Some months into the pandemic, Kanika Harris gave up on her video game rule. 

The director of maternal health for the nonprofit Black Women’s Health Imperative, Dr. Harris had been working remotely from her home in Washington, D.C., while her 3-year-old twins played in a learning pod in the basement. Her 8-year-old, Tezi, had been at home for months, and his youth basketball league had shut down – along with the play dates, the neighborhood picnics, and the extended family get-togethers. Her son was bored. He wanted to connect with other children.

And Dr. Harris just didn’t have the energy to argue. She is a Black woman in a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black women, both physically and economically, during a moment of racial reckoning that has required even more painful conversations with Black children. Family members were losing jobs, friends were getting sick, work was intense, and the laundry and cooking seemed to never end. 

Why We Wrote This

How has the pandemic shaped views on the best way to raise children? A year of fewer options may have uncovered choices where parents thought they had none.

So she and her husband agreed to let Tezi play Fortnite, the multiplayer video game.

“Before, it was, ‘Oh, Fortnite. We don’t do that,’” she says. “And we’d judge other parents for it. And now my son is totally addicted. We’re wrestling with that. But it’s hard to get your only break of the day and be, ‘Let’s play games, let’s color, let’s draw, let’s go outside.’ You’re just done.”

She is not alone in her feelings.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Jua Fluellen and his 8-year-old son, Tezi, play video games at their home in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 21, 2021. Mr. Fluellen and his wife, Kanika Harris, have relaxed some of their parenting rules during the pandemic as they have tried to survive the pressures of work and child rearing.

As the United States surpasses the one-year mark of pandemic-related disruption, parents across the country are grappling with job losses, economic turmoil, and profound upheaval in the way they live, work, and send their children to school. They are also, in ways large and small, changing the way they parent. 

In the midst of what the American Psychological Association has called a “mental health crisis” for caregivers, those with children are starting to relax some of their rules. They are giving kids a bit more independence, and themselves a bit more grace. They are softening stances against screen time and are expecting more help with household chores. They are noticing that what once felt like individual parenting failures or triumphs are far more universal – and systemic – than they realized before.

And while these shifts can be uncomfortable, they are also casting a new light on the American culture of “intensive parenting,” a style of child rearing that requires concerted levels of attention, time, and money. While most people still believe in many tenets of this parenting method – an emotional connection with children is important, the vast majority of parents agree – there is also a growing recognition that families simply can’t follow all of the “shoulds” of modern-day caregiving. 

“The pandemic is showing us the ways that the pre-pandemic norms of ‘good parenting’ were, to a large degree, unachievable or unsustainable for the vast majority of families,” says Linda Quirke, a sociology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, who studies parenting advice. “It’s pulling back the curtain.”

The rise of always-there caregiving

Much has been written about the pandemic’s impact on parents – the brutal intersection of job loss, child care loss, school closures, and financial stress. But according to many studies, parents – particularly mothers – were experiencing growing levels of anxiety even before COVID-19.

Part of this is because women have been increasingly taking on work for decades, both inside and outside of the home. By 2019, the majority of mothers were in the professional labor force – more than 72% of mothers with children under age 18, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But they were also spending more time parenting than ever before.

According to time-use studies, working mothers in the 2010s spent more time engaged with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960s. Combine that with child care costs that have ballooned over the past decades, a rise in the number of mothers parenting on their own (nearly a quarter of all moms), and growing economic disparity, and it’s no wonder that many mothers report feeling burned out – some 86% in 2019, according to a survey conducted by Motherly, an online community for parents.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Kanika Harris and her twins, Gyasi and Zindzi Fluellen, make brownies at their home in Washington on Feb. 21, 2021.

But there’s even more going on here, scholars say. And it has to do with the style of parenting.

