This post forms part two of the article discussing how parents' mental health has been impacted by the pandemic. If you haven't read part one, you can click here to visit the article. In this part, I will be exploring 5 challenges described by parents during the pandemic, inspired by research published in the BMC Psychology journal.
5 Challenges to Parents' Mental Health & Wellbeing
1. Navigation of multiple responsibilities and change inside the home
The stress of navigating caring responsibilities, work demands, educational needs and day-to-day house chores led to feelings of guilt, overwhelm and constant pressure.
In the research, one mother described how home schooling had challenged her identity and confidence as a mother, resulting in feelings of doubt and lowered self-esteem. Something I recognise from many of the people I've worked with.
“The one thing I thought I was good at, was that I was a good mum. And then because of the home schooling and how that made me feel, I started to feel like I wasn’t a good mum, so that made me feel like I wasn’t good at anything.”
One commonly cited cause of frustration for mothers was the perceived imbalance between parental work and responsibilities. Many women felt they were forced to fulfil traditional gender roles and a September 2020 study by McKinsey found mothers are more than three times as likely, compared with fathers, to meet the majority of the demands for housework and caregiving during the pandemic. In addition, they are more than one and a half times as likely as fathers to spend three or more hours per day on these activities.
Without open and honest communication, feelings of overwhelm, anger and perceived lack of appreciation can lead to relationship difficulties such as bitterness and resentment; a slippery slope for any relationship.
You can prevent these feelings from escalating by making time to sit down and have an honest, calm conversation to discuss the issues without blame, and seek a way forward in which everyone feels valued and supported.
2. Disruption to home life
A central concept in wellbeing is that we need to experience autonomy in order to thrive. That is, we need to believe we have some control over our lives, and we usually thrive on routines and structure.
The events of the pandemic effectively removed that control over night, leaving us feeling helpless. That's why the pandemic's disruption to the usual order of things affected families so significantly.
Why is this concerning? Research has found that disruptions to regular routine and daily activities exacerbates the negative mental health impacts of exposure to psychologically stressful events.
Worries about money and job security, as well as a drop in support from families, exacerbated these feelings and many spoke of their difficulty coping with these feelings of uncertainty caused by a perceived lack of control. For some, this was frightening and overwhelming.
“But it’s the not knowing, it’s the constant not knowing, and the constant changing. You’re never on firm ground, it’s always like quicksand. You sort of just stand on it and then something else happens.”
Creating a daily routine was a central coping strategy for many people who wanted to experience more control in their life. This often incorporated self-care activities and spending time outside, and is something we should all strive to maintain as we move forwards.
3. Changes to usual support networks
One of the biggest challenges faced by parents, was the closure of child-care establishments and schools. Add in the loss of care often provided by grandparents or wider family members and parents were stuck trying to home-school and work from home.
Some parents who had to go into work described guilt about leaving their partner to shoulder the responsibilities, and worry about what would happen if one or both of them contracted the virus. Again, uncertainty appears to be the driving force behind the worries here, along with feelings of isolation and lack of social support.
Alternatives to education and nursery were hit and miss depending on 'the quality of the provision, the resources available at home, and the motivation, age and independence of the children.'
WiFi issues, behavioural challenges and the difficulty of education multiple children caused a lot of stress in many households, and left many parents feeling guilt, frustration and exhaustion.
As with the previous point, challenging the negative thoughts that lead to guilt and frustration is key to improving your mindset. Acknowledge that you were/are doing your best under highly pressured circumstances and practice self-forgiveness and self-compassion to allow yourself to move on from the guilt. You can only do so much.
Try not to compare yourself to other parents. People are often selective about the information they share about their life, and you probably haven't seen the full picture. In addition, they aren't you, and haven't had your experiences, so it isn't a fair comparison.
4. Changes in personal relationships
The immediate and severe changes to our freedom during the various lockdowns created both positive and negative effects on our relationships both within and beyond the immediate family.
Some described stronger relationships, due to spending more time at home with partners, children and siblings, and better communication between family members. But, living in such close quarters also led to the feeling of needing space and distance from each other, something that is hard to do in smaller living quarters.
Maintaining social and family connections was challenging for parents, particularly those who worked from home and home-schooled, because many felt saturated by video calls and couldn't face 'death by zoom' to stay in touch with family too.
Research tells us that connection with family, friends and colleagues is essential to positive mental health and wellbeing and acts as a buffer against poor mental health and mental illness. The lack of this source of support almost certainly contributed to the difficulties faced by parents during this time.
In fact, it might not matter how you stay in touch with people, the important thing is that you do. Try talking on the phone more regularly. It might seem like a very 'old school' thing to do - and I know from my work with younger people that many of them wouldn't usually consider speaking to friends on the phone - but it brings a sense of closeness and can allow you to feel more connected to people.
If that seems like too much, maybe try writing a real letter. A close friend and I regularly exchange letters and I love reading her thoughts and updates about herself and her family. There's something about reading a letter that makes it more personal that sending a text or an email, so why not give it a go?
5. Use of coping strategies
One of the amazing things that came out of the pandemic, was the drive to support others and bring people closer together.
Wellbeing was swiftly recognised to be suffering and this sparked many people to offer free guidance and strategies to help others manage their mental wellbeing. From online help groups, to free exercise routines, to a multitude of mindfulness and self-care options, suddenly people were taking an active interest in improving their mental health.
Lots of people found proactive strategies helpful, such as; creating a daily personal or family routine, engaging in regular exercise (cheers Joe Wicks!), spending time outside, reducing alcohol intake, eating healthily, limiting access to the news, and limiting contact with friends or family members perceived as having an unhelpful viewpoint.
It didn't work for everyone, and a lack of motivation or mental fatigue from living under stressful conditions, or a more practical lack of space, limited some people's efforts to maintain their mental health.
During the pandemic, many parents identified coping strategies that protected their wellbeing including access to outdoor space, spending time away from family, and avoiding conflict and pandemic-related media coverage.
It is something that I would recommend people consider now we are moving back into our 'new normal'. Think about what worked for you and your family and make sure you make self-care a part of your weekly routine.
While the outlook of the pandemic currently appears good, and it seems unlikely that we will need to re-enter lockdown, worries about the future have continued and have been exacerbated by recent events.
Financial worries are centred around job security, rising food, utility and petrol costs, as well as job security. Add in general concerns about the war in Ukraine and it is easy to see why people continue to feel anxious and mental health issues continue to be of concern.
It is important during this time to limit your consumption of news and social media to regain control over potentially worrying or upsetting stories. In addition, if you do find yourself stuck with negative thoughts, try to identify what kind of thoughts they are. Are you catastrophizing by expecting the worst to happen? Are you fuelling your guilt by thinking a load of 'should's'?
My free download 'Free Your Thoughts' will help you identify your negative thoughts and walk you through the process of challenging them and thinking proactively about what you could do next. Sign up to download your copy here.
My advice, look back at the successes and failures you experiences during the pandemic. What worked? What didn't work?
What strengths did you use and how could you bring them to bear again?
Create a sense of control and autonomy by taking positive action to improve your mental health and wellbeing. There are lots of pro-active self-care tips about there and to get you going, why not try my 28 Day Self-care Challenge?
It is filled with research backed activities to help boost your positivity and improve your wellbeing and could give you exactly what you need right now. Sign up here.