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COVID Offers Parents One Small Mercy

Parents can take comfort in one great truth revealed by the pandemic.

The pandemic has added a whole new level of stress to parenting. On the other hand, it’s granted parents one small mercy: something to blame other than their family or themselves.

Many parents have gone from feeling like they were failing to understanding their struggles within the context of the pandemic. Instead of thinking, “There must be something wrong with me or my child,” they think, “He's climbing the walls because we're cooped up all day.” Instead of thinking, “My partner doesn't care about me,” they think, “My partner is struggling to juggle work and family right now.”

This reframing helps parents avoid the vicious cycles triggered by blaming themselves or each other. When parents blame themselves, it chips away at their self-confidence, which undermines their parenting efforts, leading to even more insecurity. When parents blame their partners, it usually provokes defensive, angry responses that leave both parents feeling criticized and disconnected. And when children feel blamed (for being too loud, too angry, too needy, etc.), they identify with these negative labels and begin to act them out. This, of course, only serves to reinforce the parents’ negative expectations.

COVID has allowed parents to avoid these traps and have more compassion for themselves and empathy for each other. How has it done this? In large part, by making the lives of parents suddenly more difficult. Routines have been upended. Finances are threatened. Partners have little to no quality time with each other, at best. No one questions the difficulty of parenting now, nor the cause of this difficulty.

With such clarity, parents can admit their vulnerabilities without feeling like a failure. It's okay to acknowledge you're struggling when everyone else is struggling too. And it’s okay to ask for help.

As the need for help becomes clearer, it’s easier to see just how much parents normally rely on outside support. Even in the best of times, parenting is hard in this country and most parents lack adequate support, particularly families with infants and young children.

According to one global study, Millennials are almost twice as likely to have a working spouse or partner than Baby Boomers. At the same time, the demands of raising children have increased. Parents today spend more than twice as much hands-on time with their children as parents did in the 1970s.

As small nuclear families have replaced big extended families, parents have also lost out on crucial support systems. Babysitters are expensive and can come with a pang of guilt. Even when two parents share childcare, they often provide each other's only relief.

Less extended family also means fewer opportunities to gain experience taking care of children, leaving most new parents feeling unprepared for parenting. Everything about parenting is unfamiliar, and yet it's all supposed to come naturally. Pediatricians can be a useful resource, but their training is in medicine, not parenting.

The scant institutional support for parents in this country is particularly detrimental. Unlike most developed countries, the U.S. lacks paid maternity and paternity leave, paid childcare, flexible work hours, universal home visiting nurse programs, and universal health coverage.

Only four countries offer no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave. The U.S. is one of them. The other three are Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Swaziland. The U.S. is also the only developed country in the world not committed to universal health care.

Much of the support families receive is left to employers' discretion. Some employers offer generous leave policies, flexible hours, and dependable health benefits, but most penalize parents for needing time off or working fewer hours. The perks are unequal, while the needs are universal.

Without extended family, strong communities, institutional support, and family-friendly work cultures, parents can easily feel isolated. This is particularly hard on parents who have a history of childhood adversity because parenting can evoke painful feelings from the past. When parents feel they are expected to cope with these feelings alone, they’re at high risk of mental health complications.

In normal times we lose sight of how hard parenting is, in part because we're deeply embedded in a culture of self-reliance. We're taught to believe that our successes and failures are ours alone and that our circumstances don't determine our fates. We fear that explicitly acknowledging our circumstances will increase our risk of falling victim to them.

What COVID has demonstrated is the opposite. When parents are able to recognize what they are up against, they're less likely to feel alone and disappointed in themselves. And when society is able to recognize the legitimacy of their struggle, parents are more likely to access the supports that do exist.

Major systemic change is needed to increase support for families in this country. Hopefully, we won’t miss this opportunity to make it happen. In the meantime, as the pandemic becomes the new normal, and even once it has finally passed, parents can take comfort in one truth the pandemic has revealed: They are not alone in needing support to survive and thrive.

More from Carolyn Broudy M.D., M.S.
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