One would be hard-pressed to find someone whose life has not been influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. The people who, generally, have it the easiest have had to work from home, cancel vacations, and find new ways to beat boredom. The ones on the other side of the spectrum have lost loved ones, jobs, and financial or housing stability. I decided that I wanted to explore this idea and speak to people about how their lives, and specifically, theirs and their loved ones’ mental health, has been affected by the pandemic. The first group of people I decided to talk to are stay-at-home parents.
The definition of “stay-at-home parent” has changed since March, when so many families were forced to take their kids out of school and work from home. The parents I have interviewed are responsible for both maintaining jobs and caring for their loved ones at home. The “stay-at-home parent” image is no longer one of a mother or father taking care of their children while maintaining the house or taking time off once a child is born. The term has newfound meaning, one of work and play, now that virtually every parent is staying at home.
When the quarantine first began, my mother told me how lucky she thought she was because my brother and I are old enough to take care of ourselves. She said, “I can’t imagine what it’s like for families with younger kids, who need so much care and attention.”
This brought me to Amy, an ex-high school teacher, current entrepreneur, and mother of two children, ages two and four. “My struggle is that I need to be on them 24/7, coming up with constant activities, they’re not at an age where they can self-entertain. It’s a challenge,” she told me.
Parents with young children have been forced to innovate ways to entertain and teach them, as well as maintain their own personal and professional obligations. Amy started a social media management business last summer and, since the pandemic, she has worked at night while homeschooling and spending time with her children during the day.
Tori, also a working stay-at-home mom, is a neighbor of mine and an interior designer with a seven-year-old daughter and a ten-year-old son. She also has a husband and a goofy Goldendoodle. She explained how she has handled the quarantine, and that she and her husband have dealt with it differently. “At the beginning, I was pretty good in crisis mode. I thought, ‘You gotta do what you gotta do’ but that’s also not to say we didn’t have rough moments. I handled the beginning well, however, dealing with the uncertainty of back-to-school is incredibly challenging. My husband was very stressed in the beginning but has now settled into a routine and is in a place of acceptance. It isn’t to say he isn’t concerned – he’s very much is. I think it’s just getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Quarantine has undoubtedly been difficult not only for parents, but for their young children as well, who cannot see their friends as regularly or as normally as they used to. Thomas, a record label executive turned stay-and-work-at-home dad, explained his concerns for his young sons in this regard. “For my youngest son, [my worry] is him not having the developmental milestone of socialization at a young age. That might have an impact that’s long-lasting.”
For Amy, a big worry for her has been about how her own struggles could also become her family’s struggles. “I have an autoimmune disease, and started quarantine the last weekend in February,” she said. “We’ve been doing it a bit longer than others, it’s hard.” She elaborated, “Because of my condition, we have to be super strict… but I have a sense of guilt that we have to walk on eggshells because of me. I worry about how that will affect my husband and children.”
Tori acknowledged and lamented her own issues as well, but also explained the positive changes she’s seen in her kids since the beginning of the pandemic. “They really have truly enjoyed extra family time… They really appreciate the connectedness that we all have at this moment,” she said. “I wouldn’t be with them as much if not for the pandemic. They’re much more independent. Growth like that can happen because you have a little freedom.”
Thomas and Amy also addressed family time as a newfound joy of quarantine. “The silver lining of all of this is having this time with my kids when I know that I’m never going to get this back. I’m trying to relish that as best as possible,” said Amy. “I feel like maybe my anger at the world would be more [pronounced] if I wasn’t surrounded by my happy kids all day.”
Maintaining and monitoring their and their kids’ mental health has been a big focus for these stay/work-at-home parents. Thomas explained, “A benefit [for health] is having access to the outdoors and exercising a lot more. Not having to commute has improved mental health because we have… had more control over our time.”
Tori explained how she’s handled the task of monitoring her family’s well-being. “We talk a lot about our feelings, we have an almost daily check in. It’s ok if we are having a bad day or a hard time. We’re making sure we’re staying happy and healthy.”
Thomas advised other parents going through the hardships of being at home. “Maintain the perspective that this is an ability to be with your kids for such an extended period. Take full advantage [of that] … even when times are tough,” he said. “It’s not easy but looking back, I think most people will be happy that they were able to have quality time with them.”
Amy praised her kids’ reactions to the news of COVID. “They are so jovial… We’ve explained that there’s a sickness out there which has caused us to change things. It was a one- or two-time conversation, and… it clicked for them!” she said. “My two-year-old wears a mask better than some adults.”
Talking to these stay-at-home parents opened my eyes to how the pandemic and resulting quarantine has forced everyone to become more resourceful and mindful. Their resilience and strength in a time of tragedy and turmoil gives me hope, and I hope it inspires, comforts, and validates others who are navigating similar situations.