This Could Be the End of the Optimized Mom
Juggling work and childcare in quarantine is helping parents redefine their idea of ‘enough’
The first stage of quarantine parenting was denial. Back in mid-March, just days into lockdown, I was Zooming with my good friend in Toronto, a lawyer who had been juggling full-time work with full-time care for her two young kids, when she told me she’d quickly reached the end of her rope. “I can’t do this for two weeks,” she told me. “There’s no way.”
Two weeks, of course, was just the beginning. Over the past few months, each Zoom of ours has yielded new updates: The family iPad, once a restricted treat for her kids, is now a daytime staple. Instead of science homework, her son is making cookies. After denial, anger, bargaining, and utter exhaustion and despair, she eventually entered the fifth stage of quarantine parenting: acceptance.
These days, her house looks more like the scene that Jennie Wiener described in her New York Times op-ed, “I Refuse to Run a Coronavirus Home School”: “After accomplishing the bare minimum, the agenda is to survive and watch too much TV,” wrote Weiner, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut. “We are eating cookies and carbs and hoping for the best.”
To many parents, in pre-pandemic times, it would have sounded radical: The idea that the bare minimum isn’t the “minimum” at all, but exactly right. As plenty of researchers have documented in recent years, we’re currently living in the age of “intensive parenting,” an approach to child-rearing built on record-high expectations for parents and kids alike.
But as days in lockdown stretched into weeks and then months of juggling full-time childcare and full-time jobs, the bare minimum began to feel more and more like the only way through. Even parents who once wrung their hands over screen time are now handing the iPad over to their kids with a sigh of relief.
As the economist Emily Oster noted in Forge, Covid-19 has put a screeching halt to what she calls “secret parenting:” “Right now, all of us with kids are parenting out in the open like never before,” she wrote. And this shift might just be what finally kills our collective fixation with optimizing parenthood.