One year ago Friday, when I posted this article, the world just started to change. When I hit “post” I could never have imagined the types of changes that were coming down the road. Schools were supposed to be closed for two weeks. In just a few weeks, things would go back to normal…right? Uh, no.
Months of working full time from home, stuck in my bedroom while the kids schooled from home. My husband going from a part time fun job entertaining nursing home residents evenings and weekend to having to clean a nursing home struck hard by COVID in April. Lockdowns, re-openings, shutdowns again. Remote birthdays with no parties, Easter and Christmas on Zoom, Halloween at home, expansion of Nintendo Christmas World, driveway caroling at grandparents, virtual kindergarten, massive home improvements, juggling full time remote international work with a husband who eventually works a full time schedule for the first time in a decade – what a year it’s been!
I’ve still been hanging around on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook but I had the worst kind of writers block when it came to making more posts here on Chief Mom Officer. And I’ve missed everyone! I thought I would kick-start things back over here by sharing more about what the past year has been for us here at CMO central. After this recap, I’ve got plenty more to share on the personal finance, work, and frugal family life front
Buckle up – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
2020 – The Before Times
Ah, 2020, the year we will never forget. And yet it started out just like any other year. We had a small New Years Eve party at home, and my oldest son took some SAT prep courses offered through his school. After a few years working in my companies international devision, I finally had the opportunity to travel internationally for work – heading off to Scotland for a few weeks. The little guy caught the flu, but quickly bounced back.
Like everyone, we could see the rumblings of this virus, and the lockdowns in China, but didn’t take them too seriously. I have a distinct memory of sitting in Scotland with my leadership, talking about the lockdowns in China and visiting sites about this strange new virus. Surely this would be just like SARS and Ebola – hyped up in the media but not anything serious that would have an impact on our lives. Right?
Ah, March 2020. This was going to be a crazy busy month of traveling for work! I was going to be in Scotland again for a week, then in Delaware, then Delaware again. The first week of the month I would be in the Connecticut office with my leadership team, who had traveled from across the US, and some others who traveled from the UK. Little did I know that the meetings in Connecticut would be the last time I would see any of my coworkers in person for over a year now (with no specific end in sight).
That week was when things started to get serious – but it wasn’t entirely serious yet. The stock market went down – way down – starting off weeks of new lows. We held a fierce debate in the office the Wednesday ahead of the Scotland trip as to whether or not we should go. This trip was a huge event to plan the next ten weeks of work, which had been planned months ahead of time. People were flying from all over the US. Hotels had been booked, food ordered, flights arranged, and everything was set. But now we were discussing something I would never have thought imaginable – cancelling because there was a very real risk if we left the country we might not be able to get back in. Ultimately we cancelled, switching to an entirely virtual event.
That weekend I made sure to go out with the family – heading out for hot pot, to a bookstore, and to a local arcade. Given what I was hearing, and seeing, I was starting to get concerned about something that was not imaginable before – places shutting down because of a virus. Nothing had actually shut down yet, but I could tell it was coming.
The next week was the start of the changes. On Tuesday the kids schools announced all after school activities were cancelled. That evening, my husband and I went on a massive shopping trip to stock up on staples – good thing too, as we beat the grocery store rush by only a few days. Wednesday was the day the announcement came about closing travel from Europe. Thursday the schools shut down for the “next two weeks” – and wouldn’t reopen again until September.
It was shocking how fast everything changed. Libraries closed, so we went to two libraries the weekend before they shut down to get books, DVD’s and other things to entertain the kids. In fact, we got so many books my oldest son was able to wear the receipt like a scarf.
We visited an art supply store to get some arts and various craft supplies for the kids. We asked the cashier if they would be closing too. They said they didn’t know – but then the next day the state shut down all retail. My work went entirely online, my planned busy month of work travel gone, the multi day planning session online. I prepared to work from home for a few weeks, or maybe a few months, setting up my office in my bedroom. Of course we all know now that even now, a year later, many companies (including mine) would still be remote.
And my husbands work, where he entertained the elderly with music, movies and games at a local nursing home, was about to change in a way we couldn’t have imagined.
By the time April rolled around, the older two boys (then 16 and 12) started to settle into a remote schooling routine. Fortunately they were relatively self-sufficient, although “remote school” was more like “do a bit of offline work and then be done”. Of course the schools had never thought this could happen, never prepared for something like this, and so were caught totally off guard. My husband watched the four year old during the day, keeping up his work evenings and weekends in the nursing home.
Then COVID struck the nursing home where he worked, sadly very hard and very suddenly. Nursing homes in April were no where near as equipped as they would be later in the year to deal with the coronavirus. He stepped up to clean the nursing home, working full time hours (and many times more) while I worked from home and balanced watching the four year old. You can read more about that time here. In the end almost 60 residents would be infected and nearly 20 sadly passed away.
