Christina Wienholz and Joe Leahy, pictured last year, currently work full time from home while overseeing their children’s learning. The couple sets aside date nights to strengthen their relationship during this tough time. They try to order take-out from local business owned by people of color, remaining mindful that the pandemic has affected other families far worse than their own. (Courtesy Wienholz-Leahy family)
Christina Wienholz and Joe Leahy, pictured last year, currently work full time from home while overseeing their children’s learning. The couple sets aside date nights to strengthen their relationship during this tough time. They try to order take-out from local business owned by people of color, remaining mindful that the pandemic has affected other families far worse than their own. (Courtesy Wienholz-Leahy family)

Working parents regularly juggle the stresses of their jobs and the needs of their children. They are prepared to work all day, make supper, then toss in a load of laundry before helping a high schooler tackle a thorny math problem or tracking down a glue stick for a kindergartner’s art project. But what’s it like to manage such demands simultaneously nearly every day for almost a year?

“It’s a combination that’s difficult and painful,” said Christina Wienholz, a customer service representative for the City of Portland’s 311 program and mother of two students learning primarily at home. “At the same time there’s a lot of resilience on the part of the kids. They get up every day and keep going, and so do you.”

Late last year and before Gov. Kate Brown issued new guidelines allowing more Oregon youths to learn predominately in person, two Catholic families shared some of the challenges and lessons they’ve learned navigating online education and full-time work. Both have muddled through relying on gratitude, creative connections with their communities and their faith.

Carrie McCarthy is an instructional aide with two children who’ve been learning remotely. “In prayer and in Mass I tell God all that’s happened that crazy day or week,” she said. “Then I can start anew.”

The little things

Pre-pandemic McCarthy, a member of St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, had a packed schedule working at St. John Fisher School in Southwest Portland and as a part-time tutor. “Working full time as a parent always is tiring but it’s gotten much more difficult,” she said.

“Before the coronavirus I’d come home after work and get dinner on and relax a bit. Now it’s working all day at St. John Fisher overseeing in-person and online learning, thinking about my own kids at home, coming home and making dinner and then telling my kids, ‘OK, let’s log into your school account and see what you still need help with.’ I’m a teacher all day and come home and I’m still a teacher.”

Last year her husband lost his job in sales due to pandemic-related cuts. He’s been working a graveyard shift at a temporary job while looking for a new position. McCarthy said in some ways the loss is a blessing because he’s able to be home with the kids during the day while she’s at work. He helps in the morning and then sleeps in the afternoon.

“I honestly don’t know what we’d do if he had his old job that couldn’t be remote,” said McCarthy. “Who’d be with the kids?”

Along with two grown children, the couple has a sixth grade daughter at St. Cecilia School, following a hybrid model of learning, and a sophomore at Beaverton’s Valley Catholic, which has provided remote instruction. Both schools are preparing for in-person learning later this month or in February under the latest state and Department of Catholic Schools’ directives.

“There’s been a big emotional impact during distance learning and social distancing but the hardest part is knowing it’s been difficult for so many kids,” said McCarthy before Christmas.

She recalled the day she went with her son to pick up books from Valley Catholic. “Like a lot of 15-year-old boys, my son doesn’t show emotions a lot, but tears welled up in his eyes as we got there. ‘I can’t believe I’m really here,’ he said. That kind of thing makes me the most sad.”

She said the family has learned to see the positives whenever possible. They’ve been able to eat together regularly, instead of darting off to football or volleyball practices. The pandemic has forced McCarthy to be more organized and ask for help regularly.

It’s also been important “not to stay in my own little shell,” she said. “Maybe we can’t go out to coffee with friends like we used to, but I try to send a quick text when I’m thinking of someone. I know it makes my day when someone takes a minute to say hi.”

Prayer and Mass — livestreamed or in person — leaves her feeling refreshed, she added. “That’s always true with Mass, but especially now I feel a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Though she wishes she could have helped her children more during the day, McCarthy loves her job, and the students at St. John Fisher keep her going. One first grader recently told her: “I’m thankful for you, Mrs. McCarthy, and I’m thankful for first grade, and I’m thankful to be here.”

“We all would benefit from embracing the attitude of that sweet first grader and be thankful for all the little things,” she said.

‘Take a deep breath, pray’

The Wienholz-Leahy family has found delight in an (initially) little thing. His name is Iggy Mae and he’s a rapidly growing black lab.

“Iggy has brought a lot of joy and distraction and purpose and exercise into our lives,” said Wienholz. “He’s the best thing that’s happened to our family during the pandemic.”

Holy Redeemer students Kateri, a third grader, and Ben, a first grader, enjoy their pandemic puppy, Iggy Mae, this winter. (Courtesy Wienholz-Leahy family)

The pup was born near the feast day of St. Ignatius, adopted the day before St. Francis’ feast day and prayed over during the annual animal blessing at The Grotto in Northeast Portland. “He’s a very Catholic dog,” said Wienholz with a laugh.

Wienholz and her husband, Joe Leahy, have two children enrolled at Holy Redeemer School in North Portland. Kateri, a third grader, and Ben, a first grader, have been having two hours of in-person learning every week with a small group of students. The rest of their schooling has been at home.

Leahy is a project manager for a software company, and Wienholz helps community members access city information and services. Both are working remotely. Because Wienholz must be available for calls, Leahy has taken on the bulk of the kids’ educational support.

Though Leahy’s boss has been supportive, the lost hours need to be replaced somehow. There are many late evenings. “It’s exhausting, and I’m not as efficient as I used to be,” he said.

Leahy takes 10-15 minutes around 5:30 a.m. for prayer, and that’s kept him grounded.

Wienholz hasn’t felt the same impact on her work, “however I’ve experienced the mental health impact on the kids,” she said. “They are doing as well as you could expect, but like other kids they’ve lost so much in the last nine months.”

Zoom happy hour with the “church ladies” from their parish, St. Andrew in Northeast Portland, has been helpful for Wienholz, and she’s felt buoyed by the Holy Redeemer community. “I’ll often connect the old-fashioned way and call a friend,” she added.

To keep their marriage strong under stress, the couple has at-home date nights — making a point to support local businesses owned by people of color. They remain mindful that the coronavirus has affected other families far worse than their own.

Leahy said he’s made meaningful revelations during the pandemic. He realized that to keep St. Andrew parishioners connected to one another while social distancing he must do his part. So he began sharing online resources and postings for families.

“All the things we take for granted and having to work for those and make sure those structures don’t fall apart is kind of life-changing,” he said. “I have a new understanding that our church does need us to participate and our kids very much need us to provide some continuity.”

Wienholz said she’s been reminded how critical the children’s communities are, both at St. Andrew and Holy Redeemer.

“Holy Redeemer has pulled together to make a really hard year palatable for kids,” she said. “It’s not perfect, but the kids have been learning and still find joy in learning, and that’s what I’d want at the end of all this.”

“I think there’s a grace in it all,” added Leahy. “Sometimes you have to look hard to find it, and sometimes you’re not sure how you are going to get through a day. But you figure it out, and it’s not usually as bad as you think. If you are really struggling, you take a deep breath, pray, maybe talk to someone you trust. Then do what you need to do.”