have some time for myself."
"It was difficult being a mother and a farm manager," she said, reflecting on lockdown life. "Everyone expected me to successfully juggle everything."
But dealing with all these responsibilities didn't concern Pastoor. What truly worried her was how she would cope if her husband were to get COVID-19 and succumb to the virus — and she'd be left to manage the farm on her own. "The pandemic really brought that home."
So Pastoor spent as much time as she could learning how to operate the farm's tractors, feeders and other heavy machinery — usually her husband's domain. "I also told him to write everything down on paper," she said. "Just in case."
While COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc around the world, life is slowly returning to normal on the Pastoor farm. The children are back at school, the price of milk is stabilizing after dropping dramatically during the lockdown due to a decrease in demand. Last week, Pastoor oversaw the birth of five new calves.
"Nature has a rhythm that dictates life on the farm," she reflected. Pandemic or not, cows need to be milked.
Photos by Julia Gunther. Text by Nick Schönfeld
A Single Mom, Her Son And 'Kindness Rocks'
It was Niko's idea to drop the decorated rocks in the schoolyard. Jessica Barrera, Niko's mother, said it gave him a sense of connection to the school.
"Since he can't be there [in person] at least the rocks could be there from him," Barrera said.
The rocks are a tradition Barrera started when she realized she needed new ways to get outside with her son. The 40-year-old single mother was laid off from her job at an airport shuttle service in Eau Claire, Wis., in March. Niko finished the last few months of fourth grade virtually. Their list of reasons to leave the house was dwindling.
She read about "kindness rocks" online — stones decorated with art or inspiring messages and left conspicuously around a community for strangers to find. It sounded like a fun thing to do with Niko; they could go for walks and leave the rocks around town. Their first one had a simple message: "Be kind." They left it in a park at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers.
Niko is not a morning person. He typically starts his day with a granola bar and orange juice in a coffee mug (always a coffee mug). When he used to go to school, Barrera would sometimes take him to the Kwik Trip gas station, get herself a coffee and get him a hot chocolate in a to-go cup.
"He'd go sit with the teachers — they had their little coffees and he had his Kwik Trip hot chocolate. They were just sitting there talking, like he's like a grown-up," Barrera remembered with a chuckle.
"He's an old soul in an 11-year-old body."
Now Niko, who is on the autism spectrum, is one of the millions of kids learning remotely. After breakfast, Barrera helps Niko connect to his classroom on the iPad the school district sent home. When this school year started, the district gave parents the option for virtual learning or a hybrid model with kids in the classroom twice a week. Barrera chose the virtual option because Niko did well with it in the spring, plus Barrera has a rare blood condition that puts her at high risk for serious complications from the coronavirus.
Niko doesn't love it.
"He was like, 'This virtual learning is for the birds,' " Barrera said.
Barrera applied for unemployment benefits for the airport shuttle job but was initially denied regular and federal pandemic benefits by the state unemployment agency because of rules that bar regular aid to laid-off workers who also receive federal disability assistance. (The state subsequently granted her pandemic benefits.)
She started working again in June, before she was really comfortable with the idea. After a few months working in the marketing department of a home improvement chain, she found more meaningful work as a job coach for adults with special needs, three days a week.
On Sept. 21, the day of the interview, Barrera was home to help Niko count on his fingers to solve math problems as his school day wound to a close. By 2:30 p.m. class was done, and they walked their kindness rocks up to Niko's school. They decorated some with an image of the school's mascot — a panther.
The kids learning in-person were lined up outside, waiting to go home. Barrera saw the school's longtime counselor and explained the rocks. He liked the idea and offered to arrange a scavenger hunt of the rocks for the other students.
Barrera knows it has been a tough start to fifth grade for Niko. He misses being around the other students. But she tries to reassure him.
"It's a crappy situation all around," Barrera said, "but it's temporary. It's going to get better."
Photos by Lauren Justice. Text by Bram Sable-Smith
Expecting A Baby In Isolation
Sawsan al-Ramemi, 32, is due to have a baby girl in November. But unlike her previous two pregnancies, which she recalls as happy events, this one fills the Jordanian mother with worry.
She got pregnant in March just as the pandemic hit Jordan. Ramemi said she wasn't concerned at first because of the low number of cases in the country, which in March imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. But in September, infections climbed dramatically to a high of almost 2,000 a day in a population of about 10 million.
"I've started being afraid as I'm visiting the hospital for pregnancy follow-up," said the former electrical engineer. "I take precautions like wearing gloves and a mask, but I am still afraid when I'm in a taxi going to the hospital."
And she has a long list of other concerns. Her husband, also an engineer, is working in the United States and is unable to travel home for the delivery. With such high coronavirus rates in the U.S., she worries about her husband contracting it there.
While her own extended family would normally help her through the pregnancy, because of social distancing measures she has been left without that help.
"My family supports me," she said. "But now that support is mostly through phone calls."
Ramemi, dressed in a polka-dot top and leggings with her hair covered with a dusty rose-pink hijab, adjusted the Velcro on the plastic sandals of her 18-month-old son, Zain, as she talked. She thinks about what she will do when the baby is born. She has resolved to keep the infant isolated – a difficult prospect in the effusive Arab culture.
"Usually people come to see the baby and they bring gifts," she said. "Suppose they are infected? How can I let them kiss her?"
Ramemi said she is lucky to have a ground-floor apartment with a garden and pavement for Zain and her 5-year-old son, Omer, to run around in. These days, because of the pandemic, they rarely venture beyond the garden with its fig and olive trees and high stone walls.
"Now I don't feel comfortable taking my children to visit public parks and gardens. They are young and I am afraid if they get the virus, they might transmit it to my family," she said. When she does see relatives, it's for very brief visits. She worries in particular about her elderly mother, who has cancer. "Because of that I really limit my movement outside the house."
Ramemi said neither her physician nor the clinic she goes to provided information about the effects of COVID-19 on pregnancy, so she scoured the internet. While the Centers for Disease Control says pregnant women might be at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, she said the studies she has read have reassured her.
"2020 is full of surprises," she said, laughing. "I wish that I hadn't gotten pregnant during these times."
Still, she said, she thanks God.
Photos by Nadia Bseiso. Text by Shereen Nanish and Jane Arraf
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We'd like to tell more stories about women's lives in the pandemic.
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