It factors into many Americans’ decisions whether to even have a child. Parents – mothers especially – often weigh the cost of childcare in their decision to return to work. And when a kid has a disability, there may not even be childcare options that meet the family’s needs.
When schools and childcare facilities were forced to close or restrict access during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions more American parents and guardians – men and women alike – found themselves suddenly facing childcare insecurity. This affected their well-being and mental health.
A group of health psychologists surveyed parents throughout the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. About 4% of the parents reported having high stress levels “before COVID-19.” But by May 2020, that share had ballooned to 22%.
Meanwhile, sociologists who surveyed and interviewed US mothers in April and May of 2020 found that not having childcare affected mothers’ interpersonal interactions – such as increased frustration with their children – and quality of life.
How common is it?
In January 2020, 26 million working caregivers in the US “did not have an in-home care option” – whether a parent, grandparent or older sibling – for children 14 years and younger, according to a Rand Corp. analysis of data from the US Department of Labor.
A World Bank Report from December 2020 estimated that globally, over 40% of all children who needed quality childcare or preschool in 2018 did not have access to it. That’s nearly 350 million kids.
President Joe Biden has proposed some national policies to address childcare insecurity in the US – for example, limiting the percentage of income families need to spend on childcare to 7% by providing subsidies to care providers. This would likely improve access.
However, childcare insecurity is not always based on economic constraints. The quality of childcare, location, hours, and access for children with disabilities can all play a role as well.
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One morning in fall 2020, Myka Harris reached a breaking point.
As a small-business owner and single mom of a 5-year-old, she’d spent the first six months of the pandemic dedicating all her time to childcare and work needs. From staying on top of her son’s schooling to doing everything to buoy her business – a wellness center called Highbrow Hippie in Venice, California – she found herself exhausted and running on empty.
“I remember one morning just bursting into tears, lying on the ground, and crying,” Harris said, “because I just felt so overwhelmed and so alone.”
Like Harris, many Americans have taken on extra caregiving responsibilities while balancing their work in the pandemic, adding stress during an unprecedented situation. A new Insider survey of roughly 1,000 Americans found that this extra care was leading some of them, especially women, to feel stressed out and exhausted.
Women were more likely than men to report feeling at least somewhat burned out during the pandemic: 68% of women compared with 55% of men. So were parents who’d had to adapt to virtual schooling, care for a sick relative, or take on extra childcare duties.
These added responsibilities during a time of crisis have affected the mental health of working Americans and led some to leave their jobs.
An analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data from the National Women’s Law Center found that 863,000 women 20 and over left the labor force in September, the second-biggest decline during the pandemic after April 2020. By the end of the year, almost 2.1 million fewer women were working than before the pandemic, the analysis found.
The Census Bureau found in August that working moms were more likely to take on most childcare and homeschooling duties during school closures. In its Household Pulse Survey in mid-July, 32.1% of women ages 25 to 44 said they were not working because of childcare needs, compared with 12.1% of men.
Though caregiver burnout is not new, Paula Davis, the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, told Insider that there’s no doubt that remote work, added care, or homeschooling had “contributed to a higher sense of burnout among people.”
“You’re talking about somebody having to almost try and do two full-time roles at the same time, and it’s virtually impossible to do both of those roles well,” Davis said. “So it’s going to be very, very exhausting for people.”
Insider spoke with Davis and five caregivers to learn more about how added care responsibilities during the pandemic had contributed to feelings of burnout.
“You’re having the two [parents] play many roles in one, which, for me, was beyond exhausting and really left me depleted.”
Shara Ruffin, 35, is a licensed clinical social worker in Philadelphia who has a 6-year-old son and two soon-to-be stepdaughters. She helps others in social work pass their master’s, bachelor’s, and clinical licensing exams. Before creating her business, Journey to Licensure, she was studying for her own exam to become a licensed clinical social worker.
Ruffin was preparing to take the exam for the second time at the end of March 2020. As Philadelphia closed businesses, her contractual job at a long-term structured residential facility ended, and exam centers closed.
She began to worry more about her career and her three children who were now doing remote learning.
“My son had sometimes between 10 to 14 assignments to do,” Ruffin said. “Sometimes I would get so burned out that I just couldn’t do them. So they would pile up for, like, a day or two, and then we would knock them out.”
Ruffin said she felt as if she were “drowning in responsibilities.” She shared duties with her partner, but being at home led her to take on more of the care responsibilities. Both Ruffin and her fiancé were feeling exhausted.
“You’re having the two [parents] play many roles in one, which, for me, was beyond exhausting and really left me depleted,” Ruffin said.
