Ottawa·Point of View

I tried to balance working from home and caring for my kids. I finally called it quits

Robbyn Plumb tried to balance a career in the public service with looking after two kids, one with special needs. When the pandemic hit she finally hit a wall and decided to stop working. She writes about how hard it is for parents trying to do it all during COVID-19.

Something had to give, and that something was work, writes Robbyn Plumb

Robbyn Plumb, left, with daughter Morgan, right, and son Carson, centre, who has special needs. When the pandemic began, Plumb tried to juggle parenting with her job in the public service, but finally had to give one up. (Submitted by Robbyn Plumb)

I used to pride myself on being able to balance a successful career as a director in the public service and an active family life that includes a teenager who has a developmental disability, is non-verbal and has severe behavioural challenges. 

With support from family and friends, I created a village where my son is loved and celebrated, and where my 16-year-old daughter, a superstar student and competitive athlete, is able to just be a big sister — not a caregiver like some families are forced to do given the lack of supports for special needs.

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This all came crashing down on March 23, when all schools and community supports and services were shuttered and Canadians were told to stay home. My "village" vanished overnight.

'Through all this, I completely forgot about myself. I didn't notice I was walking a tight rope, with my balance increasingly teetering over the edge,' Plumb writes. (Submitted by Robbyn Plumb)

My son's world became very small

My son attends a special class at Ridgemont High School and has the support of a wonderful team, including occasional one-on-one support given his needs and behavioural challenges. 

I spent years advocating for his rights and we finally found a school where he could be successful. 

With the closure of schools, my son instantly lost critical social interaction and learning opportunities. All his community-based activities such as therapeutic riding and hockey ceased. Recreation facilities and respite services are closed, and friends and family are all self-isolating.

I am usually the target of his hitting, kicking and sometimes biting and now that he is as big as me, it can really hurt.- Robbyn Plumb

I realize everyone is impacted by the pandemic measures. But for my son and other kids with special needs, predictability is critical, and the change in routine leads to vulnerability. 

My son does not understand 'closed until further notice' and gets really agitated by always being at home. This usually manifests itself in aggression and property destruction. I am usually the target of his hitting, kicking and sometimes biting, and now that he is as big as me it can really hurt. He will also hit walls and furniture and throw things.

He cannot be out in the community, as physical distancing is a completely foreign concept to him and personal hygiene is a challenge at the best of times. 

The upshot of this is that my son's world suddenly became very small, with him placing all his focus on me to not only be mom but also teacher, caregiver and playmate.

Trying to do both

Meantime, I also had to continue to work and manage a team of professionals in this surreal work-from-home environment.

For four weeks I worked my job while supporting my son in his online learning and daily living, and did my best to help my daughter not stress about grades and school work. 

Through all this, I completely forgot about myself. I didn't notice I was walking a tight rope, with my balance increasingly teetering over the edge.

Finally, I was forced to have what was the most difficult conversation of my career — where I admitted that I could not do it all.

After four weeks of trying to balance her job in the public service and looking after two kids working from home, Robbyn Plumb went on leave. She writes about coming to that decision, and why, during COVID-19, it's just not possible to do it all. (Submitted by Robbyn Plumb)

Something had to give, and that something was work. I felt like I was admitting defeat, letting down my team and losing a big part of my identity.

I am fortunate to have an employer that "talks the talk" when it comes to mental health and valuing the well-being of myself and my family during this extraordinary time. 

Stepping back

Within two days, my boss mobilized a plan for me to step away from my work responsibilities. And for that, I am eternally thankful.

Mine is a story of self-awareness and thankfulness. These are extraordinary times that will test the most resilient people. 

I am strong, but can only do so much and if I do not take care of myself, my loved ones will suffer. This is not my failure but self-care. 

Unlike so many others hit by this pandemic, I do not have to quit my job to care for my son. I do not need to worry about how I will pay the bills, I continue to be paid. I am fortunate to have sick leave benefits and can take short-term leave with a note from my doctor. 

Together with my employer, we will determine what "return to work" looks like and when it will happen.

Caring for a special needs child is challenging at the best of times. I don't know what the future holds, but I do know that we will be stronger and, I hope, more empathetic to others.


Robbyn Plumb is a director in the public service and mother of two in Ottawa.

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