During the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, parents are going through an unprecedented shift in how they conduct their daily lives. They’re doing it with fewer resources, less square footage per person, and more anxiety. So how are parents supposed to do it all—wear three or more hats simultaneously as employees, parents, and educators for their families?
“The short answer to this question is that we can’t,” says Lauren Knickerbocker, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone and member of its Child Study Center. “We cannot do all of the things we normally do perfectly. Let go of the notion that everything can get done without skipping a beat.”
Together with the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s WonderLab, Dr. Knickerbocker offers tips for parents to do as much as they can, however imperfectly, with less stress along the way.
Carrying the Mental Load
The concept of mental load is the invisible organization and planning work it takes to keep a family running. It is also referred to as emotional labor due to the immense mental energy it takes to track who needs what, and when, and taking a constant family temperature to make sure everyone is happy, healthy, and provided for in the household.
“The mental load that parents carry—for mothers, often disproportionately—leads to resentment, burnout, and frayed patience, especially when it is outside of others’ awareness or shared responsibility,” says Dr. Knickerbocker. “It’s important to think about the mental load in addition to all of the visible tasks that you are currently facing so you can include it in the solutions and routines that will serve your family best.”
Strategies to Find a Better Balance
It can be helpful for parents to make a list of all of the tasks including those from the mental load that family members need to complete on a regular basis. This may need to be compiled after multiple family members have made their own lists. “The initial time put into this endeavor is likely daunting, but think of it as an investment in better days in the weeks ahead,” Dr. Knickerbocker says. “Now that you have a sense of the enormous pie of responsibilities and roles you need to account for, carve it up into manageable slices and figure out which slices need to be put aside for another day.”
Once you have a good idea of all of the things you are trying to fit into a daily schedule, Dr. Knickerbocker suggests the following steps:
- Set a daily “managers” meeting at home. Have your lists, a white board or paper, and various writing tools handy to record your plan. Generally, the very end or beginning of the day are good times to set an agenda and get organized together.
- Make a visual schedule for the family each day. This can be outlined as a grid, with each person in their own column on a white board. Small children can follow picture prompts, such as a television for screen time, a book for learning time, and a stick figure and ball for exercise, and they love to check off their tasks and blocks as they are accomplished.
- Try to create one or two blocks of uninterrupted work time for each caregiver during which someone else assumes childcare responsibilities.
- Think about scheduling your children’s schoolwork in 30-minute chunks at a time unless they are very independent workers. In between those times, give them more choice in downtime activities that let them expend a bit of physical energy.
- Consider how much fits into the time you have and don’t put more in the schedule than time permits.
- Try not to do everything concurrently as it makes you feel more frazzled and get less accomplished.
- Borrow ideas from others on the internet, since there is so much great content for kids available online.
“The term ‘self-care’ has gotten stretched to mean so many things that it is losing its original intent and purpose,” Dr. Knickerbocker says. “Let’s agree to call it ‘normal-people-need-down-time-to-relax-and-recharge.’ It is not as pithy, but it is essential for your health and the health of relationships in your family.”
The schedule you make to juggle your multitude of responsibilities should either end at a reasonable time to leave evenings open for downtime, or explicitly feature time for happy hours, favorite shows, meditation practice, or whatever it is that will help you feel restored, Dr. Knickerbocker says. “This also holds true for your children; they do not need every moment of their day to include a learning experience, undivided attention, or new and exciting events,” she adds. “You’ll all be happier if they get to do nothing, watch some screens, chat with friends, and make their own fun.”
It’s OK If You Drop a Hat
With a little more communication, some troubleshooting, and intentional prioritizing, parents can do a lot to support each other in their multiple roles at home. “Remember that we are all doing the best that we can, and sometimes the best we can includes back-to-back movies and cereal for dinner,” Dr. Knickerbocker says. “If you drop one of the hats you are juggling or only manage to keep one ball in the air today, give yourself a pat on the back for that one ball, and give it another go tomorrow.”
More Resources for Parents
The Child Study Center hosts regular webinars throughout the year. In its recent webinar, Rocking Your Role as Non-Primary Caregiver, Dr. Knickerbocker reviews the phenomenon of mental load and gives practical tips to help families find a way to get it all done with more support and less stress. Watch the webinar here.
Additionally, Dr. Knickerbocker recommends the following resources: