by Shibani Baluja, guest contributor

Shibani Baluja is co-founder and CEO of lil’gourmets, and a graduate of the Good Food Accelerator run by FamilyFarmed, also Naturally Chicago’s parent non-profit. lil’gourmets creates fresh, delicious, globally-inspired veggie meals that lil’ones (and even adults!) love. Their mission is to cultivate curiosity in lil’ones with nourishing, veggie-focused, global cuisines from an early age to help them fall in love with vegetables and flavorful foods for life.

Like most working parents with young children, the stay-at-home regimen to limit the spread of COVID-19 creates some time-challenging stresses (along with some joys) for Baluja. She describes how she is dealing with this extraordinary situation in the following essay.

If you are a parent facing similar issues and have some thoughts (or lifehacks) to share, please comment on this article or send an email to bob@naturallychicago.org.

It has been so heartening, throughout the COVID crisis to see the food community and so many industry veterans come together to share experiences, ideas and thoughts. The access and support provided to early-stage companies as we weather this major disruption is admirable, and we are so grateful.

This is a true community that tries to lift each other up and ensure that as many companies can survive as possible. And some of the advice given centers around “taking this time” to better ourselves, strengthen our companies, and finish the projects we couldn’t get to, with the implicit belief that we have extra time on our hands.

When the crisis first started, I too thought, naïvely, that I could “take the time” to get to some of these things done, and I made my list. I am an idealist, so I still have my list and still try to believe I can achieve most everything on it.

It has become abundantly clear, however, that parents who have very young and school-age children are living very different “COVID lives” than empty nesters or non-parents.

In a scene repeated in countless households during the COVID crisis, lil’gourmets CEO Shibani Baluja (seen in the photo at top) is homeschooling her young children while juggling long work hours.

Without a doubt, I recognize I am fortunate in so many ways. Right now, our daily stress does not include whether we can afford our rent or the cost of food, or that we need to put our lives at risk to work outside our homes without proper protection.

But an immense amount of stress has been added for working parents of young ones, whose reality is this: It is impossible to do everything we need to do for our children and for our jobs without help. The pressure is mounting for us, and the thought of having free time we need fill is comical.

Working a Double Shift

Before Illinois’ stay-at-home order was first issued in March, I was busy as a start-up founder with two young ones. Two drop-offs, pick-ups and school events often shortened the traditional workday for my husband or me or both of us.

My “second shift” started each night after we put the kids to bed and generally stretched for as long as I could stay awake. I always tried to make some time to be present for family, friends, myself, and most definitely for my kids, but it was hard to imagine fitting much more in.

As I look back now, that lifestyle feels luxurious! Now, homeschooling a 7-year-old and trying not to overly rely on screens for a 3-year-old, while keeping them both engaged, learning and happy, has slashed the number of working hours in a day.

So, like most parents, I start working hours before my kids wake up and continue to work for many hours after they go to bed. The pressure is exhausting and, for me, this is with great support from teachers, virtual engagement from grandparents, my incredibly supportive husband who does more than his fair share, and my business partner Becky Graham, who is stretching herself as much as I am, for our business and her family.

We are no longer commuting nor allocating time to demos, events and physical sales calls, but that time saving has been consumed by our incremental cooking, cleaning and childcare needs. I estimate we have increased the time spent cooking and cleaning in our house by 20-30 hours per week, plus fulfilling constant needs from our children.

We used to cook approximately 28 meals each week. Now it has ballooned to about 52, plus so many snacks. Those 52 do not include breakfast or lunch for adults; we generally just eat what was left on our kids’ plates when we remember that we’ve haven’t eaten all day. (I luckily have my own lil’gourmets products, and that is a big part of my daily sustenance now!)

Making sure a good portion of those 52 meals are nourishing, delicious and diverse takes a lot of planning, as does trying to get two weeks of groceries at a time. The stress of planning the next grocery run is always there and heightens as soon as the last gallon of milk is opened.

And then there is the cleaning. A family at home all day every day exponentially increases the number of hours needed to clean!

For the past eight weeks, regardless of the day, I have set an alarm and been working within 15 minutes of waking up. I know there are so many like me. It is impossible for parents of young ones to get all our work done during the week, so the weekends turn into a time where we attempt to catch-up or get ahead.

Add to this equation that we are all trying to navigate our businesses in a world that is completely foreign to us. A new brand such as ours can no longer rely on our traditional grass-roots activities to drive awareness and trial. So we are pivoting where we can, and using a test and learn approach to be able to move quickly.

These pivots and strategic moves require creativity and thoughtfulness (and cash!). With almost no alone time or quiet time, it is sometimes hard to unleash that creativity. Becky and I have discovered peace and creativity when we take walks together (i.e. on the phone). Funny that a break these days is being able to have an uninterrupted work conversation!

Besting Challenges, Facing More

Despite these challenges, I am so proud of the accomplishments we have made since the stay-at-home orders began. We’ve launched two new flavors, collaborated with Partnership for a Healthier America to further our shared mission of improving food options for kids, pivoted our marketing efforts, and are preparing for multiple retailer and meal-kit launches. Plus, by the end of May, we will have donated more than 8,000 lil’gourmets veggie meals to food banks, hospitals and healthcare workers across the Chicagoland area.

Plus, I’ve played countless games of Uno and SkipBo, perfected our chalk artwork, led cooking and math lessons, invented a myriad of games to entertain while on walks that no longer have destinations, and focused on being an attentive and present parent, at least from “recess” to bedtime every day and as much as I can on the weekends, so that my children feel safe and loved.

While we have had wins, there have also been COVID-related setbacks, with stresses increased by the knowledge that others can “take the time,” but we cannot. And this essay ignores the anxiety being caused by a federal response that took us from the country “best-prepared” to address a pandemic to “worst affected country in the world,” both measured by John Hopkins University.

As we all try to understand our various states’ reopening plans, as parents we are also trying to understand what childcare support we’ll have. What will happen if the economy reopens and summer camps and day cares do not? Or worse, what if they are forced to open, but without fully informed plans?

What will working parents do? Will we need to move our kids in with our parents, potentially exposing those most at risk to the virus? Or lean in on babysitters, potentially exposing them and us? Lose our jobs because we cannot be at work physically? Or in two-parent households, will one parent need to fall behind professionally so we can nurture and support our children? How will we make these choices?

One thing we do know is our children need us more than ever, as their lives have also been completely disrupted and they do not have a good understanding of why.

When the crisis set in, we hunkered down and said we can handle this. We adjusted routines and found ways to manage our workloads while homeschooling. We saw more clearly how much joy our focus and attention brings our kids and we enjoyed the extra time with them.  But as time goes on, the impact of the isolation is intensifying on our children and us, and the stress of our growing lists is deepening.

We know we need a childcare solution that nurtures and protects them. We just haven’t had the time to figure out what that solve is yet.