‘This is crazy pants’: Pandemic redefines parenting ideals
March 11, 2021
“This is crazy pants”
Rebecca Woitkowski knows all about structures. A lawyer by training, she is the policy coordinator for the Kids Count initiative at New Futures, a nonprofit that advocates for the well-being of children and families in New Hampshire. She spends her workdays lobbying the state legislature for programs and policies such as affordable child care and nutrition assistance. It’s a workday that she now tries to cram into the early mornings so she can then care for her 3-year-old and 7-year-old.
It has not been easy. Those first weeks of the pandemic were the most intense. That’s when schools and businesses were shutting down, but her work, which was focused on arranging child care for the state’s essential workers, was more important than ever.
Her husband, who had previously left for work before breakfast, switched his schedule around so they could do child care in shifts. Although she felt grateful to be healthy and relatively financially secure, she also felt mounting anxiety.
“How do you pivot to be successful in your career and also be successful as a mom and a teacher?” she says. “That’s where the insurmountable nature of everything lives in my chest. I want to be really good in my job, be a really good teacher for e-learning with my daughter, and also be there for my little one and make sure he’s getting what he needs.”
Buddy Scarborough, a sociologist at the University of North Texas in Denton, says the double pressure to be both an “ideal worker” and an “ideal parent” is a hallmark of modern-day American culture.
“We have these ideal worker norms where you work 40 hours a week if not more, you don’t complain, you’re ambitious,” he says. “And we also have these intensive parenting norms – time-intensive, productive, with extracurricular activities, high-quality time with kids all the time. They’ve always been in conflict. But now it’s on another level in a way that we’ve never had.”
Jessica Calarco, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, has been following a group of 250 mothers with young children since 2018, and says women were already “holding themselves to almost impossible standards.” Many reported skipping showers or going without meals to care for children. Now, during the pandemic, many said they felt even more pressure to “make things OK” for their children. One full-time lawyer told researchers that when she started venting about the impossible workload, her mother-in-law advised her to “cherish these times” instead. Another mother received texts from a family member with “50 fun activities you can do with kids at home.”
Well-meaning as the suggestions may be, they are not particularly helpful, Dr. Calarco says. “The social norms we have tell mothers that not only should they sacrifice themselves to maintain and support children’s well-being, but in moments of crises they should double down on that investment,” she says. “We’re telling mothers that they should be making this time as normal, and even as special, as possible. And the rhetoric assumes that’s just going to happen automatically. It’s a lot of labor to protect kids’ well-being during this.”
Indeed, says Sarah Kooiman, the founder of Milwaukee Mom, a local online parenting group for mothers, “I think we’re all saying this is crazy pants – every single one of us. We’re at a different level of burnt-out exhausted than we’ve ever been.”
Women feel guilt for not meeting expectations in either the professional or mothering realms, she says, and then feel guilt for feeling guilt, because they know the mom next door lost her job and her kids are going hungry and they shouldn’t complain.
Exactly, says Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University who studies parenting. “If we think back to March and when all the schools closed and everybody ended up back at home with their kids, there was a moment in the high-pressure parenting space where people embraced that,” she says. “You know, ‘This is my opportunity to run the greatest home school on planet Earth. Here is my color-coded schedule, and we’ll be baking zucchini bread. ... That was all well and good for three weeks. Maybe a week and a half. And then the reality hit us.”
Mothers, she says, quickly realized that “some of this high intensity has to go.”
“This has prompted a shift in people’s minds of what is possible,” she says.
“It’s a snow-day approach”
This was certainly true for Ms. Woitkowski. Some days during the pandemic, she felt she was “nailing it.” Other times, she describes herself as “a complete hot mess.”
But eventually, somewhere along the way, she noticed that she didn’t care as much if the house wasn’t perfectly clean. She didn’t actually miss the enriching classes that her children couldn’t attend. Her family spent time together rather than running from one activity to the next.
“We never had breakfast together,” she says. “My husband would be at work. My kids would be there, but I’d be tossing the cereal bowls at them. I don’t want to go back to a place where we spend more time in a car than we do sitting next to each other and talking to each other.”
She also started focusing more on herself. She began running. She started to hike. Not only was her family OK without her, but she also noticed that her children were excited when she came back and could report that she had conquered the next one of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers.
Nikki Springer, a single mother of 7-year-old twins who lives in Orlando, Florida, also recognizes some shifts. It started one day last spring when the news came on the car radio. Usually she tries to make sure her children don’t hear disturbing dispatches from across the world. But on this day it was a report about the pandemic, and she kept listening. “I realized I couldn’t shield them from this,” she says.
While letting go a bit has been difficult, it has also proved a relief. Her children have cut down on their activities. She sees their disappointment in not going to school or to scouting events. But, she says, while she would have once tried to make everything all right, these days “we’ve been using this time to build real empathy.”
She has also relaxed her own rules, even as she has spent more time working with her children on math and reading.
“It’s a snow-day approach to a certain extent,” she says. “I’ve had to be more open-minded, more giving on things, which at the end of the day are really fine. I mean, there’s no reason you can’t sleep in your tent in the living room. And with school? They’re in first grade. They’ll survive.”
Less anxiety, more independence
Not only will they survive, but they could thrive, says Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free-Range Kids movement and president of Let Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to children’s well-being through independence.
Although she recognizes that many families are facing hardships because of the pandemic, she says there is also evidence that this forced break from intensive parenting is beneficial. This past spring, she and Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, oversaw two studies of American parents and their children ages 8 to 13.
The survey asked how calm children felt compared with before the pandemic. It also asked for details about whether they had learned any new activities and how they would rate their anxiety levels. “There was so much worry that children would be suffering from being at home and not having their usual activities,” says Dr. Gray.
What they found, he says, is that children reported feeling calmer during the early months of the pandemic than they had been during school. While parents’ anxiety levels had increased, children’s had decreased. Parents also reported that young people had more independence. They were also doing more chores around the house, learning new hobbies such as playing the guitar or cooking, and, yes, playing more video games. And in doing so, they reported far greater life satisfaction.
“We keep hearing that everybody’s at their wits’ end,” Ms. Skenazy says. “Of course, people are at their wits’ end. ... But in terms of child development – we forget that children are resilient and adaptive.”
And we forget, she says, that children were suffering before the pandemic, with growing anxiety and depression levels.
“I understand the economic fears. I really do,” she says. “But the idea that if you are not showing constant attention to your kids and amplifying and enriching every moment, you are leaving them behind – I don’t think that’s true.”
For parents, this may offer a modicum of relief. “Parents are seeing what their kids can do,” says Dr. Gray. “And it is changing the way parents are behaving.”