In the past several months, COVID-19-related school and child care center closures have necessitated that parents all over the world make the tough choice between going to work and caring for their children.

It has taken a global pandemic for us to realize just how important both quality affordable child care and in-person schools are, not only to family well-being but also to employers and the economy.

Without care for our children, parents cannot work. It’s amazing how much we take this for granted. If parents can’t work, they can’t pay their bills — put food on the table, keep the lights on, have stable housing. But it doesn’t stop there. If parents can’t work, employers lose their workforce. Without a workforce the economy declines.

Ironic how our undervalued and underfunded system of child care and education fuels our nation.

The Brookings Institution reports that in 2018, 33.5 million workers had children under the age of 14. That’s 26% of workers who rely on schools and child care so that they can go to work. As an employer, imagine losing a quarter of your workforce.

Some parents have no option but to be physically at their workplace. If they want to keep their jobs they have to leave the home. That especially impacts families living below the poverty line, who often don’t have the option of working from home and cannot bear the financial hardship of one parent quitting a job to care for the children. So they cobble together child care, hoping it is safe, or ask an older sibling to care for the younger ones, who thus have to sacrifice their own education.

The work-child care dilemma also disproportionately impacts women. Working mothers are often the ones to quit (or lose) their jobs and stay home. That exacerbates the choice women have to make between their children and their careers, makes it difficult to secure a stable income and may contribute to gaps in earnings and employment rates of women.

And because 81% of single parents are women, the challenges are even harder for mothers who are single — of whom over a third live in poverty — and especially impacts women of color who are mothers.

Other working parents have the privilege, the flexibility and the access to technology to work from home. Yet that creates another dilemma: Those who can work from home are faced with the impossible balancing act of caring for and educating their children while trying to put in quality work hours.

That is not sustainable from either side. It is hard to imagine that the quality of work of parents who are also trying to manage their child’s education, safety and well-being is not diminished, especially for those who find the only time they can work is through the wee hours of the morning. The stress of all this can create a strain on the parent-child relationship.

Regardless of whether parents work within or outside the home, stress and exhaustion can leave them little capacity to work with their children and teens through disagreements, defiance and normal behavioral challenges. When those behaviors are exacerbated due to learning differences or by the anxiety and loss children feel from a socially distant world in which their routines are in upheaval and they can’t see their friends, we can see parents at their wit’s end. They don’t have the reserves to respond to their children in a firm and kind way.

Parental burnout is a psychological phenomena defined by Psychology Today as “physical and emotional exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of being an ineffective parent.” It can result from high levels of parenting-related stress caused by a lack of resources to meet the demands of being a parent. In extremes, it is a risk factor for child abuse and neglect.

We can’t give our children what we don’t have. It can be hard for a child to learn emotional regulation, problem solving skills and a plethora of character traits without a parent who is an interested and calm presence, is emotionally present and models patience, empathy and resilience in the face of challenge.

Parents are at an increased risk of parental burnout due to the trickle-down effects of inadequate child care, financial insecurity and decreased social support caused by COVID-19.

It seems as if we are between a rock and a hard place. Working parents rely on school and child care systems to participate in the workforce and maintain a healthy relationship with their children — economic recovery relies on the same — yet our uncertain future in which COVID cases could skyrocket may not allow these systems to function.

Teton County, Wyoming, schools have done their best to open in a way they believe is safe and allows for the child care that working families desperately need. They are hopeful that some schools will be able to resume in-person, mostly full-time classes in the months to come. Yet whether schools and child care centers stay open remains to be seen.

This is not just a family problem. It is a societal and economic problem. Solutions may seem daunting, and it is hard to plan for the unknown. Yet some of our community nonprofits, agencies and elected officials are beginning to consider the problem and discuss ideas.

In the meantime I invite you to begin considering three things: (1) What is your backup plan to care for your kids if schools and child care centers must close? (2) How do you take care of yourself? Just as you recharge your cellphone every night, you need to do the same for yourself. And (3) work toward understanding the world from your children’s perspective when you approach them in any interaction, especially during times of challenge.

Rachel Wigglesworth offers individual and group parent coaching sessions at rates that work for individual family budgets. You can find her, as well as resources for this column in her blog, at GrowingGreatFamilies.org.

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