Against the backdrop of a global health crisis that has affected the lives of millions of people, parents and carers have found themselves juggling multiple roles behind the scenes.
Whether through household planning, homeschooling, maintaining family hygiene or activity coaching, these unsung heroes have been supporting, protecting and nourishing their kids through the pandemic, often while trying to hold down a full time job.
To shed light on what parents are facing during these troubled times, I spoke to mothers from around the world about their experiences navigating the pandemic's unknown waters.
*parents' names have been changed to protect privacy
Catherine from Las Vegas, US, is the mother of an 11-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. For her, the pandemic could not have come at a worse time. In November, a couple of months before the pandemic hit the US, Catherine went through a divorce. While her son was saddened by the divorce, she feels it was the pandemic that made everything worse.
"My son is 11 years old, he's never been depressed in his life," Catherine said. "We [my husband and I] got divorced in November, which was something that made him sad, but then COVID happened. His fifth grade graduation, his school trip, our vacation, his big birthday party that he was supposed to have, all of it got cancelled and he told me he's been depressed for a few weeks now.”
After speaking to a friend who also has a son, Catherine found out that her friend's son had been experiencing the same symptoms.
“My son is a pre-teen so, a little depression is expected, but when I saw that my friend’s son was depressed, I was like what the heck is happening right now?" she said. "COVID has made so many people go into depression that aren't even normally depressed. Right now is a very hard time. People are alone, everything's been cancelled... I've never seen the likes of it."
To help her son cope, Catherine has been reinforcing connection through communication and affection. “I have been giving him more hugs, making sure to get him out of the house. It helps when he FaceTimes his friends. And I keep telling him, ‘things are really bad now but they're going to get better, I promise,' " Catherine said.
Social software has also facilitated the process of grieving the loss of loved ones during COVID-19, which has become especially complicated due to social distancing rules. With the elderly population being the most severely affected demographic, many children have lost their grandparents to COVID-19 and are struggling to grapple with not being able to see them in person again. With restrictions come the decreased likelihood of being able to attend funerals and gaining closure.
Maddy from the UK is the mother of a 10-year-old and an 11-year-old. In the midst of her own grief, she found it difficult to help her children cope with the loss of their grandfather.
“This pandemic has hit us hard," Maddy said. We as a family had to deal with the loss of grandad. Trying to [make] some sense of it and not being able to hug friends or relatives seemed not only strange but painful.
“We are so blessed to have a church community that supported us. Thank God for technology to keep communication going with friends and family [because] it's the most important [thing].”
However, for some, the use of technology has also come with its downsides. For parents with teenage children, social media has become a double-edged sword.
Beth, from Ireland has four children aged 13,17, 22 and 25 and has experienced the impact of social media overuse on her 13-year-old daughter. Schools shutting down due to COVID-19 meant that her daughter was on the computer a lot more for virtual classes. This meant she was using social media a lot more as well and was exposed to unrealistic lifestyle and body standards.
“She started comparing her life to the life of her friends and it seemed to her that her friends were having more fun than she was," Beth said. "Plus, she’s had access to [social media] accounts of people she didn’t know and as a result [has] started to compare her body with strangers."
Parents are also worried about how their children who have been away from school and other activities for so long will be able to cope with the sudden transition back to school upon reopening. This was the case with Rebecca, from New Zealand, who has two kids, aged seven and ten. In May, after New Zealand successfully dealt with COVID-19, the country eased restrictions and reopened schools.
“Some parents are concerned about children falling behind at school and the pressure that mentally puts them under,” Rebecca said. “However, there are other parents more like myself who are more concerned with children finding a settling place.
"For many kids being at home was really great and going back to school and activities has been a really difficult transition and for them mentally coping with that change and enjoying it as much has been hard on the kids and therefore parents.”
When asked how she is helping her children through these difficult times, Rebecca said that understanding that each child is different is key.
“My children [and] myself are very different and I only have two!" Rebecca said. “I think it’s super important to remember that each child is different and therefore will experience this time differently or maybe process the experience differently. It also means they may need different things. Different conversations and different levels of ‘home’ or ‘quiet’ times.
"Some teachers seem preoccupied with kids’ academia. I think it’s important to stress to our children at this time that their physical, mental and emotional well-being is the priority... I believe children will have learnt so much more than we all realise by watching response and reaction both at home, nationally and globally with what is happening.”
The takeaway from what Rebecca described is that each child is unique. Exposure to by-products of the pandemic such as loss of loved ones, seeing parents being stressed, physical separation from friends, limited resources and constant negative media stories, will inevitably impact each child in different ways.
In the midst of difficult circumstances, resilience is a key factor that can help children cope. But resilience is not a quality that a child is innately born with; rather it is a skill that can be developed starting from an early age, given certain factors are present. These factors were covered by a study completed in 1955 by developmental psychologist Dr. Emmy Werner of the University of California, Davis, and clinical psychologist Ruth Smith of Wilcox Memorial Hospital and Health Centre, Kauai. In the study, the duo explored the impact that negative circumstances can have on long-term development by following nearly 700 children on the Hawaiian island of Kauai from the time they were born until decades later.
At the beginning of the study, the children were grouped according to whether their environment was stable and one-third of the children were placed in an ‘at risk’ category due to circumstances such as exposure to alcoholism, family disharmony, illness and perinatal stress. Decades later, a third of the children in this ‘at-risk’ category were found to be especially resilient; they were on a positive path and living stable lives. Factors which helped contribute to this resilience included sense of community, positive relationships, stability and being able to “meet the world on their own terms.”
Stability is an essential factor for healthy development; however, it's difficult to maintain when COVID-19 has created so much uncertainly. The abrupt closure of many schools worldwide coupled with uncertainty around when they would reopen, lockdown orders and constant vigilance around safety have sent stability out the window.
A positive strategy which some parents are using to help keep their children’s sense of security and stability intact is prioritising structure and routine.
Kreeta, from Finand, has relied on having a steady routine to balance the soaring energies of her twins. “My boys are 17 months old, and they love to run, climb, jump, you name it; they will never stay still," she said. "During the pandemic season, it [has been] more important than ever for our family to maintain and keep a healthy routine.
“I’ve been talking with so many mums and routine plays a huge part in their life during this uncertain season. For my family, routine creates a sense of order to our day; that includes planning our day for me and my husband as well.”
The coronavirus-induced lockdowns also come with the opportunity to create new memories and explore new channels of creativity to keep children occupied. This is important especially in order to help combat the dreaded b-word: boredom. The use of creativity for outdoor games has the added bonus of helping to increase physical activity. There are also heaps of virtual channels for activities to keep children engaged like dance and workouts.
“For parents that have toddlers, I would recommend them to get out from their comfort zone and create a safe and creative space for their children," Kreeta advised. "Do something extra than the normal, create creative play like building indoor castles or anything that could entertain them.”
Deciphering the unique needs of both parents and children is intrinsic to finding contentment in the uncharted territories of a global pandemic. While the pandemic has shaken the lives of many, it's important to remember that it provides a plethora of positive takeaways; moments spent playing, connecting and communicating with children can help parents find joy in these pressing times and also help build resilience in their children, putting them on a positive trajectory.
Once the effects of the pandemic have subsided, chances are rare that parents and children will find another opportunity to spend so much time together. It is important to utilise this time well by connecting with each other and forging memories for a lifetime—memories from a monumental period in history.