‘You are not a teacher, you are a mum or dad’
Rebecca Bletcher used to have a full schedule of activities to fill her days while she’s on maternity leave with her little son. But like many other young parents, the teacher’s life with her baby has changed a lot in lockdown.
For Bletcher, the internet has proved a saviour. “My mum is reading the baby his bedtime story via FaceTime every night and CBeebies have a very sweet programme called Baby Club, which is like a baby sensory class – great now the real-life classes are all off,” she says.
“I’m also texting a friend who has two young kids and we are sharing two parenting wins and one fail each day to keep things in perspective.”
It can be hard to do that, of course. Some families are enjoying time out in their garden or on their daily walk through the park, but others will feel they are struggling with their jobs and their bills, with isolation leading to existential uncertainty. When young children are involved on top of those things, it can be tough.
‘Work out a schedule of non-negotiables’
Dr Sam Akbar is used to dealing with stressed people. She’s a clinical psychologist and the founder of The Mind Minute, a newsletter to help busy women build resilience. And on top of that, her second job in the NHS involves treating refugees with PTSD.
Now, Dr Akbar is hearing from parents who are suddenly struggling to juggle things with young children since the lockdown – and one of the most basic ways she is trying to reassure people is to remind them of that same word Bletcher used: perspective.
“We will come out of this hopefully all right, emotionally, because life will return to normal,” she tells i.
“If life is tough, don’t compare with celebrities and people who look like they’re having an awesome time,” says Akbar, “and remove yourself from social media that make you feel worse.”
In terms of juggling work and childcare, communication, as always, is key. “If you are both working parents at home, work out a schedule of non-negotiables or crucial calls and meetings between you, and keep reviewing it regularly,” she suggests.
‘Do it your way’
Nerys Hughes, clinical director of Whole Child Therapy, says she is coping by outlining things with her family in advance. “I discuss my schedule with the children the night before and plan time with them, work meetings and mummy time. I have 15 minutes in the morning to do yoga each day, which they know is just for me.”
Hughes realises this won’t work for everyone. “Some parents are very scheduled, but if you are a ‘free-flow’ family, do it your way.”
Lots of people are finding that friends and local communities are clubbing together. Among them is Emma Walker, another teacher on maternity leave. “All the mummy friends are rallying around to help each other,” says Walker.
“For example, I couldn’t get hold of a high chair so a friend sent me hers. When I couldn’t get baby formula, the WhatsApp group was full of suggestions.”
“Use groups and ask for what you need,” says Dr Akbar, “although be wary that online groups have limits too”.
‘Our children are in grief ‘
Beyond how they are coping themselves, parents are concerned about how their children may be affected.
“I have experienced anxiety around not being able to access medical help as easily,” says Walker, whose baby recently developed a bad cough. “Ordinarily, I would’ve taken him to a GP but I didn’t want to go so, in the end, a doctor friend advised me over the phone.”
It’s also the emotional impact that worries parents. “Our children are in grief,” says Hughes. “They have had a considerable loss overnight: if they were at school or playgroups before, then they have lost friends, teachers and a routine. We need to acknowledge our children’s feelings.”
Parents tend to think they need to explain the coronavirus itself, but it’s more important for them to understand the behaviours around it, like social distancing, Hughes advises. “Use language your child already knows rather than using new words. Some children will say things like ‘I’ve got a headache in my knee’ so you can use that language with them.”
If you have young children, they won’t have the language to express their emotions, but you can help them to process them through play and activities. “Make gifts and cards and letters and pasta necklaces to send to the people they don’t get to see,” suggests Hughes. “When they are making them ask – who shall we send this to? And the child will suggest the person that they are missing.”
Treat them with kindness
Most importantly, say the experts, it’s OK to treat yourself and your children with kindness and have a duvet day or a TV day.
“It’s important to recognise that you will also be scared or stressed and to let your children understand that,” says Hughes. “You are not a teacher, you are a mum or a dad, and you risk changing the relationship you have with your children if you change too much.
“Remember that it is educational to make sandwiches and load the dishwasher.”