clock menu more-arrow no yes
The ever-shifting demands of parenting in a pandemic are leading to stress, anxiety, and depression.
Getty Images

The parental burnout crisis has reached a tipping point

“I don’t know anyone that is not struggling” at this point in the pandemic, one mom says.

The past few weeks have been an especially hard part of an already hard year for Alison Wathen. There was a Covid-19 outbreak at her twins’ day care center, meaning her 11-month-old son and daughter were home — and needing all the undivided attention a baby needs, times two — while she and her husband traded off working. But now her husband’s company wants employees to come back to work in person and she doesn’t know when — or what precautions they’ll take to keep them safe. On top of it all, two of her uncles and her 91-year-old grandmother have been hospitalized with Covid-19.

Wathen, like many parents around the country, is trying to hang in there while struggling with the isolation, uncertainty, and sadness that are practically the definition of parenting in 2020. But she — again, like so many — has been scrambling to find fixes to whatever crisis comes next, pushing through day care shutdowns, scheduling nightmares, and family illnesses for nine months now, with little relief in sight.

When the pandemic first hit, her twins were less than 4 months old and she was still dealing with postpartum depression. She and her husband uprooted their family from their home outside Chicago to live with her parents in Michigan, so they could help with child care. Now they’re back in Illinois, and the kids are back in day care. But Wathen and her husband have used up all of their paid time off, so if the twins need to come out of day care again due to rising Covid-19 rates, the family may have to go back to Michigan yet again.

While her postpartum depression has since cleared, “it’s just normal depression now,” she says. “It’s been a long-ass road.”

Millions of parents were already burned out by the demands of pandemic child-rearing in April. Summer, with school out and many camps closed, brought no relief. Then came fall, with many parents juggling the ins and outs of remote learning — and a staggering 865,000 women, many of them moms, dropping out of the workforce. Now it’s December, and parents are still in the same situation they were thrust into nine months ago: trying to balance work, child care, education, and keeping their families safe as a pandemic rages virtually unchecked around them.

“I don’t know anyone that is not struggling,” Susannah Lago, a mom, business owner, and founder of the group Working Moms of Milwaukee, told Vox.

While some parents, like Wathen and her husband, have been able to get help with child care, that’s often come at a cost of greater uncertainty — how long will the school stay open? Is it safe? What are the pros and cons of keeping a child at home?

“It’s like there’s no right decision you can make,” Lago said.

The ever-shifting demands of parenting in a pandemic are leading to stress, anxiety, and depression, not to mention economic hardship for those forced to leave their jobs to care for kids. And while some parents are figuring out ways to lighten their burden, many say what’s needed are systemic changes to work, education, and child care in America.

But that’s unlikely to happen in the next few months. And so many parents have been left to fend for themselves, with their reserves of strength, energy, positivity — and sleep — long tapped out.

Getty Images

In the spring, millions of parents became teachers overnight

Beginning in March, schools and day cares in all 50 states closed their doors in an effort to stem the spread of Covid-19. The result: Parents around the country were suddenly forced to care for their children full time, and often supervise their online learning, all while continuing to do their own jobs in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Then they just kept doing it for nine more months.

To say parents are struggling is an understatement. Sixty-three percent say the pandemic made the 2019-2020 school year extremely stressful for them, according to an August survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association. In the same survey, 77 percent of parents of 8- to 12-year-olds said that uncertainty about the 2020-2021 school year was causing them stress.

And that was before the school year even started. Now, many parents are watching arrangements they once hoped were temporary — caring for kids during the day and working late into the night, splitting up work shifts with partners, moving in with grandparents in order to get child care — stretch through the winter and beyond. “The longer all this goes on, the harder it is,” Mary Alvord, a DC-area psychologist who has worked with the APA on its stress surveys, told Vox.

On top of it all, parents have had to contend with the stress of continual school closures and reopenings this fall as districts try to navigate rising cases in their communities and quarantine of students and staff exposed to the virus. For example, over the course of three weeks, New York City shut down all of its schools, reconsidered, and has now reopened most but not all elementary schools.

All the changes are leading to “a lot of disruption and a lot of confusion” for parents, Linda Citlali Halgunseth, a parenting researcher and professor at the University of Connecticut, told Vox. “There’s just a lot on their plate.”

“If I was to think of one word, I would say guilt,” says Dawn Demps, a doctoral student at Arizona State University who’s finishing her dissertation while homeschooling her 16-year-old son and helping her 8-year-old daughter with remote elementary school. “You feel like you’re not doing enough.”

