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How do you survive pandemic parenting? Lowered expectations and self-compassion.

Child looks at computer screen
Thomas Park
Families have learned hard lessons about the intricacies of virtual schooling during the first few weeks of the fall semester.

School has been back in session for more than a month now, and Michigan families and educators are beginning to settle into the strange new reality. Teachers and kids have shared how they’re adjusting to things like Zoom discussions, asynchronous learning, and masks in the classroom. Now that the back-to-school season is behind us and the rest of the year looms ahead, Stateside wanted to know: How are parents doing?

“I didn’t cry today. Actually wait, no I did," said Julia Koumbassa. “I feel like I’m kind of failing everyone.” 

“I’m working full time. My job is not remote. I have to go in every day,” said Melanie Floyd.

“Other than my days off, the kids are basically getting themselves up in the morning, and getting ready, and getting logged on to school,” said Lori Reynhout.

Those are some of the comments Jennifer Guerra, Michigan Radio editor and executive producer for special projects, heard from parents. To sum it up: they’re exhausted. They are also wondering how long they can juggle online school, work, and child care.

“A lot of people have these piecemeal plans in place, with the idea that they might be temporary. But we just don’t know how temporary these plans really are,” Guerra said.

Stateside's conversation with Jen Guerra and Erin Hunter


Tips for surviving pandemic parenting

Guerra found that most parents were concerned less with academic achievement, and more with the social and emotional well-being of their children. And that’s probably a good thing, says Erin Hunter, clinical psychologist and the interim director of the University Center for the Child and Family (UCCF) at the University of Michigan. Hunter recommends parents think about what their priorities are when it comes to learning this year. 

“So in your family, even, like making a list of like, these are the things that are most important to our family, those are the things we’re going to focus on. And for now, anyway, we’re going to let some of that other stuff go,” Hunter explained.

Hunter’s other piece of advice is for parents: cut yourself some slack. It is a really hard time to be a parent. Families are disconnected from their normal social supports while, at the same time, taking on the roles of teacher, playmate, and IT specialist.

“We are in kind of uncharted territory. And that is stressful and hard. So give yourself props for doing the best that you can in this crazy-making situation,” Hunter said.

Stateside's conversation with Jen Guerra

Different families, different choices

Many factors determine what kinds of learning are possible right now for families. Some homes with family members at heightened risk for COVID-19 are unable to send their children to in-person school. Some parents work outside of the home and can’t monitor their kids’ online learning from home.

“Like pretty much everything with school right now, it depends on your scenario,and it depends on the options that you have in front of you, and really, the options that are afforded to you,” Guerra said.

Guerra spoke with a single mother named MJ, an essential worker who has a fourth-grade daughter. Her daughter’s school offers half-day in-person learning or fully online learning. Neither of those options really work for MJ. She just bought a house and can’t afford to take on the expense of daiily child care.

“I don’t want to lose everything that I worked hard for,” MJ told Guerra. “I worked hard for this. Like honestly, what world are we in? You should never have to juggle or choose your child’s education or your job.”

Guerra also noticed that, based on the parents she spoke with, women seem to be taking on the majority of coordinating school plans this year. For instance, mother of four Malissa Clair used worked during the day just like her husband, but her kindergartener needed someone at home once school started.

“Melissa says she went into ‘mommy mode’ and switched her schedule. She starts work now at 3:30 in the afternoon and goes till midnight, sometimes much later,” Guerra said.

Stateside's conversation with Sarai Koster-Stetson

A lost year?

In a normal school year, teachers and parents have a good idea of what their students need to learn. But with all the uncertainty on families' plates right now, it might be time for parents and educators to reframe what success means this year, says Sarai Koster-Stetson. Stetson teaches middle school in Oakland County and has three kids of her own who go to school in Ann Arbor.

“Michigan has standards for every single grade, every single subject specific things that kids are supposed to be able to do at the end of the year. And if that's how we want to look at this school year, then it’s going to be a lost year because kids are not going to be able to achieve those standards,” she said.

Instead, Stetson suggests, schools should prioritize kids’ emotional needs and physical safety. She says she’s giving students more time on assignments and letting them go to online breakout rooms to connect and chat with peers.

“I’ll be really honest: If they come to my classroom next year, I can re-teach anything that I tried to teach this year. But the one thing I can’t do is I can’t take a bunch of isolated, traumatized kids and teach them, because then you’re dealing with trauma,” Stetson said.

A lot of parents are struggling with feelings of failure right now. That's why Stetson says it's really important to rethink the goals for this school year, so both parents and kids can succeed. She’s working on that with her youngest son, who’s in kindergarten.

“I want him to feel like he has the capability to learn,” she said. “If we put kids—no matter what age … if we put them in situations in which they are failing through no fault of their own, then we are basically robbing them of their ability to see themselves as capable people who are able to learn in the future.”

Kids weigh in on the pandemic school experience

A “thumbs sideways”

Parents might be in charge of navigating the complex world of schooling during a pandemic, but it's their kids who are actually living it. So Stateside decided to check in and see what they have to say about school. 

“I like it, but I don’t love it.” - Miles, second grade

“We had to wear masks, and I didn’t really like it.” - Skyler, third grade 

“I think it’s fine, it’s just stressful for me. But it gets better.” - Ella, sixth grade

“The bad thing about school--this is like the one bad thing. I don’t get to see my friends, and I have to wake up so early.” - Millie, first grade

School isn’t the only thing kids are thinking about right now, though. First grader Olivia had a much more pressing question on her mind.

“Do you think that we will get to do Halloween stuff?”

This post was written by Stateside production assistants Catherine Nouhan and Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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