And unfortunately this would not be the last time COVID hit them hard.
While adjusting to remote school, we also got to adjust to zoom Easter – no where near as fun as real Easter – and our first time celebrating a birthday during the coronavirus as our youngest son turned five. Unlike most years, there was no family celebration. No elaborate fun cake. Instead there was a room filled with balloons, gifts dropped off at the door by masked relatives, and a promise next year would be better. (Spoiler – it will not be much better). Face masks became mandatory in Connecticut, which is where we live, and I learned to sew them. My sewing machine broke, and of course no one was open to fix it, so I borrowed a spare one from my mother.
It was during this month I came to deeply appreciate all those frugal habits we had formed over the years. Couldn’t buy bread? Well I can just make it. Can’t buy face masks? I can sew them. Can’t buy new clothes? Who cares, we can make do. Can’t go shopping? I hate shopping anyways. I regularly stock a chest freezer of food, and buy flour in 25 pound containers. The world had changed, but our frugal habits remained the same.
May brought an expansion to our usual gardening, creating a “Victory Garden” of sorts in the front yard in an attempt to grow more of our own food than usual. The possibility of food shortages loomed large, and although we had plenty in the pantry, bare shelves of meat, fruits and veggies inspired us to try and grow more of our own food to not rely on the system as much as we had in the past. I also did a few extra fun things, like paint rocks rainbow colors and set up small hidden plastic Totoro’s in the garden. Mothers day rolled around, and usually we would deliver some flowers to both my mother and mother in law to enjoy. Fortunately we were still able to do that, but this time decided to make some posters for driveway Mother’s Day wishes. Un-fortunately, that made both of them cry, which then just made me feel bad and wish we hadn’t thought of the idea.
Remote school continued with no end in sight. I think we all accepted this would be how things would be until the end of the school year, and better luck next year. I continued to work from home in the bedroom, sitting in front of the same window where I would remain for the next 365+ days. And at my husbands work, COVID finished its deadly march, and started to allow him to return to the part time entertainment work (such as there was) he so enjoyed.
In June, the strangest school year ever (until the next year) ended with the usual “last day of school” photos in front of the oven rather than at the bus stop. By this point, things had started to open again, and we were able to leave the house to do something besides stare at the TV. Every year we go strawberry picking, picking enough to freeze for the winter and set up as jam. We were able to do that again, fortunately, but with masks and away from others this time around.
We joined a local CSA, which is something I had always wanted to do but never quite got around to it. Have to say, the CSA was much more successful at providing food security than our attempts at gardening (which were solidly OK but filled with mistakes). I taught myself to make Japanese Pizzaman, which are steamed buns filled with pizza filling, and we spent a lot of time doing outdoor activities together. Towards the end of the month we were able to use our aquarium membership for the only time in 2020 – purchased as a great gift for the before-times by my aunt for Christmas – spending most of our time outdoors and anxiously skirting around masked people indoors, trying to stay more than six feet away. We had fun but it was also anxiety inducing, so we didn’t return again.
In July my husband was back to his usual part-time schedule, with the kids at home during the day. We took a few days to visit a campground in Rhode Island – something we did most years but fiercely debated whether or not it made sense to do during a pandemic. In the end, I’m glad we did it, because we were able to stay far away from others while still getting away from the house.
Our middle son turned 13, the second of our kids to have a birthday during this time and our first “quaran-teen” (he hates it when I say that!), which we celebrated with an ice cream cake, gifts, and more distanced present drop offs. We were able to do our usual annual blueberry picking as well, although this time my middle son ate almost all the frozen blueberries before winter started. Oh well, they are delicious, and next year we’ll just have to pick more.
In August we decided to start a long planned (but long procrastinated) renovation to the room we called “the playroom”. It was a great place for toys and games when our kids were small, but now we had a 16, 13 and 5 year old. Our kids needed something better than paisley wallpaper and a room of little kid toys. So together we stripped the old wallpaper, painted the walls, installed an electric fireplace, replaced the carpet, and put in a new Ikea TV stand and bookshelf. The room was rebranded the “game room” and even today is a great hangout place for the older boys – and even the little guy.
We also created a small corner for the five year old, relocating most of his toys to the living room, but leaving an art area and book nook for him to have fun with. We also ordered a small table and chairs for him, so he would have a place to play and also do remote kindergarten. We went back and forth on the question of in-person versus remote kindergarten – finally landing on remote (a decision that would change in late September after the reality of what remote kindergarten really means set in). And my oldest son at 16 was interested in getting a job. Fortunately he found one – as a dishwasher in the same nursing home where my husband worked. This would become an important point later in the year, once vaccinations were offered.
Socially distanced movies were another theme of this month, where we purchased a projector, screen and outdoor speaker both for our own use and also the nursing home. The residents of the nursing home were able to enjoy some outdoor movies, and we enjoyed outdoor movies on our own porch as well as at my parents house. Summer was a lot of fun, but with pandemic back to school and fall looming, it wouldn’t last long.
