By Leah Wyatt (Estimated reading time: 8 mins)
We are now half a year into a global pandemic. Parenting small children is fraught with difficulties during “normal” life and has since become more intense, if not overwhelming, for many of us.
The status quo has upended the concept of “balance” in parenting and life generally. Does three hours of screen time contrasted with 10+ hours of struggling to maintain our collective sanity count as balance? Would anyone like to come to my socially distanced bonfire? We’ll be gleefully burning copies of the AAP’s screen time recommendations while our children watch Daniel the Tiger.
As we approach the fall, childcare, school, and work may look dramatically different for many. Our social, governmental, and economic institutions have failed families in countless ways during this pandemic. The onus has now been placed on parents to muddle through the wreckage and scrape together a workable plan for our children and ourselves. The decisions families need to make will deeply impact our lives and the lives of others.
Making choices that are right for each family
What the “new normal” looks like varies widely across families and will continue to do so this fall. My family consists of myself (a stay-at-home mom and part-time freelance writer), my husband (working from home for the foreseeable future in a demanding job), my almost five-year-old daughter, and three-year-old boy-girl twins. My children’s preschool plans to remain physically open this year, with what we feel are strong COVID-19 precautions, and we have decided to enroll them. After much deliberation, the social, emotional, and psychological benefits for our family outweigh the risks.
This decision, for me, was accompanied by guilt and anxiety. Am I putting my family at risk? Am I putting my children’s teachers at risk? Is this decision selfish given that as a stay at home mother (despite this being incredibly hard work), I don’t have the schedule demands affecting parents who work outside of the home? How will we handle it when one of the kids inevitably shows cold-like symptoms, given they typically remain in some stage of viral illness from October to May? What happens if there’s a COVID case at the school, it shuts down, and I’m back to caring for three small children on my own?
Preserving mental health
As a mother who has been a primary caregiver for three children born within a two-year span, I have struggled with mental health issues from the beginning. Since becoming a mom, I have been treated for depression and anxiety, and I feel these forces encroaching powerfully as the pandemic progresses. I am lucky to have a relatively robust mental health support system, including regular therapy sessions and a psychiatric nurse who can advise me on medication if needed, in place. Despite this, the prospect of navigating quarantine life during a dreary Seattle fall and winter frightens me.
These past several months, at home with my kids with minimal to nonexistent daytime childcare support, have comprised some of my lowest psychological moments to date. My desire to safeguard my mental health so that I can ultimately be a better mother to my children was a significant factor in the decision to enroll them in preschool. How, exactly, are we as parents supposed to weigh protecting our own mental health against safeguarding society’s health at large?
Modern American society has an extensive history of saddling mothers with burdensome and unfair plights. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic continues this reprehensible tradition. Mothers who work outside the home (or did, pre-pandemic) are, compared to fathers, disproportionately tasked with navigating – and often providing – childcare (New York Times). I recognize that I am incredibly privileged not to need to work. Had I been working full time in March, I would, without a doubt, have left or dramatically renegotiated my job to provide childcare while my husband continued to work. His earning potential, in part due to my having left my job upon the birth of my oldest daughter, is much higher than mine, and we rely on his income. Many families are experiencing a similar restructuring, which will undoubtedly harm mother’s careers. I had been exploring resuming full-time work this winter, and those plans have been shelved indefinitely due to the uncertainty surrounding the availability of in-person schooling.
I am incredibly lucky to have the choice to forgo paid work, and it has not been an easy one. Stay-at-home parent life can be challenging, draining, and often thankless. To cope with the situation, I have found that openly and frequently communicating my need for appreciation to my husband and extended family members has helped me feel more “seen.” Forming a long term career plan and reminding myself that the pandemic will eventually pass has also improved my outlook. Other families I know have avoided one parent leaving work by adjusting work schedules or creating communities with friends or family members to share the burden of childcare more broadly.
Despite the momentous and overwhelming challenges brought by COVID-19, parents of young children do have some advantages when dealing with the psychological fallout of life during a pandemic.
One day at a time
Personally, as a stay at home mom, I already struggle with feelings of isolation, as do many new parents. As I negotiate the challenges of keeping my family’s mental, emotional, social, and physical health intact during isolation, I’ve tried to carry over several coping strategies that have served me well during pre-pandemic parenting. Thinking about the future can send me down an anxiety spiral, which was also the case before March, to a lesser extent. Taking life one day at a time has been crucial.
Managing (adult!) screen time
Screen time allowances for my kids have loosened. I try to keep content quasi-educational most of the time, and I try to watch with them, but those things don’t always happen, and that’s ok. In contrast, I have found that reducing my own media and social media consumption helps me maintain a more even emotional keel.
New parents quickly learn to let go of pre-existing expectations around what life looks like with young children. The ability to reimagine critical elements of our lives is essential during this pandemic, as well. I have tried to identify what my family needs and seek reframed opportunities to fill those needs. My family needs connection with each other and others, playtime, and adventure. What might the playdates, time with extended family, date nights, travel, and excursions that fill these needs look like now? These things may take on drastically different forms, but we can get what we need in a new way with creativity.
For my family, lots of outdoor play has been critical to maintaining our sanity. We will continue to venture outdoors as much as possible after the weather turns colder and wetter. Our rain boots and waterproof jackets will get a lot of use this winter. Plating takeout food on our “special” dishes and lighting a candle is the new date night with my husband. Grandma has overcome her technology reluctance and now conducts Zoom story times with my kids, which they adore. None of these solutions are ideal, but they are enjoyable and help satisfy our needs.
There is happiness to be found in the slower, simpler lifestyle foisted upon us by COVID-19. I’m learning to find comfort, meaning, and joy in my family’s reimagined lifestyle. Though the current circumstances are challenging, I’m grateful to have a family to share them.