When she needed a break, she would sometimes go next door to her son’s godmother’s house or to her mom’s place just for a moment alone.
Life now is completely different from 2020, Ruffin said. While balancing caregiving duties and studying “in a small, cramped apartment,” she passed her exam in November.
She said she wasn’t really feeling burned out now. Her children aren’t always at home, as her soon-to-be stepdaughters are with their mothers. Her son was recently doing remote learning at his godmother’s house or Ruffin’s mother’s place.
Ruffin, who was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at 21, was able to get a therapist to help with her mental health after applying for state health insurance last June. She finished therapy in December.
“All the things that you would normally do to kind of get support and nurture yourself I wasn’t doing for the last year.”
Susan Foosness, 40, is the associate vice president of value-based care at Quartet Health. She and her husband took their 4-year-old son out of childcare in Durham, North Carolina, in part to make spots available for children of essential workers who might not be able to take time off work.
Balancing work with caregiving duties and concerns about her family and her mom’s health during a pandemic began to affect her. She said that multitasking made her feel as if she couldn’t produce the best-quality work.
“I end up just not doing great at work, not being a great mom, feeling guilty about that, and that all just kind of spiraled into this sense of burnout,” Foosness said.
For months she felt a sense of dread about the future and thought to herself that this way of living was not sustainable. These multiple roles took a toll on her last summer when she realized that the US wasn’t really opening up and that her son wouldn’t be going back to childcare in the fall.
Sometimes in between work Foosness would drive half an hour to visit her mom in an assisted-living facility during visitation hours — only 30 minutes, outside, with masks and social distancing.
To help with childcare, Foosness’ mother-in-law has for over a year watched Foosness’ son for 2 1/2 days a week. Foosness and her husband each take one day to be “on call” for watching their son. Her son is going back to daycare later this month.
Now with vaccines rolling out and more things open, she feels that she and her family can do more to help with burnout, such as spending time with friends and other family members, she said.
“All the things that you would normally do to kind of get support and nurture yourself I wasn’t doing for the last year,” she said, “and now there is sort of light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Even if I take a nap or go to bed earlier, I’m still tired in the morning or my mind is racing in the middle of the night.”
Lidia Bonilla, 42, is an entrepreneur and relationship coach who spent the early months of the pandemic in her Brooklyn apartment. She stayed in close touch with her 81-year-old father, who was living in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and experiencing health issues.
After doctors told Bonilla that her father shouldn’t be living alone anymore, she moved to Santo Domingo in January to be his caretaker. Less than a month later, he was diagnosed with cancer. Since then, Bonilla has been by his side at home and at the hospital, all while trying to run her business remotely.
Bonilla said that navigating the medical system during the pandemic had been “nerve-wracking” and “emotionally exhausting.” For two weeks while her father was hospitalized with sepsis, Bonilla spent each night by his bedside. The day before speaking with Insider, she’d spent nine hours with her father, who’d been in the emergency room for dehydration.
As her parents are divorced and other close relatives aren’t available to help, Bonilla struggled with the duty of being her father’s caretaker, she said.
“For a while, I was resentful that I was here by myself doing this — why is this all my responsibility?” she said. “I don’t feel rested, even if I take a nap or go to bed earlier, I’m still tired in the morning or my mind is racing in the middle of the night, distracted and longing to cope.”
She recently hired a nurse to help take care of her dad, and on Saturdays she takes time for herself to go to the beach or meet up with friends. Still, she said she felt frustrated about being unable to do more for her father, while feeling as if she’s not doing enough for herself and her work.
Bonilla told Insider that though her father’s health was slowly stabilizing, she didn’t think she’d be able to leave his side anytime soon. She said she planned to stay in Santo Domingo, running her business remotely for the foreseeable future and keeping her life in New York on hold.
“I just felt so overwhelmed and so alone. You start to realize you just need a break.”
Myka Harris, 46, is the cofounder of Highbrow Hippie, a lifestyle brand and wellness center in Venice, California. Harris’ business, a hair salon and community space, was closed quickly in March 2020. Her 5-year-old son’s school also closed suddenly, and Harris spent the next three months with him at home.
“Trying to navigate your own stress and uncertainty while also managing a young child’s is challenging,” Harris told Insider. “I had to entertain, feed, and be with a child all day, where there’s no room for where he can entertain himself because he’s so young.”
Harris said she’d start her days early to work and research grants and loans for her business, enter “mom mode” during the day, and work again in the evening after her son went to bed.
Assuming the role of her son’s teacher was also time-consuming.