In particular, Demps regrets that her kids aren’t able to spend time with other kids or go to the playground — since she has multiple sclerosis, her family has to be especially careful about Covid-19 precautions. “You have to understand, Mommy could get sick,” Demps tells her 8-year-old. But for her, as a mom, there’s “a lot of guilt in that.”

While some families did find relief when the weather warmed and kids and parents alike were able to socialize outdoors, colder temperatures now are making even this outlet difficult, and parents’ mental health is suffering. “I’ve definitely seen a drop in mood in terms of sadness, more isolation, and more family tension,” Alvord said.

The isolation is taking its toll on Wathen and her family. Now “instead of arguing with my mother” like she did when they were living with her parents, “I’m arguing with my husband,” she said. Being unable to see anyone outside the family, “we’ve reached a level of exhaustion,” she said.

Not being able to introduce their babies to extended family has been especially hard. When they Skype with relatives, her daughter “keeps trying to hug her grandparents and great-grandparents through the screen.”

Getty Images

Parents are caring for kids full time while trying to do their jobs. It’s taking its toll.

As they try to manage their children’s education and questions about when they will see loved ones again, many parents are also trying to work, something that hasn’t gotten any easier since the pandemic began. In fact, research shows Americans have actually worked more hours per week since March.

For Lago, whose two children have been at home since the spring, pandemic working parenthood means being “the primary person in terms of the schooling assistance, and then at the same time trying to manage my business and getting back to clients.” Nine months in, there are some things she doesn’t spend time worrying about anymore, like whether her son is falling behind in remote school — she figures he’s learning a lot by spending time with his family anyway.

Other things, though, have stayed just as hard. It’s “the managing everything,” Lago says, even down to domestic duties like laundry. “You kind of decide what’s important in the moment and you can focus on that and do a good job with that, but something else has got to give, and something else will.”

For parents working on the front lines of the pandemic, meanwhile, household stresses are combined with the daily fear of contracting Covid-19. Tierney Konitzer’s partner, a critical care nurse, had to live apart from her and their 3-year-old daughter for several weeks during the spring surge in their part of Wisconsin. It was “terrifying” for her and hard on their daughter — “we had huge behavioral issues with her because she didn’t understand why she couldn’t see her daddy, why she couldn’t hug her daddy.”

The family is back living together, and Konitzer’s partner, who works weekends, is able to care for their daughter for much of the week. But with cases climbing to record levels around the country, Konitzer fears another separation is coming soon.

And even now, it’s not easy. Getting work done at home with her daughter doing remote preschool in the basement is a challenge, to say the least. “It’s hard to get the work done just because mom instinct kicks in,” Konitzer said. “Also, it’s just loud.”

“I feel guilty that she wants me and I have to say no over and over and over again, and I feel guilty that I’m distracted from my work and not feeling like I’m giving 100 percent of myself to my job,” she added.

Meanwhile, balancing the demands of work and family has simply become untenable for some families — or their employers have made it so. Kari McCracken, for example, told Vox’s Bryce Covert earlier this fall that she was called back to her job at a bottling company in June after being furloughed but couldn’t find child care for her kids. As a result, the company let her go. “It crushed me,” she said.

Lack of child care is likely a big reason more than 850,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September — more than in any other month on record except for this April, Covert reports. Overall, moms have borne a bigger share of the pandemic parenting burden than dads, with 80 percent of mothers of kids under 12 saying they are responsible for the majority of distance learning in their homes in one April survey. And single moms have been the hardest-hit of all: The share of unpartnered moms in the workforce dropped from 76.1 percent in September 2019 to 67.4 percent in September 2020, a significantly larger drop than those seen among partnered parents or single dads, according to a Pew analysis.

For some parents, leaving the workforce means being pushed into poverty, with Black and Latinx families at disproportionate risk due to racial pay and wealth gaps. “A lot of Black children are in households where there’s just mom working or there are two parents both working in order to make ends meet,” Jessica Fulton, the vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, told the New York Times in June.

Even if parents are able to keep their jobs and pay the bills, there’s a mental and emotional toll that comes with month after month of raising kids during a pandemic. One Canadian study of new moms found that 40.7 percent had depressive symptoms, compared to 15 percent before the pandemic, and 72 percent experienced anxiety, a 43 percent increase from before.

