Learning to parent through a pandemic
The contours of parenting have changed: family time is back, but amid heightened anxiety and uncertainty, especially for low-income parents and those having children with special needs
More alcohol’. That was the most succinct response we got to the question, how have you changed as a parent in the lockdown. It was a joke. But humour’s been one of the things that have helped families stay sane through the past 100 days.
Much of the humour is dark and / or rooted in the ongoing tragedy. Like the viral tweet about the little boy who wouldn’t stop crying because he’d been promised a treat that hadn’t materialised. When did we promise this, his dad asked. Trying to say ‘in the morning’, but confused by his now-garbled sense of time, all he could manage was ‘A long time ago today’.
In Mumbai, the parents of sixyear-old Lyra recently asked what she was building with her Lego blocks and were told, very seriously, that they were hospitals. It’s all she builds now.
“That’s when we realised what a toll this was taking,” says her mother. To try and help take her mind off things, they’ve been letting her go to the pet store in their building, to pet the dogs.
Innovation, empathy and patience are key tools parents have been deploying in the lockdown, to make it work for the family, amid constraints of space, money, privacy and peer company.
“Living the idea that parenting is not just expecting your kids to step up, but also walking a mile in their shoes… that’s been a lesson for me,” says Dhanashri Bhosale, 43, an architect and mother of two teens. “I’ve also realised that I need to upgrade myself if I want to understand their world. So I’m spending a bit more time online. I have let my guard down a lot more. I want them to know they can communicate with me.”
As a byproduct of the lockdown, the performative element of parenting in middle- and upper-middle-class urban India has declined. There’s less pressure on children, because there are just fewer goals available. This means parents are seeing their children differently; seeing them for who they are, as one put it, rather than as an amalgam of the various children they’ve been.
“At this point, I feel I need not focus only on career and achievements. The humanitarian aspects have taken precedence,” adds Bhosale. “For instance, I was pleasantly surprised when I was worrying about my son’s school not yet starting online classes, and he said, ‘Not everyone might have the facility at home. It’s okay to wait, ma’.”
There’s a back-to-the-basics clarity about the role of the parent. Keep the child safe, keep them fed, keep them occupied and calm, and talk, talk, talk. In most cases, parents have seen children reciprocate in kind, whether they’re 6 or 16.
“We’ve discovered a capacity for working as a team and managing with limited resources — whether for recreation or recipes or company,” says Ekta Pillai, 41, homemaker and mother of Aahiel, 12.
Family time has made a roaring comeback. All meals are eaten together; chores are done together. In some cases the TV and laptop are shared. This has placed a certain amount of pressure on sibling relationships, but even more on the marriage — as one mother put it, it’s hard to parent, and especially hard to discipline, under the constant watch of someone who would typically take a different approach (and was usually away at work for this bit).
“Juggling parenting styles while also having to juggle the roles of teacher, guide, counsellor, friend and parent, plus work and housework, has been a common pain point,” says Kamna Chhibber, head of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare, Gurugram, which has been offering counselling through the lockdown via voice and video calls.
It’s been a double adaptation for some. The generation gap was large to begin with, between some of today’s parents and children. “The way society and community were changing, conversations around gender and sexuality, religion, tech, politics, all of it had been a challenge. There was near-constant adapting. Covid-19 has made this even more daunting,” Chhibber says.
The lockdown has also been particularly hard on parents of children with special needs, and parents of toddlers. Vaccine cycles have been disrupted, routine checks have become nervewracking, and there’s the added burden of childcare with no help.
The loss of the offline social network has been very keenly felt. “These parents are having to work doubly hard in the absence of their network,” says developmental paediatrician Samir Dalwai, founder of the New Horizons Health and Research Foundation. “For certain kinds of special-needs children, online learning can also be harder. For some, outdoor activity is almost a prescription. Here, parents have been resorting to staircase space, a therapy ball, even an old truck tyre. And all these are good ideas, and have been working.”
In addition to age — teens tend to get restless more easily; younger children are more able to entertain themselves for longer periods, and suffer less anxiety about what comes next — type of schooling has proved pivotal.
The more rigidly structured courses have instituted virtual attendance, tests and worksheets. One dad had to rush around trying to buy a printer, the day the lockdown was enforced. Juggling work, housework, classes and homework has pushed others to the brink.
One mom was so exhausted by the sheets and sheets of algebra fractions that she said she felt like pulling her hair out, at which point her daughter responded curtly, ‘Keep your hair on, mom’ — which has since become the lockdown anthem in their home.
“Younger children are typically more resilient by design. Their lack of knowledge and understanding of the scale of things, helps,” Chhibber says.
What happens next is a question that’s plaguing children, and parents too — not just with regard to the courses / exams / jobs situation, but also, what is the likely long-term impact of this lockdown on my child?
Counsellors say they can’t answer that one; it’s too soon to know. But the fact that everyone has been stuck in the same situation should alleviate some of the long-term effects.
In terms of being stuck in the same situation, parents say it’s also been helpful to discover that there is no correct number of children for a lockdown. One is too few; any more is an endless roundabout of cooking, washing up, arguing over space / toys / rules / chores, and elaborate disputes redressal systems.
For some children, this has been the first time in their lives that they’ve gone this long with nothing new, no special outings, parties or vacations.
“Parents are learning to spend less money. What was, for many, a cycle of heedless consumerism has been broken. There is no hankering for the next big thing,” says family counsellor Gouri Dange. “Children are being taught to manage with what they have.”
Instead of things, innovation and effort have reclaimed their place at the heart of special occasions. Like the ‘flight experience’ that Rachana Adalja created for her six-year-old daughter and a friend, in their living room. She put luggage tags on two suitcases, fixed screens to the backs of chairs and offered an ‘in-flight’ meal of Maggi and soup.
Pallavi Singh, 38, a homemaker from Indore, celebrated her daughter Kimaya’s fifth birthday by transforming part of their living room into a ‘fairyland’, with the help of some toys, Barbie props and balloons. “She had a Zoom party with friends and cousins. They played games and laughed a lot,” Pallavi says.
Rec time and celebrations have also encompassed joint cooking or baking projects, question hour and quiz games, dress-up and dance parties.
So, will lockdown change how we parent for good? How much of the old styles of parenting will return — less democracy, less conversation, less quality time, fewer family meals?
“The ability to have more conversations will remain, I hope,” says Chhibber.
“In the long term, parents will learn to depend on themselves,” Dalwai adds. “They will have greater trust in their child’s ability to cope. And will realise, hopefully, that children don’t need that many things and lists. Sometimes all they need is time and patience and a say in how things are done.”
As everyone pitches in to take on new chores, children have benefited from seeing gender roles ease in the household.
Parents say the lockdown has taught them to give their children space. When her day is done, for instance, Rhianna Majumder, 12, from Kolkata retreats to the secret world of her diary. ‘I pour out all my thoughts and feelings there,’ she says. SHORMI ROYCHOUDHURY