Mothers have always been known as multitasking heroines, haven’t they? Their prowess in running affairs of the home to ensure everyone is taken care of — the couch-surfing husband, the jumpy children, the irascible pets and everything in between — has always been the stuff of legend. They have always seemed to effortlessly juggle all those duties with their careers.
The pandemic forced many to convert that demanding home into a workplace as tele-working became a way of life. It did not help matters that learning institutions were closed then, meaning children were at home with their mischief and all. How did working mothers cope?
As they wished all readers a happy Mother’s Day today, three women described the various roles they have had to assume while working from home.
One of them is Jemimah Mbugua, the senior manager for medical operations at Resolution Insurance. She is a mother of three boys aged 12, 10 and 5.
Her role requires her to hold lots of meetings with the teams she manages, and also to be part of executive and management meetings. Because she is a key player in the medical side of Resolution Insurance, there are lots of email requests to respond to on any typical day. And such requests have increased tremendously during the pandemic. Add those to her responsibilities at home and you have a woman stretched.
“There are many responsibilities that are on us. We are expected to deliver at work, we are expected to deliver to our children, to our husbands, and to employees. We have to ensure that we remain sane,” she told Lifestyle.
The other one is Everlyne Waceke Omolo, a mother of two children, four and two years old respectively. She is a receptionist at Businesscom Consulting Services Africa.
Her work involves all-round administration, receiving inbound and outbound calls, transfer of calls to respective staff, replying to emails, updating data on clients’ files and generally manning the reception area.
“It has been one year of learning and adjusting to my home ‘work’ station,” she said. “It has been a totally topsy-turvy work setup with advantages and disadvantages alike.”
The third woman is Terry Wanjiku Miano, a mother of two young adults aged 24 and 22.
She is a counsellor who started off by counselling cancer patients and caregivers after seeing a gap during her own diagnosis and treatment. Used to seeing her patients face-to-face, the last 13 months have been a learning curve for the woman in her mid-40s.
The mothers gave us an idea of new “job descriptions” that mothers have had to assume over the last year.
If online work meetings held in the past year were to be replayed to an audience, the noises of children in the background would be a prominent feature. There would also be not-too-few cases of children popping up on the screen while their parents spoke.
In Jemimah’s early days of working from home, her colleagues became used to her children “Zoom-bombing” her video calls.
“Every time I had a meeting, guys would always know that Jemimah’s children would somewhat appear in the meeting. The children would sometimes come just to be seen in the video. Because when you have video calling on, they’re seeing people and they want to be seen. They would come say ‘hello’, and they’d interrupt,” she said.
Some of those interrupted sessions, she said, were board meetings that required uttermost seriousness.
“At that point you want to be at your best and then someone flashes behind you,” she joked.
It has been a year of striking deals for working mums. Domestic deals, to be precise. Jemimah had to make a deal with her children not to enter her room when she was inside working while Everlyne had to enter a child attendance “pact” with her husband.
“When I am working, my husband is always checking on the babies,” said Everlyne. “He prefers working in the afternoon to morning, while I prefer working during the morning hours when the babies are still asleep.”
As for Jemimah, the deal with her children came out of the need to stay professional. By June last year, she says, it was clear that working from home would go on for quite a long time.
“I had to make a deal with the children,” she said. “Otherwise, I was also feeling so stressed: Every time trying to shut them up. We were harassing each other in the house.”
“So, for the big ones (aged 12 and 10) we agreed that if there is any conversation, I am the one to come down and talk to them; and we’ll spend time on that. ‘But when I’m in this room’ — because I had to identify a room that I made a home office — ‘if I’m in this room, don’t come. Once I’m done, I’m definitely going to come and be with you,’” added Jemimah.
At the moment, she noted, the children have become used to the arrangement.
Mum working from home is an announcement of a new sheriff in town for most happy-go-lucky children. Without their parents around, they often have a field day around the house.
Jemimah, for instance, uses the opportunity of working from home to monitor more closely what the children are watching or reading and whether they are being responsible.
“On these other days I have my househelp who may not be able to tell them that it’s important to learn to cook, to clean up after your mess, those things,” she said.
“If it’s making their beds, initially I would leave early because I had to beat traffic. Now, when I wake up, they know that I will go to their rooms. So, they will have to make their beds and be disciplined to do those chores,” added Jemimah.