“Asking him to be focused and engaged was challenging. Mine is not one of those — he’s a very body-active child,” Harris said. “It became a battle every morning.”
After wrestling with virtual school, Harris transitioned her son to homeschooling and, later, a backyard pod with a few other families. In addition to her work, it was tough to stay on top of California’s ever-changing rules about whether her business could reopen; she said it made her feel constantly tired, sad, and uninspired.
“I remember one morning just bursting into tears, lying on the ground, and crying,” she said, “because I just felt so overwhelmed and so alone. You start to realize you just need a break.”
Harris said she’d strengthened her self-care routine with regular morning yoga and meditation and hired a nanny for a few hours several days a week to have her own time for reading, going to the park, and hiking.
“As we’ve reopened and more is happening, I’m more thoughtful about what I do and don’t want to do with my time,” Harris told Insider. “The pandemic showed me that self-care is not a luxury that we want to do, but it’s something we need to do.”
“I barely slept. I gained weight. I wasn’t taking care of myself physically.”
Jolene Delisle (who preferred not to share her age) is the founder of The Working Assembly, a brand agency. She said the past year had been a series of highs and lows.
When her 25-person New York office was forced to close in March 2020, Delisle had to initiate layoffs, furloughs, and hiring and pay-raise freezes. Her 3-year-old’s preschool closed, and the babysitter for her 1-year-old contracted COVID-19.
“It felt like the world was crashing down,” Delisle told Insider.
Delisle and her husband, who also works at the agency, spent the next six months balancing caregiving duties for their kids while working from home.
“We’d wake up at 6 a.m. to work for two hours, trade off childcare during the day, then after they went to sleep at 7:30 I worked until 2 in the morning,” she said.
Even in the fall when business picked back up and they began hiring again, Delisle was still very stressed, she said.
“I barely slept. I gained weight. I wasn’t taking care of myself physically,” she said. “I couldn’t even see any light at the end of the tunnel. It felt like every good thing, even little milestones of my kids turning 2 and 4, felt like more of an emotional burden for me. I couldn’t even register or process what was happening.”
At the start of the new year, Delisle said, she made an effort to prioritize herself by going to therapy, working out with a virtual trainer, and going offline one day a week. “Those things have really brought me back into being a normal person,” she told Insider.
After getting vaccinated in late April, Delisle finally had “a moment where I actually breathed for the first time,” she said.
Caregivers should keep an eye on the balance between their resources and their demands.
Paula Davis described an equation with demands (including work or caregiving, or things that require energy) and resources (things like spending time with people or traveling).
“Burnout is more likely when your demands exceed your resources,” Davis said.
She added that a lot of the resources people used to balance these demands weren’t available during the pandemic.
Several of the caregivers told Insider they’d explored self-care practices such as exercise and meditation. Davis said that while these activities could be great mental-health and well-being strategies, “when we’re talking about burnout, we’re talking about something that is a workplace-culture issue.”
“And so frontline strategies like that are a really good first step,” Davis said, “but they’re not nearly enough to prevent burnout.”
Have you had your own experience with burnout that you’d like to speak about with Insider? Email Madison Hoff at email@example.com and Laura Casado at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you Google “Mother’s Day gift idea,” you’ll be inundated with tacky jewelry, personalized trinkets, and sugary treats. It’s a sad compensation for the relentless stress that comes with mothering. And this past year has been particularly exhausting.
Even before the pandemic, working while parenting was a challenge, especially for mothers. Post-pandemic, the struggle remains. To give just an idea, my husband and I spent last weekend in tears, struggling with the fact that New York City is reopening and he is being called back into the office, separating him from his children and forcing me to reduce my already limited work hours and parent our two toddlers alone.
Forget bubble bath and breakfast in bed; this Mother’s Day, I want quality, affordable childcare to compensate for the options permanently lost due to the pandemic. I want return-to-work programs to reintroduce those of us who’ve fallen out of the workplace, and family friendlier employers that put an end to secret parenting once and for all.
On Mother’s Day – and every day – I want recognition for the incalculable value of our unpaid, invisible labor, including the mental load that weighs disproportionately on moms.
While I’m always appreciative of a homemade card, a little common courtesy is the gift that keeps giving. To my husband: Put your bowl in the dishwasher. Pick your damp towel off the bed. To his employer: Please don’t make him come back into the office when this doesn’t work for our family – especially considering studies have found employees are actually more productive when you let them work from home.
I spoke with five working moms who got real about what they’ve been through this past year, and what they’re truly hoping for this Mother’s Day.
