In the first weeks after coronavirus shut down campuses and workplaces across the globe, Patricia Cobleigh’s husband Tyler continued working full-time — a good thing for the family income. But that meant Patty, herself a full-time product manager for Comcast, had to juggle two additional roles: homeschool teacher and MBA student in the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business hybrid online MBA. Pretty overwhelming for a mother of three, all of them under the age of 7.
“At the beginning of all of this, Tyler was still working, so I was helping my son with his first-grade work and trying to occupy the preschooler and toddler,” Cobleigh says. “That was horrible — I felt like a bad parent and a bad employee every day, even though my company was very supportive and they never made me feel that way.”
Then Tyler lost his job, one of millions laid off as the economy contracted and companies downsized. But there was a silver lining: As her husband has taken over homeschooling duties for Jimmy, 6, Colin, 5, and Maeve, who turns 20 months on Mother’s Day, Cobleigh has been able to focus on finishing her MBA. She will graduate May 17 and receive her degree in a “Virtual Conferral of Degrees”; an actual in-person commencement is planned for alumni weekend next April.
“My husband Tyler is starting his stay-at-home-dad career a little early, but that had been our long-term plan for a while,” Cobleigh tells P&Q. “It is a lot less stressful for us this way, and I am particularly spoiled because Tyler brings me coffee and lunch throughout the day! He was really looking forward to staying home with the kids, but it is hard on him that all the parks and playgrounds are closed. But they are still having fun at home. Tyler taught Colin how to ride his balance bike at the beginning of all this, and I think he will have him on a regular bike in a month or two. Even though this was our long-term plan, being laid off wasn’t how Tyler pictured this chapter of his life starting, so I think he is still processing that.
“For me, the hardest thing has been graduation being cancelled. It was absolutely the right decision, but I am still sad about it. Whenever things were particularly hard over the past few years, I would imagine walking across the stage, probably bringing one of the kids with me to receive my diploma. And the boys are 5 and 6 — they would remember seeing mom all dressed up in a cap and gown and everyone clapping. They wouldn’t quite understand it now, but someday later they would think back to that and be proud of me, and they would know that they could work hard and make something happen even if they didn’t fit the mold for someone who typically does that.”
SILVER LININGS ARE EVERYWHERE
As a student in the Tepper hybrid online MBA, a part-time program, Cobleigh is accustomed to mostly going without the physical trappings of B-school. But that has never meant a lighter schedule. “I have class at night, typically 8:30, so on those nights I don’t work on the house and we are stricter on the boy’s bedtimes,” she says. “I also usually carve out time on the weekend to get work done, or I will extend my workday a bit. A lot of times I will write papers at the dinner table or listen to lectures and do work while my husband watches TV at night. I don’t think I can say any amount of time is dedicated to school versus child care because my kids are always around — always! — and I try to do most of the work for school once they are asleep or while I am in the same room as them.” Though she graduates in just a few days, Cobleigh’s work won’t end then: She still has a capstone course to complete over the summer.
The silver linings are everywhere: She never used to have time to talk to her mother, but now they talk every day. Mornings were spent in a panic over missing busses and trains; now, “we have nice, relaxing mornings together. I haven’t spent this much time with my husband since college! And my husband hasn’t spent this much time with our kids ever!” When Colin’s 5th birthday party, months in the planning, had to be canceled, the family made a cake based on a character from the movie Trolls and had a dance party in the kitchen. “He declared it the best birthday ever, which is the only reward I ever need to receive,” Cobleigh says.
“I’m a planner, and I like to be in control. The kids’ education is especially important to me, so it has been really hard to let go of the expectations I had for this year. It was easier for me to be hands-off when the kids were doing the bulk of their school work at school, but I feel more responsible for it at home, so when they were first sent home I tried to make schedules and give them enrichment activities — but it was all more stress than it was worth. I have relaxed a lot and I am trusting their teachers to assign them what they feel is best, and Tyler is handling the mechanics of making them sit down and actually do the work.”
