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Single parents are balancing work and child care, all while dealing with uncertainty

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's been a tough start to 2022 for people with school-aged kids as teachers, parents and students try to cope with the omicron surge. Most U.S. schools opened for in-person learning last week, but more than 5,000 schools nationwide were closed for at least a day. Some made an unplanned shift to virtual school, others extended winter break. But in many schools that stayed open, quarantines and staff shortages led to a patchwork of open and closed classrooms. We're going to talk to a mom who, like so many Americans, is once again faced with balancing work and child care and trying to come up with a plan when dealing with constant uncertainty. Tabbatha Plomaritus is a web developer at the University of Michigan. She's also a single mother to a first-grader. And she joins us now from Ann Arbor.

Welcome to the program.

TABBATHA PLOMARITUS: Hello. Thank you.

RASCOE: Your daughter's school district announced it would be going remote just before winter break ended. How did you react to the news, and how did your daughter take that?

PLOMARITUS: Well, you know, we got the email about the closure for the upcoming week on New Year's Eve, around dinnertime.

RASCOE: Happy New Year (laughter).

PLOMARITUS: Yes. Happy New Year to us. And you know, it was frustrating, and I felt really stressed and overwhelmed. But when I told my daughter that evening, that's really what hurt me the most. She just started bawling. She had already missed most of December. She went to school for three days in December. She also - she's an old soul in a little body. And she's worried about missing school.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

PLOMARITUS: And, you know, when am I going to learn? And I'm like, it's OK (laughter).

RASCOE: Did you feel like you had enough time to prepare for this?

PLOMARITUS: So there is no amount of time that can allow you to prepare. There are no plans for some families, like mine. You know, I looked into the emergency backup child care program that we have locally, and I actually get a stipend for it through my employer based on income. And I went and reregistered thinking, OK, at least I'll get someone to come, like, half days to help her with virtual learning. But even with my stipend, it was going to cost me $80 a day. That's too much a cost for me. And, you know, it just - there were no plans to be made for us.

RASCOE: Yeah. And so basically what you ended up doing is, as you said, you're trying to work at home. So trying to do virtual learning is tough. So how is your first-grader handling the transition, like, trying to do some remote learning?

PLOMARITUS: So we did try for the remote learning to actually participate in it last year. And we gave it our best shot. She was in kindergarten. And it was so stressful not just on me but on her to try to really get her to participate in a meaningful way. And on top of that, you know, trying to work while I'm also trying to sit next to her to get her to kind of - I don't want to say force her to engage but really encourage her to. My main goal during this type of week is making sure that when I'm in my office in a meeting, she's not microwaving something strange or, you know...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

PLOMARITUS: ...Getting into who knows what.

RASCOE: Yeah, no, I totally get that. Being a parent and working is a juggling act, right? Like, do you feel frustrated by what you're going through?

PLOMARITUS: I mean, to be quite honest, absolutely. You know, I certainly understand the context and the circumstances under which our district and others are making closure decisions. But one can understand the facts of the situation. That doesn't mitigate or negate the circumstance I'm in. It's been a hard day-to-day experience trying to minimally keep up with my job. I have a really great team, flexible and who are supportive. But even with that - you know, and flexibility brings the option to, you know, say, well, why don't you take afternoons off to be with your daughter, but then you can just make up the hours on the weekend? That sounds flexible, but that's not great still. And with that being said, I think about how it is for parents of special education students, for parents who are essential workers who need to be in office, in person. And so I know whatever I am experiencing and the hurt - I do know that that is, like, tenfold for other groups of families. And that all compiles.

RASCOE: How is this affecting your job?

PLOMARITUS: Oh, how is it not affecting my job? It kind of touches every corner of my work day and just my mindset towards work. The interruptions are one thing. At 7 years old, you need mom, so I can't really expect her to just be self-sufficient. Well, when you're working and parenting in a pandemic and virtual learning, you're not doing two things at once poorly. You're trying to do, like, five things at once poorly. It's really tough. It's really tough.

RASCOE: So your daughter's school is set to reopen on Tuesday, January 11. Like, are you confident that will happen and that the outbreak is under control enough for the school to reopen and that it'll stay open?

PLOMARITUS: So most of the schools are opening on Tuesday. They've already said a few aren't, and they did provide the caveat that more schools could be added to the list of schools that are not going to be reopening Tuesday. And I think that caveat carries a lot of weight as we have not yet reached the peak. There is - at any moment, we could get that message. Sorry. Make your plans. Make your arrangements. And I explain it to my daughter as such. I said, you know, you're supposed to go back Tuesday, but we never know what's coming. So just temper your expectations.

RASCOE: Yeah. Well, it sounds like - I mean, it's touch and go, but you're doing the best you can do, which is all we can do.

PLOMARITUS: Right.

RASCOE: That's all we can do. Tabbatha Plomaritus from Ann Arbor, Mich., thank you so much for being with us and sharing your story.

PLOMARITUS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.