Christa Parmentier describes her and her family's experiences during the social distancing measures in Madison, Wisconsin in spring 2020. Christa talks about the emotional challenges facing her children as they navigate distance learning in the midst of a pandemic and existing social pressures. Christa describes remote library work, especially her work on the Parent and Caregivers Support Group, which is designed to offer different kinds of forums and support for library staff that are parents or caregivers for family members.
Narrator Name: Christa Parmentier
Interviewer Name: Danny Atwater
Date of interview: 5/14/2020
[00:00:00] - Start of interview
[00:01:31] - What have the past few weeks looked like for you
[00:05:24] - What does distance learning look like for your kids
[00:09:09] - What does heading off to college look like for your older kids
[00:10:24] - What was it like when the library closed, and how has work shifted over time
[00:17:54] - How has work changed to offering public services again
[00:19:29] - Is there a reference question that jumps out as being memorable
[00:22:11] - How has curbside service been going so far
[00:22:37] - Are there any news stories, images, moments that stand out to you
[00:25:36] - What sorts of things are you doing for your own mental wellbeing
[00:26:32] - What positive changes do you hope will have resulted from this experience
[00:28:38] - Is there anything else that you want to discuss
[00:29:32] - Thank you
[START OF RECORDING]
Interviewer: My name is Danny Atwater, and I am a library assistant for Madison Public Library. This interview is being recorded as part of the Madison Living History Project: Stories from a Distance series. Today’s date is Thursday, May 14th, 2020, and this interview is being conducted via the video conferencing software Zoom. I’ll have our storyteller introduce themselves; please tell us your first and last name, and describe your connection to Madison.
Christa Parmentier: Hi, my name is Christa Parmentier, and right now I am at home on the east side of Madison, in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood. I’ve lived here, in this house, for about eight and a half years. I moved to Madison in 1990 when I was starting high school. I had an older sister who was in school here, and my family moved here from Milwaukee. And I’ve more or less lived here since then—with some jaunts elsewhere in the country. My mom had a business on the east side of Madison for over twenty years; it was a little cafe, and I worked with her there. That was about my whole adult life before I started working for the Madison Public Library, which is where I work now. I work at the South Madison location on Park Street. I’ve been there for about two years and I really love working for the library. I feel like I’ve found my home.
Interviewer: Well, thank you for joining us, Christa, and for being willing to share your story. What have the past few weeks looked like for you, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Safer at Home order that was issued by the governor?
Christa Parmentier: Well, it has certainly been a dynamic time. I remember very vividly the last day that I worked in the library was March thirteenth. It was a Friday, and I actually had a plan to visit New York City with my seventeen-year-old daughter. My brother-in-law lives in Brooklyn, and we were going to go for her spring break and just live it up in New York. And, you know, that last week, before the shutdown, things were just kind of, like, slowly but inexorably moving forward, and I think that I was in a state of, just like, complete and utter bewilderment. Like, what was happening, and I was still thinking that I was going to go to New York, even as late as Friday morning. And I was at work Friday morning and, you know, my supervisor came in and she was telling us, you know, what might be happening with the city in terms of closures and with the libraries, and I remember her saying that if the school district closed schools, the library would almost certainly close. So, it was like, just all these little pieces sort of just one by one falling. And my brother-in-law called me that morning and he said that he had just been to the store in Brooklyn to try and get some supplies for our trip, and he said that there was nothing on the shelves and he went to five different stores. And he said that he didn’t think it was a good idea for us to come. And, you know, that whole week it was like, while everything was happening I still had my sights set on that trip, we were so excited about it. And, you know, Broadway shut down. We were going to go see Stephen Colbert, and that was done. So, it was like, little by little, it was just eroding. And then, that was that. It was over. And then, that weekend, things just kind of played out slowly with the library and finally, the beginning of the following week, we shut down.
Anyway, so (laughs) that was like, that was the beginning. It was, it was just, I think it was like this for everybody. We just were so disbelieving of what was happening, and how it was going to affect us personally. And I was, you know, holding on to this vision of normal and then it was just poof. It was gone and we were in our homes and, gosh, it seems like so long ago now. And it is! And, yeah, I guess I would say, like, over the course of these last nine weeks, you know, my family has—I have three kids that are home with me, and my husband. I’ve got a nineteen-year-old, and a seventeen-year-old, and a ten-year-old. So they’re all, you know, at different stages with school; they’re all in school, but, like, my older kids (laughs) have really struggled to adapt to going to school online, and I could go on and on and on. (laughs) I don’t know how much you want to hear about that.
Interviewer: Actually, that would be great to talk about: if you could tell us a little bit about what distance learning looks like for your kids, especially their different age levels right now.
