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Challenge: Back to School 2020

The One Thing Missing from Parents’ Plans for the Fall

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As many as 72% of parents with children under five do not have a plan for the fall, according to data collected by Maven. Uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and having so many potential options all make planning feel overwhelming.

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Whether a parent chooses to send their child to school, join a learning pod, purchase a homeschool curriculum, or just wing it, each option comes with its own risks and benefits.

All of those options fail to address one key driver of children’s development: parents.

As a society, we tend to focus more on children’s well-being than on parents. While concerns over the impact of COVID-19 on children’s learning and development are valid, concerns about parents’ well-being are often secondary to that of children.

On the one hand, any option that parents choose for their child in the fall could indirectly benefit them. A homeschool curriculum could provide some relief from having to come up with activities for their toddler every day. Signing up a child for a learning pod or sending them to school could give parents much-needed time for themselves.

However, parents also need direct support. It doesn’t matter how hard a parent tries to support their child; if they are struggling to keep their own mental health afloat, their child won’t reap the full benefits of any program or plan intended to support them.

The Danger of the “Good Parent” Myth During COVID-19

There is this notion that a “good parent” needs to invest themselves fully in their children even at the expense of their own well-being. Although setting aside one’s ambitions and fully devoting oneself to a child’s well-being is an act of self-sacrifice and love, it is not the only way for a parent to love and support their child.

It may come as no surprise that this societal expectation for a good parent tends to be unevenly tipped towards mothers and especially those who work. During COVID-19, working mothers are more likely than fathers to reduce the amount of time they spend working to cover child care duties. Even if this was a conscious choice for some families, it’s a reminder that mothers are often expected to set aside commitments and ambitions to take care of their children.

The danger of trying to live up to the “good parent” standard during COVID-19 is that parents will place their own well-being on the back burner while trying to buffer their children from the stress of the pandemic. Trying to be everything for one’s family - teacher, parent, researcher, lay-pediatrician, breadwinner - takes a toll on parents’ mental health. If a parent neglects their own mental health long enough, they run the risk of becoming burned out, overwhelmed, and exhausted. High levels of stress negatively impact the family dynamic and their child’s home environment. A balanced approach to supporting both one’s children and one’s own mental health can create a buffer for the whole family.

Three ways for parents to boost their mental health and feel replenished, supported and informed:

  • Replenished. Research has shown that self care is anything but selfish. When a parent invests in themself, they’re investing in their family. When one parent spends time exercising, doing something replenishing, or even just sleeping more, it helps family members feel closer to one another, argue less, and feel happier. Taking care of oneself, helps parents be more patient and present throughout the day. Not only does this directly improve a parent’s well-being, but it also creates an optimal learning environment for children.

  • Supported. Results from a survey we conducted of over 500 parents early in the pandemic underscore the importance of support networks. A support network can take many forms whether it is one confidante or an organized group. Regardless of what it looks like, a support network is a safe space for a parent to voice their concerns without fear of judgement. For parents who are already overwhelmed, the notion of organizing a regularly meeting parent group may feel like an added burden. Joining parent group therapy may be helpful for parents looking for a support system to lean on without having to organize it themselves.

  • Informed. A recent study of parenting during the pandemic found that parents who feel a greater sense of control have lower stress levels. Feeling in control can come from feeling informed. However, in an era of unlimited access to information through the web, it can be difficult to sift through parenting advice to find trustworthy information. This is why we started Scientific Mommy, and we hope that parents can find some comfort in knowing that the information we share is grounded in evidence.

Planning for this fall is overwhelming for many parents given how many choices there are and how much uncertainty is tied to each choice. Regardless of what a parent decides to do, their own mental health should be central to their plan. When a parent focuses on their own mental health, it enables them to be an effective teacher and a stabilizing force for their family.

References

Brown, S. M., Doom, J., Watamura, S. E., Lechuga-Pena, S., & Koppels, T. (2020). Stress and Parenting during the Global COVID-19 Pandemic. Child Abuse & Neglect.

Collins, C., Landivar, L.C., Ruppanner, L., & Scarborough, W.J. (2020). COVID‐19 and the gender gap in work hours. Gender, Work, & Organization.

Feinberg, M. E., Jones, D. E, McDaniel, B. T., Liu, S, & Almeida, D. (2019). New fathers’ and mothers’ daily stressors and resources influence parent adjustment and family relationships. In B. L. Volling & N. J. Cabrera (Eds.), Advancing research and measurement on fathering and children’s development. Monographs of the Society of Research in Child Development, 84(1), 18–34.

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