Nomfundo with her two kids.
Nomfundo with her two kids.
Photo: Nomfundo Sarah Msomi
Imbalancing ActImbalancing ActMothering during the covid-19 pandemic

Nomfundo Sarah Msomi, 35, lives with her husband and two kids, ages 1 and 3, on Lamma Island in Hong Kong, which earlier this year reacted swiftly to the coronavirus, but has recently seen a resurgence of cases.

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It’s been quite a year for Hong Kong with the events of last summer leading up to the end of the year. Then, at the end of this January, I was on a business trip to the Middle East, and while I was there, it was in the news that there was this virus in Wuhan. People were traveling all over China for the Chinese New Year (CNY) holiday and people were starting to get nervous about flying, and the death toll was rising. It was really, really overwhelming. What people in the U.S. are experiencing now is what we experienced at the beginning of the year. It started as this trickle and then it got really frightening.

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The first impact was the schools closing. My son is in kindergarten on the island and that closed in February. He hasn’t been back and the earliest they’re supposed to go back is the 22nd of April, but people are expecting they’re going to extend the date again. My husband is a financial analyst and works from home. We have a nanny, Emily, who helps look after our children on a daily basis. I know that’s just so different from what so many other people are experiencing right now. I do get down on my knees every day and thank the good Lord for having somebody to help share the work and raise the kids.

I’m in-between jobs at the moment, but I’m a brand strategist. My last week of work was in January, and a week later the world started to melt around us, so suddenly everyone was just home at the same time. We live in a three-story house and have the ground floor. It’s an outlying island, so it’s considered a rural community to a certain extent. In Hong Kong, apartments are notoriously small. Anyone here who would glance at my apartment would say: “You have multiple rooms, you can close a door!” But having the kids jumping around while we’re both trying to work is challenging. Finding concentration, getting into the zone, is real work.

Our island is a little quirky, all parents have their own approach to coronavirus. Some parents are strict, no playdates, and other parents have been more relaxed about it, and we fit into the latter camp. In the news recently, there’s been a suspected resurgence of cases, but a lot of the kids my son continues to play with have been here since January and didn’t go away for CNY. We’ve all just been on our island, very reluctant to leave.

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We’re not on any kind of lock-down, necessarily, but a big thing that everyone knows about is that if you’ve traveled anywhere, you have to home quarantine. Social distancing, of course. Other than that, wearing masks is a big thing here. Hong Kong-ers generally wear masks when they’re sick, it’s a courtesy, a social contract. Hand washing and hand sanitizing—I see the bottles everywhere. The social contract stuff rises to the top in Hong Kong more so than any mandate from the government. People are just conscious and have lived through SARS. Little kids wear masks. Today on the island, I got Thai food and before the lady who makes the food handed me my plate, she pointed at the bottle of hand sanitizer, because I was going to touch the knives and forks. It’s that relationship and organizing between people that I think is interesting.

During this time, while I’m hustling and trying to piece together freelance jobs, it’s really helpful to have our nanny around. There were a few job opportunities on the table, but everything just started to fall away. It’s all in marketing, branding, communications, and there is no thriving retail. People aren’t buying, people aren’t going out. That has been quite an unpleasant surprise. The budgets are all being cut. What a time to walk off the job, when everything went haywire. It’s made us tighten our belts a lot more. I suppose the upside is we don’t have a lot of expenses in this community when we’re not being encouraged to travel and we’re not going to restaurants all that much.

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I’m trying to fill the day with the kids, trying to make sure that I’m a good parent who is present, but also looking for work so that I’m a contributing member of the household. I’m really concerned about things like the kids not having any formal structure around learning; that’s causing me a lot of anxiety. We’ve been trying to find classes online and figure out if they can have a good relationship with screens. Friends have been sending me easy crafting ideas. I know they’re young, but what my son was getting out of kindergarten was learning to wait and be around other kids and know that sometimes it isn’t your turn to go first.

My husband and I are kind of in a dance. When my son was born, I stopped working full-time and started taking freelance projects and my husband was full-time. Then he stopped working full-time and tried to spin off on his own, and I ramped up my job and got this massive promotion. We know we can’t go all in at the same time. It feels like one of us turns the volume up and the other turns the volume down. It’s one of those things where we can’t both imagine getting a lot of work done, it’s either-or. At the moment, he has this massive deadline looming, while I’m trying to perfect a pie crust. It’s like the 1950s. I’m trying to make sure he has a lot of space and the kids don’t disturb him too much. Meanwhile, I’ve been making loaves of lemon cake and trying to coordinate crafting projects.

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It is so strange because it’s this massive flip, I really was the one that was leaving every morning, working the full-time job in Hong Kong, putting on the platform heels and wearing black. Now I’m here and everything has fallen on the home in this way that wasn’t the case before. Certain tasks do seem to fall to me. I’m always thinking about what time lunch is going to be and whether or not we have groceries, all those things that are constantly on your mind or else there’s a catastrophe, like people don’t have lunch. Whereas, walking to the playground, going for a nice stroll, seem to be things he does. In that way, he becomes more of the “fun” parent.

The other day we did say it was fine if they went into town briefly, there’s this outdoor place where they can play, they put their masks on and brought hand sanitizer, and then I just thought about it for days afterward about whether that was a responsible choice. I’m still thinking about how I let them do that a week ago. Should we let them leave the island? Are we being vigilant enough? I think that I’m taking it on in a way that is much more intense. I’m thinking about those things a lot more because my husband’s got other things to focus on at the moment.

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Editors Note: A couple of days after speaking with Jezebel, Msomi wrote with an update. Coronavirus cases had resurged in Hong Kong. “We are still not in lockdown, but we are no longer getting takeout from restaurants and are self-isolating, including [canceling] playdates on the island until further notice,” she wrote. “Life has not come to a standstill yet, but we all fear it might in the coming days.”

Senior Staff Writer, Jezebel

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