Adaptation: How the Pandemic is Changing Parenting

pandemic parenting

Image by Brina Blum via Unsplash

When I asked a mom friend to answer questions about how her parenting has adapted to the pandemic, she told me she didn’t think she was succeeding as a parent during the pandemic so she probably wasn’t qualified to do the interview.

I’m guessing this is a common feeling. I certainly have questions and insecurities about my pandemic parenting. So many times, I think, God, I hope this doesn’t leave huge scars…maybe just teeny tiny ones.

But I also don’t think that adaptation is the same as success. And when we get together to swap stories like this, the point, at least for me, is not about success and failure, but about something less clear and more practical. It’s about finding flexibility and trying to meet this enormous change with different strategies. It’s about making space for joy in the face of loss and hardship, and it’s also about making space to express emotions about losses and hardships. It’s about identifying shifting needs, ours and our kids’, and doing our best to meet them.

So, in that spirit, I ventured out into the virtual world to collect stories, to find out how parenting during COVID-19 has changed, what’s helped, and what we can offer each other as we wake up each morning with our young ones and do the best we can.

What’s fundamentally changed?

Laura, mother of three from St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, said, smiling, that mornings for her kids these days are different. “We don’t make them get dressed. I have even reached the point that I let them play outside in their pajamas. Yup, I am that mom.”

Levels of supervision are also changing with many parents and children home together. David, father of three from Brossard, QC, said, “I am letting the kids do more, independently. I don’t have any less of a workload, and I have had to adjust by taking more breaks to help manage disputes (or not managing them and seeing how they work it out themselves), or spending a bit of time to help them with homework that pushes their limits. I’m learning just how independent the kids are, and also discovering what is really ‘reasonable’ for letting them resolve things by themselves.”

For many of us, this decreased capacity for supervision has meant increased screen time. Larissa, a Montreal mother of a 3-year-old, explained. “If I’m in a meeting with colleagues or on an important call with a client, I have to put my daughter on videos so she doesn’t interrupt me,” she explained. Most parents I spoke with who are working at home agreed.

Brooke from Brooklyn, mother of two, also has allowed more screen time, but for social reasons. “My son will play Roblox with his buddy and do FaceTime at the same time. It’s fun for them to do something together, not just talk.”

Another change is how we related to time and structure. Julie, mother of three in Keene, NH, said that schedules are out the door. “Bedtime is within an hour or two of normal, but I don’t even check to see if they’ve set their alarms for the morning. They’ve all been pretty self-directed and responsible about keeping up with their schoolwork, so as long as they stay on top of it I’m pretty relaxed about how they manage their time.” Laura said she’s allowed her kids later bedtimes because it’s easier to organically follow whatever rhythm is working that day in the family.

Sarah, mother of two from Dorval, QC, noted that she’s more involved with her kids because they’re all home. “I work out with my daughter now. She’s a competitive swimmer and we are doing some workouts her coach sent us because she lacked motivation to get started on her own. I am also doing some beachbody workouts and the kids join in all the time.”

Jenn, mother of one from Albany, said the change for her has been less about externals and more about her approach. “The level of intensity in how I parent has gone up, for better and worse. For example, with quality versus quantity of time, I am trying hard to make the quality more of a priority.  We certainly cannot be ‘on’ 24/7, and so when I clear space for kiddo time, I try to be more present than ever.”

What do you need to be conscious of in your parenting now?

Staying conscious of the new ways of relating is part of the new normal parents are dealing with. “Every time my son goes out to ride bikes or play with the neighborhood kids, I tell him to remember to keep six feet apart,” said Lucie, mother of one from Montreal. “I’m also constantly reminding him to wash his hands, and to do it for 20 seconds and thoroughly.”

Even with those reminders, it’s so easy to slip when some elements of regular life return. I recently took my 10-year-old with me to sign the lease on my new apartment. When the landlord’s kids invited him down to their basement to play Foosball, I was busy reading the paperwork and said yes, forgetting about possible transmission problems. I should have had him wear his mask since we were inside and latex gloves because he would be touching the Foosball handles. But I had trouble keeping track of what I was doing as well as the new pandemic protocols for socializing. The learning curve can be steep, especially when there’s excitement and multiple things happening at the same moment.