‘Leave me alone’
People are realizing during the pandemic that health is more important than everything. Moms reach a point where they’re doing everything for everyone else and neglecting their own self care. But at the end of the day, no one’s happy when mom’s skipping meals or forgetting to properly hydrate.
After giving birth in May, I struggled with my weight and gestational diabetes. Even though I had a newborn to care for, I started prioritizing myself and lost 50 pounds with the help of a coach. I was so inspired that I started coaching others.
For Mother’s Day, I want to lock myself in my room for the day and only be interrupted with deliveries of snuggles and coffee. I feel like it sounds horrible, but the thought of ignoring my family and just staying in my bed for as long as I want would be bliss.
– Shoshana Fain, 34, Chicago, IL, health transformation coach, married with 3 boys ages 11 months, 4, and 5
‘I need a real vacation’
Last March, I quit my full-time job as an HR specialist to start my own business. I run workshops and mentor staff at all levels, teaching people about unconscious bias, microaggressions and other barriers to inclusion and diversity. When it comes to things like race, gender, sexuality, and other individual differences, people are overwhelmed and afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. That’s where I come in.
Being an advocate for change and a minority during this year’s social justice movements and in the midst of a pandemic was simultaneously exciting and terrifying. It brought on a lot of new feelings that were felt by the entire family. But we thrived.
For Mother’s Day, I’d love a vacation out of the country. I haven’t traveled since the pandemic began, and Greece has been on my vision board since forever. The blue roofs, beaches, and cuisine make it the ultimate relaxation destination. I’m ready for a well-earned break.
– Lekeshia Angelique, 39, Clarksville, TN, diversity coach and consultant, engaged with five kids ages 9, 9, 19, 19 and 23
‘A little kindness would be nice’
I’ve loved working in politics news the past three years. It’s felt like a public service more than ever. This past year especially, I poured my efforts into getting it right and amplifying a diverse group of wise and credible voices. My son splits time between me and his father, so my parenting is 24/3.5. I love that I’ve gotten the intense time with him this past year – we’re closer than ever – but I hate how often my attention is divided when we’re together. I’m always at the mercy of my work phone.
For Mother’s Day, I want my son to make me a card, which is a painful challenge for single parents; who’s going to oversee such a thing? I confess that I want flowers. I want the day off, but I work on Sundays. I want democracy and kindness. I want forgiveness to be cool. People can be really mean and unforgiving – especially on social media. I want to never see the Michael Jackson eating popcorn meme ever again.
– Cat, 38, New York City, journalist, divorced with one son, age 5
‘I want a better work-life balance’
Trying to work from home with a two-year-old and no childcare was not easy. Sticking my daughter in front of a screen and depriving her of the attention and social interaction she was begging for – I felt like such a bad parent at times. And at work, everything felt like an emergency. I was giving 100% at everything, but constantly falling short.
When I was let go in February 2021, I was shattered. I realized that as much as I’d loved my work, it wasn’t worth my sanity. I found a job freelancing in my field, plus size fashion.
My wish for Mother’s Day is simple: I don’t want to go back to what life was pre-pandemic.
I miss being in the office, and collaborating in-person with my coworkers, but I don’t miss the expectations put upon me – and that I put on myself. I don’t want to sit in a car for three hours a day battling traffic and then missing dinner or bath time. From now on, I want to define my work schedule. I’d also love for all our laundry to be done.
– Nicole Phillips, 37, Los Angeles, CA, freelance writer, married with one daughter, age 3
‘I need quality – not quantity – time with my child’
The hardest part about working and parenting this last year was throwing out the idea of what I thought everything should look like and becoming compassionate with myself about what life actually was and who I was in it. I was not prepared for a racial and health pandemic that forced me to become so much for my daughter. I had to be OK with not always being OK, and create a space that freed my daughter to admit when she was struggling so we could process through our feelings together instead of getting stuck in them.
For Mother’s Day, it would be glorious if I had some quality time with my daughter. A night or two somewhere close by for us to reflect and have fun together – and maybe a little time for me to just be, and sleep.
– Lydia Elle, 40, Southern California, self-employed, single with one daughter age 11
The number one comment I hear from readers of my adult books on mental strength is, “I wish I would have learned these things sooner.” So I decided to write a mental strength book for kids.
And while my adult books focus on what not to do, the kids’ book focuses on what to do. If kids learn these skills now, they won’t grow up to develop the unhealthy habits that rob adults of mental strength.
