Parenting during a pandemic: ‘Our children are not OK’

A University of Georgia education professor shares her struggles as the mom of a young child

Today, a mother who is also an educator offers a frank look at the impact of this pandemic on her and her child. Hilary E. Hughes is an associate professor and graduate coordinator in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia.

She is also the mother of a 6-year-old, who, like many other children, is struggling with this new, far smaller world.

This is Hughes' second piece for the AJC Get Schooled blog. Earlier this month, she co-authored a column on learning in the time of COVID-19 that went viral.

This is a far more personal piece and equally compelling.

By Hilary E. Hughes

My 6-year-old had her first major Covid-19 meltdown the other night. She didn’t feel well. She was exhausted from a few nights of Easter bunny anticipation, wondering if the bunny would be thwarted by Covid; and then tornado anticipation, setting up sleeping bags and flashlight stations for the awful storms that were headed to Georgia; and then she had an upset stomach multiple days in a row --more than likely from stress.

She asked if she could go over to a friend’s house the following day and I said no, because of Covid. She came unraveled: “I HATE this. I HATE that I'm stuck here. I HATE that I can't see my friends. I miss them. You talk to your friends and students all the time, and I can't play with my friends. It won't ever end, this stupid Corona!”

It’s Day 34 of shelter-in-place for us. Other than seeing a few friends on social media or in a driveway over the past few weeks, my daughter has been stuck in our house with only me for 34 days, 24 hours a day.

We are on Day 34 of Covid-19 schooling; we are on Day 34 of creating new and different things to do during the 12 hours she is awake; we are on Day 34 of having multiple conversations about being as kind as we can to one another because we are both over it. And there seems to be no end in sight.

Our children are not OK. 

They are grieving. They are mourning the loss of their daily lives, their structures, their communities. Some are cutting. Others are binge drinking secretly or not so secretly. Some are over-exercising. Others emotional eating. Some are smacking their siblings in the face. Others are throwing pillows and punches at their parents or siblings or animals or the wall. Some cry quietly by themselves or openly in the middle of dinner, because while they might understand what's happening with this pandemic intellectually, they don't understand it emotionally--in their bodies. Some won't get out of bed for days--telling their parents they are OK and just doing schoolwork or watching movies.

But they aren't OK.

For those of us who have younger children at home, this is a lot. For those who have middle and high school aged children at home, it's different, but it's a lot. Having a 6-year-old, for example, is a full-time job every day. Not because she is overwhelmed with her school assignments--she has resisted that since shelter-in-place day three--but because she is a 6-year-old stuck at home all day, every day on day 34 of shelter-in-place.

She and the other seventy-something million children and youth under the age of 18 in our country are expected to play school at home when most are not used to playing school at home. When many can’t imagine playing school at home, and won’t.

While parents and caregivers lament our frustrations about not knowing what to do with our children; while we continue making memes and videos to help ourselves and others laugh about becoming Covid-19 teachers overnight (continue doing that, because laughter is needed, especially in times like these), let us also remember that our children have been trapped at home with whatever family dynamic they have, anywhere from four to six weeks. They are cut off from their community networks; even if they are connecting with friends or teachers or classmates on social media, they don't have the daily connection (and escape) they are used to. And for those who don't draw energy from social networks, they are cut off from anything other than their families, whatever that dynamic looks like.

Some kids are separated from their families because a family member has Covid-19. Others live down the street from friends and family whom they are used to seeing all the time and can't anymore. Some are helping their families take care of the household and have time for little else. Others are trapped in their house with siblings--we all know what sibling relations are like when we are allowed to leave our houses. It's not like that right now. At all. There are children with no siblings who only have their toys and caregivers--some of whom are single-- to rely on.

And there are thousands of youth stuck in a home with abusive family members. Millions went from after school programs, daycare, sports, clubs, and activities to 24/7 shelter-in-place. Millions were not fully submerged in their functional or dysfunctional family dynamics on a daily basis because their parents and caregivers worked multiple jobs or one job, and they had to keep themselves busy or were put in the care of some other adult to keep them busy. That all changed in an instant.

Our children are not OK. 

Millions of children and youth are expected to commit four to six hours every day to schoolwork in some capacity. Some have to sit in video meetings every day, a few days a week, or once a week--knowing (for some) that they loathe having to show their faces or their current living quarters on screen.

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Yet, some don't have those video conference expectations because they don’t have access to the Internet, their Internet service is too slow, they are sharing a device with other siblings and/or parents, or they do not have a device in their home. These students are expected to complete work packets sent home by their schools. Most of these seventy something million students, ages 5 to 18, are then expected to check in with their teachers daily or multiple times a week, via video conferencing or on the phone. It’s a lot.

Even more, some children and youth are experiencing all of this uncertainty and change while simultaneously mourning loved ones who've died from Covid; or are full of angst about family and friends infected with Covid; or are trying to not spend their days worrying about family members who are extremely vulnerable to Covid. Many of those millions are also listening to their parents’ and caregivers' daily conversations about where rent and groceries will come from.

Our children are not OK. 

I am exhausted. I have things I need to do for work. I'm tired of being my daughter’s playmate, her teacher, her counselor, and her punching bag. But as she was coming undone that night, I remembered a helpful phrase my therapist shared with me recently:

Sometimes we can be the person who receives someone else's grief.

For us, that time is now.

Our country is grieving. We are all at a loss. We are lost. We are making everything up as we go. Our children have never experienced anything like this; nor have we. And as we move through our own grieving processes, through anger and sorrow and disappointment and hope and frustration and joy, let us also work to understand what it’s like for them to experience these moments where they are in their own lives. Not as we might have experienced it growing up, because we didn’t have this particular dis-ease, with this lifestyle (whatever that may be for your child), with this particular family dynamic.

We had our own dis-ease, our own wars, our own disasters, our own family dynamics to attend to and navigate. Worried about screen time? There is no current research about brains melting after children experience multiple hours of pandemic screen time.

Have your own hang-ups about getting straight As in school? This isn’t traditional school: it’s Covid-19 schooling. Wondering if your child is “falling behind”? If so, ask yourself, falling behind what?

This is a global pandemic. The competition of "being prepared" for something other than surviving this pandemic will be on hold for a while. Check in with your children. They are not OK.