The majority of parents “have no idea how they are going to keep their child occupied all summer.”
Here in New York, there are three days left in the school year. While my family limps toward the finish line — the children are taking their Zoom classes flopped on the couch, and my husband and I are exhausted by the daily meltdowns over “realistic fiction writing” and Popsicle-stick boats that won’t float — we are even more overwhelmed by what’s to come: A summer without regular professional child care or camp to occupy our 7- and 3-year-olds, while we continue to work full time.
My husband and I moved in with my parents in May, so we would have some kind of child care support. But after a month of part-time babysitting, my parents, who are in their 70s, are starting to burn out, too. While I know that we’re lucky and privileged to still have jobs, and to have healthy parents with space for us in their home, I try not to think more than a week ahead. Otherwise, I ruminate on the distinct possibility that we will continue remote learning in the fall, and then begin to despair at how unsustainable our arrangement is for the long run.
My colleague Farhad Manjoo wrote a piece about how parents were burning out in April.
Now it’s June. And the stress and exhaustion are not going away. Finding summer child-care coverage has always been difficult and expensive, making it out of reach for many families. But this summer, that juggle feels impossible.
As states open up and more and more parents are called back to work, many are finding that their day care centers are still closed and may be at risk of never reopening. Even when child care is available, many parents are anxious about sending their children back into an environment where they are potentially at risk of contracting coronavirus. Millions of parents are losing their jobs either temporarily or permanently. Lower-income, black and Hispanic parents have been disproportionally affected by job loss, and they are anxious about meeting their children’s basic needs.
A survey called “Stress in the Time of Covid-19,” conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association from April 24 to May 4, found that 46 percent of parents with children under 18 said their stress level was high, compared with 28 percent of adults without children.
The A.P.A. did a second survey from May 21 to June 3 that found while 69 percent of parents were looking forward to the school year being over, 60 percent said they were struggling to keep their children busy, and 60 percent said they “they have no idea how they are going to keep their child occupied all summer.”
Robin G. Nelson, an associate professor of anthropology at Santa Clara University and the mom of an 8-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, is burned out both personally and professionally.
“The days are packed and incredibly monotonous, and I am not productive,” she said. Her husband is also a professor, and she has child care help two days a week from her mother-in-law. Their schedules are fairly flexible — in general, he watches the kids in the morning while she works, then they swap after lunch. But it leaves them with a truncated work day in a house with two noisy kids, and the stressors accrue over time.
When the pandemic began, Dr. Nelson was not concerned about its impact on her own children’s mental health, but as it drags on, she worries about her 8-year-old especially. “It’s hard keeping him happy, motivated, and OK since school ended,” she said, because he no longer gets to see his friends and teachers (even virtually) on a regular basis.
Dr. Nelson, who I have known for more than a decade, studies child development and child health outcomes. “People are always raised by a network of adults and support systems,” including extended family, teachers, coaches and community members, she said. “That network of adults and caretakers is essential for every kid, everywhere.”
Now that network has become even more frayed for many families since school ended. Dr. Nelson worries that the most vulnerable parents are already suffering from this lack of social support, since many low-income children have not been able to access distance learning, so have not seen their teachers, caregivers and friends since March.
What Burnout Feels Like
It’s worth noting that “parental burnout” is a distinct psychological phenomenon that is separate from parents feeling generally stressed and exhausted. To get a diagnosis of parental burnout, you need the following four symptoms: You feel so exhausted you can’t get out of bed in the morning, you become emotionally detached from your children, you take no pleasure or joy in parenting, and it is a marked change in behavior for you.
Dr. Moïra Mikolajczak, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain, surveyed 1,300 French-speaking parents in Belgium about burnout during the pandemic, and said that parents who tended to have more symptoms of burnout were confined with very small children or teenagers, or had children with special needs.
In the United States, black parents are facing additional stressors this summer because of racial discrimination. According to the A.P.A study, 55 percent of black Americans cited discrimination as a source of stress in June, up from 42 percent in May.
Dr. Nelson said that the stress on her as a black mom in the wake of George Floyd’s death has been twofold: She has had to witness her son’s fear for his own safety, and, as an underrepresented minority in her field, she’s also been tasked with doing extra work on behalf of diversity and inclusion efforts professionally.
“It’s always too much, but it feels extra heavy with Covid, because we know black and brown people are dying of Covid,” she said. “If you’re going through a moment where your group is being targeted explicitly in public, and you have any access at all to move the needle, it doesn’t feel responsible to opt out.”
How to Get Through the Summer
While Dr. Nelson is mindful of her own mental health, “I don’t feel like I’m in the best place to make the change I want to make because I’m already worn thin,” she said.
Inger Burnett-Zeigler, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, said that the stresses placed on black parents are unique and can feel overwhelming. She advised that all parents, but in particular black parents, can “take a critical eye at the multiple demands being placed on you at the moment. Consider which of those are serving you and your family, and which demands you can step away from.”
If your kids are not at camp or day care, all of the experts I spoke to said that having some kind of structure to the day is essential, but that structure doesn’t need to feel confining. Nina Essel, a licensed social worker and parent coach based in New Jersey, said that schedules work best when the whole family has similar expectations.
Essel suggested sitting down together and dividing activities into three categories: Nonnegotiables; things you want to see happen; and things you would like to see happen. Though all families have different priorities, in my house a nonnegotiable is that the kids go outside for at least an hour every day, weather permitting. Something I want to see happen is my kids doing something vaguely academic a couple of times a week. Something I’d like to see happen is that my kids make their own lunches. If you have older kids, you can include them in this decision-making, and break out the sticky notes to write down different activities and rearrange them according to family priorities.
Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said that “forcing your brain to think about some of the positives, no matter how small they are,” can help ameliorate burnout. A way to feel more effective is to keep a journal where every night you write down one thing you did well as a parent.
The A.P.A. data suggest that American parents aren’t all miserable, all the time. Eighty-two percent of parents surveyed said they were grateful for the extra time with their kids during the shutdown. Dr. Mikolajczak’s survey of Belgian parents showed that for 30 percent of fathers and 36 percent of mothers stress and exhaustion actually decreased, as parents got to spend more quality time with their children without the pressure of a packed schedule. With pride in her voice, Dr. Nelson described her son doing anthropological digs, clearly finding joy in his explorations. “He’s in the backyard constantly, finding an artifact every day — ‘I think this is bone, this is glass.’”
Dr. Lakshmin said that parents in general, but mothers, especially, should not just consider the risks of the coronavirus, but also the risks to their mental health when it comes to making decisions about finding child care. “When women think about this, we’re so conditioned to put ourselves second and to only think about the risks involved with the virus,” she said. “You really have to actively force yourself to think about, what are the risks for myself from a mental health standpoint? What are the risks to my values?” It’s never an easy calculus.
The camp that Dr. Nelson’s children usually go to is currently open, though she and her husband don’t feel comfortable sending them just yet. They’re waiting to see how the camp handles its first few weeks — whether it is being cleaned rigorously, and whether it is keeping its campers and counselors safe.
“If you send them, you understand you’re putting your family and yourself and the teachers at higher risk,” she said. “Still, I don’t know how we make it through the summer without anything.”