Tough choices. 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 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 their 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 Chicago-based childcare expert behind Windy City Nanny.
“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 might have 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, Ron Gross and his wife leaned on an ever-changing combination of factors, instincts, scientific data and government recommendations to guide their decisions for their two sons, 3 years old and 6 months old.
“The most difficult decision has been whether to put our two boys back into daycare… after the facilities were allowed to reopen under reduced capacity and new guidelines,” says Gross, U.S. operations manager for Quorn, a Chicago-based meat-free protein company.
“My wife was coming back off maternity leave and our youngest was supposed to start daycare at the end of March. However, we pulled our 3-year-old in mid-March as no one really knew what was going on, and then the daycare closed a week later. Our kids were with us while we were both working full-time essentially from mid-March through early June,” he says.
Their situation involved multiple factors: the reduced amount of cases in Illinois and the Chicago region; the state moving the Gross’ area to stages 3 and 4; consulting with other parents (some who had kids in daycare, others who didn’t); and the general thought that their family had minimal risk of contracting COVID-19, among other criteria.
“Basically every parent we talked to said they would send their kids to daycare or school if it was open,” Gross says. “Another factor was both of us balancing full-time jobs while taking care of small children. It was starting to become unmanageable. Our 3-year-old really needed social interaction and wanted to go back to school.”
Similar to other parents, the couple consulted with their own parents, who also thought it was safe to send the boys back to school. A unique twist in their case is that Gross’ wife is Dutch and her entire family lives in the Netherlands. “We had a good view how another country is handling it,” he says.
Marie-Edmonde Parisien worked her last day in March, about the time when pandemic restrictions began infecting households across the country.
“We went home not having a plan on what remote learning would look like,” she says.
On March 19, the first day of e-learning in her school district, she woke up not knowing what to expect. Emails flooder her inbox from her workplace and her son’s teacher.
“We are glued to our technology purely out of habit, but our newfound circumstances only made it worse,” she says. “My son is on his tablet, my husband on the computer, and my girls on their phones, all while I was panic-watching Anderson Cooper speak on the rising COVID-19 cases. This was the blueprint for the next three months: waking up, using various technology, eating, sleeping and then repeating the whole thing the next day.”
As summer break sailed past, the couple had to make a problematic decision for the schooling of their youngest child.
“We were given the option to send him to school after Sept. 29, but we decided due to rising COVID-19 cases that it would be best to keep him at home,” Parisien says. “So while my husband will be at work, I will carry the weight during the day, having to keep my son entertained and continuing his schoolwork, just as I did during the last three months of this past school year.”
“It would’ve been easier to send him to school so I could focus on work, but I had to be realistic. We are still in a pandemic and thousands of people are still dying every day.”
The lives of some working parents during this pandemic can be summed up in one word: unsustainable.
In April, 6 percent of parents expected to quit their jobs because of the pandemic. In August, this figure is up to 27 percent, 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.
According to a national Harris survey commissioned by the National 4-H Council, 45 percent of teen respondents described their daily stress level as excessive, and 67 percent felt convinced to keep their feelings hidden from their parents.
Allison Brown took a proactive approach with her teenage son, Jed Msallek. On Facebook, she posted a request looking for a handful of other 11th-grade students who shared his same classes and teachers. Her goal was to create “learning pods” for the students, trusting other parents to maintain the kids’ social distancing.
“My vision is that there could be one day a week when those kids come to my house and sit in my kitchen on their iPads while they’re in class. They can bring lunches and snacks. They can be in class together and do homework together,” she says. “And there could be another day where my son goes to someone else’s house and sits at their kitchen table on his iPad while he’s in class.
“Whoever is hosting kids for the day could be someone who is a resource for checking in and asking questions about what they did and if they need any help. Of course this is all amidst me working full-time from home and I imagine other parents trying to work full-time from home. Between peers supporting each other and parents supporting the kids, my fingers are crossed we will do the best we can.
“As a psychotherapist, I am aware that many high school students don’t have the executive functioning skills fully in place to be independent learners. So for all the kids like my kid, I’m hoping we can find a way to scaffold them toward more independent functioning while being realistic they can’t acquire those skills overnight.”
This is the kind of strategy needed for pandemic parenting. Joining forces, pooling resources, thinking creatively and making wearisome decisions that may need to be slightly altered or completely changed.
“I have had dozens of parents call to ask me to make decisions for them because they feel lost, alone, emotional and tortured,” says Romano, a professional nanny for 15 years. “The hard truth is no one can fix it for these parents and families. The best thing we can do is support and honor the choices parents are making within their walls for their most valuable possessions, their children.”
Kindness, empathy, compassion – these are the qualities that matter during this crisis.
“But from what I am seeing, they are the least used qualities in the parenting community right now, especially on social media,” Romano says. “Instead, they should choose their choices and abolish the shaming of other parents for what they decide.”
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This article also appeared in Chicago Parent’s fall 2020 magazine.