Eating well is something else I’ve noticed needing to be mindful of, and David echoed this sentiment. “Nutrition and meal times are presenting unusual challenges. I can lose myself in my work and not realize there hasn’t been a decent meal eaten, and I have had to lead the kids to make healthy choices.”

Another topic that came up was the news. “I’ve had to consciously remind myself to talk about current events with the kids so they understand why we’re taking the precautions we are,” said Julie. “If they get it, they are much less likely to gripe about missing birthday parties and the like.” She said that it was especially difficult with her oldest son, who had a hard time understanding that his parents weren’t punishing him, that this is just the way they have to do things for a while. “Now that he understands the reasons, he’s okay with it.”

Andrea, mother of two from Baltimore, echoed Julie’s thoughts about intentionally talking about pandemic news with her kids. “Up until now, we’ve shielded them to a great degree from the horrors of the world. We’ve begun to talk more about them now. This is the world they’ll have to live in and it’s evolving into something none of us can predict. They’ll need to learn to survive and thrive in whatever society evolves into, and they are much more adaptable at their ages than we are. We mostly just talk about the news when they ask, but we let them hear NPR more often now and discuss news in front of them more often.”

In our family, I noticed that when I would react to a news event that I found anxiety-provoking, my son’s stress level would go up. Probably obvious, but I’ve needed to be conscious about what specific information I share. Now I read news initially when he is asleep and talk with my partner about what to share with him before we do it. For example, we chose not to tell him about the Kawasaki-syndrome that’s appeared in children that seems related to the virus because right now it’s a small number of children effected, and we don’t feel it’s necessary given it’s something that could provoke needless anxiety.

Sarah said that mindfulness about her kid’s situation has been at the top of her list. “My kids are nine and 11, and what I need to remind myself constantly is that I am their whole social circle now. There is no else for them to interact with on a daily basis. No friends, no teacher, no coaches. So even though I feel tired and want a break, I try to remind myself that they waited all day for my work calls to end to interact with me, and that during that time they did not get to talk to people all day.”

And mindfulness about our own situation is equally worthy of being conscious of. Jenn said, “I have made it a full-on commitment to spend time each day before my son wakes up reading self-help books and journaling, setting intentions and mantras for the day. I try to set myself up each day to parent as well as I can and practice forgiveness for all the times, a million a day it seems, when I miss the mark.”

What adaptations have you made that have been most helpful to your kids?

Flexibility is something we normally have to balance with structure and limits, but during the pandemic, it seems that it’s become much more important.

“The flexibility at work and my boss’s understanding helped a lot,” said Larissa. “Having a little break halfway through the morning to spend 20 minutes with my daughter has helped me juggle work and parenthood.”

For Lucie, the flexibility has been around the phone. “I have to remember that he doesn’t see his friends from the homeschooling center every week, so I have to let him talk on the phone, which I don’t always like. That’s been a big loss for him, so I need to let him do that, even if it means more screens because they play Minecraft while they talk.”

Flexibility has also been necessary to meet our children’s social needs given they no longer have school. “I’ve realized it’s hard for my second grader to work without the companionship of her friends and teacher,” said Brooke, a writer and business owner. “So, two weeks ago, I did her poetry prompts with her. And she sat in on a prompts session with me for a few minutes and wrote and doodled during that time. Now, we’re working on a nature journal. It’s not an assignment, and we are behind on some of the assignments, but it feels important to do something together that helps us both feel curious.”

Looking at your technological situation and, if affordable, making some new investments can create added flexibility that decreases stress for the whole family. David said, “Most recently, I incurred a well-spent (for my mental health) yet unplanned expense of a second computer, as increased schoolwork and zoom meetings led to conflicting appointments and homework schedules for my three balls of energy. Is the second computer necessary? I don’t really know yet, but it takes the stress off of the children. The kids are living enough challenges as is, between missing their friends, birthday parties that are being celebrated in new and unusual ways (including Zoom parties), lack of formal schooling, lack of socializing and having no real idea of when it’s all going to end. Flexibility, forgiveness and the occasional blind eye can help reduce the pressure on them.”

