Bread, Barbie and Tom Hanks: How parents take life ‘day by day’ through the challenges of COVID-19

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lynn Bergman

Published on May 7, 2020 at 8:49 pm


FRISCO, Texas Lynn Bergman often spends nights in bed staring at the pitch-black ceiling, making a mental checklist of little tasks she knows she can accomplish in a day while her kids are upstairs doing online school.

At some point, she’s debating if she should give up on the notion of sleeping and start her day there was a job opening she remembered thinking she would be a great candidate for, but she also remembered the other 167 great candidates who had already applied. Frozen in darkness, she ends up counting the number of weeks she can collect severance pay instead of counting sheep.

A single mother of four, Lynn Bergman woke up at 4 a.m. on April 5 to file for unemployment. She lost her job as a communications and events manager for a nonprofit organization four days earlier on April Fools’ Day.

“When I lost my job, I was still getting up trying to take care of business,” Bergman said. “And then it's like I hit a brick wall. I don't see an end to this right now.”

Tackling her new reality day by day, she has to be positive to avoid getting stuck under that “big dark cloud,” she said, and help her kids succeed in what’s left of their school year.

According to a March 2020 Pew Research Center survey, 24% of all U.S. adults who are facing health, financial and child care difficulties are categorized as having high psychological distress. From the people surveyed as having child care responsibilities, 34% are considered in high distress as many parents juggle new expectations of home schooling and economic uncertainty in the midst of COVID-19.

Shannon Cavanagh, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University Texas at Austin, researches how changes in the family structure and home can affect kids.

Looking at the coronavirus pandemic, Cavanagh said the Family Stress Model, a study developed during the Great Depression, applies in explaining how kids are affected by parental hardships.

“When families undergo acute stressors and even chronic stress, it has an effect on kids… through their parents, the relationship between the partners in the home or how parents are interacting with kids,” Cavanagh said. “The whole environment in which kids are making sense of the world is changing in ways that they have a hard time understanding.”

However, Cavanagh said kids are resilient in adapting and eventually families will figure out some normal routine. Hands-on activities, Cavanagh said, have become coping mechanisms during the outbreak.

“You do see… this return to pre-internet activities like making bread (and) doing puzzles,” Cavanagh said. “These activities that people do are really ways of shutting out all that noise to create some sense of safety. What makes you feel more safe than the smell of baked bread?”

When not doing work or home schooling, Eric Gould and his two girls, aged 9 and 7, have passed the time watching “Mrs. Doubtfire,” playing with Barbie dolls and sorting through a sea of Lego bricks to find that one piece needed to re-construct one of their seven Lego sets.

The whiteboard in their family room counts 53 tally marks: one for each day they’ve been in self-isolation, “like prisoners counting down a sentence,” Gould said.

“We are hanging in there and we're very fortunate, but it's still hard being home,” Gould said. “It’s ‘Groundhog Day.’ We don't know what day it is.”

Gould, an associate creative director for an advertising agency, said it’s a balancing act for him and his wife, alternating between meetings for their full-time jobs and giving their children the guidance they would normally receive from teachers.

The girls have taken up shop in the dining room, their school supplies and Chromebooks scattered across the table.

“Honestly, at this point, we're treating it all as busywork. We're not expecting much of any of it to stick,” Gould said. “They’re not used to having to do a lot of work at home. It's just that mental separation… so there's definitely stressors there.”

Bergman lives at home with two of her four children, both of whom are teenagers. They’ve come up with their own way to cope with stress. The code word they use to let each other know to take a pause Tom Hanks.

“I’ve loved Tom Hanks since I was a teenager, and he's my dream man, (my kids) know,” Bergman said. “Tom Hanks is our code word for ‘Let’s take a look at this. Mom, are you doing OK? Take a step back.’”

Bergman said her children’s teachers have been a big help. Her 13-year-old son’s teachers FaceTime with him to help him keep up with schoolwork. When they found out that she lost her job, his art and Spanish teacher dropped off cookies and a $50 gift to Costco at her front door to lend emotional support.

“I cried… I'm not one to ask for help,” Bergman said. “These are our teachers who don't make very much money giving to us, so I feel like everybody's doing the best they can to help each other.”

The Frisco Independent School District has been counseling both kids and adults adjusting to this situation. Guidance counselors have been hosting virtual “Coffee with the Counselors” to address questions and doing Parent Needs Assessments to personalize their services.

“In a weird way, we are more in our role right now than we have ever been,” said Stephanie Cook, managing director of guidance and counseling services for FISD. “What we have is 100% of our counselors working 100% of their workday now… We're really supporting the adults that are supporting the kids quite a bit more than usual, which is a function of how we should operate.”

It’s not been without its challenges as Cook said that in-person counseling is like a religion, and online counseling goes against everything that they stand for.

“What we were really asking counselors to do in 24 hours is change their religion… we didn't have a choice,” Cook said.

Once self-isolation ends, Cook said she’s unsure of the long-term effects of adjusting back to pre-outbreak times.

“We're having discussions about re-socialization and trauma-informed care,” Cook said. “The reality is that (we’ve) all experienced this time differently. It's going to take time to adjust back to normal.”

Bergman said she sometimes thinks about her oldest daughter away from home, graduating from UT Austin this spring and working at St. David’s Medical Center as a patient care technician.

Although worried, she’s proud of her daughter and realizes how fortunate she is compared to others who were in worse-off situations before the outbreak.

“COVID-19 infects everyone from every socioeconomic level, from every race,” Bergman said. “By keeping everybody else healthy and just doing the best we can, that's all you can do.”

Bergman has begun carrying the book “I Am Malala” with her, trying to finish it by the end of quarantine. Even though she doesn’t know what will happen in six months, Bergman said, she continues pushing forward every day with the hope her family will make it out all right.

The world is different now and so is her mental checklist.

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