Two years ago, Joanna Breugem abruptly became a single mother of six children when her husband left. Her youngest was 17 weeks old.
Two months ago, her job became fully remote due to the covid-19 pandemic. She had to reconstruct her life to feed and educate her family while working two full-time jobs in marketing. She also manages a 14-acre farm in Georgia, about 40 minutes outside of Atlanta.
“It’s crazy. People don’t want to hear my story, it makes them feel bad,” Breugem said. “My friends who are married and have two kids will text me that they’re tired, and I’m like, ‘Cool, I’ve been up since 4 a.m.’”
Breugem has a 14-year-old, 13-year-old, two 10-year-old twins, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. After the initial struggle to launch a new routine from nothing but sheer necessity, she’s finally able to eye a vague oasis. Home learning for three of her children ended on Friday and will be done for the other two next week.
“The fear and uncertainty have calmed down,” Breugem said. “The multitasking is unbelievable. I try to exercise every day and I’ll be doing a plank with the 2-year old on my back and the other kids will call me and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m doing a plank you guys!’ This is chaos.”
In the “before times,” the 37-year old was able to catch a break while commuting, going to the store or while the kids were in school. Now, “there’s no escape.”
“Being a single parent has its challenges. When there’s two of you, whether it’s two percent or five percent or 50 percent, there’s someone else there to help. There’s none of that here. You’re never going to feel like you’re enough.”
The United States has the world’s highest rate of children living with a single parent, according to a Pew Research Center study from December 2019. Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. children under the age of 18 live with one parent. Most often, that parent is a woman.
In New York City, the epicenter of the global outbreak, more than 425,000 children are being raised by single parents, according to census data from 2018.
“I’ve been riding on adrenaline,” Brooklyn mom Jackie Chu said, noting that there’s always low-grade anxiety in New York. “Now that the adrenaline has passed, I’m nervous that whatever warmth, love and support I had may give way to frayed nerves and people being short with each other.”
But for the most part, Chu is grateful. “I’m so lucky to be healthy and to be able to work from home. This is a common feeling. I can’t imagine what it’s like for mothers who have to go to the hospitals and work essential jobs. I can’t complain.”
Still, she worries that her work at an educational nonprofit in New Jersey may be suffering. “I can’t get everything done while my 2-year old is either watching the iPad or sleeping,” Chu said. “There are no babysitters.”
However, the time in self-quarantine has reinforced to Chu that she made the right decision to have a child on her own in her 40s. “I’m grateful to have her even though I can’t get outside,” she said.
For Keira Williams, 55, sheltering-in-place has altered how involved she’s become with her ninth grade son’s education.
She said her teenager generally does okay in school — he’s “like a B student” — so she never had to get that involved. But once school went virtual, she started to receive messages about missed assignments. After instituting morning and evening check-ins, and setting up systems with structure, there’s been a vast improvement.
“I thought I’d be met with resistance, but it’s really helped. They say kids like structure,” Williams, a project manager for the City of Oakland in California, said.
As hard as it’s been Breugem, like Chu and Williams, has found many silver linings, even while being overwhelmed.
She ends the day with two or three hours of gardening with her family. She’s grateful that she has room for them to run around outdoors and that her kids are well-behaved.
“They’ve had upheaval before and they’ve really banded together and are super respectful,” she says.
In the garden, she can show them that hard work pays off, and they can learn lessons that aren’t about immediate rewards.
“Three years ago I didn’t know if I’d survive [a troubled pregnancy] and two years ago I became a single parent. I want to show them that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable.”