The Impossible Decisions Facing Parents During The Pandemic

Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
Family playing with baby on the floor.

Last spring, when school and work shut down suddenly due to the coronavirus pandemic, my husband and I found ourselves in the same position as countless families across the country. We were both working from home full-time while simultaneously trying to manage our two children, who were suddenly distance learning (or, as many rightfully called it, “crisis schooling”).

I’ll be totally honest with you: it was basically a disaster.

Working At Home With Kids Is Nearly Impossible

I had been working from home for years, sometimes with little ones underfoot, so in many ways, the change wasn’t that hard for me to adjust to. My husband is a teacher and was able to Zoom with his students. He’s a very hands-on dad, and it wasn’t difficult to get him involved in helping with the kids (housework, on the other hand, was a different story).

My kids, though, were miserable, especially my younger son. Distance learning is very hard for a second grader to adjust to — Zooming just can’t really take the place of face-to-face teaching. But not only that, his whole world was turned upside down — and rather suddenly. It was a lot for him to adjust to, having less experience to draw from, and all of us were totally stressed out, adjusting to this “new normal,” while facing the fact that we were all stuck at home together.

It became clear that working at home — and continuing to meet deadlines and please our bosses — was a nearly impossible proposition while parenting and simultaneously attempting to school two children. It took major tolls on both my husband’s and my mental health. We both lost sleep and dealt with significantly increased anxiety. I basically had a daily headache and tight jaw. There was more yelling than I am proud to admit.

The Burden Of Childcare Often Falls On Mothers’ Shoulders

This summer, our family has had a chance to catch our breath. The kids are no longer distance learning so we don’t have to manage that aspect of life. Since my husband is a teacher, he’s off for the summer, so he is giving our kids some much-needed attention, even as our outside activities are limited due to the pandemic. We are clearly extremely lucky in this respect. Many parents are home this summer, working full-time with zero outside help or activities to enroll their children in. It continues to be a hugely stressful situation, and parents’ mental health is suffering across the board.

Unlike in my situation, it is often mothers who are suffering the most and taking on most of the burden in terms of childcare. A survey from Catalyst found that when kids are learning from home, women are twice as likely as men to help with homeschool responsibilities. Women’s careers are on the line as well. According to The Lily, in situations where childcare can’t be obtained, women are the ones quitting their jobs at higher rates than men to stay home with their children. Women are also more likely to be laid off due to childcare conflicts than men.

And I don’t think any of us need a survey to tell us that women are more likely than men to perform housework at home, as well as taking care of the mental and emotional labor of running a household. As hands-on as my husband is, I am definitely in charge of keeping our house running smoothly — answering teacher emails, planning our budget, noticing when groceries need to be purchased, and doctor’s appointments need to be made.

All of this can take a major toll on my mental health — and I know I am not alone in this.

Planning For School Closures This Fall

As we gear up for the new school year, many families are contending with the fact that their children will be continuing distance learning or going to school only a few days a week. Even if your kids are returning full-time, all families need to prepare for the fact that more school closure might be inevitable in the future. And so the issue of who will care and school the kids continues.

Every family is different. Some parents can work from home and will continue to. Some families are able to hire outside help, or are having extended family move in with them. Still, some families — especially ones where neither parent is able to work from home — are having to choose to quit their jobs or change careers.

Studies and statistics aren’t available yet, all of this is just too new, for what families are choosing during this phase of the pandemic, but my guess is that where there is a choice about who will stay home and who will go to work, the burden will more often than not fall on women. I’m already seeing this trend among friends.

Even when both parents are home, the responsibilities of managing the kids’ schooling — and being interrupted at work approximately 1,475 times a day — is falling disproportionately on mothers’ shoulders. This will have profound effects on women’s mental health as well as their long-term careers aspirations and goals, which are every bit as important as their partners’ trajectory

Making The Best Choice For Your Family

As for my family, next school year is very much in the air. We have chosen to keep our children home to do remote learning, and we are hoping that their experience will be an improvement over last semester. But part of that means adjusting our own working schedules to devote enough time to our children’s needs.

I may end up working earlier in the morning and later at night so that I am available during the day to give my younger son attention. But depending on several factors (school reopenings are still very much in the air throughout the country!), my husband may be home as well — and may even take a leave of absence from work next year to help with school and childcare.

As we try to make the best choices for our family, we are focusing not just on practical matters, but on emotional matters and mental health as well. We are trying to be honest about what we need from each other. We are listening to our children and asking them what they need. We are seeking advice from family, friends, and our therapists. We are trying to keep it all in perspective, too, realizing that this pandemic is “only for now,” and that things will hopefully get back to normal eventually.

Whatever position you find yourself in, remember that your feelings matter, and are valid. Remember that this situation is out of your control — it’s a global pandemic! — and that we are all just doing the best we can with the choices (or lack thereof) that we are given.

In many ways, this nearly impossible situation parents find themselves in is a good opportunity to really home in on good communication skills. Reassessing the status quo when it comes to childcare and household management definitely has its positives as well, no matter how challenging it is. In some cases, dads are getting a real taste of the responsibilities that have plagued mothers for decades — and that’s actually a good thing. Studies show if men take a leave of absence after a baby is born then they’re more likely to share the work of childcare long-term.

Most of all, let’s all have a little faith that no matter what the next school year looks like, we will all come out stronger, more resilient, and a little more compassionate in the end. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

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