When this whole thing started, Christina and Mike Goetz figured they had things fairly under control.
They woke up at the same time and tried to keep the usual routines with their four young children. Then they descended into the basement, powered up computers in separate rooms and went to work — as millions of Americans suddenly were doing — away from offices now deemed too risky for spreading the deadly coronavirus.
But soon, careers, meals, homework and child-rearing blended into a hazy frenzy of unpredictable days and nights.
At the end of that first workweek, one child got a fever, and Christina sent their child-care helper home out of caution. A few days later their infant son developed a cough and runny nose, a frightening turn that ultimately got diagnosed as an ear infection. The third week, their second-grade twins began remote schooling, piling on new demands and responsibilities.
“I don’t even remember when we started working at home,” Christina said last week. “I feel like I’ve lost track of time.”
In ways big and small, lives have been upended by the global pandemic. Now a month after most Minnesotans began staying home for work and school, they are realizing the enormity of what has been lost.
The simple pleasure of meeting friends over pizza, laughing with office colleagues and visiting with elderly loved ones in nursing homes. Weddings have been put on hold, funerals held without extended family, holy days marked in solitude.
On top of it all has come the dawning realization that this public health crisis will go on longer than we first thought and shape our lives for years to come.
Minnesotans’ collective sacrifice has slowed the virus, state health officials say, buying time for hospitals to stock up on supplies and researchers to develop tests and treatments. At least 79 Minnesotans have died. But it’s far from over.
“This could all go sideways if we don’t continue,” Gov. Tim Walz said last week when he extended the emergency stay-at-home order through May 4.
The Goetzes feel both the toll and their relative good fortune, including the extra time they’re spending together as a family.
While 451,000 Minnesotans, or 14% of the state’s labor force, are newly unemployed, the Goetzes are both still working. Christina works in ethics and compliance at Medtronic, the medical device maker in Fridley. Mike works for a mechanical contractor in St. Paul.
No one close to them has encountered the deadly virus.
Yet for the family of six now cloistered in their home in the town of Independence, the once-ordinary daily demands of work and home life have become exponentially more complicated.
“I said to my husband, I don’t understand how by the time we’re done with breakfast that we can have no dishes left,” Christina said. “There’s so much more cleaning, so much more cooking, so many more dishes, so much more laundry than there normally is because everybody’s just home.”
“Before this,” Mike said, “we focused on making it through the week and then on the weekend we could do something different — go to a museum or go out to lunch. Now, especially for the kids, weekdays and weekends feel the same.”
Christina puts all of the adjustments under the heading of a “change curve.” Such as the first day of telecommuting, when her husband, normally out of the house by 5:30 a.m., attempted to help with routines she usually handled alone.
“No, no!” she had to tell him. “We wake this kid up early, but this one we let sleep until they’re ready to wake up.”
Or the first day when the twins started remote schooling.
After a frustrating morning wrestling with the iPads and not realizing that the school’s internet system had crashed from overuse, she ended up moving meetings around and taking an unplanned half day of vacation to deal with it.
“I think I was maybe a bit more optimistic in what I thought I’d be able to do,” Christina said. As the days have unfolded, the hands-on duties of managing school days from home have required patience and flexibility.
“Basically from 5 to 7 p.m. it was all hands on deck trying to make dinner and make people eat, giving people baths, reading people books, getting ready for bed,” Christina said. “We don’t have a lot of flex time in there for doing homework.”
There were times Christina felt helpless to hold her twins to a schedule.
“One of the kids was crying because she felt so overwhelmed that she still had seven things left to do and it was already lunchtime.”
The family discovered that internet in their rural area doesn’t always deliver when multiple devices are in use, such as when the girls are trying to do schoolwork and the parents are trying to work or participate in conference calls.
“We’ll see how this school situation evolves,” Christina said. “I don’t think we’ve hit our sweet spot on that yet.”
The support of colleagues at Medtronic has been a lifeline, Christina said. Half-hour video meetings often begin with a check-in and tips to keep their children engaged.
“It’s really helpful because, working from home constantly, we’re starting to run out of ideas,” she said.
She and a colleague had their children become pen pals, teaching them to write and giving them something to look forward to in the mailbox. Mike confesses that it’s hard to keep up. He and his wife both try to focus on their jobs before the children wake up but often they end up swinging back to work after the kids’ bedtime.
“We’re finding that when the kids take a nap, we want to take a nap, too,” Mike said with a laugh. “When it gets quiet in the house, that should be the best time for getting things done, but you get tired without that extra noise. That’s what you miss. In an office environment there’s always people around.”
Christina’s mother moved in during the first two weeks of Walz’s stay-at-home order to take care of the toddlers, which relieved some stress. And sticking to a routine they laid out during those first days of working from home helped maintain a semblance of normalcy.
Every day the children connect on FaceTime with Christina’s grandmother, who lives alone. She reads them one of her own favorite books from childhood, “The Good Master,” a 1935 story about a naughty Hungarian girl. “They look forward to it, and she does as well,” Christina said.
Living in a small town in far western Hennepin County has taken some of the edge off cabin fever, Christina said, though the twins miss their school friends terribly. Their front door looks out on a farm with sheep, goats and donkeys, and the couple gets outside to play and walk the wooded trails with their children at least twice a day.
Mealtimes have become special events. Kids take turns being in charge of the menu while getting one-on-one time with one of their parents in the kitchen.
These days, they’re increasingly turning to slow-cooker recipes that dirty up fewer dishes and make use of frozen vegetables from Mike’s parents’ garden. With the governor’s extended stay-at-home order, there’s a growing acceptance that the twins likely won’t get back to school this year. And now, pools, beaches and community programs have been canceled.
“That announcement was just soul-crushing,” Christina said. “I kept thinking, if we can just make it to summer, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Now I feel like the cheese has been moved.”