[Editor's note: This is the first article in our new Pandemic Parenting series. Each week, we're profiling a different mother about how the pandemic has affected her family. If you would like to share your story, please visit this link for more information.]
Jennifer Baker has spent the past year fighting for her family.
She fought to have her youngest son, only a toddler, evaluated and diagnosed when her mom-intuition told her that something wasn't quite right.
She fought for herself and her education. While juggling raising three boys who all participate in different therapies and virtual education, she still found time to continue her studies in clinical psychology.
She's tired. At times, overwhelmed. But Jennifer Baker is a fighter.
When asked how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her parenting, Baker's first response is steeped in honesty.
"I can say honestly that there have been days where the only place I could escape my children was sitting parked outside my house in the car," she said.
Baker's sons are 14, 8 and 2. They're each at different educational and social stages; additionally, each boy receives therapies for differing needs and disabilities.
"I love my children dearly and all I could ever ask for is three well-adjusted men one day," said Baker. To ensure that her sons grow to become well-adjusted men, Baker has become their advocate, managing their diagnoses and learning plans, while coordinating in-person therapies.
Under the best circumstances, this would be challenging. But the pandemic effectively ground her sons' therapies and progress to a halt.
"I have felt abandoned by my school district and watched my children flounder in the sea of virtual learning," she said.
Baker's oldest son has Asperger's Syndrome. He had just entered a world-renowned social skills group at UCLA when the pandemic hit.
"I had fought a long due process battle with my son's school district to get him all the services he deserved. And then poof, it was all gone."
"No more in-person anything for a teenager who desperately needed socialization and structure," she added.
Over the past year, Baker's teenager has struggled with aggressive outbursts, academic setbacks, weight gain and changes in his behavior. Realizing her son needed more help than virtual schooling could provide, Baker fought to have his in-person CBA therapies resume, albeit at home.
Baker's middle son has a writing disability and has struggled with remote learning.
"My middle son cries a lot, especially after 5 hours logged in. He tells me he's depressed and 'what is the point if we are all going to die anyways?' His existential crisis breaks my heart."
Baker tried enrolling him in private schools so he could continue in-person learning but she says her son was turned away because of his diagnosis. He now receives in-person tutoring, which she's charging on her credit card.
"He's got an engineer brain and the school system was already failing him prior to the lockdown," she said. "Now, I have these conversations with his teacher where I feel like I am failing him because I can't help him the way he deserves."
When her youngest son's school closed for two months, Baker says the extra time together allowed her to realize that "something wasn't right with his development." When she voiced her concerns, she was told he probably had a speech delay.
Baker felt it was something more and brought him to several doctors and advocated for ABA therapy on his behalf. Eventually, her son was diagnosed with level one autism.
She requested that her son receive early intervention services at his school but because of the pandemic, no one from an outside agency was allowed inside the building. Instead, her toddler now receives nearly 25 hours a week of ABA therapy at home, plus two hours of virtual speech.
"It can be quite chaotic with everyone's needs," Baker said. "Lots of screaming, yelling, fighting, hitting and crying between the three."
Baker and her boys live with her parents. Her father has advanced-stage prostate cancer, and she says she worries every day about her father's health worsening because she and her boys live there.
"I think my parents love me and my children tremendously but [they] have sacrificed themselves for my children to have access to their services. I mean, it's a lot to have all these people in and out of their home nearly every day."
Baker's also working to further her education. She's enrolled in a clinical psychology program right now. Despite being stretched thin, she'd also like to work in her field. She just doesn't know how to balance it all.
"I want to work so bad. But where and what time do I have? How do I perform well in school, facilitate the kids' online learning, and participate in all these therapies?"
Despite the challenges she and her family have faced in the past year, Baker has remained positive. Because she's been so involved in her sons' therapies, she's able to better understand their behaviors and how to communicate with them. She recently gave up smoking and is now drinking a gallon of water a day. Every day, she works to become a better mother and advocate for her boys.
"I have much more gratitude and compassion for myself, family, and community," she said. "We are all doing the best that we know. And sometimes we all need help and that sense of belonging to a community."
[If you would like to share your story in our Pandemic Parenting series, please visit this link for more information.]