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Parents are overwhelmed – here’s how we can all help

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According to research from the University of Warwick, parents are sleep deprived for six years after the birth of their first child. Despite battling fatigue, they manage to adapt to the demands of parenting whilst continuing to pay the bills. Some even find the headspace to focus on their career and to squeeze in a social life.

Even beyond those early years, the demands remain significant: a parent with teenagers is estimated to have just one or two hours’ free time a day, compared to five hours for people without parenting responsibilities.

And right now we are asking families to adapt to a whole new set of circumstances – without much of a pause to think about what that actually entails.

We’ve cut out the school run, the daily commute, the washing of school kit and the preparation of packed lunches – but in their place, we’ve added so much more. Organising a home-school curriculum, for starters; sales of colouring books and home exercise equipment have soared as people across the country tool up ready to become ‘super parents’. On top of that, you can add preparing a schedule for spaces that are needed for virtual meetings, creating a strategy for keeping in touch with elderly relatives, and drawing up a family rota for being online, ready to grab the only remaining grocery delivery slot.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen a virtual tsunami of demands on parents: home-schooling packs, guidance on supporting a child’s mental health, information on keeping them fit and healthy and employers scheduling virtual meetings as though life at home was no different to life in the office. CEOs appear to be competing with each other to see who can maintain the management of their organisations most effectively through the power of Zoom. One described himself as being up at 3.30am to make a final tweak to his ‘Dear Colleagues’ email.

It seems to us at Parent Zone that we’re all going to have to find a way to accept that family life is astonishing – but that parents don’t have superpowers. They can’t create additional hours in the day, or be in two places at once. They can’t be educator, professional, entertainer and moderator all at the same time. Their reserves of strength and willpower are finite – and unless we allow some room for ‘good enough’, it’s highly likely that something is going to give way.

If we can apply some collective empathy to the challenges facing parents now and back off a bit we can maybe avoid some of the consequences typically seen when families are thrown together for longer-than-usual periods – for instance over the festive season. We’re told that the first working day after Christmas is dubbed ‘divorce day’ by lawyers. Relate – the relationship charity – reports that January is their busiest month.

If we’re to avoid a similar ‘post-social distancing’ meltdown we’re going to have to write some rules for organisations with expectations of families. Starting with the ‘is it essential’ rule. If you want to offer ‘help’, try to make sure that the ‘help’ doesn’t involve a parent taking on another task or responsibility. If you’re about to send something home or produce some ‘guidance’ for families, just pause to consider whether a parent needs to do something, or if you’re doing the heavy lifting. Even asking children to send their homework in can involve a parent figuring out how to upload a file and make the home printer work, at a time when their tech skills are already stretched to melting point because of the new ‘online collaboration’ tools that have been introduced by their employer.

Secondly, we need a ‘stop with the worries’ rule. Parents spend most of their time in a semi-anxious state about their children. Are they happy? Are they achieving? Do they have good friendships? Are they too thin? Are they too fat? According to research, parents spend five hours and 18 minutes a day worrying about their children. Now is not the time to add to that. Of course this is going to be a difficult time for people’s mental wellbeing. Of course children and young people are likely to have questions, worries and frustrations – but children are also incredibly resilient. Most will be fine.

And finally, we need a ‘celebrating good enough’ rule. Families are at their absolute best when they figure out their own weird and wonderful ways to get through. They’re doing a great job right now and it never hurts to tell them that. Parents that you work with, parents who are friends – a quick ‘what a great job’ shoutout is always welcome. Doesn’t matter if their children are slouched on the couch eating Monster Munch in front of the TV in the background of your work call. They’re probably happy and the parent you’re talking to is probably just doing their best. Celebrating good enough is what matters right now.


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