Doing what gives joy goes along with that occasional blind eye. Lucie says she and her partner have loosened up about sweets. “We make sure our son has his veggies and fruits, but we also let him have dessert more often. He looks forward to it and pleasure is important. He’s lost a lot of pleasures from his old life.”

Many parents emphasized the importance of time for talking together. We’ve added a new piece of our nightly gratitude ritual in response to COVID-19: something that was hard today. Sharing both what we’re grateful for AND what we’re struggling with has made our family feel more connected during a difficult period. Without the structure of that question, I doubt we would share a lot of what’s hard that each of us normally would be dealing with on our own.

Jenn said making an effort to find out how her son is experiencing the pandemic has been key in keeping them close. “I try to really listen to my son and see this wild world through his perspective.  Yesterday we were chatting, and he said, ‘This is a really bad virus.’  And I said, ‘It really is.’  He asked, ‘How did it get so bad?’  I told him that we don’t exactly know, but that scientists are studying the virus to try to understand it better.  He responded, ‘Well, I’d like to study this virus because I don’t understand it at all.’ Our children are their own beings with their own inner lives. So much of the time we don’t have access to what they are thinking and feeling, so it is important to be tuned in when they do share their thoughts with us.”

Julie echoed the idea of ongoing conversation with kids as a positive adaptation strategy. “We talk about everything. We talk about the research, the data, the conspiracy theories, the politics, the death tolls. Understanding both the scope of the issue (big) and their personal risk level (small) has helped them to feel grounded and balanced in a tumultuous time. My kids are a little older, so there’s no getting around the fact that things are not normal, but they’re more afraid of the uncertainty than they are of the facts. The more they understand what’s going on, the lower their anxiety level becomes. All kids are different, but mine like to know what’s what.”

Focus on certain kinds of activities came up in many of the conversations I had with parents. Andrea said setting her kids up with open-ended activities has been helpful. “Giving them a pile of rocks and some paint and letting them go. Suggesting they collect flowers and plants to press. Giving them tools and a place to dig. We’ve also come up with some games they can play with neighbor kids from a distance and that has helped them feel better about all of this: water gun fights, blowing bubbles at each other and popping them, bike races on opposing sidewalks. We also got chickens, and they have provided a lovely diversion.”

Parents also talked about teaching their kids practical skills they hadn’t had time for in their old lives. Sarah said, “I am teaching (the kids) how to cook because I actually have the time to do so. My daughter is very much into desserts. I got a new cookbook at the end of April, Eat What You Want, and my daughter’s favorite recipe so far is a chocolate cake we made this weekend. They also both love making chicken schnitzel because they love pounding the chicken flat.” Larissa, who is from Kazakhstan, said her daughter’s English and Russian language skills have blossomed since she’s been at home; her daycare language is French.

Laura and her family have also enjoyed the new activities they’ve launched into since lockdown. “We actually feel so busy that I can’t imagine going back to regular life! We’ve built a new garden, immersed ourselves in a new game, and recently we’ve taken an interest in geocaching; that alone could keep us busy for weeks! We signed up for the Wild Explorers Club too which is great and will give us new challenges every day.”

The pandemic is a unique historical event, and looking at it closely is an educational opportunity for both parents and children. Laura said, “There is surprisingly a lot of positive to this pandemic. Like, pollution has gone down…why? Explore that with them.” In our family, we’ve been researching other pandemics, including the Spanish Flu and Polio, as well as gleaning information about how vaccines work, how they are developed, and what is involved in producing them.

Finally, we can learn to step back and appreciate this unexpected time with our kids. “The fact that I get to witness my daughter’s development is very gratifying,” said Larissa. “She’ll ask me questions now about why I let her watch a video or give her a candy. And the other day, she asked why the ants in our kitchen don’t come with their mama. I told her their mama stays at home and gives birth to other ants, that she’s their queen and that they cherish her. Then she asked me, ‘Does that mean you are my Queen?’ I smiled and answered, ‘Yes!’”

By Gail Marlene Schwartz

Gail Marlene Schwartz is a mother, a runner, and a writer. As Content Curator for JogAlong Stroller, she writes blog articles, video scripts, and ad copy.