As homes become offices, gyms, schools, and daycares all in one, some working moms have found a solution to finally get work done in peace.

By Julia Beck
Oct 06, 2020 @ 10:20 am
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Credit: KELLY CHIELLO/INSTYLE.COM/GETTY IMAGES

For many working mothers, Jill Krause’s story might sound familiar. In the midst of the pandemic, she says she became the 24/7 “default parent” that her kids would run to for their every need (and then some), while their dad worked more traditional hours. “My presence and flexibility sent out a clear signal to my four kids: ‘Mom may or may not be working, so cling away! Ask away! Tantrum away!’” she tells InStyle.

As a freelance business consultant and blogger, she found herself only managing to get things done in 10 or 30 minutes spurts — when her toddler watched a show, or after bedtime — all of which, she says, only continued to send her kids “confusing signals.” She drifted from the couch to the floor to between piles of laundry, but found no dedicated space for focus: “This left me miserable,” she says. “Schools closed in March, [and] by April I knew I needed a place to calm my mind. I needed to peel the kids off of me and find a room of my own.” For $1,400 per month, she rented an apartment near her home, which she has used as an office since earlier this summer. And it's changed the game. 

In homes that now serve as school, workplace, restaurant, laundromat, library, social hall, and gym, moms need their space — their careers may depend on it. According to new research by the U.S. Census Bureau and Federal Reserve, working mothers in states with early stay-at-home orders and school closures were 53.2% more likely to take leave from their jobs than working mothers in states where closures happened later. But some working mothers have found a solution as their offices have shut down due to COVID-19: They're renting new office space — hotel rooms, apartments, and even storage spaces — to find a little peace and quiet.

Credit: Courtesy

Women’s desires for a space of their own aren't always related to inattentive or unsupportive partners. In fact, many of the women we met for this piece said their partners were all in. I asked Devra S. Gordon, MSW, why, despite the loving and energetic presence of dad, kids still gravitate to mom. She was quick to note, “women put ourselves in more accessible places in the home, and on a regular basis.” 

As COVID-19 continues on, we have found ourselves in a situation where kids’ understanding of how schedules function (mothers, fathers, and kids go away during the day, and return home at night) is gone. Now, kids are “working” at home, and they do not know how to handle it.  Of course, parents are affected, too. Care.com CEO, Tim Allen explains, “there was always reliable institutional support such as school, after school care, activities and sports. This is a big part of what kept the system functioning for working families. And now, with our schools broken, there is no distinction between work and home.” In other words, boundaries have never been more blurred. 

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule — a dad who steps up as the primary caregiver in a two-parent, heterosexual household. But according to the New York Times, it's mothers who have been bearing the brunt of the childcare, and it’s taking a toll on mental health as well. According to Working Brain, women are experiencing depression at a rate of 83% higher than in February, mostly caused by radically altered schedules, inability to take help from friends or family, and of course, endless, boundary-less days.

Having suddenly lost the structure of their days and support systems, mothers began to think in terms of survival, seeking out unconventional spaces as makeshift offices. The goal, for those who have the resources, is to find a quiet workspace where nothing needs to be taken care of: no attention required, no laundry to be folded, no snacks to be made, and no details to be managed.

(Apartment) Away from Home

Hannah Leavitt, a Chicago-based nurse practitioner, is known for her warmth. From March through mid-June, Ryan made herself available to her patients via telemedicine.  Unbeknownst to her patients, though, was that she was taking these calls between nap times from the floor of her sons’ room — their nurse-patient conversations kept private by a noise machine while she sat in an oversized bean bag chair facing bunk beds adorned with a giant Optimus Prime Transformer. As the weeks passed, life in a two-bedroom apartment with two rambunctious boys and a husband also working in spare corners became too much. Hannah and her husband agreed to invest in peace of mind. They took up a short-term lease at Lincoln Park’s The Neighborhood, an apartment-style hotel located within walking distance of home. The one bedroom suite cost $625 per week. 

