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Pandemic Parenting: Reflections on Summer 2020

Words by: Kat Peterson

Around this time four years ago, the world around us came to an eery halt.

How would you describe the first year of the pandemic? For many, it was a time when chaos reigned supreme; a time when uncertainty, fear, and confusion gripped hold of our communities. So many changes took place: in-person to remote, employment to unemployment, flexibility to restriction. In a way, the first year of the pandemic was a testament to the resilience people are able to muster under the most unusual of conditions. It was also a time of opportunity for some, in which creativity, new hobbies, and family time were able to be enjoyed.

During this period of the pandemic, families from various backgrounds agreed to participate in our study. We decided to check back in with participating families following their completion of the study to invite them to reflect on Summer 2020, and how they coped with parenting during a pandemic. During these conversations, topics ranged significantly, but in general families pointed to 4 categories that most affected their parenting during that pivotal period of the pandemic.

#1: Childcare

The amount of childcare that families had access to during Summer 2020 and the study period differed considerably. School closures, fears of contagion, and money worries kept some from being able to have the same level of childcare as before. Caregivers of children with unique needs shared a heightened sense of stress about their children receiving proper care, with government resources not always being adequate. Some families were able to continue taking their children to daycare (sometimes with limited hours), hire a nanny for at-home care, or maintain stay-at-home parent or family care. A common theme among caregivers who discussed having childcare during this time was a feeling of being fortunate, and also a feeling of guilt for having access to a resource that others might not. Most caregivers shared that they enjoyed having more direct time with their children, but admitted it was challenging to balance with working from home and completing other tasks for the household. Without the break that outside childcare can offer, many parents expressed feeling burned out and stressed about their ability to be a responsible employee or good parent. Overall, caregivers expressed that childcare was a main concern during this first chapter of the pandemic.

#2: Family

Families underwent a series of changes that, under “normal” circumstances, would be demanding, but under the “abnormal” conditions the early pandemic posed, gained intensity. Families moved during this time, were expecting a new baby, experienced relationship changes, lost jobs, or experienced trauma. For those expecting children, access to prenatal healthcare was a point of stress, with appointments taking place online and fear mounting about delivering in risky medical settings. Prolonged time at home together tested partnerships and several families discussed noticing cracks in their marriages or relationships, either resulting in therapy, divorce, or even violence. Among participating families, a few experienced job losses within the family which produced anxiety about money and the wellbeing of the household. Certainly, all of these factors could have had an impact on how caregivers interacted with their children, with some families stating that changes in their personal family lives did in fact have a profound effect on their ability to be mentally present for their children.

#3: Activities

Government restrictions and quarantine measures meant that many of our favorite activities outside of home were unavailable or extremely limited. Families had to adapt to a life mainly inside the home, and become creative with the time spent indoors. Families said they longed for park playdates and events for children, and felt frustrated by their children’s shrinking worlds and lack of socialization. For some, more time at home meant more time drawn to screens such as TV, social media scrolling, and playing on tablets, which parents said tended to make them feel negatively about their children’s development and how engaged they were as a parent. This is why bath time, while described as a chore by some caregivers, was also described as an opportunity to spend quality time with their children free from distractions such as screens. A couple of families even shared that the study gave them more structure to their bath times and to their days. By thinking about the activities that they could do with their children (or lack thereof), caregivers were faced with another stressor that could have certainly affected their interactions with their children throughout the day.

#4: (Lack of) Support

Parenting during isolation understandably felt very lonely and detached for many caregivers. COVID surely brought its own set of new challenges when it came to parenting, but as our discussions with families highlighted, there have always been challenges with raising young children independent from the pandemic. However, the lack of socialization made it more difficult to connect with other parents in the same situation. Numerous families named parent support groups as a resource that would have benefited from during this time to discuss everything from behavior management to activity ideas (see above) to maintaining a work/life balance to normalizing diverse parent experiences.

Families also mentioned economic support as an important factor in feeling stable. They pointed to stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment, food pantries, and other local initiatives as vital to their being able to maintain a healthy and safe household. Other resources parents said would have made caregiving or interacting with their children easier include: appropriate special needs support, credible information about the under 5 age group from the government, online events, local newsletters detailing activities for different age groups, access to more mental health support, and more childcare options.

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As we can see, experiences varied during this critical time in the pandemic, but from the discussions we were able to have with participating families, we found that there were some common themes that affected families on a broader level. The key takeaways we were able to take from these conversations are 1) that caregivers experience both internal and external environmental factors (for example, burn out and financial strain, respectively) that affect their interactions with the rest of their family, and 2) that while every family’s circumstances are unique, there are common resources that most families would have found useful to ease the burden that the early pandemic placed on them.


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