September was back to school, and here in my town it meant in person school unless you elected otherwise. For the little guy we decided to give virtual school a shot. We originally felt that in person school for kindergarteners would be too risky (if you’ve ever met a kindergartener you would know they’re a germ factory) and it was important to protect my husband from COVID so we could in turn protect the nursing home. Our oldest son was becoming a high school senior, and his school was in person – although more than half the students would opt for remote learning. And our middle son was starting his last year of middle school.
It was certainly different than any “back to school” season that came before. I ordered a ton of home learning games, posters, and supplies to supplement virtual Kindergarten. Masks, hand sanitizer, and learning about social distancing rules dominated back to school that was usually ruled by “what kind of paper do I need”. Still, the kids were happy to get to school and also back to scouts – the only after school activity that seemed to remain. After several weeks of trying remote Kindergarten (with my husband sitting on the stairs to the game room, observing and trying to help) we knew it wasn’t working and switched to in person learning. Alex (our five year old) thrived in in person kindergarten. And we started to talk about what having three kids in school all day meant for my husbands work schedule. We had always planned to have him pick up more work once the kids were in school all day. But of course, we never planned for it to happen during COVID.
Ah, October. I would consider this to be a “normal plus masks” kind of month. We were able to go on some great hikes with the scouts, although distanced and still with masks. And for school, the boys continued to go to school with the little guy loving in person kindergarten. Was it normal? Heck no. But it was somewhat normal-is, certainly better than last year. I continued to work from home remote from my bedroom, while my husband started full time work – but with a split shift so he could care for the boys after school and before I was done with my workday.
Frankly we quickly realized this wasn’t necessary. We had planned for my husband to head to work after the boys got on the bus in the morning, and be here when they got off in the afternoon, heading back to work for a few hours in the evening. But after a few weeks we quickly decided that with me working full time from home, and no longer traveling, it didn’t make sense for him to work a split shift. Instead he ended up working a full eight hour day, with me or the 13 year old ensuring the little guy got off the bus and downstairs for a few hours before my workday ended. We love that the flexibility will be there once we need it, but for now, it means more to us to have evenings together as a family than to work a split shift and have my hubby be away every night.
October in Connecticut means some of our last nice days. We prepared for a Halloween like never before. Fortunately the older boys, although they still love Halloween, could be OK with no trick or treating or dressing up for this year. The five year old, though, was not as easily persuaded. So instead of trick or treating, we did a full day of fun Halloween activities and foods, and ended with a “Halloween hunt” around the house for candy. Luckily the little guy had so much fun, he even asked for banana ghosts and clementine pumpkins just this past weekend for him and his brothers.
It was during November that cracks started to appear in the fun that was supposed to be “normal” life during COVID. I was able to attend a virtual FinCon and virtual Plustus awards – fun but no where near the same as being there. I did a virtual Manchester Road Race to try and get some more physical activity in, since sitting at my desk in my bedroom for months and months was doing a number on my physical and mental health. And the kids schools started to close down for days, or weeks, because of positive COVID cases or their personal exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID.
Sure, the boys still had scouts, but it started to be Zoom scouts instead of in person outdoor events. We had Thanksgiving, but virtually over Zoom with an in person family dinner of just us and the kids. As the weather turned colder, outdoor activities became impossible and indoor activities increased. Plus the rising prevalence of COVID, coupled with the fact that there were not yet any vaccines, meant that this month started off a cascade that would continue through the long pandemic winter. Thanksgiving came and went with virtual lunches and promises of next year. During the long weekend off for the holiday we took out all our Christmas decorations (a Thanksgiving weekend tradition) and put them up around the house.
In past years, our family created “Nintendo Christmas World” – a fun set of characters set up in our front yard to bring joy to kids driving by. This year more than ever, we knew this would be important to kids and their families. Also, I was home and not traveling for work any more. So this seemed a perfect year to expand Nintendo Christmas World to additional characters and backgrounds like never before. Sadly, only about a week into December would see the shutdown of my five year olds school until the new year. Frankly – I panicked. My husband was working full time, and I was working full time remote – how on earth would I handle remote kindergarten? This meant running up and down the stairs multiple times a day to get in and out of zoom class (oh – and back in once he logged himself out). I felt lucky that as a breadwinning mom I hadn’t had to be dealing with this since September. I knew other moms – those in California for example – who had been dealing with this situation for many months now.