Christa Parmentier: Sure, yeah. I mean, it’s really different for my older kids and my youngest. So, my youngest, she’s in fourth grade. She loves school and once they figured out, once the school district figured out the online learning and they started to introduce, you know, they have Zoom meetings, they have online lessons that they do for various programs; she was really excited and eager to do all that work. And she loves to read, and she hasn’t had, really, any difficulty with, sort of, performing the tasks that the kids are being asked to do right now, and I think she’s got a great teacher who’s doing a beautiful job of taking care of the kids distantly and keeping them connected with bi-weekly Zoom meetings and fun things to do. So, she’s doing pretty well with school.
My older kids are—(laughs) It’s just been sort of impossible, I think, for them to perform. I think that they feel a lot of anxiety, and it makes sense to me. You know, thinking about myself at that age, I was so eager to get out in the world and explore and have adventures, and it’s like the opposite for them. Their reality is that they have to just be at home, and not see their friends. And so, I think it’s really hard on them, and also, you know, the world already felt really kind of dire. (laughs) You know? There’s so many intensely pressing problems facing this generation, and I think it was bad enough. And now, with this pandemic, I think that sense of uncertainty about the future for the teenagers is just, it’s kind of unimaginable. I mean, I think they really feel like we’re in the end of the world. And it’s hard for them to focus on school. (laughs) You know, like, what’s the motivation there? I don’t know. So, I’ve been, as a parent, trying to just support their well being and their mental health and emotional health. And honestly, whatever they can or can’t do as far as school performance, I’m not going to worry about it because it’s just—if it's too much for them, I think that’s okay. And sometimes I have to push them. Like, okay, you didn’t do any of your work this semester, but could you just email your professor so they know that you’re still out here? And, you know, maybe they’ll pass you. (laughs) I don’t know. (sighs) I don’t know. It’s rough.
Interviewer: You said your oldest is nineteen, I think.
Christa Parmentier: Right.
Interviewer: Are they looking at heading off to college? And, what does that look like?
Christa Parmentier: Yeah, he actually is at Madison College. And my seventeen year old, she is technically a junior in high school, but she’s in the STEM program, which is a partnership with Madison College and Madison Metropolitan School District. So, she’s in this cohort of kids that are going to school at Madison College, taking the regular college-level classes, but also completing their high school credits at the same time. So, it’s really a great program, but I think the drawback for her is that, you know, she’s in college but she’s in high school; her high school friends are, you know, doing their own thing with all the social aspects of being in the same place—well, before COVID. Anyway, so, they’re both in school at Madison College, my older kids, and, I mean, they both want to continue with school, but (laughs) yeah, we’re just kind of waiting and seeing what’s going to happen.
Interviewer: Let’s go back to your work with Madison Public Library. You talked a little bit about what it was like leading up to the closure; could you tell us more about when the closure happened? And then, what work began to look like, if there was work, and how that shifted over the course of time.
Christa Parmentier: Yeah, so, if I can remember clearly, when the library did finally close—I mean, it was a real hard pivot because we were so excited about the opening of new Pinney, and that was exactly when the pandemic unfolded, and they had to shut everything. We shut down, and what the managers did is they directed staff to professional development. We were given access to a whole bunch of resources, webinars to participate in. And then, you know, we started to connect over email and via Zoom and develop, like, projects. Okay the library’s closed now; what can we do? (talking aside to child) So then it became sort of exciting, in the sense of, we had a little bit of a pause, like, here’s something to do while we figure out what to do long term, or however long this term is going to be, because everything’s just so unknown. But, what I found really awesome and exciting was that we have this organization that’s full of really creative people, and really resourceful people, and people who desire so much to serve our community. And, so everybody turned their focus on well, how can we do that if we can’t open to the public? What can we do to improve our organization? And so, people just started generating ideas! It was a really neat thing too because we do sort of have a hierarchy in our organization where we’ve got the higher-ups that sort of make decisions about what’s going to happen, but, in this time, what I’ve seen is that people have really been given an opportunity to have a voice, to participate in conversations in a really real way about how we can improve our services.
