“The increased responsibility and decline in available resources for myself and my child (has been hardest.) Our outlets and interactions are limited and it’s taking a toll on the mental and emotional health of myself and my son.”
“(I need) to just be able to breathe and take a moment to myself without worrying about the household.”
“I wish there was a “Mother’s day out” available so I could just have one day a week to myself. I wish there were more activities open for my child… there’s no story time, no toddler classes, nothing.”
Maybe. After studying the pandemic’s impact since March of 2020, here’s what over 2,000 surveyed parents, mostly Moms (97%) have shared. They’ve shouldered many of the essential roles at home and in the economy. And they’ve overwhelmingly powered through, while working (86%) without childcare or onsite school for their kids (87%.)
But this herculean effort, has been at the expense of self-care. And for many, the strain has eroded their mental health, marriages, and careers. When asked what they need for their wellbeing or productivity, childcare has been at the top of the list. But pre-Covid, finding affordable and reliable childcare, was a bit like winning the lottery.
It’s Always Been Elusive and Expensive
“My 15-year-old does school and watches his brothers. The school is starting back up, but we can’t find someone to pick them up from school and there is no after school care.”
“(I need) a nanny — it is so hard to find focused time to work when my attention is pulled in a million directions.”
In the US, childcare is treated like an extravagance. But anyone who has to context switch, between Zoom and an active kid, knows it’s required. And done right, childcare is about more than work. It creates a foundation for kids to thrive. And it gives parents space to think a thought and care for their own health. So, in the pandemic, many surveyed parents got creative. They returned to the nest for grandparent care or moved near family. Found pods, co-bubbled or free-ranged older kids. But these solutions don’t work for everyone.
And the US Comes in Last for Family Support
“Not paying us to be out when we are sick or our children are sick. No health care offered.”
“I work running a before & after school program. A lot more is expected of us, but the amount of supports are the same as pre-pandemic times.”
“Expectation to watch young child and work at the same time/same hours. Perform the same as if there were no distractions.”
Among developed countries, working parents are the least happy in the US. This has lot to do with the lack of family support, like childcare and worker protections, like paid leave. Not to mention the long hours and limited benefits.
Pre-Covid, Caitlin and Charles Vestal relocated to Germany. On No One Is Coming to Save Us, they describe Berlin’s neighborhood family centers. They’re staffed by social workers, provide free childcare, therapy and career support. Seriously. “Being here, we’re able to focus on being good parents, not on how to afford to be good parents,” said Charles.
So, managing work and life was already hard. And pandemic conditions, for over a year, have pushed many past their emotional limits.
So, Self-Care is Down. Way Down
“(I need) daycare. So, as to work more/have some time off.”
“Full time childcare and a cleaning person. Both would help me spend more time on things I like doing.”
“…Sleep eludes me. My mind is consumed with thoughts of the state of the world. Rest is essential for the mind, body, and soul.”
Many surveyed parents are afraid to take vacation time. And lack paid leave to cover uneven childcare. Most (80%) surveyed parents cite doing ‘terribly’ or ‘not as well as usual’ at self-care. They’ve abandoned mental and physical health routines, to make space for all the extra childcare and housework.
And it’s Damaging our Health
“Fear, Loneliness, missing family, dealing with a failing marriage.”
“Anxiety, concern for my kids mental health, trying to get them to do their school work, trying to get my work done on time.”
“(I need) access to therapy and a job. Since covid, every type of health care has been an issue. And being out of work means I can’t afford private fees for tele health and therapy.”
When asked ‘what’s been the hardest?’ surveyed parents cite: stress, sleep deprivation, emotional fatigue, depression and anxiety. When asked ‘what would be helpful to improve your wellbeing?’ childcare by far is the most popular response. Followed by work flexibility and mental healthcare.
But they also crave resources to rebuild the broken village. Like household help and food delivery or the money to procure it. Many crave self-care (i.e., more sleep, movement, meditation) and most want better support at work (i.e., flexibility and paid leave.)
Employers Play a Critical Role
The stress from trying to meet multiple, competing demands for our time, attention, and money, predate the pandemic. But both the prevalence and costs of anxiety and depression have increased dramatically since then. The mental health crisis isn’t new. But the pandemic has inflamed it.
