Why The Pandemic May Change Parenting Forever

Modern Family

Why The Pandemic May Change Parenting Forever

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Of my many meltdowns in the past year, the most interesting one occurred when my six-year-old made a glorious mess of paper and paint on the floor only to tell me, “Sorry Sangee! Relax, I’ll clean it up later”. I laughed at her suaveness and then cried later as I scraped chunks of hardened acrylic paint off the tiles.

My husband is stranded in another country, the kid is around all the time, and my mental health is hanging by a frail thread sustained by audiobooks, music, and dark chocolate. She hovers when I’m on Zoom calls, rages battles to bathe or eat, chatters while I work making it impossible to focus, helps with chores for a measly minute before running away. Where once I relied on a constructed routine of school, extracurriculars, playing with neighbours and other friends, now the burden is all mine.

I dream of packing her into a slingshot and hurling her back into the pre-pandemic world of busy-ness. But I think – or rather, I’m certain – that it is going to be a long time before this is possible.

More than one year into the pandemic, people have begun rambling about with some vigour. Some of them, appearing to have escaped after long stints at Alcatraz, rush to meet relatives, visit the bank, eat hot puffs and cake from roadside bakeries, and attend weddings. Even the prospect of sitting in traffic and honking away is promising after months of plugging away at the remote control on their battered couches.

Like nearly all parents in the world right now, I face the daunting task of balancing caution and freedom for my six-year-old daughter. I have to figure new equations to keep her safe, healthy, and occupied while retaining my sanity. With the public resuming activities while “taking precautions”, we are torn between caution and the desire for freedom to return to the pre-pandemic routine.

We imagined that life after the first lockdown would liberate us from the monotony of confinement and that we could return to a state of normalcy but really, we were just fooling ourselves.

How will the nature of parenting change once the dust settles?

Those of us willing to put in the work and time do not want to go back to “normal”. Normal was a mess – a product of frenetic living, extreme apathy, and unsustainable growth. The world as we know will change. It must. Call it a reaction or evolution or a pandemic-induced epiphany. People like me, parents of young children and teenagers, stand at the precipice of tragic realisation and opportunity – it is too late in so many ways for humanity but what can we still change?

A report from the Global Parents Virtual Conclave held on June 1, 2020 documented, “It is alarming that 64 per cent of parents across the globe are confused about raising their children in this new and chaotic world. One of their concerns is the financial stability and mental wellness of their children in the post-COVID world.”

While most of us have been scrambling with managing immediate demands of time toward our children, homes, and work, the bigger question looms: How will the nature of parenting change once the dust settles?

Global recognition of the value of unpaid labour of caregiving has been the most welcome outcome of this pandemic, a silver lining even. The emotional labour of keeping a home, which is usually borne quietly by women, is now being shared to a greater extent. Men are cooking and cleaning more than ever. Although my husband and I have been apart, I am amazed at the dishes he has been whipping up on his own and keep reminding him that this needs to continue! I’m unsure of how much of it will sustain but even a fraction more of shared parenting can go a long way in modelling gender equality.

In all honesty, I am a borderline helicopter parent; the annoying hypocrite who says things like “I let her spirit wander” while obsessing over why she’s lagging in class. I want her to be independent, but I continue to hold the reins. The desi gene of “worry and control as much as you can” flares up within and does its job well.

The past few months have been excruciating and I have realised the damage that this control can do in a crisis. During the online classes, I watch other children doing their worksheets or responding to teachers while she doodles or sharpens her pencil for the tenth time. My irritation flourishes into aggression and I prod her to the extent that she scratches at her worksheet resentfully. When she decided to build a house out of a carton box, I duly pointed out that it was too. She went ahead and although I was right, I was proud of her endeavour – a makeshift home designed and cut up out of her own imagination.

The pandemic has stripped several notions and grimly reminded us of our mortality, provoking introspection on what it takes to nurture, empower, and prepare the children.

My burn out could have been avoided if I’d done a better job at letting go and nurturing her sense of autonomy. As a mother, I forget that she is not just a child but a person with ideas and motivations beyond my comprehension. Being actively involved in teaching her has forced me to confront my own assumptions on what it takes to learn and grow. I need to trust and relinquish control for her to develop resilience, which, as most experts concur, is going to be an increasingly important attribute for survival and happiness.

The product of all our designed systems, experiences, and wisdom has led us to where we are. So we’re collectively asking ourselves what makes education meaningful and how can we link it to joy and purpose in one’s existence. I read about teenagers taking gap years to explore subject areas that pique their true interests and the surge in home schooling and unschooling practised by primary children’s parents. We are listening and giving choices. Curriculums are starting to mean less and life skills, more.

Rahul J Nair, an occupational psychologist, says, “We are really glad to see that the majority of parents understand the importance of allowing children to follow a passion. We are sure this will make larger changes in the productivity of children in academics and later in professions.”

Yesterday, when I was getting ready to step out for some work, the kid asked me, “Is Corona gone?” Upon hearing the answer, she proceeded to ask more questions with a hint of fear in her voice.

The fear has become our biggest foe. At first, we used it to our advantage – to reinforce the seriousness of the pandemic and to make sense of answers. But this rational emotion is armed with the potential to cripple future social interactions and relationships. Adults are unconsciously transferring their paranoia and angst. If we have to re-build communities and trust, this fear must be dismantled – slowly and responsibly.

The pandemic has stripped several notions and grimly reminded us of our mortality, provoking introspection on what it takes to nurture, empower, and prepare the children. As Frank Warren said, “It’s the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it.”

Our only job might be to let them.