Surprise lunch chef
This was out of the cards for mums working 8-5. There was no way mum would pop up at lunch hour on a weekday and whip up a meal for the family. But working from home has made it possible.
If Jemimah’s midday break is long enough, she can relieve the househelp of the cooking duties to make a meal for the family.
“We can even cook lunch because I take that one hour. And then we eat together. It’s not always, but sometimes,” she said. “I don’t have so much free time. My job is quite demanding. So, I can’t afford to be with them longer than those few minutes during breaks.”
Everlyne noted that the breaks in her job while at home allow her to fit some household chores into her day’s schedule.
There is motherhood and then there is motherhood while working from home. The women we interviewed said the two are not the same.
As they spend more time at home and get to spend free time with their children, they have got to bond more and learn each other better.
Terry said: “I have got to take care and spend more time with my family than I have in years. Reconnecting with my children has been my greatest joy. We used to get so caught up when I was at work and they were in the university that we never got time together.”
Jemimah held a similar opinion.
“You see, our children don’t know us as much as we think they do. They don’t know my temperament, they don’t know what I mean when I look at them in a certain way. It’s because there is very little time we spend together. But now, because most of the time we bump on each other, we’re spending more time than we used to,” she said.
“I have never spent so much time with my children like this period of Covid. I used to tell my husband that the longest I’ve been with them continuously was when they were breastfeeding, the first three months,” she added.
As for Everlyne, being at home means she can check on her toddlers any time her motherly instincts tell her to check on them.
This is the aspect of working from home that the mothers said has been the most fulfilling. As soon as they have a free moment or when their working days are over, they find themselves with plenty of time to bond with their children.
“We can go and do other things: play, spend time, hang out,” said Jemimah.
Stories abound of how mothers have had to create an impression of leaving the house by dressing up and all, bidding their children farewell, then the nanny is tasked with distracting the child as the mother returns quietly to the house to work. The plot has worked for some and failed for others. In a nutshell, working from home has required mums to employ all tricks in the book to create that distance between them and their restless children to at least get some work done.
Everlyne said she has to wake up while her two children are still asleep. That kind of arrangement, she said, minimises the chances of her getting distracted by her babies who sometimes insist on being with her in the same room as she goes about her office tasks.
Jemimah had to exercise tough love on her lastborn, then aged four, who could simply not understand why mum could not let him into her room.
“I tried to talk to him and he couldn’t get it; so I had to lock that door. I decided, ‘I’ll have to go it the hard way; when I get into that room it’s time for me to work; I must lock it.’ So, he would come, knock and I wouldn’t open. Then he would go away,” she told Lifestyle.
“For him, we had to play it hard that way. He has gone on to understand. He now tells me, ‘Mum, are you having a meeting now?’ I tell him, ‘Yes, I have a meeting and I’ll call you.’ And he will go,” she added.
Stories about working from home are often peppered with narratives of how a certain room in the house was converted into an office to minimise distractions. Some had to lock themselves up in their bedrooms. Others had to partition the sitting room to have a special workplace. Jemimah had to convert one of the rooms in her residence along Thika Road to be a home office.
Terry, with her two children attending university, had a challenge getting the ideal working space in her house.
“I don’t think I have to explain the issue of sharing spaces in Nairobi houses. We all know how small they can get,” she said, laughing. “Picture two young adults and I in such a scenario; required to hold virtual meetings. We always laugh at how we find ourselves scrambling for the quietest and most comfortable spots around the house.”
Everlyne and her husband also have converted their dining room to be the children’s “care centre” and a separate room is the workplace.
Working from home has required mothers to up their game in the IT field as expressions like “we can’t hear you” and “you’re breaking” keep oscillating from one end of the World Wide Web to another.
“Before the pandemic, I had no idea on how to use virtual meeting platforms like Zoom and Teams. I was forced to learn and I can say that I’m now an expert,” said Terry. “We have had to pay extra money for a connection that will accommodate all our work needs throughout the day.”
Everlyne also has key IT infrastructure in her home.
“I have the office line set up both at home and office hence I get to receive incoming calls and transfer to their respective staff through Google Chat and, if necessary, emails and phone calls,” she said.
By Elvis Ondieki, Karen Muriuki and Daniel Ogetta