And the consequences are not just felt by parents but also by the organizations that employ them. Employers pay a huge price for workers’ stress and mental illness – in healthcare costs, productivity losses, and absenteeism. So, what can employers do to shift the downward spiral?
Parents Need Work Flexibility
“Allowing me to work from home when my child was in mandatory quarantine (was helpful.) Otherwise I would’ve had to use 10 sick days.”
“They are understanding if I have to hold my 1 year old during a zoom meeting. They never make me feel bad for it.”
“Letting me have an adjusted schedule and work from home one day a week to accommodate school closures (was helpful.)”
The pandemic has changed people’s priorities. And few surveyed parents are willing to return to pre-pandemic norms. Most want to work from home, at least part-time. And they want flexible expectations for performance, more than any other single benefit.
Although it doesn’t carry a hard cost, employers often struggle to rewrite the rules for how the work gets done or evaluated. Even in a global crisis. So, employers need to shift and reimagine productivity. Also, limit work processes like meetings, to free up energy for output. Unwinding tired norms, like face time and long hours, are also critical for equitable, family-friendly workplaces.
And Better Benefits
“They have expanded sick time to explicitly include mental health days, which has helped combat burnout. They have also enabled most employees to work from home, including stipends to help cover the cost of furnishing a home office.”
“Merit increases are somewhat flat while costs of living are rising (particularly the massive childcare costs we’ve undertaken this year — both my kids were supposed to be in full-time public school and only after-school expenses on us: instead we’re paying private school tuition for 1 in order to get her in a classroom in person and avoid her being a full-time remote-learning kindergartener and have paid for pandemic pods, after school care as well.”
Burnout isn’t just bad for exhausted parents, it’s also bad for business. Overwhelmed people typically won’t generate innovative solutions. And because employers understand that, they’re becoming more proactive with wellbeing benefits and policies. This includes non-traditional support of mental health, stress management and even movement.
Our most recent survey wave, reveals that working parents desire: stress management, self-care resources and/or mental health coverage more than home office stipends and subsidies for childcare costs.
Although communities are beginning to reopen, the chaos of navigating changing protocols hasn’t ended. So where do we go from here?
And More Support as The World Reopens
Many parents are starting to freak out about the idea of returning to the office. Or an unsustainable way of life. Pre-pandemic, few could make work, childcare and self-care fit together. So, parents are desperate for ways to stay sane through the next several months. But resilience coach and Psychologist Dr. April Seifert states, we can’t expect to extinguish that inner voice of worry, “Rather than viewing your negative thoughts as an authority figure whose direction you must follow, what if you viewed those negative thoughts like a toddler having a tantrum? You notice it, but you kind of go about your day. They’re still there, loud and intrusive, but you do your best to carry on with meaningful activities.”
Spoiler Alert, There’s More Than One Answer
The path to strong mental health isn’t simple. Because it’s a combination of personal health, daily practices to manage stress and the conditions we live and work in. But self-care is required. And in past studies, most surveyed Moms preferred to recharge solo. Which makes childcare critical if your kids aren’t independent.
So, think of yourself and your environment, the way you would for any other living thing. A palm tree will flourish in Barbados but in Boston, it will die. So yes, your mindset and self-care routines matter. But so does access to childcare, flexible work, healthcare, and social safety nets, like paid leave. They all contribute to the conditions that allow us to be the best parents, partners, and self-caregivers we can be.
Share your pandemic experiences! How are the latest changes affecting your life? It’s quick and the results from this study are used to advocate better support for parents.
Employers, let us help you transform your workplace into an environment where caregivers thrive. Learn about Allies @ Work.
This piece will also be a guest post for They Are Not Coming to Save Us. And thank you to the fabulous team at nonprofit, Neighborhood Villages for fighting the good fight, for better early-childhood education and infrastructure.
Dr. April Seifert is a Cognitive Psychologist, runs a data science consultancy and is the Co-Founder of Peak Mind, the Center for Psychological Strength. She also hosts the weekly Peak Mind podcast with stories focused on building the psychological skills that promote resiliency and well-being.