Sociologists first started talking about “intensive parenting,” or “intensive mothering,” in the late 1990s. Academics began noticing a clear shift not only in the way parents behaved, but also in how they conceived of childhood itself. An intensive mother believed that families should be child-centered, that mothers were best positioned to give care, and that parents should fully invest in their children, emotionally and financially. Moreover, parents should provide intellectual stimulation and expert-guided developmental encouragement, this philosophy stated, while at the same time offering unwavering warmth, kindness, and security.

This sort of parenting involves not only a lot of time interacting with children, but also a huge amount of what sociologists call “cognitive labor.” That’s the time planning the birthday party, researching summer camps, emailing teachers, and figuring out where to take violin classes. It’s determining what baby food approach is best, and then Googling the ideal recipe for organic carrot-peach mush.

If “helicopter parent” is a pejorative term to describe a mother who swoops in to prevent harm befalling her child, intensive parenting is something else: a full-time job of “optimizing childhood,” as Dr. Quirke puts it.

“It’s the idea that there is a very important role for parents, that they need to be lining up experiences that are enriching,” she says. “It’s the idea that parents, especially mothers, should have a very prominent role in managing their children’s time and overseeing their children’s activities, with the aim of trying to foster their development in all these ways.”

If all of this just sounds normal, it’s because almost everyone in the U.S. at this point agrees that intensive parenting is the best way to raise children. This has not always been the case. Two generations ago, scholars point out, parents were cautioned against this sort of always-there caregiving, with admonitions that children would become too fretful or anxious.

In 2018, Cornell University sociologist Patrick Ishizuka highlighted the shift in the country’s attitudes toward parenting. He published a study showing that American moms and dads, across racial and socioeconomic lines, overwhelmingly approved of intensive parenting behavior. He concluded that different caregiving styles in the U.S. generally stemmed not from differences in ideology, but from differences in resources. In other words, if lower-income parents could spend large amounts of time and money on children, they would.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Ms. Woitkowski works from her desk in the upstairs hallway as her children, Swayze and Natasha, play in a bedroom. Ms. Woitkowski works from home as a lobbyist for a family advocacy group.

For those who study parenting and social trends, this is not that surprising. Societies with high economic inequality tend to also have intensive parenting cultures. Adults in these countries feel pressure to give their children advantages because the cost of “falling behind” is so great, according to Matthias Doepke, an economics professor at Northwestern University.

“We see that type of parenting across socioeconomic groups,” Dr. Doepke says. “It’s a worldwide trend wherever inequality is going up.”

It seems so important to get children into a high-quality college, for instance, because there is actually a big difference in financial security for those who have graduated from elite schools compared with those who haven’t. And because admissions processes are so random and mysterious, there is a scramble to give children one more activity, one more Advanced Placement class, one more enriching experience, all in hopes of getting them into Princeton or Penn. 

“People feel trapped by the whole intensive parenting thing,” says Dr. Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit academic group. “They feel really guilty if they aren’t doing it. Some people know it’s a scam – that kids don’t have to be involved in all these activities. Some older parents even feel sorry for kids because their lives are so structured. But [parents] worry that if they don’t do it, they’ll be denying kids something really important.”

Of course, this sort of parenting comes with costs. There are financial burdens, both to pay for all of those soccer clinics and to outsource menial labor, such as cleaning.

Then there is the time. The labor of intensive parenting is usually performed by mothers. Someone has to drive to ballet class. Someone has to write to the school administrator to ask why a child didn’t get into the higher math class.

All of this means that many parents feel they are constantly falling short. Big societal problems, Dr. Doepke says, such as income inequality, underinvestment in child care, and opaque college admissions processes, are shifted onto the shoulders of parents. And the anxiety of constantly striving and worrying is regularly transferred onto children.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Chris Woitkowski holds the family’s new pet, a bearded dragon named Mandy. Mr. Woitkowski, who works outside the home, adjusted his schedule to care for the children in the mornings.

So if there’s anything good about the pandemic, he says, it’s that it’s triggering some rethinking. “Are we doing this right? Is there an easier way, or a better way of doing this?”

Advocates for mothers agree.