December brought Christmas, which meant more Zoom holidays and driveway caroling at our in laws. Christmas was a fun day, but with a relaxing day at home instead of running off to relatives for holiday fun. December also brought something else. Vaccines. For my husband and oldest son. My oldest son was only 17 at the time, one of the first (and still one of the few) teenagers in the state to be vaccinated against COVID to protect the nursing home residents. I could have cried when they were both vaccinated before 2021, an unexpected development, but one that was quite welcome, and would make them both poineers in a vaccination campaign unlike one that we have witnessed in our lifetimes. Sadly, the nursing home would be struck by COVID again only one week after the very first vaccination, leading to many more infections and still more deaths. But hope was coming.
Our year ended with a family party at home, just like it had begun. Of course nothing was the same – nothing was anything like we thought it would have been. But we survived, and made it through. Vaccines were coming. We just now had to make it through some more months until things could go “back to normal”. But would they? And just how many more months were we talking about? No one knew – frankly no one still knows.
January was the start of a new year like no other. Fortunately my kindergartener was able to head back to in person school after being home the last three weeks of the year before winter break. You know all those articles about working moms leaving the workforce, or being forced to cut back, because of virtual school? I can understand why. For some reason his school elected to do 4-5 separate shorter zoom meetings, coupled with a ton of offline work, for virtual schooling. Which means that I spent my day running up and down the stairs to get him logged in (because he can’t read!) and then again once he accidentally clicked away. You can work like that for a short while but not in the long run. And it has definitely been a long run.
January went by relatively quickly. I created a new food challenge for myself, to cook food from 80 countries around the world in 2021, but that’s been a bit up and down this year. The month just seemed like more of the same – school, work, school, work, weekend – nothing changing outside the house in terms of lockdowns or restrictions. The pandemic winter would be long and dreary, but there was not much to do except wait for winter to be over.
February was a bit more fun than January, with more to do. I continued my personal cooking challenge a few of the weekends. We had a new couch delivered, something we weren’t expecting until March/April, and that has already seen a lot of use. The little guy had his first ever Pinewood Derby race, where he won first place in his age and second place in the entire pack! My husband has of course been through about a decade plus of building Pinewood Derby cars (for those who don’t know, this is a car race the scouts do every year) and has picked up a few tricks along the way. Still, even though we had fun at home, it was a long pandemic winter that dragged on and on. Snow piled up outside, the days went by, and every day blended into the next.
Still – spring was coming. Vaccines were starting to be more widely distributed. Soon we would reach the previously unimaginable milestone of one full year since the pandemic began with no firm end in sight. No firm end – but much hope.
March – Today
As I write this I sit in front of the same window I’ve spent most of the past 365 days, at a desk in my bedroom, where I log into work every day. The past few weeks have been full of “can you believe it’s been one year since…”, and the second round of Easter and birthdays during coronavirus are being planned. The nursing home has finally been able to welcome in families for visits – and even hugs! – for the first time since last March. Vaccination for my age group in Connecticut will open April 5th, although of course I’m sure it will take a while to secure an appointment.
But life goes on. My oldest son has been accepted to college for the degree he’s wanted the past two years – with a merit scholarship. He’s started virtual drivers ed (don’t worry, only the classroom portion is virtual) so he can get his license. The five year old has adapted just fine, because this is just the way things are now. And my thirteen year old “quaran-teen” is struggling a bit with staying organized at school, but is getting better. He’s not alone, anyways – so many kids are suffering.
When I look back at it all, I’m still amazed how quickly the world changed, and that what was supposed to be “a few weeks” or “a few months” turned into over a year. Like many, I’m worn down from constant pandemic anxiety and stress. It seems you can’t plan for anything any more, because every plan is destroyed by some kind of unexpected twist or turn. The kids keep coming to school from home at random times – like my middle son who has been doing remote school for the past week, schools shutting down for teacher vaccinations, or certain random school from home snow days. Today and tomorrow my five year old has half days, meaning he’s going to be home starting around 1:30 in the afternoon, and I’ll have to make sure he’s entertained while I finish up a busy workday.
Even though things are hard, we are still blessed. We’re all healthy. No one has caught COVID (knock on wood). I can work from home and not risk exposure to COVID. My kids are in school at least most of the time, meaning I can focus on work much of the day without distraction. We both have our jobs, and the pursuit of FIRE (as well as my well known obsession with emergency funds) has served us well during this time. So all in all, I feel fortunate, even though many days are hard. And you know what? It’s OK to not be OK even if others are suffering more than you. This time is not a “who does it suck the most for?” contest and it’s OK to say this time is terrible even if it could be worse. We are all just doing the best we can do in previously unimaginable circumstances.
The story of the coronavirus and how we got out of it is still being written. Even once it’s “over”, it will never be over. Like World War 2 or the Great Depression, we have gone through a collective experience that will change us, and the world, forever. Some people will be hit harder than others, some will have an easier time recovering – and some will never recover. But as I sit here at my bedroom window yet again, the sun rising on a chilly but soon to be warm spring day, I have hope that we will indeed one day be able to put this behind us and gather together in person once more.