Molly F., 33, an assistant manager of a restaurant in Tupelo, Mississippi, currently on maternity leave, should be enjoying postpartum life with her brand new, 7-week-old daughter. But now that the COVID-19 pandemic has ended school for over 862 million students worldwide, and has resulted in 1 in 4 Americans sheltering in place, she is also tasked with caring for her 23-month-old son and facilitating e-learning for her 9-year-old stepson, all at a time when she should be continuing to recover from childbirth and bonding with the newest addition to the family.
“I am constantly going back and forth between helping my stepson with assignments and tending to the two littles,” she says. “It’s stressful. Throughout the day, I invariably have to stop helping with schoolwork to hold a crying baby, change a diaper, try to nurse, fail, then pump, make a meal, etc.”
Molly is far from alone. Now that more than 30 million U.S. students are no longer attending school and are, instead, learning remotely from home, parents are inundated with a seemingly endless list of additional tasks while navigating the stressors of working from home, working outside the home as an essential worker, attempting to collect unemployment or navigating the loss of a job, all while shouldering the stress and uncertainty that has accompanied the current public health crisis we’re all facing. A recent study published in The Lancet found that 28% of parents in quarantine in China were experiencing “trauma related mental health disorder” as a result, and due to the added responsibilities and a lack of down or alone time.
Shandean Bell, a 33-year-old technical recruiter for a government contract company living in Washington, D.C., has been sheltering-in-place with her 6-year-old daughter for over a month, working from home, maintaining her home, and facilitating her daughter’s e-learning while her husband — an essential worker — continues to leave the house every day for work.
“I know many people are feeling lonely right now, but I haven’t left the boundaries of my property since March 13 and have not had a single moment of alone time,” Bell says. “Since my husband is out already for work, we don’t think it’s wise for both of us to risk exposure, so he does all the shopping as well. I would give anything to be alone for a day. I feel like I’m the person holding us all together, but my needs are the least met because of the circumstances.”
Bell worked from home prior to the coronavirus crisis, but sheltering-in-place and having her daughter learn from home has drastically altered the dynamics of her daily life. For Bell, as for so many parents who are trying to be both caregiver and educator simultaneously (and with little in-person support), this whole experience has had a significant negative impact on her mental health. Her daughter, who is in Kindergarten, has two live classes every day, Monday through Thursday, at 9:00am and 12:30pm. This rigid schedule, which Bell says has been in flux as the school district has dealt with technical problems and online safety issues, has only exacerbated the difficulties Bell is facing as a parent, an employee, and a teacher.
“The first day of distance learning, I had anxiety all day,” she explains. “I have an all-hands-on-deck meeting once a week — a video call — and of course the call and classes are at the same time. I was rushing around to make sure my daughter had everything she needed — that we had all the logins and passwords the school sent us — and that I was ready for my conference call. After both calls were done, I broke down and cried my eyes out.”
Maternal mental health was already a public health crisis in this country prior to the onset of COVID-19. A reported 21% of women experience a major or minor depressive episode after giving birth, and as many as 15-21% of pregnant women experience depression and/or anxiety during pregnancy. As a culture, we tell soon-to-be and new parents that it “takes a village,” but that village — for many people, especially poor people and people of color who lack access to essential resources during and after pregnancy — is out of reach. And now that people are self-isolating to mitigate the spread of a virus 10 times deadlier than the seasonal flu — a virus that has killed over 60,000 Americans — that village feels non-existent.
Which is why asking parents to endure a traumatic experience like this unprecedented global crisis while simultaneously caring for children and becoming a pseudo-teacher with little-to-no professional education experience, is not only unrealistic, it’s detrimental to their mental health. (And things aren’t any easier for the 48% of educators who also have children at home and have to facilitate their own kids’ e-learning while simultaneously teaching an online curriculum.)
But this new “normal” can also negatively impact children, who benefit from the student-teacher relationship. Usually, children spend more than 1,000 hours with their teacher in a given school year — time that helps them establish a connection with an authority figure that is not a primary caregiver. Studies have shown a positive student-teacher relationship can result in higher grades and fewer disruptive behaviors. But now that that relationship has been hindered or cut off altogether, it is parents who are forced to step in and fill that void — another task that, in the midst of so much uncertainty and unmitigated trauma, can feel staggering.
“This experience is beyond overwhelming,” Heather Menser, a 32-year-old mother of two who works as a school director for a large child development center. “Myself and my two children are all diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD). I typically pride myself on managing well due to rigorous schedules, but the ever-changing daily routine has been awful. With any change in my son’s schedule, I usually battle emotional meltdowns for three to 14 days.”
What every parent facilitating e-learning should feel empowered to do during this unparalleled moment in time, is to simply say no. It’s a difficult ask, especially when 77% of mothers feel pressure to be super-involved in their children’s lives, but prioritizing one’s own mental health over an e-learning assignment is paramount. So when necessary and possible, take a break from e-learning and just be a parent.
“[One day], my daughter was frustrated because she could not get her zoom call to connect during an important class meeting, my son was having a particularly rough day because he was missing his friends and I could not go outside with him after lunch, and my boss called me three times within the same hour while I was trying to calm both children down,” Menser says. “I decided to call it a day and we all went to play in the backyard until dinner time.”
Bell did the same after that first difficult day of e-learning, opting to work after her daughter fell asleep and giving the rest of her daughter’s “school day” a rest. “I made popcorn and we started the Harry Potter series and snuggled for the rest of the day, she says. “I felt a lot better.”
As for Molly, she’s focusing on mindfulness — and shamelessly allowing her eldest to indulge in a little screen time — as she continues to juggle caring for a newborn and a young toddler, along with managing her stepson’s e-learning.
“I once thought I was super mom,” she says. “And, I am not.”
And reader, neither are you. And that’s OK, because you were never supposed to be.
While you’re still trying your best at this nonsense, here are some ways to keep kids busy while they’re stuck at home.