We need to keep a steadfast perspective: this is not our fault. What is being asked of us is necessary, but unreasonable. It is hard because of that, not because we have somehow not figured out the trick to doing it well. We are good. Our children are good. We want to come out of this holding each other close, if not physically, then emotionally. That is the most important thing. We all need to be held close.
A lot is being asked of us as parents at the moment. Managing school-at-home and work-at-home, working parents are running the risk of being “ground up in the gears” as the world of work and the world of schooling collide in the privacy of our home.
It’s an understatement that we are living in very troubling times. We must count ourselves as some of the most lucky if we are healthy, and employed. Here in Australia, in some parts of the country there was a collective sigh of relief as our children returned to face-to-face learning. But other places are not doing so well, shifting into extensive lock-downs again, with even young people in the final year of school being sent home.
School at home?
There’s something deeply worrying about the silence and lack of detail about the effect of having our children do school-at-home. At the same time as we have been asked to supervise our children’s education, many of us are working from home to avoid the pandemic, or working like dogs in essential services keeping everything going in the face of the pandemic. By and large, work is a system that has developed on the back of the great child-minding service that the education system provides, along, of course with all the educating (we hope) that also happens in schools. But how are we to work and be our children’s teachers at the same time?
Work and family collide
As this parent says so eloquently, we working parents are running the risk of being “ground up in the gears” as the world of work and the world of schooling collide in the privacy of our home: “Let me say the quiet part loud: In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.”
It’s always been the same: working life doesn’t take much account of family life, and family life is squeezed around work. But this is worse – we are supposed to be doing both at the same time. The truth is that work doesn’t leave a lot of time for supervision of young people, let alone educating them. Having children around takes time. A lot of it. But at the moment, we parents are just expected to absorb this pressure, and to turn ourselves into our children’s teachers as if that is straightforward.
School is different at home
It’s not. The rules at home are different from the rules at school. Our relationship to our children is not as their teacher. The tantrum they chuck in the face of having to knuckle down to schoolwork, or the distractions they find as our attention is pulled away to manage our working day, are not the same tantrums or distractions that would happen at school.
They show us how they feel
Apart from anything else, if you’ve been following Hand in Hand , this blog, or my work, likely as not you are interested in, and have made some efforts towards, helping your children show you how they feel. You’ve created the emotional safety in your relationship with your children, such that when they have to “get down to it”, what they may get down to is the business of releasing a bunch of feelings. About schoolwork, about the lockdown, about missing their friends, about your distractedness…About many, many things. About the state of the world.
If they were at school, 95% chance it would not be so safe, and they’d be getting down to whatever it is that happens at school. Many of us wish that school, in general, had a little more emotional safety. But teaching ratios, teacher training, and heavy expectations of the results that are to be achieved by mass schooling, don’t really allow for much of that.
We’ve worked hard to create emotional safety
So, in what is fast becoming “the old normal”, when our children were going off to school, we parents had the job of unpacking their emotional backpack once they got home. We would connect – perhaps with Special Time, perhaps with some snack and a cuddle, perhaps with a quiet drive home and some shared music and a chat. Perhaps with a limit – getting kids back on track – and listening to the upset that often follows. In this way, we allow our children to resolve emotional tensions they may have accumulated while away from us.
That’s part of the job of raising children that we really have control over. Piecing them back together again; helping them download their emotional backpack so that they have the resilience and fortitude to face another day, hopefully with a fresh capacity to problem solve. That’s one part of the parenting job that I understand and accept. The part that is about building emotional safety.
But I have trouble accepting that I’m supposed to replicate at home what normally happens at school, and I resent the implication that I should. I resent the silence about the fact that our children, except if they are very lucky, will miss out on some of the curriculum. That school, and its often-gruelling pace, can’t and should not be replicated at home.
Where is the message, communicated resoundingly and with conviction: “please do the best you can as you try to fit in work and parenting at the same time. But please, keep your relationships with your children in good shape. And please don’t give yourselves a hard time.”?
The “sharp end” of public policy
Families are where the sharp end of social policy often lands. Something happens out in the world, and inside our family we feel the shockwaves, if not the earthquake itself. The way the world is organised is to some extent forced on families. This could be due to current events and crises, but also generations of policy development and implementation. Often, these are things we did not think much about before we became parents (such as the how education system is organised, for instance). Most of us didn’t really have a choice about the circumstances under which we parent, and a world-wide pandemic brings this home to even the most privileged of us.
