When I was growing up, I marveled at how my single mother was able to come home after a long day of work, make dinner, iron our school uniforms and help me and my sister with our homework.
I can’t imagine how she would have managed during this pandemic.
What would she have done if she was laid off from her job at the airport? Would she be able to figure out — or afford — virtual school? How would she keep us safe from the virus?
Around the world, mothers have been struggling with these very challenges during the pandemic. We spoke to three mothers who shared how they’ve been faring: a mom of two in Jordan, expecting her third child and missing the in-person support from family; a dairy farmer with four teenage children — and 165 cows — to look after; and a single mom helping her son, who is on the autism spectrum, find joy in spite of coronavirus restrictions.
Calm And Juggling On A Dairy Farm
The cows rode around the milking carousel, a circular platform lined with 30 individual holding pens that slowly turn clockwise. In each pen, a black and white Holstein or brown and white Montbéliarde waited to be milked.
In the pit below the carousel, 40-year-old Nienke Pastoor stood at udder-height, attaching the milk-extracting pump to each cow as it passed her.
Pastoor, her husband Jaap and Henk, an employee, need just 90 minutes to milk all 165 of the farm’s dairy cows.
Pastoor and her husband co-manage a 336-acre dairy farm. One of her many responsibilities is to help run the daily milking operation. She’s also the mother of four teenage children; she cooks and cleans; and she manages the farm’s books. She regularly gives tours to schoolchildren from the nearby city of Groningen, taking them around the farm and letting them milk the cows by hand.
For a while Pastoor cherished the sudden quiet and freedom that COVID-19 brought to the “Other World”: the name given to the remote farming district in the far north of the Netherlands where the Pastoor family have been dairy farmers for 75 years. “We established a strange new family rhythm during the lockdown,” she said on a blustery blue-skied afternoon.
The only set routines were the morning and afternoon milking of the cows, and the e-lessons of her children: Thomas, 17, Daniel, 15, and twins Emma and Paulien, 13, who like many students in the Netherlands switched to remote learning in March.
“There was less pressure,” she said. “No music lessons or sports games to drive the children to. And because the weather was so nice, life definitely felt a little more relaxed.” The only visitors to the farm during the lockdown, which lasted from March 15 till June 2, were the truck drivers who came by three times a week to pick up 3,079 gallons of milk, and the vet who visited every two weeks.
But the pandemic also added new tasks to Pastoor’s farm routine. She suddenly had to help the children with their schoolwork. “I made sure they were sitting at their laptops when they were supposed to be. I told them, ‘We all have responsibilities in life. I have to do things. And so do you. You make sure the thing you are doing is done on time.’ “
The children didn’t mind the sudden shift to learning at home. They were able to sleep longer in the mornings as they didn’t have to bike to school. The only frustration was the frequent technical glitches — no sound, the teacher’s screen not working.
Pastoor was so busy she couldn’t do the books for a month. Work kept piling up on the long wooden kitchen table where she normally sits.
“In the end, I had to tell [Jaap and the children] to get out of the kitchen so I could have some time for myself.”
“It was difficult being a mother and a farm manager,” she said, reflecting on lockdown life. “Everyone expected me to successfully juggle everything.”
But dealing with all these responsibilities didn’t concern Pastoor. What truly worried her was how she would cope if her husband were to get COVID-19 and succumb to the virus — and she’d be left to manage the farm on her own. “The pandemic really brought that home.”
Pastoor feeds hay to some of her 165 cows after they’ve been milked.
So Pastoor spent as much time as she could learning how to operate the farm’s tractors, feeders and other heavy machinery — usually her husband’s domain. “I also told him to write everything down on paper,” she said. “Just in case.”
While COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc around the world, life is slowly returning to normal on the Pastoor farm. The children are back at school, the price of milk is stabilizing after dropping dramatically during the lockdown due to a decrease in demand. Last week, Pastoor oversaw the birth of five new calves.
“Nature has a rhythm that dictates life on the farm,” she reflected. Pandemic or not, cows need to be milked.