One of the workgroups that I’m in, in normal MPL life, is the Employee Engagement Team, so as Engagement Team met over Zoom to talk about, like, how can we help staff stay engaged and connected when we’re all in our homes? One of the ideas that came up was how this time is particularly impactful for people, like myself, who are parents and caregivers, as we adjust to working from home. And so we formed a workgroup, and I guess because that was my idea I got (laughs) to be in charge of it. So the parent/caregiver support team was born. So that’s been some of the work that I’ve really enjoyed a lot. There’s been a lot of interest in it, and once I put out a call for, you know, for help, basically—because it was just me to begin with—a lot of people stepped up and we talked about ways to support staff. We put out a survey to staff like, What supports would be useful to you? And a couple of the things that were most requested were a discussion forum, and also resources for staff. And so what I’m talking about, when I say parents, that’s pretty obvious, but caregivers is, I think, also really important because there are a lot of us who have aging parents. Like myself, my mom is seventy-five and her health is not super robust, and she, fortunately, lives really close by to me, so I’m able to give her a lot of support. But, you know, at the same time, the more (laughs) you’re doing for other people, it takes a toll. So we wanted to support people in situations like that. I also have a brother who has a disability and I’m a support person for him, and I know that there are others in our organization who are in similar situations. It’s just a lot to keep afloat when you’re working and looking after a lot of people, so we wanted to sort of curate resources and have that connection point, that discussion forum.
We were able to get the support from Madison Public Library to work on that. Our wonderful digital librarian, Jake Ineichen, developed a platform for us to do that digitally. I feel like it’s my baby; I’ve been watching it grow. The forum and the resources are located in one spot on our MPLnet, so people can subscribe to it. We’ve got, like, thirty-three members right now, and people were a little shy to post at first. Then I was just like, Okay, I’m going to keep on posting things (laughs) to sort of try to, you know, fish for responses, and— Like I posted a parenting haiku challenge, and that’s been fun to watch that discussion thread grow with parenting haikus. Anyway, I feel like, Okay, it’s on its own legs now; it’s walking. It’s been really great and rewarding to see that.
The other thing that our team has done is the teen Zoom sitting. A couple of us on the support group have teenagers and this felt like a really cool way to sort of give them something to do because—you know how I was talking about them feeling, like overwhelmed, and lost, and maybe hopeless? So this is, like, we’re giving them an opportunity to do something positive, and we’re serving people. So, what the teen Zoom sitting is, is we’ve got a couple of teens who are offering a Zoom meeting with, like, a focus; like, one coworker’s son did an origami project, and my son did a storytelling and drawing thing. So, this was the first week we did it. The response has been really great, and we’re going to continue offering it. And I actually got two more teen recruits, so we’re going to expand our teen Zoom sitting offerings. So, MPL staff with kids can sign up for one of these sessions, and maybe get a break; maybe just go make dinner while somebody is engaging with their kids, and it’s a teenager so that’s kind of fun. (laughs)
Interviewer: As Wisconsin shifts a little bit more towards opening, with the Badger Bounceback Plan, and, you know, various restrictions being slowly dialed down, how has work begun to change from these workgroups to offering public services again?
Christa Parmentier: Yeah, definitely. So, a couple weeks ago we started offering the phone reference service. There has been a reference email throughout this closure, but we’re very aware that there are thousands of people in the city that don’t have access to the internet, that don’t have a computer at home, so we created this system where people can call a number—315-5151—to reach a phone reference person. This is something that staff are able to connect to from home, so we’re not having to leave the house to go and offer this service; we can do it from our computers. So, when people call they reach a reference librarian, and they can ask whatever kinds of questions they’ve got, and people have all sorts of different questions: sometimes they’re looking for a person that they don’t have their address or their phone number; sometimes they want to find out about a resource or, like, is a business open, or, gosh, I mean, there’s a million different things. So, it’s kind of awesome because anybody with any kind of question can call and someone (laughs) will answer and try to answer it.
Interviewer: Is there one question that jumps out as being very memorable to you during this time?
Christa Parmentier: (laughs) I don’t know. There was a lady that called who wanted to know if the arboretum was still open, and she was really looking forward to this time of year when the arboretum is really lovely; there’s blooming crabapples and lilacs; it’s very fragrant and beautiful, and she didn’t know if she could get there, if it was going to be open or not. And that’s also a place that I love, so I got to connect with this lady about our mutual love for that beautiful place at this time of year. And yes, it is open. (laughs) And then, we were sort of wrapping up, and then she started to tell me about how her rearview mirror had fallen off of her car, and she had gotten it fixed, but she wanted to know what she could do to prevent that from happening again (laughs) in the future. So, that’s like one of those pretty fun reference questions where you're like, I have no idea what the answer to this question is, but I’m going to look it up and—yeah, that was a good one.
