Paige Posladek is pregnant, and stressed. She has two children, ages 2 and 4, works part time as a copywriter, and has seen a therapist on and off for several years to help her deal with the loneliness and loss of identity that can come with being a new mom.
Before the pandemic, Posladek, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., felt she had figured out ways to support her mental health: participating in group exercise classes, or meeting up with friends and getting her kids outside. But those mundane joys disappeared when the shutdown started in March. “There’s already so much pressure on parents, even pre-pandemic, to make the right choices for our children,” Posladek, 30, said.
To now be in a situation where she doesn’t know what the right choices are for her children’s health and education has only exacerbated her anxiety. She still has virtual sessions with a therapist, but it’s not as helpful when her kids are popping in and out of frame. “Even therapy has been tainted a little in its ability to provide relief,” Posladek said. “How are we going to help grow and nurture them in this environment, when we’re not even nurturing ourselves?”
As we slouch into Month 7 of the pandemic, the mental health impact on parents remains significant and shows no signs of abating. Though the pandemic has certainly affected the mental health of all demographics, research from the American Psychological Association showed that in April and May, parents with children at home under 18 were markedly more stressed than non-parents.
More recent data from the University of Oregon’s RAPID-EC survey, which polled 1,000 nationally representative parents with children under 5 every week through the end of July, and will survey some of the same parents, as well as cumulative groups, every other week from August to December, shows that parents of young children are particularly stressed.
Sixty-three percent of parents said they felt they had lost emotional support during the pandemic. According to a study from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, 61 percent of parents of 5, 6 and 7 year olds in Massachusetts agreed or strongly agreed that they felt “nervous, anxious, or on edge” because of the pandemic.
“This is a chronic destabilizing force to our lives, and to families and parents and children,” said Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine. “We need to be treating this as a mental health crisis, and one that does not have an end we can see.”
Though many parents of young children across demographics are feeling increased levels of stress, two subgroups may be particularly at risk for clinical levels of anxiety and depression right now: women who are pregnant or recently gave birth, and parents who are struggling financially to meet their children’s basic needs.
Before the pandemic, anxiety and depression affected somewhere between 10 to 25 percent of women during pregnancy and in the year after childbirth. Two studies from Canada show those figures have skyrocketed since the shutdown: One study of nearly 2,000 pregnant women showed that 37 percent were showing clinically significant levels of depression, and 57 percent were showing clinically significant levels of anxiety. Another study of 900 women, some pregnant and some with newborns, showed that rates of depression increased to 40 percent from 15 percent during the pandemic, and rates of anxiety rose to a whopping 72 percent from 29 percent.
Over the course of the pandemic, the biggest stressor for parents surveyed by the University of Oregon’s RAPID-EC project has been an inability to sufficiently feed, clothe and house their children, said Philip Fisher, Ph.D., the director for the Center of Translational Neuroscience at the university, who is leading the project. “We thought early on that fear of getting sick would be the biggest source of stress,” he said, but as time went on, it was clear that parents struggling to meet their children’s basic needs were feeling the greatest ongoing emotional turmoil. Over 60 percent of caregivers who are experiencing extreme financial problems reported emotional distress, compared with just over 30 percent of caregivers who have no financial issues.
So what can parents do to help bolster their mental health in this time of difficulty? Lucy Rimalower, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, recommends asking yourself: What kind of self-care is realistic for you now, not six months ago? The old coping mechanisms you had may not be available any time soon, so if you can even take a tiny break for yourself every day, that’s better than nothing. “Is that a five-minute yoga video on YouTube? Is it a five-minute text exchange with an old friend?” Rimalower said.
“Traditional therapy is fantastic,” but it’s not realistic or accessible for everybody, she added. Rimalower said asynchronous options like therapy apps that allow you to message therapists, rather than have a 50-minute video session, may be helpful for parents strapped for time.
Research shows that exercise (like that five-minute yoga video) and emotional connection (that simple text exchange) are also helpful in reducing stress. The RAPID-EC study found that high levels of emotional support, particularly from local sources, can help mitigate stress levels for families up and down the socioeconomic ladder, and that parents are finding a great deal of solace in their partners, parents and even their own children.
At first, Dr. Fisher said, the researchers thought that when parents said they got emotional support from their children, they meant older children who were potentially helping care for the under-5 set. But when they dug into their data, they found that “people were finding their little ones to be a source of comfort,” he said.
Despite everything going on in the world, I can personally attest to the blissed-out feelings you can get from an unexpected midday snuggle with your sweet preschooler, who isn’t really thinking about anything except kittens and fighting with her sister right now.
Dr. Lakshmin encourages her patients to tap into new sources of meaning as a parent, whether that’s discovering pandemic-friendly ways to connect with your children, like early-morning bike rides, or creating moments to look forward to. “Little activities to plan can really break up the time,” she said, and be psychologically nourishing. I set up an at-home nail salon for my girls last weekend and it was so intimate and fun for all three of us.
Rimalower described finding a bouquet of flowers that her 4-year-old son had left outside her door during a session with a patient, and being reminded that our little ones “have basic needs that are not that concerned with the pandemic,” she said. “I feel like I’m an impostor, pretending like everything is OK with our kids, but what’s wrong with a few minutes of things being OK?”