And dealing with stress and anxiety is made all the harder by the fact that there’s no time for parents to recharge. When it comes to self-care, it’s telling that many tips for parents in 2020 are things that take little to no time, like spending a tiny bit longer in the shower. Downtime on nights and weekends is mostly a thing of the past. “Night is the time when I can catch up on a lot of stuff,” Lago said. “I will work after kids go to bed.”

Nor can parents easily de-stress by spending time with friends — especially now that the weather is getting cold and the virus is running rampant. “I have definitely struggled because I’m a social person,” Konitzer said. “I am not able to recharge my battery by being in the office or by being able to go out with friends.”

Over these long months that all run together — “I don’t even realize that it’s December,” she says — the isolation has been draining for the whole family. “We are all, I think, sick of each other.”

Getty Images

Parents are finding ways to make things work, but they need support

There have been a few bright spots for parents amid the darkness of 2020. Now that she’s homeschooling her son, Demps has seen him starting to love school for the first time. Some of that may be thanks to the curriculum that Demps, who studies education and the school-to-prison pipeline, has tailor-made for him. She’s teaching him about Black history, global economic issues, and, because he wants to become a chef, culinary science. “He actually bugs me, like, Mama, did you put up my work?” Demps said.

And around the country, many Black parents are reporting that having their children home during this time allows them to shelter them to some degree from racism in schools, Halgunseth said. It also allows Black parents to provide kids with “positive messages about their history” and other “information that they don’t feel is being covered in the school,” Halgunseth added.

Parents are also finding ways to create special moments even when everything looks different. Liz Henkel-Lorenz, a New Jersey mom of two, says when her wife’s family came to visit in early November, they knew it might be the last time for many months. So they celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve — all in one week. “Tuesday was Thanksgiving, and then Friday was Christmas Eve, and Saturday morning we opened presents,” Henkel-Lorenz said.

Other families are coming together to help each other out with school. Andréa Michel and her husband, for example, are sharing remote-school duties with two other families in their Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, neighborhood. She supervises her two children plus four more every Wednesday, and while she sometimes has to take a few minutes away from the chaos just to breathe, “this way has worked out much better than when everything first shut down,” she says. “I was a terrible teacher and a terrible administrator.”

But even though individual families are finding ways to make pandemic child-rearing a little easier, parents and experts alike agree they need more support than they’re getting. School and district administrators need to be more proactive in reaching out to parents, especially parents of color, to make sure they’re included in decisions that affect their kids, Demps said. “They need to be empowered at the table, and what they say needs to matter.”

“Will we remain unchanged, insisting on detached, top-down learning in the face of human tragedy?” Demps and a group of mothers and education scholars wrote in an open letter in May. “Or will we seize this time as a unique opportunity to truly pause and reflect, to reach out to families and really get to know them, and to rethink the meaning of education so that we can co-create a new way?”

Parents and child care workers (who often have children of their own) would benefit from greater investment in child care infrastructure in this country, to make care more available and affordable for parents and to ensure that care workers, who often make less than $11 an hour, actually get a living wage. “As a nation, we really need to look at child care and elevating the providers and the educators,” Alvord said.

Many child care experts have called for a $50 billion bailout of the child care industry, both to carry it through the pandemic and to strengthen it for the future. And President-elect Joe Biden has proposed a caregiving plan that would lift the wages of child care workers while subsidizing care for families, with the goal of not just restoring America’s pre-pandemic child care infrastructure but improving it.

Employers, too, need to allow more flexibility in recognition of the extraordinary situation parents find themselves in, Halgunseth said. Right now, many are trying to balance being a “full-time parent, full-time teacher, and their full-time job,” she said. “Something needs to give.”

And while flexible hours are important, many say there just isn’t enough time in the day for everything that’s being asked of parents. “I think we need a shift in hours,” Konitzer said. She’d like to see “even a 30-hour workweek, just to have a couple extra hours to balance this stuff all out.”

But that would require a large-scale shift in American work culture. So far, that hasn’t really happened. Instead, it’s falling to parents — especially moms — to make an impossible situation work, with only the most uncertain of ends in sight. Working in health care, Wathen understands what a medical breakthrough the vaccines are. But mentally, the prospect of a vaccine “has actually made it worse because now there is a horizon to look toward,” she said. “I don’t want the hope right now. I just want stability.”

Future Perfect

Why you’re not getting a delta-specific booster yet

Explainers

Murders are spiking. Police should be part of the solution.

Explainers

We can’t just run away from wildfires

View all stories in Explainers