Cobleigh says the Tepper School’s smooth transition to all-virtual instruction greatly helped reduce the stress of a fraught time. “I am going to give Tepper an A+ in response to how they have supported us,” she says. “The most important thing is the health and safety of the community, and CMU has made every decision with that in mind. They have also been quick to pivot on anything that had been campus-based, to make it accessible from home. There was no interruption for us, and I really credit the school with having invested so much in a quality online program already that they have now altered and scaled for the campus-based students. Even with our program there have been changes — professors are home instead of in a studio, access weekends are being held remotely — but it is all going well. There have been policy changes to help people who are struggling this semester, and there have been workshops on dealing with the transition, as well as continued access to the normal counseling services provided.”
ROTATING CHILD CARE & CLASSES WITH A PARTNER WHO IS ALSO AN MBA STUDENT
Annie Henderson and her husband Bill both are MBA students at Carnegie Mellon Tepper, and both are set to graduate in a matter of days. It means the ends of a long and grueling road: an estimated 15 hours per weeks on classes, five hours per week on readings, 25 hours on homework, and 15 to 20 hours on major projects and studying — not to mention, before coronavirus, luncheons, events, speakers, commute times, club meetings, and more. And that doesn’t even begin to address the most important demands in Henderson’s life: child care.
Covid-19 may have eliminated the need to commute, or attend luncheons and other events, but it hasn’t exactly simplified her family’s life, she says. Things are just … different now.
“Our family’s routine is very different since Covid hit the United States,” Henderson tells P&Q. “My husband and I are both second-year full-time MBAs at CMU and we have 2-year-old and a 5-month-old at home. We are constantly looking at each other’s calendar to find white space and plan activities for the girls while balancing homework. Since we are both taking four classes this mini semester and the capstone, we had to organize our schedules so one parent could watch the kids while the other parent was in class. Although it worked as well as it could, my daughters made frequent appearances on Zoom and brought some humor to the classroom.”
Henderson’s day typically starts at 6 a.m. when the baby, Katherine, wakes up. That’s followed by “several large cups of coffee,” then the parents get into full parent mode until Henderson’s first class at 10:30. From there they rotate parenting, classes, “and a lot of diaper changes.”
Family lunch is at noon; afterward, hopefully, comes nap time for their 2-year-old, Olivia. The afternoon brings a return to the carousel of rotating kids and classes until 5:30 p.m. The parents do flash cards and reading with Olivia throughout the day, but “sometimes we have to throw on a movie to get through classes and homework — or just for our sanity,” Henderson says. “Once classes are over for the day, we both focus on our kids until bedtime. We made it a rule to not start homework until both girls are in bed at 8 p.m.
“Bill and I typically do two to three hours of homework per night and then try to get to bed before midnight. I would say more of our effort was focused on our kids than school, although we tried to find a good balance so we could enjoy our last mini semester of classes.”
‘A BEAUTIFUL CHAOTIC MESS EVERY DAY’
Henderson is a graduate of West Point who spent nearly seven years in the Army. Last summer she interned with Johnson & Johnson, to which she will return in a few months, joining the pharmaceutical giant’s leadership development program.
Henderson had her youngest daughter during her second year in the Tepper MBA program, which meant she could not take maternity leave. In one sense, then, the shutdown is giving her something she missed: an opportunity to spend all day with her daughters — “which I love, especially my youngest, which I am so very grateful for,” she says.
“I have been able to spend as much time with her as I would have on maternity leave and honestly appreciate every moment I get with her, since my job starts in a couple months,” she says.
“The hardest thing has been finding the right balance of school and kids. It’s the constant battle of ‘Am I giving my daughter enough attention?’ or ‘Am I going to get a good grade on this assignment?’ We also have very limited personal time since we have our kids and a full day of classes. When we get both girls down for a nap at the same time, it’s glorious — although it rarely happens.
“I would say there are a lot of silver linings, mostly just being together as a family. I will always cherish these memories with my kids and running around with my husband trying to make it all work. It is a beautiful chaotic mess every day, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Henderson gives the Tepper School top marks — for its rigorousness and for the support she’s received as a mother in the MBA program.
“We are going to get our diplomas mailed to us, and hopefully celebrate as a class when allowed given the pandemic,” she says. “My overall grade for Tepper is an A+. My professors, classmates, and administration have been extremely supportive and helpful during the past two years.”