“People across the country are waking up to the fact that we don’t have an epidemic of personal failures in terms of parenting,” says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and executive director of the advocacy group MomsRising. “We have a lack of countrywide structures.”

Ms. Rowe-Finkbeiner’s group has been making a concerted push for policies such as paid family leave, universal child care, and gender pay equity to help what she describes as “parents at a breaking point.”

“We were in a time crisis before the pandemic. Now the time crisis has become a time catastrophe,” she says. “It is simple. We need to value the paid and unpaid work of people who are doing caregiving.”

“This is crazy pants”

Rebecca Woitkowski knows all about structures. A lawyer by training, she is the policy coordinator for the Kids Count initiative at New Futures, a nonprofit that advocates for the well-being of children and families in New Hampshire. She spends her workdays lobbying the state legislature for programs and policies such as affordable child care and nutrition assistance. It’s a workday that she now tries to cram into the early mornings so she can then care for her 3-year-old and 7-year-old. 

It has not been easy. Those first weeks of the pandemic were the most intense. That’s when schools and businesses were shutting down, but her work, which was focused on arranging child care for the state’s essential workers, was more important than ever.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Ms. Woitkowski plays with Swayze and Natasha on a huge beanbag chair in their living room.

Her husband, who had previously left for work before breakfast, switched his schedule around so they could do child care in shifts. Although she felt grateful to be healthy and relatively financially secure, she also felt mounting anxiety.

“How do you pivot to be successful in your career and also be successful as a mom and a teacher?” she says. “That’s where the insurmountable nature of everything lives in my chest. I want to be really good in my job, be a really good teacher for e-learning with my daughter, and also be there for my little one and make sure he’s getting what he needs.”

Buddy Scarborough, a sociologist at the University of North Texas in Denton, says the double pressure to be both an “ideal worker” and an “ideal parent” is a hallmark of modern-day American culture. 

“We have these ideal worker norms where you work 40 hours a week if not more, you don’t complain, you’re ambitious,” he says. “And we also have these intensive parenting norms – time-intensive, productive, with extracurricular activities, high-quality time with kids all the time. They’ve always been in conflict. But now it’s on another level in a way that we’ve never had.”

Jessica Calarco, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, has been following a group of 250 mothers with young children since 2018, and says women were already “holding themselves to almost impossible standards.” Many reported skipping showers or going without meals to care for children. Now, during the pandemic, many said they felt even more pressure to “make things OK” for their children. One full-time lawyer told researchers that when she started venting about the impossible workload, her mother-in-law advised her to “cherish these times” instead. Another mother received texts from a family member with “50 fun activities you can do with kids at home.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Rebecca Woitkowski runs near her home in New Hampshire as a break from the pressures of the day. The pandemic has put more stress on families, with everyone being at home.

Well-meaning as the suggestions may be, they are not particularly helpful, Dr. Calarco says. “The social norms we have tell mothers that not only should they sacrifice themselves to maintain and support children’s well-being, but in moments of crises they should double down on that investment,” she says. “We’re telling mothers that they should be making this time as normal, and even as special, as possible. And the rhetoric assumes that’s just going to happen automatically. It’s a lot of labor to protect kids’ well-being during this.”

Indeed, says Sarah Kooiman, the founder of Milwaukee Mom, a local online parenting group for mothers, “I think we’re all saying this is crazy pants – every single one of us. We’re at a different level of burnt-out exhausted than we’ve ever been.”

Women feel guilt for not meeting expectations in either the professional or mothering realms, she says, and then feel guilt for feeling guilt, because they know the mom next door lost her job and her kids are going hungry and they shouldn’t complain.

Exactly, says Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University who studies parenting. “If we think back to March and when all the schools closed and everybody ended up back at home with their kids, there was a moment in the high-pressure parenting space where people embraced that,” she says. “You know, ‘This is my opportunity to run the greatest home school on planet Earth. Here is my color-coded schedule, and we’ll be baking zucchini bread. … That was all well and good for three weeks. Maybe a week and a half. And then the reality hit us.”

