Being a Mom Is Tough. Being A Mom In A Pandemic Is Even Tougher

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From left: Sawsan al-Ramemi of Amman, Jordan, is a mom of two — and expecting her third child. Her husband is working in the U.S. Nienke Pastoor of the Netherlands has been juggling her job as a dairy farmer and helping her four teenagers with their online schoolwork. Jessica Barrera of Eau Claire, Wis., is finding ways to spread joy with her son, Niko, who’s a virtual student these days.

Nadia Bseiso, Julia Gunther and Lauren Justice for NPR


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Nadia Bseiso, Julia Gunther and Lauren Justice for NPR

Nienke Pastoor, 40, rides herd on 165 cows — and four teenage kids — on the dairy farm she runs with her husband outside the village of Middelstum in the Netherlands.

Julia Gunther for NPR


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Julia Gunther for NPR

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.

Pastoor stands in her cow shed with her oldest son, Thomas, left, and her husband, Jaap. Thomas, 17, is studying farming and plans on taking over the family farm. When schools were shut due to the lockdown, Pastoor made sure her kids kept up with their schoolwork.

Julia Gunther for NPR


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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.


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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.

Julia Gunther for NPR


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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.

Photos by Julia Gunther. Text by Nick Schönfeld

Jessica Barrera helps her son Niko, 10, with math homework after a day of virtual learning at their home in Eau Claire, Wis.

Lauren Justice for NPR


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A Single Mom, Her Son And ‘Kindness Rocks’

It was Niko’s idea to drop the decorated rocks in the schoolyard. Jessica Barrera, Niko’s mother, said it gave him a sense of connection to the school.

«Since he can’t be there [in person] at least the rocks could be there from him,» Barrera said.

The rocks are a tradition Barrera started when she realized she needed new ways to get outside with her son. The 40-year-old single mother was laid off from her job at an airport shuttle service in Eau Claire, Wis., in March. Niko finished the last few months of fourth grade virtually. Their list of reasons to leave the house was dwindling.

She read about «kindness rocks» online — stones decorated with art or inspiring messages and left conspicuously around a community for strangers to find. It sounded like a fun thing to do with Niko; they could go for walks and leave the rocks around town. Their first one had a simple message: «Be kind.» They left it in a park at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers.

Barrera and her son, Niko, place rocks painted with hopeful messages at his school and other places in their community. They hope the rocks will brighten someone’s day.

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Niko is not a morning person. He typically starts his day with a granola bar and orange juice in a coffee mug (always a coffee mug). When he used to go to school, Barrera would sometimes take him to the Kwik Trip gas station, get herself a coffee and get him a hot chocolate in a to-go cup.

«He’d go sit with the teachers — they had their little coffees and he had his Kwik Trip hot chocolate. They were just sitting there talking, like he’s like a grown-up,» Barrera remembered with a chuckle.

«He’s an old soul in an 11-year-old body.»

Now Niko, who is on the autism spectrum, is one of the millions of kids learning remotely. After breakfast, Barrera helps Niko connect to his classroom on the iPad the school district sent home. When this school year started, the district gave parents the option for virtual learning or a hybrid model with kids in the classroom twice a week. Barrera chose the virtual option because Niko did well with it in the spring, plus Barrera has a rare blood condition that puts her at high risk for serious complications from the coronavirus.

Niko doesn’t love it.

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Niko sits at the virtual learning workspace that Barrera set up in his bedroom.

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Sawsan al-Ramemi with sons Zain, left, and Omer at home in Amman. She is expecting her third child.

Nadia Bseiso for NPR


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Ramemi attends to her father. She moved in with her parents because her husband is working abroad.

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«Usually people come to see the baby and they bring gifts,» she said. «Suppose they are infected? How can I let them kiss her?»

Ramemi said she is lucky to have a ground-floor apartment with a garden and pavement for Zain and her 5-year-old son, Omer, to run around in. These days, because of the pandemic, they rarely venture beyond the garden with its fig and olive trees and high stone walls.

«Now I don’t feel comfortable taking my children to visit public parks and gardens. They are young and I am afraid if they get the virus, they might transmit it to my family,» she said. When she does see relatives, it’s for very brief visits. She worries in particular about her elderly mother, who has cancer. «Because of that I really limit my movement outside the house.»

Ramemi said neither her physician nor the clinic she goes to provided information about the effects of COVID-19 on pregnancy, so she scoured the internet. While the Centers for Disease Control says pregnant women might be at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, she said the studies she has read have reassured her.

«2020 is full of surprises,» she said, laughing. «I wish that I hadn’t gotten pregnant during these times.»

Still, she said, she thanks God.

Photos by Nadia Bseiso. Text by Shereen Nanish and Jane Arraf

Nominate A Woman

We’d like to tell more stories about women’s lives in the pandemic.

Is there a woman in your community who has overcome great challenges in their personal lives? Or is helping others with their challenges? Send an email to goatsandsoda@npr.orgwith your nomination, with «Women’s Stories» in the subject line. We may feature them in a future story on NPR.org.

  • COVID-19
  • pregnant
  • dairy farmers
  • single moms
  • mothers
  • pandemic
  • coronavirus

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