This is the persistent reality for pandemic parenting when it comes to children’s health, schooling, and emotional security. And parents must do this while contemplating difficult decisions regarding their jobs, careers, and their own mental wellbeing.
With no sign of a COVID-19 reprieve, today’s parents face an unparalleled challenge as they react to social ripples that will impact families long after this public health crisis subsides.
Should they sacrifice their career for their family’s safety? Change jobs to be closer to home? Relocate to be closer to extended family? Find new schools to better accommodate their personal precautions against a highly contagious coronavirus?
It’s not if the pandemic will alter their children’s future and education. It’s how it will continue to do so and what needs to be done to enrich their learning while safeguarding their welfare. Every parent, regardless of social demographic, is struggling in some way to recalibrate what “normal” looks like in their home.
“Parents have been surviving since the pandemic hit, but they can take only so much before they hit their breaking point. I believe we’re seeing and feeling that breaking point,” says Florence Ann Romano, the childcare expert behind WindyCityNanny.com. “My heart breaks as I watch families struggle emotionally, financially, mentally and otherwise. The pandemic has provided insulated family experiences but, in an amazing twist of irony, it also has created immense isolation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen families feel more alone when together.”
As schools struggled to make hard decisions about reopening – traditional in-person instruction versus stay-at-home virtual learning versus a hybrid approach – many parents felt as if they are making life or death choices for their children.
“As dramatic as that may sound, that’s the world we live in today,” Romano says. “Parents are entrusting that their children will be kept safe and healthy, but there are absolutely zero guarantees that will happen. So, they feel they are rolling the dice with their children’s safety and the safety of others.”
Like most parents in this precarious situation, Dr. Scott Grant and his wife, Laura, leaned on an ever-changing combination of factors, instincts, scientific data and government recommendations to guide their decisions for their two young children.
“As a pediatrician and father of two, including having a baby in June during the pandemic, a large part of the challenge of pandemic parenting comes from the sense that every decision you make feels like it has very high stakes,” says Grant, a general pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. “Even decisions about whether to take a walk around your neighborhood seems to require more internal debate than ever before.”
Parents are seriously deliberating whether their kids can again see their grandparents or cousins or fellow classmates.
“These decisions feel like life-and-death type decisions, not just for your kids, but for your own parents,” Grant says. “Many of the parents I speak to in my practice don’t have the option to work from home, so they have to make decisions balancing how they are going to get to work and make ends meet if their kids don’t go to school. And how to keep their kids safe if they go to school.”
Unfortunately, opinions about the pandemic and its related risks have been heavily politicized, playing an oversized role in the way information is shared and interpreted by parents.
“Even as a parent with experience and expertise in this field, it has been difficult for me to understand what some of the medical and media reports pertaining to the virus mean, and how to use this information when making decisions for my family,” Grant says. “It’s not surprising that parents without public health expertise are also struggling.”
Carrie Krawiec, who has two young children, felt her relationship with herself profoundly change as she grappled with each choice, often based on conflicting information.
“Even as a scientifically literate person, it is complicated to sort through competing scientific messages,” says Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic. “The data, especially on children, seems to be so mixed. Some research reports kids are not likely to be vectors of the illness, whereas others report they have as much infection in their nasopharynx as adults.”
“My ability to do any of my routine self-care, let alone my workplace identity and other areas of my personal life where I felt competent and put together, were all thrown out the window. I felt tired, forgetful and slow at times,” she says.
As a relationship therapist, her frame of mind has largely been on the consequences of the pandemic, such as school closures, work-from-home scenarios, parental intimacy with their kids and lost experiences along the way.
“I feel especially troubled by the change in relationship between myself and my 6-year-old son, my only school-age child,” she says. “I worry about the absence of our comings and goings, such as kissing each other hello and goodbye and instead shifting into constant togetherness.”
Her inability to be a sufficient playmate to a 6-year-old boy is that there is only so much she can talk about “poop, farts and butts,” she jokes.
“My constantly trying to shift him to focus on schoolwork was especially tragic for him and me both, socially and emotionally,” Krawiec says. “Likewise, I felt robbed of the experiences with my toddler daughter as I had to plop her in front of YouTube for a few hours so I could sit with him and do homework. During the height of the quarantine scariness, I did not feel comfortable utilizing an outside resource to help me with childcare.”
The lives of some working parents during this pandemic can be summed up in one word: unsustainable. In April, 6% of parents expected to quit their jobs because of the pandemic. In August, this figure is up to 27%, according to a comparison survey by parenting benefits platform Cleo. Meanwhile, dealing with the public health crisis’ daily pressure is taking its quiet toll on teenagers old enough to feel their families’ burdens.
Dr. George Vergolias, a forensic psychologist for Grand Rapids-based R3 Continuum, reminds parents that children and teens are more resilient than we typically fear.
“Our underestimation is understandable. Yet in historical terms we are less than 100 years away from a time when children were just considered little adults and were not afforded much special treatment,” he says. “We shouldn’t go backward, yet we also shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming children can’t adapt to change. They can, and often much better and faster than adults.”
R3C is a behavioral health firm providing guidance to workplaces across the country how to best support employees who are parents.
“I like to say, ‘Shift happens.’ No one alive has been through this before. This is new for us all,” he says. “Show grace to your children, to their teachers and school administrators, and most importantly to yourself.”
Grant, whose children Stefan and Alessandra are always in his forethought, routinely hears from fellow parents who are collecting facts to better understand the risks of certain activities. This includes interacting with relatives they don’t live with, going into the public workplace, and sending kids to school or daycare.
“As with most decisions parents make, the opinions and choices of other parents in their social circle probably play a large role,” he says. “And then relying on intuition to fill in any gaps.”
Krawiec tells clients to lean on grace, patience and flexibility when making parenting choices. Yes, today’s decisions are tougher than previous ones, such as which baby formula to use, how to properly secure a car seat, or how to deal with a rebellious teenager. For these more difficult choices, consider asking the opinion of their child.
“A parent would make themselves crazy to try to adhere to (different) studies while neglecting the feedback they get from their own child,” she says.
“Parents should also observe their child’s needs, and the needs of others in their household, then make a workable plan that serves the family in the best way possible. Keep in mind that any plan will only be as strong as the family’s most vulnerable member.”
Vergolias adds, “If change occurs, and it will likely occur, pivot and don’t be burdened by remorse.”