Transformed into our personal problem
The main problem is not necessarily that these things have been forced on us. It’s that these circumstances-we-did-not-choose are transformed into our personal problem. And if we don’t manage them well, we feel they are our personal failing. These huge, powerful social forces and events play out in the privacy of our own home, in the intimacy of our closest, most important relationships. It feels very personal, even though in fact, it’s often just as much political.
As parents, we are often so busy trying to handle what is thrown at us that we don’t notice that many the families around us are struggling with the same things, more or less. We don’t notice that maybe it is a problem with the system, not a problem with us, our parenting, or our child.
We feel bad
I have not met a parent who does not feel bad about this. We become convinced that because we have not been able to manage things, that we are bad parents. We feel bad for not managing screen time, nutrition, friendship issues, homework, schoolwork, paid work, physical activity, fears, shynesses, aggression, sharing, sleeping, eating…and school-at-home.
You name it, all parents have at some time felt bad about it. That awful gut-wrenching agony of feeling that we have failed those we love most, or the heartbreak that our relationships with our children are mired in difficulty that we don’t really understand and can’t see a path out of.
A policy decision
I think that’s one of the big raw deals of parenting. That the expectations of what we should do are often based on wrong assumptions, and so don’t work the way we need them to, and then we bash ourselves up. I think we almost have to make a “policy decision” not to give ourselves a hard time. There’s stuff we have yet to figure out how to handle, and mistakes we have to fix up, and various other “impossible binds”, but we don’t get to give ourselves a hard time…And sometimes, we can decide not to meet those expectations…
We can relax a bit
Some of us are beginning to get this. I heard a mother interviewed for the news yesterday, facing a pretty intense lockdown again due to the virus. She said “I’m not going to go so hard this time with the kids. I took it all very seriously last time [in an earlier period of lockdown], but I think I need to relax a bit more. We’ll all have to figure a lot of stuff out on the other side of this.”
“We are limiting screen time to 60 Minutes per hour at the moment” quips children’s author and illustrator, Jarrett Krososcka, parent of children aged 11, 8 and 3, on the Podcast “Parent Trapped”.
I moderate a group for parents of pre-teens and teens, and screen time is a constant source of tension, but Michael Robb, father of two, and director of research at Common Sense Media, says in the same podcast “Don’t feel guilty about the time your kids are spending with media right now”. The research suggests it is not as simple as how long children are on screens, but the context and content are important…”the more that we can harness media and technology to help kids be social and to be doing the things that we know are good for child development, I think the better off we’re going to be.” And he suggests that if, on the other side of this, your kids watching too much Netflix was the worst thing that happened, then you probably did pretty well during this crisis.
You are a good parent
So in the face of this challenge, know that you are a good parent. That you are doing the very best that you can, if all the circumstances are taken into account. Decide to enjoy your precious resilient children. Even if that means you give up on school-at-home, and perhaps give up, or at least ease up, on many things that might once have seemed important. (If you need to, you might even lie on the floor with your legs in the air. I promise it will change the dynamic, at least for a while). Perhaps ease up on in-principle screen-time restrictions and instead notice how your children are using the media in positive and powerful ways. Notice, too, when the screen time is really dragging them down, and do something to connect with them then.
There will be time, on the other side of whatever the challenge of this pandemic is, to pick up things we have had to drop, to reconsider, re-orient, readjust, repair, recover.
And it’s emotional
This difficulty must not be reduced to an emotional concern, as if there are not powerful social forces at play which are causing us to feel overwhelmed. This state of things is most definitely not our fault or our private problem to be dismissed.
But this parenting challenge, like all parenting challenges, has an emotional component. We will need spaces, more than ever, where we can talk honestly about how hard this feels, spaces and relationships where we can think through the challenges, unravel the knots of emotion they pull up, and show how hard it feels, outside the hearing of our children, that this is what the world has come to.
Find someone to talk to about it. Sometimes just being able to let our hearts break about how hard it all is helps us to rise to the next challenge…
But while we do that, we need to keep a steadfast perspective: this is not our fault. What is being asked of us is necessary, but unreasonable. It is hard because of that, not because we have somehow not figured out the trick to doing it well. We are good. Our children are good. We want to come out of this holding each other close, if not physically, then emotionally. That is the most important thing. We all need to be held close.
Go well, dear parents.
Perelman, D. (2020, July 02). In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both. Retrieved August 03, 2020.
Common Sense Media (2020, May 06). Podcast “Parent Trapped”: Screentime, Scribble Time, Space-Out Time.
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© 2020 by Madeleine Winter