It’s healthy for kids to feel sad. But what’s not healthy is allowing that sadness to turn into self-pity. When kids feel sorry for themselves, they insist their problems are too big to address and they become helpless and hopeless.
Exercise: Work with your child to create a list of activities they enjoy doing when they feel happy, like playing games or singing. Those are their “mood boosters.” When they start to feel sorry for themselves, encourage them to pick an activity from their mood boosters list to help them feel better.
2. They empower themselves
Whether kids are experiencing friendship drama or they’re struggling with homework they don’t understand, it’s essential for them to take responsibility for their choices.
Exercise: When your child blames other people for making them angry or ruining their day, point out how to change their language. Empower them to take responsibility by saying, “I’m angry,” rather than, “You make me mad.”
3. They adapt to change
From moving onto a new grade to trying a different sport, change is tough. Kids need confidence that they can adapt to those changes.
Exercise: Help your child label their feelings. Simply putting a name to an emotion – like sadness or anxiety – can take a lot of the sting out of them.
4. They focus on things they have control over
Kids can easily get caught up in worrying about things they have no control over – like who their teacher will be next year or whether their team will win the championship game. But worrying about things they can’t control drains them of the mental strength they need to be their best.
Exercise: When your child worries about something beyond their control, help them change the channel in their brain. Putting together a puzzle, coloring a picture, or playing a game can distract their brains and help them get refocused on things they can control.
5. They know when to say no
While you might think your kids say no to too often already – like when given opportunities to earn money or spend time with the family – it’s important for them to be able to say no to unhealthy things that come their way.
Exercise: Teach your child how to set boundaries by saying no to things they don’t want in their lives. Whether they decline a favor for a friend or they say no to someone who asks them to cheat, teach them to show self-respect by delivering a direct no.
6. They take calculated risks
While a child might be quick to take a physical risk (like a bike stunt), they might be slow to take a social risk (like making a new friend). It’s important for them to learn to assess risk and face healthy fears.
Exercise: Teach kids that their brain’s anxiety alarm is likely a bit faulty – everyone’s is. So while their brains and their bodies might react to giving a speech as if it’s a life or death situation, assure them that it’s OK to face healthy fears – even when their anxiety alarm bells are ringing.
7. They create their future
Kids won’t ever reach their greatest potential if they’re completely passive about their lives or overly critical of themselves. It’s important for them to get interested – and excited – about the type of future they can create for themselves.
Exercise: When your child says something like, “I’ll never be good at math,” ask them what they’d say to a friend who said that about themselves. They’d likely offer some kind words. Teach them to talk to themselves the same way they’d talk to a good friend.
8. They own their mistakes
It’s tempting for kids to hide their mistakes. After all, they don’t want to get in trouble. But they can’t learn from their mistakes unless they own up to them.
Exercise: When your kids make a mistake, help them set themselves up for success next time. If they forget to bring their homework to school, encourage them to start packing their bag the night before. Or, if they forget to do their chores, create a chart to remind them what to do.
9. They celebrate other people’s success
Feeling jealous and resentful of kids who get better grades or score more points in the games will only hold your child back in life. On the other hand, learning how to celebrate other people’s success will serve them well.
Exercise: Teach your child to “act like the person they want to become.” That doesn’t mean acting fake; instead, it’s about encouraging your child to act the way they want to feel. Acting confident leads to feelings of confidence.
10. They fail and try again
Kids who fear failure avoid new things or give up as soon as they experience a setback. They need to know that although failing feels bad, it can also be an important stepping stone to success.
Exercise: Talk about famous failures. When kids learn that successful scientists, inventors, and artists failed many times before succeeding, they see how to learn from failure.
11. They balance social time with alone time
It’s important for kids to feel comfortable socializing with others as well as to be able to do activities independently. Healthy independence helps kids feel more comfortable in their own skin.
Exercise: Encourage your child to do something fun all by themselves. With practice and support, they can learn that alone time doesn’t have to be boring and lonely.
12. They are thankful for what they have
Entitled kids grow up to be narcissistic adults. Grateful kids, however, grow up to become appreciative, happy adults.
Exercise: When your child receives a gift, talk about what it’s like for them to know that someone spent time picking that give out for them. Your conversation can help your child experience gratitude about the people who care about them – not just the material possessions they receive.
13. They persist
When faced with obstacles, kids are often quick to abandon their goals. Persistence, however, is the key to true success.
Exercise: Have your child write an encouraging, kind letter to themselves. Their letter might remind them why they should keep going when they’re struggling. When they’re tempted to quit, encourage them to read that letter to themselves. Hearing their own words cheer them can give them the strength they need to push through tough times.