The other service, obviously, that started this week is curbside pickup. In Madison, the libraries have opened up for people to be able to get items from the library. There’s a whole process that they have to go through to place holds online or over the phone, that number that I mentioned earlier, and then they have to call and schedule a pickup time. And I think a lot of people are probably pretty accustomed to processes like this, because curbside pickup is sort of the norm now for restaurants and grocery stores and you name it. So that started this week and it’s really, really, really nice to be able to serve people. Like, in the first several weeks of Safer at Home, we were focusing on how we can improve our services within the library for when we do, eventually, reopen; now we’re sort of incrementally offering services to the public again, and I know that I’m not alone in feeling really gratified that we can do that. It’s also really hard, and it’s really stressful. And, you know, like everyone else, you’re out in the world in a new way, and we’re wearing masks, and that’s odd, and we have to keep apart from each other, and that’s odd. I mean I think, little by little, we’re adjusting, but it’s difficult.
Interviewer: How has the curbside service been going so far?
Christa Parmentier: So far, so good. I think that people are really, really excited to be able to get new library materials. They’re really excited that we have something for them. And, I would say, I haven’t encountered anybody that’s been less than grateful, you know, that they can do that again.
Interviewer: Just thinking about this time period in general, are there any particular, perhaps, news stories, or images, or moments, even personal moments, that stand out to you?
Christa Parmentier: Well, it’s definitely been a roller coaster. I mean, there’s been a lot of beautiful things like, I think, a lot of people being able to spend more time with their families, if they have families, you know, that’s always mixed, but it’s lovely. Oh, I’m listening to my daughter and my husband argue right now. That’s a thing. (laughs) Like, being at work but also, (laughs) you know, having that listening ear for, What else is going on in this household? So that’s, that’s a big thing. I don’t know.
I think the toll on people is not to be underestimated. Like, one thing that really does stand out to me was a couple weeks into the Safer at Home, I was over at my mom’s house doing some yard work, and we were, like, bagging up leaves, you know, we had raked, and we were bagging up the moldy old leaves from last year, and I think I started to have an allergic reaction, and then that triggered an anxiety, or, what’s it called? A panic attack. I’d never had a panic attack before. I didn’t know what was happening, but I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe, and so naturally I was like, Oh, I’ve got COVID! I’m dying! So that really stands out to me as a real climax of all the stress and fear of this time. Experiencing that in my body in a way that had never happened to me before. I was holding my husband’s hand, like, We got to make a plan if I die! You know, like, we hadn’t had that conversation ever. Like, What are you going to do if I die? And so, you know, thank God I had someone to help me through that time. I mean, he just stayed with me and reminded me to breathe, and eventually, I kind of came down and I was okay, but it was terrible. And I know that that kind of anxiety and fear are, I mean, everybody’s feeling it to some degree right now. So, I feel for people. And I feel for people that don’t have somebody to hold their hand.
Interviewer: What sorts of things are you doing for your own mental wellbeing?
Christa Parmentier: Getting outside is probably number one for me. It’s such a beautiful time of year, and I love to go on bike rides and walks, and doing that with my family is super awesome, super fun. I went on a late night walk with my husband one night, and we just kind of rambled. We never had done that before, way past bedtime. (laughs) So, that’s always, always, always helpful to me. And, what else? Like, connecting with friends over Zoom, or in whichever way we do it, like, you know, standing on somebody’s porch and talking. That’s been super helpful too.
Interviewer: At some point in the future this will be behind us. What positive changes do you hope will have resulted from this experience that we all went through?
Christa Parmentier: Well, I certainly hope that all of the dysfunction in our society that has been really laid bare in this time, with people having unequal access to health care, or, you know, just the deep inequities in our economy. The fact that there are millions of people that are out of work and—I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I mean, I know what I’m trying to say. You know, we have a really, really unequal distribution of wealth in our society, and so the way that this pandemic affects people absolutely correlates to where they stand with their income level, or with their race. And so, what I hope is that those realities being so magnified right now will have a lasting impact in how we move forward as a society in trying to achieve equity, and in caring for members of our society, people we may or may not know. Like, I think that that’s something that exists, that sort of loving your neighbor thing. I think we have that, but I think that our policies and our structure doesn’t really reflect that. And so, yeah, I hope we move forward in that way. Yeah.
Interviewer: Is there anything else that you want to discuss that didn’t come up in this time?
Christa Parmentier: I don’t know. I hope that other people like me have gotten an opportunity to connect with people in a new way, in a more authentic way. I think it’s so ironic that we have—you know, we’re talking to each other in Zoom meetings. I mean, we are. I don’t know what other people are doing, but we are, and there’s just something kind of neat about being with a person in their home. You know, we don’t have to have our masks on in the same way that we do as we move about the world, in the normal pre-COVID world. There’s just been a really neat, new way of connecting that I think is really cool, and I hope that other people have gotten to experience, too.
Interviewer: Christa, thank you for taking the time to share your story with us today.
Christa Parmentier: Thanks, Danny.
[END OF RECORDING]