The anxiety mounts before my Zoom call at 1:30 p.m. with an important new client. My 3-year-old is deep into her carefully timed afternoon nap. My 7-year-old is staring at her iPad for the fifth hour in a row, no friends to see, no places to go. Dad is working, too. And the sitter canceled again, because, you know — COVID.

1:22: I quickly change my Nutella-stained blouse, grab my third cup of coffee, dash upstairs, and close my office door.

1:27: “Mommyyyyyyy!!!”

F—k! My daughter’s awake. I can’t be late, and the team can’t know she’s here. It’s unprofessional to have children around, or so I’ve heard throughout my career. Some professionals view children as an annoyance and distraction. I’ve spoken to many friends and colleagues who’ve groaned that business etiquette and children don’t mix.

But COVID has made that divide impossible.

I shush my daughter on my lap and log on to Zoom, balancing my laptop so they can’t see the top of her head. Shh …

Plastered smile? Check. Someone starts the meeting: “How’s everyone doing today?” I’m great. Just … great.

Playing the ever-popular Mute Button Game, I offer a purple Popsicle to bribe my daughter, who asks: “Mommy, can I watch Vampirina?”

TV and sugar, again. But I have to say yes. Call me Mother of the Year.

I park in the dining room, keeping an eye on her as she watches TV — meaning I get a smidgen of privacy for my call. Whew. I begin my presentation.

Then, I smell it.

Bethany Watson-Ostrowski sits on the couch with her two daughters, Julie Ostrowski, 3, (left) and Lilly Ostrowski, 7, while juggling her laptop at her Cheltenham home.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Bethany Watson-Ostrowski sits on the couch with her two daughters, Julie Ostrowski, 3, (left) and Lilly Ostrowski, 7, while juggling her laptop at her Cheltenham home.

The 3-year-old pooped her pants. I keep talking — and smiling — while fumbling for wipes. Then, I get a guilt-inducing text from my 7-year-old: “You love work more than you love me. I hate your job.” Ouch.

I feel a splat. Apparently, I took too long and my daughter “changed” herself and put her dirty diaper, facedown, in my lap. I keep the PowerPoint moving and clean her (and myself) up with one hand, deftly balancing my laptop with the other. They. Can’t. Know.

These stories, of parents struggling to juggle full-time jobs and full-time kids in a COVID world, are common. Kids’ routines have been brutally disrupted: no friends, no school, no day-care, no camp. Well, a few camps exist, but do we take the risk?

So, parents are proving we are superheroes who can handle everything. Bosses everywhere demand a “professional” work environment, defined as one where we pretend children don’t exist. We’re warned by stories of people like Drisana Rios — a California woman suing her former employer because she believes she was fired for having her children in the background of calls.

The “solutions” employers offer to keep our jobs put the same choice in our laps:

“Hey, let’s reduce your hours so you can spend more time with your kids.” “Will taking a month off help? Unpaid, of course.”

Even if these are framed as “options,” most people cannot afford to lose a penny of income. Nor can they afford to keep ignoring their kids or their mental health.

But I don’t just want to talk about how tough families have it nowadays (yes, it sucks). I want to talk about changing the paradigm.

For starters, employers everywhere: It’s time to redefine professionalism, COVID-style. The existence of children does not make an environment “unprofessional,” and working parents are not liabilities. We are assets you should fight to keep. Here’s why:

1. We are dedicated, tough, and fiercely talented. (That’s why you hired us in the first place, remember?) When COVID hit, we got a crash course in Herculean multitasking, organization, and negotiating — with kids and coworkers alike. COVID is a boot camp for employees who can accomplish the miraculous. You might want to hang on to us.

2. In this new reality, the lines between home and work are blurred, possibly forever. Kids are no longer just a picture on a desk. They are real people in our workspaces. Their background sounds, interruptions, and attention they require are no more “unprofessional” than the buzz of the doorbell for a delivery, a call from a client during a staff meeting, or coworker Joe sticking his head through the door to tell you about his golf outing.

3. Expecting employees to hide the existence of their children, particularly while working in their own homes during a pandemic, is ridiculous and stress-inducing. Accept — no, embrace — working parents and do everything you can to conquer this new world with them, instead of fighting against its realities. After all, we make up a third of the workforce.

This doesn’t mean feigning concern with a tilt of the head and “We’re here for you” lip service. It means changing your culture. Make sure your employee moms and dads feel secure and know you really “get it.” Calm, assured people produce higher quality work than frazzled, miserable ones.

Kids aren’t kids forever. They become more independent every day, and eventually do grow up. Think forward and cultivate your team accordingly. The business environment is now the home environment. Become a supportive ally of the parents on your team, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the effects on your bottom line.

The mental health of our workforce and the humans they’re raising — plus our workforce itself — depends on it.

Bethany Watson-Ostrowski owns Bethany’s Events Catering and is a project manager and external relations lead for Vector Group Consulting.