Each family has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic differently, and for many it has been a very difficult one.
Mental health worsened for roughly half of all parents and for three in five parents with kids in remote school, according to a March 2021 report from the American Psychological Association (APA). One in five working-age adults stopped working entirely due to lack of childcare, according to data collected in 2020 by the U.S. Census Bureau. Two in five households with children reported losing income between March and November of 2020, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
And more than three in five parents worried about kids getting too much screen time, being bullied online, and internet safety; and more than half of parents worried about kids’ rising stress, anxiety, depression, inactivity, unhealthy eating, and substance use, according to the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health 2020.
“The pandemic has required humanity to either bend or break,” says Bethany Cook, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Chicago.
Despite the challenges, it’s also given some families time and space to reevaluate how they spend time together, Cook says. “Many parents have had enough breathing space off the stressful hamster wheel of work and family life balance to realize they want a change.”
Parker Huston, PhD, clinical director of the On Our Sleeves mental health program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, says he sees this trend with his patients, too. “I’ve heard many stories about new habits and routines,” Huston says.
Some changes led to bad habits that now need to be undone, like letting kids do homework in bed late at night and allowing children too much screen time, Huston says. But a lot of changes have been positive ones, he adds, such as families getting outside more, getting more exercise, and spending more time together that’s not just sitting in front of the television.
The Positive Pandemic Routines Families Want to Hold On To
Even though families are still navigating the challenges of living through a global pandemic, these are some of the positive routines they’ve gotten into that they want to hold on to:
1. Splitting Parenting Duties More Evenly
Before the pandemic, Cook says on weekdays her wife saw their kids?only in the morning before heading out the door for a 12-hour day in the office. Remote work during the pandemic enabled her wife to take over the kids’ bath and bedtime routine, giving Cook a much-needed evening break. Plus, her wife can now experience the bedtime stories she’d been missing out on, Cook says.
2. Forging Ties With Neighbors
Stay-at-home orders, ironically, helped Mica May and her family socialize more with neighbors.
“When shelter in place came and we were truly not seeing anyone, we basically lived out in our front yard,” says May, a 40-year-old graphic designer and mother of three based in Austin, Texas. The May family put out a picnic table, hammock, and chairs, and ate almost all their meals in the yard. They started going on family walks and scavenger hunts, pausing to chat with people they met along the way.
“We got to know so many neighbors and made new friends — and truly invested in our physical neighbors for the first time in five years of living in our house,” May says.
3. Family (Rather Than Solo) Meal Planning and Prep
The pandemic forced a dramatic change in family meals for Caroline Bader-Hepting, a 50-year-old stay-at-home mother of two teenagers in Livermore, California. Until then she had done most of the family meal planning and prep. On the rare occasions when her husband or kids made a meal, Bader-Hepting did all the planning for them. And once the pandemic hit, doing that for three meals a day for everyone felt chaotic and overwhelming, she says.
“Everything became more of a struggle,” Bader-Hepting says.
But no more. Now everyone else in the family takes charge of planning and cooking once a week.
“Obvious good benefits for my kids include self-sufficiency and taking care of others,” Bader-Hepting says.
4. Getting the Kids Involved
Shannon McCormick, a 46-year-old public relations executive in Upper Arlington, Ohio, says her kids (ages 12 and 14) not only learned to cook during the pandemic but also grew to love it. All the extra family time at home thanks to remote work and school during the pandemic made this change possible, McCormick says.
“They evolved from children who would sometimes microwave things to confident young chefs using our grill, a sous vide, the stovetop, and the oven,” McCormick says.
Both kids are now eating school lunches again. But they’re still cooking dinners at home.
Helping kids be more independent can also empower parents to take some needed time to recharge, Huston says.
5. Spending Less Time Looking at Screens and More Time Reading Books
For Meg Campbell, 44, a government worker and mother of two kids (ages 8 and 10) based in Falls Church, Virginia, the end of commuting during the pandemic was the start of a new goal: reading 100 books in one year. Right now, she’s on book 56.
“When I fuel my soul with reading each day I am a happier person and better parent,” Campbell says. It also helped Campbell lead by example as she tried to foster a love of reading — and less screen time — for her kids.
“The kids see me read, and it’s better to show them reading is important than to talk about why literacy matters,” Campbell says.
6. Prioritizing Self-Care Routines
Dr. Robles, a mother of two young boys — 4 years and 6 months — started exercising five or six times a week during her maternity leave for her younger son (which lasted for three months in the middle of the pandemic) as a way to boost her own mental health. At first, it was just 15 minutes a day. But slowly Robles increased the length of those workouts, and kept at it even after her leave ended. These workouts, started to help Robles, 36, cope with the challenges of pandemic life, now feel essential to continue, she says.
“It has been tough working full time, trying to spend time with the boys, and keeping this going, but it has helped me feel better than I have in years,” Robles says. “It has been a stress reliever and helped me be a better mom and doctor.”
How to Hold On to Good, New Routines When the Old Ones Come Flooding Back
Parents who want to keep new pandemic routines going or make changes now — even when it’s possible to return to pre-pandemic work and school schedules — should focus on one big thing, or a few minor tweaks, instead of trying to do too much all at once, Robles says.
“We don't have to pressure ourselves as parents to be perfect at doing it all. We need to prioritize,” Robles says.
“It will not be easy, and that's okay,” Robles adds. “Just be realistic on what changes you can make and take it day by day.”