COVID-19 Gave My Career Mild Depression and Other Pandemic Tales

I don’t know where you were on March 12, 2020, but I was living my best career life. Just as the snow and frost were melting away in the land of Lake Wobegon, I was planning my biweekly return to DC; visiting my spouse, daughter, and son for a long weekend. Little did I know it would be my last moment experiencing Minnesota Nice before the COVID-19 shelter-in-place when everything came to a grinding halt.

As a spouse, parent and intellectual, I struggle to be productive with my research while living a normal family life. But I thought I had found a temporary solution in which I could prioritize productive research above the other important aspects that were constantly pulling me in multiple directions.

An amazing opportunity had presented itself in the spring of 2019. I was offered a 9-month visiting scholar position at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute. My spouse had just returned from a 6-month residence at the same institution and could hardly deny me the exact opportunity. I couldn’t wait to be a “productively-single” adult again, discarding any and all real-life family responsibilities like preparing dinners or washing mounds of clothes. For this career-driven introverted mama, a short-term opportunity like this was a dream come true.

My sabbatical started out great. I traveled to Minneapolis in September, leaving my spouse and kids back in DC; returning to be with them every other weekend. I’m not going to lie. It was tough. All of a sudden, I found myself in hours-long phone conversations with my 11-year old daughter (she never did that when Dad was away), and everyone was sad or stressed. But, through it all, I was gloriously productive! I finally published my dissertation (a decade old) and another piece that had been trailing me for about five years. I submitted three other papers for review. I started two new research projects. Overall, I was taking advantage of every free second I had to be productive with my research. It was amazing.

Then came March 12. The Bank was beginning to restrict travel due to COVID-19. I was worried I would get stuck in Minnesota — far away from my family. So, I asked them to let me travel back to DC and work there for a month. By then, surely, all this COVID-19 nonsense will have passed, right? I cleaned out my office, packed up all my comfortable house clothes, and took my last plane ride back home. It was marvelous to be back with my family for more than a quick 2-day weekend hustle.

The day after I returned my kids’ schools announced they were closing, and the state of Maryland (where I live with my family right outside DC) issued a stay-at-home order. That same day, the Minneapolis Fed went remote and visitors were not allowed back in the building until at least June. By then my time in sabbatical would be over. This is the moment where my life drastically changed.

The first few days of the pandemic stay-at-home orders felt magnificent. Kids were excited for the break. I was happy to be working from home and spending time with my family. We did bike rides and movie marathons. I gave my best attempt at a sourdough bread starter. We could all sleep in a little longer; slow our pace a little more. I was research productive — analyzing data and writing. But, for me, there was a slow and steady decline in my ability to maintain productivity.

My kids started online schooling but keeping them up to speed and settled into their new routine was demanding. Their emotional needs grew and grew as they got sick of being stuck inside and doing schoolwork through a computer with no in-person social interactions with friends and teachers. Preparing meals became exhausting. I found I just couldn’t manage all that plus my research — which by nature required long uninterrupted moments in order to advance.

Probably about a month into the pandemic, I had reverted to doing solely administrative and coordination tasks for work and my research productivity drew to a complete stop. It was around that time that my annual wellness check with my doctor was due — virtual of course. My doctor gave me a string of questions and proceeded to tell me I was mildly depressed. Depressed!

Reflecting, while I hadn’t lost anyone to COVID-19, and I was lucky to be able to telework and be with my family, I had career losses: three more months of individual “single-lady” career productivity in Minneapolis (gone); participating in the Women in the World Summit 2020 onstage at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 1, which included being on a panel with Arianna Huffington to discuss marriage, finances, and gender (gone). Opportunities I wouldn’t get back again.

On top of that, I was really struggling to balance this new pandemic lifestyle. Not being able (or having the energy or desire) to engage in research was making me sad and angry. I knew I needed to continue my research to be happy — but between helping kids with school, dealing with their emotional needs, continuous meal preps…I just couldn’t.

My spouse is awesome and does more than his share of taking care of our kids — but it all still felt like too much. The combined responsibilities were daunting. There wasn’t enough time in the day for it all. Every flittering emotional need my children had came straight into my lap. My daughter would complain she couldn’t do the schoolwork; didn’t understand it. Only mom could help. All it took was for me to literally sit next to her and she would somehow figure it out. But helping her deal with the stress and anxiety induced by online schoolwork was draining. My son hated online school and needed constant monitoring. It frustrated everyone in the house. I was overwhelmed.

What I could do, though, was find other ways to take care of my mental health. I invested in a Fitbit and started taking long walks around my neighborhood. I downloaded a yoga app and started doing yoga every day; I made my sleep routine and meditation a number one priority. All these things helped tremendously, but I still had the itch for research but no desire to work on current projects. And, I was angry at the raw in-your-face awareness of the heavy burden disproportionately placed on women for domestic tasks and childcare responsibilities that this pandemic exposed.

I couldn’t be the only one struggling with this new normal. I started worrying about the negative impact of COVID-19 on parent’s careers and labor force participation more generally. It was at that point that I decided to do what any good researcher would do — interrogate the data. I knew I was angry enough and passionate enough about the topic and could use that energy to reprioritize my time, focus, and energy. And I was right. It was easier to ignore the cries for attention and other household distractions when I was doing something with a larger purpose.

I downloaded data from my favorite source (ipums.org) and got to work. Using data collected monthly from the same individuals, I compared the impact of pandemic school closure and stay-at-home orders on the labor force participation of parents. Did moms and dads in early closure states experience higher rates of detachment from the workforce or changes in hours worked or pay than their counterparts in late closure states between 2019 and 2020?

The findings were telling. Moms of school age children in early closure states were 69% more likely to take leave from work than their late closure state counterparts. Dads reduced their work hours ever so slightly (1/2 an hour during a 40-hour work week). I found no impact on leave taken by dads or women without children. The full working paper titled can be found here. I wasn’t alone. I found, at least, a limited amount of evidence that working mothers were experiencing a unique struggle during the pandemic.

There is so much more we don’t know. What will the long-term impacts be? What will happen to the gender wage gap and other inequalities we care about? It became clear to me that if policymakers didn’t act now, female labor force participation would take a major hit at the end of this global crisis. So I wrote about it and have been trying to raise a voice to the issue ever since.

I’m still worried. Worried for my own family and how we are going to manage pandemic schooling and work this fall. Our school district just put out its virtual fall plans, which seem to require elementary students to be engaged in and out on Zoom for 6+ hours a day. That will clearly need adult supervision. Who is going to do it when the adults are trying to work? If the data is any indicator, it will primarily be moms. Many of whom will have to stop working to help their kids with online schooling because they lack the financial resources to hire someone else to do it.

As for me, you will find me out taking long walks on cool fall evenings, meditating, and otherwise trying to take care of myself — because my family, friends, and colleagues need me at my best if I’m going to do my part to help us all survive in this new pandemic life.

Principal economist and senior advisor at U.S. Census Bureau. Eternal optimist. Economist by day. Writer by night. Mother and wife 24/7. Opinions all my own.

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