Our 6-year-old daughter beamed as I opened the homemade birthday card decorated with a squiggly tulip garden. “Your the bestest mom evr!” it read.
Her sweet message and creative spellings made me smile. But the day’s best gift came in a foil-lined envelope from my husband.
“We both know that life can be hard, the correct answers unclear, and choices overwhelming,” he wrote. “I just want to reaffirm that your calculations and instincts are foundationally correct.”
Reading his words, I felt my shoulders relax. I released a breath I didn’t realize I was holding and recognized the concerns that had been keeping me awake at night.
That was in February. We all know what happened next.
Since the March shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, parents, and especially mothers of young children, have been fielding a chaotic line-up of working from home while overseeing schoolwork, childcare and mountains of housework. And there’s a significant number of single parents who are caring for their children solo, with no help in sight.
As kids’ regular appearances into society disappeared, so did the informal feedback loops that let parents feel OK about the job they are doing. Casual check-ins with teachers and daycare workers at drop-off and pick-up won’t resume for months. Gone for now are in-person playdates, sports and religious gatherings that let children connect with their peers. And since our kids are staying home during store runs, we aren’t even drafting off smiles and goodwill from friendly grocery clerks.
After weeks of sheltering in place in our 800-square-foot apartment with a 3-year-old sport climber and a 6-year-old extrovert, I was approaching my own version of a shutdown. Between the bristling arguments over schoolwork, icy sibling disputes, and the debut appearance of the phrase “I hate you, Mom,” the only feedback I was receiving was decidedly negative.
As a military spouse who has done four deployments with kids (eight in our 14-year marriage), I’m no stranger to shouldering a heavy parenting load. But pandemic parenting comes with its own unique challenges, including no outside help, limited social interactions, and no end date in sight.
Compared to the rising death toll and unemployment claims, the absence of feedback for parents sounds understandably insignificant. But the vast majority of our nation’s households [thankfully] aren’t dealing directly with coronavirus-related illnesses. Our struggle is work-related, whether from loss of jobs or the additional load we’re taking on at home.
While a mom requesting encouragement for parents may sound gratuitous, workplace studies suggest it’s very important for motivation. “[The best employees] want to be part of something greater than themselves, and they want to know how they contribute to that something,” explained Gallup researchers Brian J. Brim and Jim Asplund in one study. “They want to be heard, and above all, they do not want to be ignored.”
My friend later texted to say, 'Enjoy hide and seek. You are such a good mommy.' As I let her words sink in, I realized I hadn’t felt like a good mom in weeks.
During this intense season managing overlapping spheres of parenting, work, and school, the parents I know want the same outcome — to feel like our efforts during this intense season at home matter. But in the case of parenting, there is no supervisor or quarterly review to affirm we’re on track. Messy floors, constant interruptions and unwanted behavior continue regardless of parenting prowess.
When I was struggling to see around the internal conflicts in our family, all it took was one conversation with a friend to offer a new perspective. The other day our son’s preschool buddy and his mother called to video chat. We couldn’t talk long because our family was immersed in a game in a nearby forest. My friend later texted to say, “Enjoy hide and seek. You are such a good mommy.”
As I let her words sink in, I realized I hadn’t felt like a good mom in weeks. But when I looked around, all four of us were happy, healthy, having fun together while safely distanced from the tremendous cares of the world. My friend’s short but specific words were all the positive reassurance I needed to regain my focus and stop worrying so much.
This year more than ever, Mother’s Day offers an opportunity to give socially isolated parents the gift of encouragement, and along with it, a much-needed dose of re-engagement for the weeks of social distancing ahead.
As you interact with caregivers of young children, consider how your words might re-energize them and kickstart the creativity and determination their families thrive on. Beyond wishing someone a happy Mother’s Day, consider listing the qualities you notice making a difference in their families. Remind them of the new things you see their kids learning. Mention how impressed you are by the lack of complaining in the face of endless housework. Highlight the calm they’re exuding despite the global chaos lurking in the background. The more specific and sincere you can be, the greater the impact your words will have.
If possible, put your encouragement in writing. So as this intensive season of parenting continues into summer months, weary parents can revisit this rare stream of reassurance and be reminded that what we’re doing to keep our communities safe matters — that we deserve, for at least a day, to be celebrated.