From the beginning of the pandemic, frontline workers, especially those in healthcare, have been at the greatest risk of contracting COVID. Pregnant nurses, doctors, and medical staff bore an additional burden of being more susceptible, yet not having a choice but to continue working despite a widespread lack of adequate safety gear and personal protective equipment (PPE). Dr. Lisa Schoenberger recounts her experiences navigating patient care, pregnancy, and family obligations during an unprecedented time.
Throughout the first two years of motherhood, I remember thinking to myself in surprise that maybe this isn’t so hard. I had a beautiful healthy baby girl, an incredible husband who cooked, cleaned and shared all childcare responsibilities, and two sets of grandparents who provided full time childcare. I was lucky to have the privilege to focus much of my time and energy on my career as a physician. I cared for patients as a family medicine doctor, helped run a residency training program and decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in medical education all while being a mother – and was able to do this because of my incredible support system.
When I got pregnant with my second child in late 2019, I assumed I’d be able to continue on that trajectory, balancing career and motherhood seamlessly. My husband and I sold our coop in February 2020 and started looking for a house that could fit our soon to be family of four and were ready to live out our American dream. Then March 2020 hit. I found myself working as a pregnant doctor in the epicenter of a global pandemic while pursuing a master’s degree with no childcare. And with city dwellers panicking and moving to the suburbs at higher-than-normal rates, we were beat out by all cash buyers with every house we saw, quickly turning our American Dream into a nightmare.
So, at nine months pregnant with a toddler, scrambling to find a place to live, we ended up finding housing in a military housing complex. None of my family is in the military, but they allow civilians to live in the complex if there are no military families currently needing housing. We finally moved into a small apartment a mere two weeks before I gave birth.
As the pandemic worsened and the surge hit in New York, my incredibly accommodating boss made the decision to allow me to do telemedicine visits from home to protect me while I was pregnant. I had mixed feelings about this. I had incredible guilt about my friends and colleagues working on the front line, exposing themselves and potentially their families to the deadly virus and becoming overwhelmed with grief and hopelessness as they watched countless patients die alone and scared. I wanted to help, but I also wanted to protect my unborn child. During these telemedicine visits, I counselled COVID patients on when their symptoms were severe enough to go to the hospital, managed patients who had been discharged as they began their road to recovery and made sure my patients with chronic medical conditions were able to get the care they needed without access to all of the resources they normally had. It was a challenge for my husband and I to balance working from home while caring for a toddler. During one telemedicine visit, my daughter walked into the room and announced to my patient that she had pooped in the potty.
After the birth of my first daughter, my parents were incredible. They came to our house every day to help care for the baby, clean bottles, do laundry, and cook meals. I wouldn’t have survived those first few weeks without them. When my second daughter was born, we were alone. We wanted to protect our elderly parents from possible exposure and didn’t want them to be indoors with us, so we took on all childcare duties ourselves, which now involved a newborn and a toddler. It breaks my heart that my parents have never held my now seven-month-old daughter.
Eleven months later, I am back at work. Things are very different. My husband works from home, teaching virtual classes while watching both girls. No one – myself included — understands how he does this. He is phenomenal and I am incredibly lucky to have him. I am learning to balance work and home in a way I never had to do before. Work is busier than ever, and I need to balance my patient care and administrative responsibilities. Since, we no longer have family to help watch our children, I come home immediately after my last patient to help with childcare and give my husband a break. This means doing more work at home after the kids have gone to bed and on weekends. Where I used to stay late at the office until my work was done and then enjoy time home with my family, it now feels like everything is meshed into one condensed period of time. The work never ends and blends into time at home. The family responsibilities have increased significantly and there is less time to get work done. Most days I feel like I’m not doing either job well. I rush through bedtime routines, so I have more time to get work done. I rush through work to have more time to see my girls. I break down and cry fairly often, then feel guilty that I’m feeling bad for myself when there are so many people struggling so much more.
Some working moms might seem to have it all together but that can change in an instant. I appreciate my family even more and have immense gratitude around how helpful my parents were with my first daughter. I look forward to the day they can bond with and enjoy their newest grandchild. I know how incredibly lucky and privileged I am to have remained healthy and employed and with access to basic needs like safe housing and food through all of this. I also know it’s ok to feel overwhelmed and cry about my personal stresses while still remaining grateful for everything I have.