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Notes on Being a Single Working Mom During a Pandemic

My little team of artists — kids draw; mama paints. A mommy and me series, with creatures, monsters, and imaginary friends who roam around eating boba, chicken, and noodles

“Mama! Come look at my tree house,” my nine-year-old son Evan shouts. 

I respond, “Wait, mama has a massive deadline today and must send this email out to a client.”

After 10 minutes, ”Mama, you MUST come look at my tree house…!” I realize he doesn’t understand what a deadline is. Time flies by and I’m still in the thick of my long email. I look at the clock. Yikes! I need to hop onto my 5th zoom call for the day, my email is not done, my deadline looms closer and I can feel myself spinning...

Sound familiar? I know that the pandemic has many parents homeschooling their children now. While I have always worked hard, and smart, I knew I needed to rehab the system I have in place to help me integrate my role as a single mom to my boys and the demanding role I have for my teams and clients. Through this pandemic, I’ve learned that I’m a LOUSY homeschooling teacher!!! I can easily work 18 hours a day building big businesses from scratch — but teaching my two boys (age six and nine) their American school education has been extremely challenging for me. First of all, I didn’t grow up with an American education. I barely understand the curriculum and grading system, and the math education is dismal. I feel completely helpless trying to guide my children through their homework, and pushing my Asian math on them may not be helpful. Mama Mel often feels like she’s about to explode. 

Lesson #1: Stay In The Moment and BREATHE…

As a single mom raising two hyperactive boys while running three businesses, I classify myself as an expert in the art of “Working from Home.” The first rule is always STAY IN THE MOMENT.

So, before Evan could call out to me a third time about coming to see his treehouse, I briefly paused work to sit beside him at his computer. He proudly showed me the phenomenal five-level tree house he’d built on Roblox, complete with multiple hot tubs, swimming pools, gyms, a living room, a kitchen, a large screen tv, a hang glider, a state-of-the-art car garage and a soccer field. Evan told me he needed to earn “money” to afford all these luxuries. He wished in real life we had a larger home and said we must invest and save to afford it. I laughed with delight as I saw the pride he took in his creation and his understanding of how to manifest these dreams. 

This interaction lasted less than five minutes. It ended with smiles and hugs, which actually eased the stress I felt earlier. These tiny “distractions” actually help me regroup my thoughts and become more productive. I finished my important email and wrapped up my zoom calls. Later, during dinner, Evan and his little brother Tyler told me more stories about their tree houses and how each of them designed their buildings to have bunkers, traps, and secret rooms. I took a deep breath of gratitude reflecting on how five minutes with Evan REALLY inspired all of us. Perhaps my boys will walk in their mama’s footsteps and explore architecture!

Lesson #2: Maintain Boundaries and Schedule with Flexibility

In March, home schooling became a reality. I had to quickly create a make-shift workstation next to my own computer for my eldest, and kept his little brother Tyler working in their room. This way, I could keep an eye on Evan through his transition from in-person to virtual learning. But hopping onto zoom calls while my boy was reciting Charlotte’s Web aloud, or voicing occasional outbursts of excitement got ME and my clients frazzled. Over summer, I rearranged our home into a more functional space. I set my boys up with their own workstations, turned half of the dining room into their group learning, and made their bedroom a play and art space. Mama’s office is Mama’s Office, although the boys can ask for cuddles whenever they want. They have zoom bombed my calls so many times that my clients know them by name. The truth is, everyone is in this situation now, so it’s best to just laugh and keep working.

This extended containment taught me that all three of us have very different circadian rhythms. The awareness helped me design activity schedules specific to each child. They have different interests. One loves dance; the other enjoys game development. One likes to spin around open play grounds; the other is focused on his swim strokes. As the only adult, I needed to set positive, habit-forming schedules for them, as well as for myself. Each schedule also has room for flexibility/change. Years of project management have accustomed me to expect the unexpected. Plans do change, no matter how concretely we envision them. Kids get sick, get bored, and may ignore something one day and love it the next. They move a thousand miles per hour, just like my clients at times. But the ability to just say “It’s okay. We didn’t quite nail this, but let’s see what we learned and set a different pace next time” goes a long way. Having flexibility and a growth mindset are key. 

Lesson #3: Redefine Priorities: Identify Your Rubber Balls and Glass Balls

We are always juggling requests, tasks, and

choosing best methods to approach our work. We can think of these as

rubber and glass balls. What do we identify as being absolute priority

(glass balls), and what do we identify as being less crucial (rubber balls).

If you drop a rubber ball, it just bounces around until you pick it up

again. If you drop a glass ball, it shatters, and the damage is irreversible.

Quality, reputation, and trust, all qualify as glass balls . . . Our real-world and

personal experiences, if we are paying attention and being mindful,

inform and help shape even our approaches to business and project

management . . . What are the rubber balls, what are the glass balls, and how do I

move forward without requiring a broom and dustpan?

Excerpt from Turtle Design in a Rabbit Age by Mel Lim, pg 123,124, chapter 6: Creative Guru 101

If I apply this to my kids, I must identify what I feel is necessary for them: healthy food; outdoor/exercise time; good education/ resources for learning; and most importantly, quality time with their mama. How I choose to respond to their interactions with me IS my glass ball. 

In the past few months, I’ve received emails and texts from working friends and moms wondering how I manage it all: raising two kids with very different personalities, keeping up with their learning schedules and activity programs; working from home and actually focusing; executing my deliverables on time; and enriching and advancing my client and team relationships. Every situation is different. We all have different priorities and resources. I would never suggest that others follow my lead. My approach works for me and my little family. Perhaps it’s because I know my boys won’t stay this irresistibly cute and impressionable for long. Every opportunity to be with them now is so precious. My glass and rubber balls have shifted over the years and especially during this COVID-19 era. My kids are acutely aware of the pandemic. They know that their mama works late, and wakes up early. They know we function as a team during this time. In order for me to continue to provide us a good life, I need time to focus fully on my work. They do their best to behave and stay occupied with their workbooks. 

As I brace for another year of distance learning and all the unexpected curve balls, I’d like to share a typical day’s schedule and some engaging platforms that my kids have enjoyed tremendously. Feel free to ping me with your ideas on coping during these times. I would love to know the tools and methods other parents have used to keep their kids healthy, active, and productive! 


Sample Day:

6.30am to 7.30am - Make beds, breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed. Quiet time: meditation and drawing out their dreams, storytelling

7.30am to 8.00am - Workbook (reading/writing/math)

8.00am to 10.00am - School work (virtual assignments)

10.00am to 10.30am - Snack/break time/dance 

10.30am to 11.30am - School work (virtual assignments)