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Parents Are Not OK

The author's son, Oliver, watches his tablet on the family's living room couch, which was in the process of becoming a fort. (Courtesy of Chloe I. Cooney)
The author's son, Oliver, watches his tablet on the family's living room couch, which was in the process of becoming a fort. (Courtesy of Chloe I. Cooney)

“I just want to cry.”

“Are we permanently ruining and psychologically damaging him?”

This was an actual conversation my wife and I had last Friday morning. I had just gotten off a work call and my brain was ticking through follow up items adding to a long list of untouched to dos. I’d found my wife multi-tasking an onslaught of incoming work questions she was fielding during her “homeschool” time — in which our son refused to partake. Instead, he huddled in an increasingly secure fort, refusing to do anything (color, read, go outside, talk to his teacher, etc…) besides sit in silence in the dark or watch his iPad.

We both felt guilty for the work we were not doing — and aching for the way our son was struggling and needed us to be present and calm. Exactly what our current schedule running back and forth between work calls, requests and parenting — not to mention life in a pandemic — prohibited. (Later, as I took over the homeschool shift and he stormed upstairs to cry, he told me it was because I had stopped smiling at him. Knife, meet heart.)

This is really hard.

What’s amazing to me is how consistent this struggle is among every parent I talk to. The texts and social media posts bouncing around my circle all echo each other. We feel like we’re failing at both. Our kids don’t just need us — they need more of us. Our kids are acting out, abandoning the routines they already had, dropping naps, sleeping less, doing less — except for jumping on top of their parents, which is happening much more. We’re letting them have far more screen time than we ever thought we’d tolerate. Forget homeschooling success — most of us are struggling to get our kids to do what we would have considered the bare minimum in pre-pandemic terms.

... what’s missing is acknowledgment that this situation is fundamentally farcical. And individual solutions don’t — won’t — work.

Which is not to say people are not trying to do better. My inbox, social media feeds and countertops are filled with creative ideas. Workbooks, games, creative projects and experiments, yoga, doodling, virtual zoo visits, virtual everything.

But I am too tired and stretched too thin to even read the suggestions, let alone try them.

The other common thing I see besides “helpful suggestions” is reminders to be gentle on ourselves. “Embrace imperfection!” “Lower your standards!” To be clear — my family’s standards at this point are simply to get through the day, ideally with my son doing anything besides watching tv, and us not utterly sabotaging our work.

But what’s missing is acknowledgment that this situation is fundamentally farcical. And individual solutions don’t — won’t — work.

I thought by week four we would have all settled into the new normal. But for my family (and others I’ve spoken to) that is not the case — things are harder than they were at the beginning. Harder because we’ve all accrued anxiety, stress and sadness over this period — my to-do list is longer and further untouched; my guilt and anxiety for the ways my son is not being engaged enough greater; my son’s apparent sadness for his whole world shifting more intense and the acting out more regular; and our collective exhaustion all the deeper.

This cannot be solved by tweaks to the schedule and virtual activities. We have to collectively recognize that parents — and any caregivers right now — have less to give at work. A lot less.

At the same time, I’ve started to glean from conversations around me and online that as parental protests have quieted (because we’re too damn busy) so has awareness of the plight — assumptions seem to be that parents have “settled into a groove” and “are doing OK now.”

To be clear, parents are not doing ok.

It’s important to stipulate at this juncture a couple things:

First, everyone is grieving and struggling right now. When I’m not pulling my hair out, I’m trying to be grateful that I am with my family, that those I love are healthy and safe, and that I am not enduring this period in total isolation.

Second, the particular struggle I articulate reflects the most privileged perspective — that of two fully employed adults, sharing the burden, without fear of losing our jobs. Put another way, I’m not worried about how I’m going to feed my family.

But it’s precisely the privilege of my vantage point that makes it so stark. This is the best-case scenario?

Viruses — pandemics — expose and exacerbate the existing dynamics of society — good and bad. They are like a fun-house mirror, grossly reflecting ourselves back to us. One of those dynamics is the burden we put on individual parents and families. We ask individuals to solve for problems that are systemic.

Everything from the lack of paid sick and parental leave to the fact that the school day ends at 3 p.m. when the typical work day goes several hours longer (yet aftercare is not universally available). And that’s saying nothing of the fact that we need universal healthcare, irrespective of employment. Parents pour endless energy into solving for systems that don’t make sense and don’t work.

It’s always been absurd to think about family responsibilities as “personal business” that gets handled outside of work hours. From getting kids to pediatrician appointments to the onslaught of sick days when cold season hits to school closures and parent-teacher conferences — we just hide it better and work overtime to make it work. (And again, the ability to “make it work” is only even possible for those with the most privilege.)

We are expected to work from home full time. And care for our children full time ... It is not possible and we all are suffering under the illusion that it is.

Yet this current situation is almost prophetically designed to showcase the farce of our societal approach to separating work and family lives:

We are expected to work from home full time. And care for our children full time. And we cannot have anyone outside our immediate household help. It is not possible and we all are suffering under the illusion that it is.

Our kids are losing out — on peace of mind, education, engagement, the socialization for which they are built.

Our employers are losing out, too. Whether the office policy is to expect full-time work (a friend’s employer magnanimously offered working hours could be anytime in a 24-hour period — I guess implying the midnight to 8 a.m. shift could solve this problem?) or whether, like in my experience, we are offered a lot of flexibility — work is less good, there is less of it, and returns will be diminishing the longer this drags on.

But parents are suffering. And we will also be so burnt out when this is over that we will be a far less effective cohort.

I’m not sure what the solution is. But unless we step back and redefine where the burden of responsibility lies in providing care for our most vulnerable and reprioritize what work matters, we are going to emerge from this pandemic with some of our most powerful forces — parents and young people — not up for the task of rebuilding a better future.

And in the meantime, remember this: parents are not OK.

Chloe Cooney is an advocate and writer focused on expanding access to sexual and reproductive health and rights in the U.S. and around the world. She lives in Washington, DC with her wife and son. A version of this essay was originally posted on Medium.

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