Mothers, she says, quickly realized that “some of this high intensity has to go.”

“This has prompted a shift in people’s minds of what is possible,” she says.

“It’s a snow-day approach”

This was certainly true for Ms. Woitkowski. Some days during the pandemic, she felt she was “nailing it.” Other times, she describes herself as “a complete hot mess.”  

But eventually, somewhere along the way, she noticed that she didn’t care as much if the house wasn’t perfectly clean. She didn’t actually miss the enriching classes that her children couldn’t attend. Her family spent time together rather than running from one activity to the next.  

Courtesy of Nikki Springer

“I’ve had to be more open-minded, more giving on things. … I mean, there’s no reason you can’t sleep in your tent in the living room. And with school? They’re in first grade. They’ll survive.” – Nikki Springer, a single mother of 7-year-old twins in Orlando, Florida

“We never had breakfast together,” she says. “My husband would be at work. My kids would be there, but I’d be tossing the cereal bowls at them. I don’t want to go back to a place where we spend more time in a car than we do sitting next to each other and talking to each other.”

She also started focusing more on herself. She began running. She started to hike. Not only was her family OK without her, but she also noticed that her children were excited when she came back and could report that she had conquered the next one of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers.

Nikki Springer, a single mother of 7-year-old twins who lives in Orlando, Florida, also recognizes some shifts. It started one day last spring when the news came on the car radio. Usually she tries to make sure her children don’t hear disturbing dispatches from across the world. But on this day it was a report about the pandemic, and she kept listening. “I realized I couldn’t shield them from this,” she says.

While letting go a bit has been difficult, it has also proved a relief. Her children have cut down on their activities. She sees their disappointment in not going to school or to scouting events. But, she says, while she would have once tried to make everything all right, these days “we’ve been using this time to build real empathy.”

She has also relaxed her own rules, even as she has spent more time working with her children on math and reading. 

“It’s a snow-day approach to a certain extent,” she says. “I’ve had to be more open-minded, more giving on things, which at the end of the day are really fine. I mean, there’s no reason you can’t sleep in your tent in the living room. And with school? They’re in first grade. They’ll survive.”

Evan Mann/Courtesy of Lenore Skenazy

“The idea that if you are not showing constant attention to your kids and amplifying and enriching every moment, you are leaving them behind – I don’t think that’s true.” – Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free-Range Kids movement and president of the nonprofit Let Grow

Less anxiety, more independence

Not only will they survive, but they could thrive, says Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free-Range Kids movement and president of Let Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to children’s well-being through independence.

Although she recognizes that many families are facing hardships because of the pandemic, she says there is also evidence that this forced break from intensive parenting is beneficial. This past spring, she and Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, oversaw two studies of American parents and their children ages 8 to 13.

The survey asked how calm children felt compared with before the pandemic. It also asked for details about whether they had learned any new activities and how they would rate their anxiety levels. “There was so much worry that children would be suffering from being at home and not having their usual activities,” says Dr. Gray. 

What they found, he says, is that children reported feeling calmer during the early months of the pandemic than they had been during school. While parents’ anxiety levels had increased, children’s had decreased. Parents also reported that young people had more independence. They were also doing more chores around the house, learning new hobbies such as playing the guitar or cooking, and, yes, playing more video games. And in doing so, they reported far greater life satisfaction. 

“We keep hearing that everybody’s at their wits’ end,” Ms. Skenazy says. “Of course, people are at their wits’ end. … But in terms of child development – we forget that children are resilient and adaptive.”

And we forget, she says, that children were suffering before the pandemic, with growing anxiety and depression levels. 

“I understand the economic fears. I really do,” she says. “But the idea that if you are not showing constant attention to your kids and amplifying and enriching every moment, you are leaving them behind – I don’t think that’s true.”

For parents, this may offer a modicum of relief. “Parents are seeing what their kids can do,” says Dr. Gray. “And it is changing the way parents are behaving.”