Mother’s Day: Working mums forced to readjust in pandemic

Wednesday May 13 2020
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Zeddy Chepchirchir. She works as a nurse, interacting with Covid-19 patients at Kenyatta National Hospital at Mbagathi. PHOTO | COURTESY

By ELVIS ONDIEKI

The fear has been widespread among working mothers in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic: “Will I forgive myself if it ever happens that I am the one who brought the coronavirus disease to my children?”

But work has to go on, side-by-side with their motherhood responsibilities. The result has been immense sacrifices, with mothers drastically modifying their lifestyles to ensure their work obligations are met even as they mind the health of the brood under their care.

As Kenya and a number of countries mark Mother’s Day today, many mothers will be looking back at the way they have had to reshape their lives since March 13 when the first Covid-19 case was announced in Kenya. Among those are the mothers who spoke with Lifestyle last week.

ZEDDY CHEPCHIRCHIR KOMEN - Nurse at Kenyatta National Hospital

Chepchichir was assured of a hug and a warm welcome whenever she returned home from work to find her sons Kipchumba, 12, and Pascal, 14.

The younger boy was particularly fond of mum’s hugs. That is no longer the case because she is among the healthcare workers directly interacting with Covid-19 patients at the infectious disease unit of Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) at Mbagathi.

Nowadays, she is “greeted by a sanitiser” when she returns home. “It has been strange that nowadays when I come home, there is no hugging, no touching,” she says.

“I knock the door at a particular spot that the boys can’t reach. I don’t touch the doorknob. They open the door and give me a sanitiser. I sanitise my hands, my phone, then I take off my shoes and off I go to the bathroom. I must take a bath and also soak all my clothes,” says Chepchichir, who has been at KNH for 13 years.

She was among the 170 Kenyan medics who went to West Africa in 2015 to help fight Ebola.

The experience gave her baptism by fire on how to handle a contagious and deadly disease. But in the early days of Covid-19 in Kenya, she was worried like everyone else.

“At first, I would even isolate myself in the bedroom. I would make sure that when I’m going to the bathroom, it’s at my own time when the boys have taken a shower. I would take a bath and then wash the bathroom. We were not supposed to meet in the kitchen nor use the same dining table.

Life changed. And if I had to be with them, they had to wear a mask. If they had to come to my room, they had to wear a mask,” she recalls.

Family meeting

She has even heard of colleagues who were forced to sleep on the floor to avoid sharing bedding with their spouses.

As she learns more and more about the virus and sees her patients recovering, she has “readjusted” her dread, but she has not thrown caution to the wind — even in the way she relates with colleagues.

“l ensure all the other multidisciplinary team members are safe for me to be safe,” she says. “My safety is our safety.”

Regarding her children, she says, the fear of infecting them has been looming large, especially in the early days.

“I had my worries when coming back to them. There is always a risk. You always think you’re not safe yourself and you may be a source of infection to your family. So it has been a real challenge, which we have managed.

“I had a meeting with my children and then we planned on how we were going to survive. The first two weeks were very scary. You would even get symptoms due to the fear. It’s a psychological thing; you feel like you have it,” she says.

There was a time the work schedule also drained her, especially in the first two weeks after the first Covid-19 case was reported in Kenya.

She says it was because the medics were settling into their roles. “We had many challenges which took a lot of our energies. When you come home, you’re already exhausted and do not even have enough time for family,” says Chepchichir.

“But I would tell the boys to be free to tell me how they were feeling and how it was affecting them, because at some point I realised it was affecting them, because I was telling them they shouldn’t go out, they shouldn’t play, to be cautious about friends visiting, and such,” she adds.

Isolation facility

Some people have proposed that medics like Chepchichir be housed at an isolated facility. While she doesn’t scoff at the idea, she worries about the upkeep of her sons.

The younger is in Standard Eight and the elder one is in Form Two. “If I go there, how will my children cope? I had planned to take them to the countryside to their father and my mum but the cessation of movement happened. And so I have to stay here with them,” she says.

She works from 7am to 5.30pm when she is on duty, and most of it involves wearing the uncomfortable personal protective equipment as she attends to her patients.

The situation, she says, has been made lighter by the psychological support from the KNH management.

As she minds her work, she also ensures her sons do their chores, take the academic assignments she gives them and when she is off-duty, she teaches them how to cook.

“I’m still a teacher; I’m still a mum; I still make sure they do their homework,” she says.

Her Mother’s Day message to other mums is to understand the value of open communication.

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CATHERINE SAULO - Attached to the 719 call centre

One of the ways the government decided to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic was to have a round-the-clock call centre to address questions from Kenyans.

When the idea was finalised, customer care representatives at Safaricom were seconded to this call centre that is connected to Kenyans through the toll-free line 719.

Catherine Saulo was among those posted to the centre. She was supposed to handle the calls from Kenyans but at the same time she was mindful of her children — fraternal twins aged four years and 10 months.

That called for a huge sacrifice: working from home. She admits that she is an extrovert who draws her energy from interacting with others.

She is in her element with colleagues around, chatting and interacting to boost her spirits before she hits her desk to respond to customers’ queries.

“I’m an extrovert. I really enjoy going out, waking up, dressing up, looking good, going to the office, meeting people, chatting, and then you get to work. But now, due to the pandemic, I think I panic because of my kids,” she says.

Working from home is something she has never attempted before, but she quickly had to adjust because the 719 hotline was vital in disseminating information on the disease.

With the encouragement of her husband, she started working from home, and initially she chose to lock herself in the nanny’s room to avoid the playful children.

“We don’t have a big house. It is a two-bedroom. So I tried to work from my nanny’s room, but the sitting arrangement was not so good for me because I have back issues. So I decided to go back to the sitting room. So, currently, I am working from the sitting room using a dining table,” says Catherine.

“It is not easy because if you are working from the sitting room, it means you are interfering with the kids’ time. Basically, you’ve already encroached into their space,” she adds.

Managing anxiety

She works on eight-hour shifts with breaks in between. It is not the most comfortable environment but she is glad to put her children out of harm’s way.

“I have to do it for my children. You know, it’s not easy being home. If I had my way out, I would go back to the office,” she says.

One of her most harrowing weeks was when she had to work up to 6pm. With the 7pm-5am curfew, it meant she had little time to even take a stroll in the neighbourhood.

“When it got to Friday, I think I was getting to my breaking point. Ever been in a house and you feel like you were running short of air?” she poses.

“But that’s an extrovert problem. We want to be out there, to chat and all.”

The volume of callers on the 719 line varies day by day. There are days she has had to handle up to 70 calls a day.

“It depends on the government’s announcements. If they announce many people (infected), I think people go into panic and so they start calling. But I think Kenyans have reached a phase where they feel they’re used to this,” she says.

As a Mother’s Day message to fellow mums, Saulo urges those who are working to be strong and positive.

“I’ll encourage all mothers to be strong, to be positive during the pandemic. Also, we should pray,” she says.

“Also, I understand that people are facing a lot of gender-based violence during this time. I’d advise mothers who are going through that to report through the 1195 hotline,” she adds.

Even while working from home, she ensures that she dresses up as if she were going to the office. She says it is a way of motivating herself.

Her parting shot: “I advise mothers to take advantage of this period to spend more time with their babies, with their spouses, get together. It is an ideal period for quality time.”