By Published: May 7, 2020

Ansel, 5, and Silvan, 3, Zoom-bomb a meeting between mom June Gruber and her lab coordinator. Credit: June Gruber

June Gruber was readying her 3- and 5-year-old boys for pre-school on a Thursday in early March when she got a call parents across the country were also about to get: 

“We were told school was closing and they weren’t going to be able to come back,” recalls Gruber, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience who specializes in the study of emotions. “They have literally stayed home since.”

Days later, she and husband Raul Saucedo, an assistant professor of philosophy, were told to shelter in place indefinitely at their home in Boulder Canyon. Overnight, their hectic lives as working parents got even more complicated.

She’s not alone. About 55 million U.S. kids are now homebound and, according to the Pew Research center, both parents in about half of those households work full-time.

Story time

June Gruber with sons Ansel, 5, and Silvan, 3.

Gruber’s responsibilities running a lab and mentoring students have intensified, with a new study exploring how the pandemic is impacting college student mental health. All the while, she’s doubling as a homeschool preschool teacher. The days are long for her and her husband–one takes the boys for a hike, while the other settles in for Zoom meetings in a make-shift office. One delivers an art class while the other does office hours over Zoom.

Not every mom is so lucky. Surveys show, even today, 64% of mothers say they do far more than their spouse or partner when it comes to kid duties. And some recent news reports suggest that while men in academia are publishing more than ever amid the pandemic, papers by women are growing more scarce.

“Parenting in these times can be especially challenging for mothers,” Gruber says, “especially those juggling motherhood with abrupt role transitions while also balancing work obligations and their own emotional responses to the pandemic.”

In honor of Mother’s Day, we caught up with Gruber to hear how she’s managing and get advice:

How are you keeping your kids busy?

It’s nonstop with two little guys. We are up at 5:30 a.m. for breakfast and start the day with long stretches of time outdoors, connecting with nature and moving their bodies. We’re building forts and throwing rocks in the creek. In the afternoon, we’re painting rocks and drawing pictures. We are so lucky to live in Colorado around all this beautiful nature right now. It’s virtually impossible to work with kids this age around who love to “Zoom-bomb,” so we usually pass the torch back and forth. 

What has been the hardest part?

Just the sheer exhaustion—trying to do a full-time job but suddenly having half the time to do it can feel like an impossible task. I think those of us with small children are all beginning to wonder how long we can sustain this pace. It’s not like you can call anyone to come by and help, because of physical distancing guidelines.

What has been the best part?

I have loved waking up and not having to be anywhere, taking our time in the morning to sometimes literally watch the sunrise with our children. When I am with the boys, there is no clock to look at, nothing to worry about or attend to. There is a sense of stillness—that time is infinite. I am so thankful to have this time with them at this tender age. 

Boys horsing around

Ansel, 5, and Silvan, 3, playing.

How has the pandemic informed your research?

We are witnessing one of the most significant natural experiments in our lifetimes. If you remove social contact, how does that change people’s sense of mental wellbeing. We had already been overseeing a project looking at mental health among about 800 college freshman. I thought, “Why don’t we pause and ask these very same students how the pandemic is changing things for them?” My lab rallied, and that study is now underway. 

I’m also working on a paper with over 30 clinical psychology professors and practitioners—a sort-of call to action. As we are flattening this physical health curve, the long-term mental health ramifications are just about a month behind. We need to start asking: How can we flatten the mental health curve, too? 

What advice do you have for working moms?

Think of intense emotions like a wave. It will feel intense. It will peak. But a wave doesn’t last forever. This will pass. Knowing that is important in this time that feels kind of endless. It’s also critical to stay involved in activities that bring pleasure and keep you moving. Even when you are feeling sheer exhaustion or anxiety, keep doing that morning walk. Keep utilizing Zoom or FaceTime to connect with friends. Just because you are physically distanced doesn’t mean you have to be socially disconnected. 

Any other tips?

Remember that emotional diversity is a really natural and important part of being human. It is not only acceptable to feel sad and frustrated and exhausted right now, it is perfectly appropriate. These emotions serve a purpose of keeping you in touch with the unusual world we are living in. Don’t feel pressured to be happy all the time.