On the exceptional challenges of ‘pandemic parenting’
By Liz Elmquist
Lately, I have been reflecting on what it means to be a “pandemic parent,” a phrase I was resistant to using until recently. Every day, my lived experience of pandemic parenting is a little bit different. Of course, the experience varies based on the age of one’s children, employment status, socioeconomic status, levels of support and many other factors. On most days, for me, being a pandemic parent boils down to simply — and not so simply — showing up for my kids.
What does this look like? Sometimes, it means not having energy to make my 3-year-old change out of her pajamas and letting her binge-watch “Thomas the Train,” meanwhile observing her deep sense of contentment with the outcome of my exhaustion. Other times, it’s putting my phone down (I’m still working on this) and being fully present with my 3½ -month-old as she coos and communicates with me in her own special way that someday we’ll both understand. For other parents, it means forgoing a meal so their child can eat or losing a job because they have been forced to stay home to care for their child or children.
In late 2020, after surviving many months of confusion, lockdowns, heartache, political upheaval and only seeing people’s eyeballs, my husband and I cautiously, but optimistically, began discussing the possibility of having another child. We assumed the worst was behind us and were hopeful there would be some sort of return to “normal.” We consciously began to imagine adding to our family and agreed this was something we wanted — a decision with a self-imposed deadline because of my age and other factors. When I found out I was pregnant in early March 2021, we were beyond ecstatic, but also somewhat scared, as it was becoming clear that normal was some distant land to which we would never return. Not only would I be a “pandemic parent,” but now I would also have a “pandemic baby.” The thought made me shudder. Surely, we must be crazy, I remember thinking.
My pregnancy progressed in both fast and slow motion, and an undertone of fear and worry was ever-present like a kind of white noise. What would the future hold for my baby? I never imagined I would have a baby during a global pandemic while raising a toddler who hasn’t had a birthday party in two years. While I have known people who have died from COVID, we thankfully have not experienced any losses within our immediate family. For many people, life has returned to full swing.
However, for those of us with children under 5, daily life continues to feel fraught with challenges. I didn’t want to embrace the label of pandemic parenting, and yet, what was so wrong with it? After all, am I not just raising children in what is at any time a wild and discombobulating experience, or is pandemic parenting truly a different beast altogether? So far, my conclusion is it’s a different beast.
The American Psychological Association states, “Parenting practices around the world share three major goals: ensuring children’s health and safety, preparing for life as productive adults and transmitting cultural values. A high-quality parent-child relationship is critical for healthy development.” If part of my role as a parent is to ensure the health and safety of my children, how do I accomplish this in the midst of a virus that is thriving and spreading like a wildfire? Every outing has become a carefully orchestrated encounter where I have to assess risk and safety. There are times when I think, “Surely it would be easier if we all contracted COVID and just got it over with,” but then I worry about how it would affect my kids, particularly my infant.
There is no guidebook for how to be a pandemic parent, and few of us would say our relationships with our children are “high-quality” right now. Many of us have hit rock bottom and are functioning from a place of deep, deep exhaustion. Every time I receive a notification from my older daughter’s school, I hold my breath, worrying it will be another announcement about a school closure. While this is a privilege many do not have, I have chosen not to return to work for the foreseeable future so I can care for our baby and also be available for our toddler when her school continues to experience closures. My professional goals are on the back burner as I juggle caring for an infant and a toddler, much like taming a circus, while my husband works in the other room.
It’s easy to focus on all the ways I feel I am drowning, but I have to redirect my energy to something a little less grim. Otherwise, the helplessness would swallow me whole and I wouldn’t be able to continue to nurture and provide for my kids. In reality, pandemic parenting has brought to the surface a new kind of resiliency. I have always thought of parents and children as highly resilient — there have always been challenging moments where parents have had to figure out how to respond, adapt and get creative with how they continue to provide for their kids. The word “elasticity” comes to mind, only this time parents are being stretched in new ways and there is no returning to our original shape. We are being stretched into something new — something bigger than we ever imagined. And yes, it is ugly and messy and painful and disorienting, but maybe, just maybe it’s not all bad. The question then becomes, how can I — how can we as parents — continue to show up for our kids?
I don’t know the ending to this story, but I do know that my kids still need me to find ways to be present and to model something other than fear, worry or despair. To my fellow pandemic parents: We didn’t ask for this extra burden, but it’s here, and we have to keep going.
I say this to you as I say it to myself: Remember you are good enough and you are doing the best you can even when it may not feel like enough. Keep holding on tight to the ways you can show up for your kids and try to let go of expectations of yourself. Remember you are not alone. I see you, hear you and feel you in this struggle. Having a “high-quality parent-child relationship” right now means continuing to love and be present to the best of your abilities.
I am a pandemic parent. I have no other choice. I chose to parent and so here I am, like it or not. Choosing to bring a child into the world right now, as crazy as it may seem, has also offered many beautiful moments, as I learn to love differently now as a mother of two.
So, as most parents are overwhelmed by the chaos around us, we are all being asked not only to love differently, but to parent differently. Maybe someday, years from now, we’ll look back and the word resilient will have a whole new meaning and those of us labeled “pandemic parents” will be looked upon as some of the most courageous and adaptable souls to date.
Liz Elmquist lives in Santa Fe with her husband, Dana, and daughters, Luna and Della. A former professional dancer turned clinical social worker with specialties in palliative and end-of-life care and postpartum support. She is currently completing a certification to become a postpartum care provider with the goal of serving families in northern New Mexico.