There, with no toys on the floor, no fights between boys and plenty of quiet, each was able to work with the help of a loving nanny at home. Days became more productive and each felt more comfortable and in control during a time of extreme unraveling. Their home life improved as well, bringing laughter and downtime back into the picture. Hannah’s experience was validated by Lauren Hughes, M.D., a mother in her practice: “An essential element to success as a professional and as a mom is self-preservation,” she said. She points to a correlation between the pandemic and the decline of mental health for women, adding, “we are not meant to work in survival mode.”  

Jill Krause, the blogger and mother of four, struggled as winter turned into spring, losing at least 70% of her projected revenue. COVID-19 had not only had an immediate impact on her income, it damaged her creativity, and her mental health in general. “COVID has created internal and external stressors that forced me to deprioritize work,” she tells InStyle. “There was no break — no access to my creativity or humor and no way to recharge.” Jill’s husband Scott was working more than ever, fearful that as a district manager for a national retailer he could be laid off. Finally, she made the choice to rent the  $1400-per month  apartment near their home. She designated certain days of the week for working alone and the others for fully embracing the chaos at home. “I made the space a refuge and a sanctuary; it is the complete opposite of home with the kids — I find it as I leave it, clean and quiet. Now that is something!”  

From Storage Room to Creative Oasis

 Boise, Idaho-based Meghan Splawn was motivated by Jill’s story, which she found on Jill’s blog. Megan became immediately determined to set herself up for better days and nights. Working in 10 minute spurts yet never really turning off her work led to Meghan’s inability to relax — or stop yelling at her kids and husband, for that matter.

Meghan Splawn's converted storage room.
| Credit: Courtesy

Meghan, a food editor and recipe developer at the culinary site kitchn, was encouraged by her husband to meet her goal of reclaiming her time and focus. His work slowed down, and he was able to step up and lead the remote learning supervision and support for their 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. While Boise did not offer many choices by way of office space, she did find a storage room above her favorite pizza shop. Meghan lovingly converted the space into an oasis for herself. Three to four mornings a week, she bikes to work (the others are recipe development days) and finds herself in a guiltless flow where she is both productive and able to turn off the work when she leaves. Her employer is paying for $200 of the $250 monthly (utility inclusive) rent, though she considers the space an investment in her entire family’s mental health. Meghan adds, “I feel extremely lucky to work for a company that understands the importance of home life,” she says.  “Still, I wouldn’t have known that having Apartment Therapy Media help pay for an office was an option if I hadn’t asked. Women should ask.”

The Hotel, Motel, or Holiday Inn

Tampa-based, Akemi Sue Fisher had been working from her single floor home with two yappy Yorkies, her 11-year-old daughter, and her work-from-home husband. Akemi, CEO of Amazon Consulting agency Love & Launch, was used to lots of action — early morning international calls, full days of clients and planning — anything the day brought, she conquered with high energy and zest. But when quarantine orders came down, she found herself ill-prepared for the chaos of a full house. She began to look for office space with poor results. Frustrated, she and her husband went to regroup over lunch at a new local hotel. While at the Current (with rates in the $150 per night range), they met the manager, who shared the property’s 20% occupancy rate. Her husband suggested they take a look at a room, and according, to Akemi, it was love at first sight. She struck a deal with the manager for a reduced rate on a room, and signed the lease through the end of the year. Akemi and her assistant quickly settled into their new rhythm. The suite was comfortable and the hotel a constant source of buzz — just the right recipe to feed Akemi’s extroverted personality. “My productivity has gone through the roof — I feel the energy again, and that is exactly what I needed.”

She suggests that anyone who wants to end the year on a strong note seek out a local hotel and make a deal. Especially as more and more hotels invest in office equipment and strive to make their rooms work-from-hotel-friendly, now's the time to make moves. “You are going to see the return from the very first day you get dressed and go.” 

Akemi Sue Fisher
| Credit: Courtesy

While only a small segment of the population is fortunate enough to have access to a refuge for the sake of peace and productivity, we need to remember that the need is universal. Overtaxing, under-compensating, and ignoring our mothers’ needs has created a mess that permeates through our society. How we fix is it dependent on how well and much we have learned from the COVID crisis. At the very least, we must remember the maternal sisterhood, stand for better, and be a part of reimagining the "what comes next."