By JEFFREY REYNOLDS //
Warm bubble baths, dreamy meditation apps and heart-pounding exercise routines are among the self-care techniques mental-health experts recommend to folks feeling anxious, stressed and depressed as they navigate a global pandemic that’s killed 220,000 Americans.
For overwhelmed parents forced to choose between their kids, their jobs and their own wellbeing, we’ve lowered the bar even further, suggesting they take an extra five minutes in the shower or 10 minutes sitting in the car in the parking lot, or savor that stroll down the driveway to get the mail, because “you can’t pour from an empty cup.
If that’s the best we can offer, it’s no wonder parents, especially moms, are filling their empty cups with copious amounts of wine as they try to manage accumulating stress, fatigue, frustration and guilt, with no end in sight. Exhausted parents – especially those doing it singlehandedly and those with young kids, kids with special needs and kids who are learning remotely – need more than platitudes, essential oils or a walk around the block. They need help.
An August report from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education found that 61 percent of parents of young children in Massachusetts agreed or strongly agreed they felt “nervous, anxious or on edge” because of the pandemic. Low-income parents – and those who’ve suddenly lost their jobs or been forced to quit to care for their kids – are suffering disproportionately, as they worry about access to computers for remote learning and, without free or reduced-price school lunches, are visiting food pantries (and not eating themselves) to feed their kids.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 35 percent of surveyed mothers said back-to-school stress/worry had a “major” impact on their mental health. When asked about specific signs, 69 percent said they’ve experienced difficulty sleeping, poor appetite or overeating, frequent headaches and stomachaches, difficulty controlling their tempers and/or increased alcohol or drug use. Fathers experienced some of that, too, but at much lower rates – moms still bear the brunt of childcare.
Motherly’s 2020 State of Motherhood Survey found that 89 percent of mothers surveyed said they didn’t feel society sufficiently supports moms; meanwhile, a whopping 97 percent of millennial mothers reported feeling burned out by motherhood at least some of the time. The COVID-19 pandemic is making moms feel even worse, and the biggest source of stress among working moms, not surprisingly, is inadequate childcare.
Finding quality, affordable childcare was difficult pre-pandemic; COVID has made it nearly impossible, especially in New York and here on Long Island, where parents are scrambling to piece together new childcare arrangements or struggling to keep their kids entertained during Zoom meetings
An in-depth report released a few months ago by Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman notes that Nassau and Suffolk need an additional 93,550 childcare slots to accommodate all children under the age of 6 with parents in the workforce. The shortage will deepen post-COVID; the National Association for the Education of Young Children estimates that 40 percent of childcare facilities nationwide will close without government assistance, including more than half of those owned by people of color.
Of surviving centers, 73 percent are considering layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, thereby jeopardizing both women who rely on childcare and women who provide it.
The comptroller also notes that childcare costs for an infant in New York exceed $15,000 annually – almost twice what SUNY charges for in-state tuition, about 22 percent of a Long Island family’s median income and 36 percent of gross income for a single parent earning $50,000 a year. It’s also about 66.7 percent of a minimum-wage income.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines affordable childcare as costing no more than 7 percent of a family’s income. We’re not even close.
Making matters worse, only 10 percent of Long Island 4-year-olds have access to publicly funded full-day pre-kindergarten programs, compared to universal access in New York City. The Long Island Pre-K Initiative is working to boost that number, but COVID may stall its progress.
Just as government should step in, fund pre-K programs, work to keep daycare centers open and use COVID as a springboard for some long-overdue investments, employers should be redoubling childcare assistance, benefits and accommodations.
At the Family and Children’s Association, 79 percent of our 340 employees are female and many are single moms. Long before COVID, we learned the value of workplace flexibility and meaningful accommodations; formal and informal programs for paid, partially paid and unpaid leave; and a commitment to empathetic and transparent dialogue about strategies for reconciling work and family demands. FCA will maintain those commitments long after the COVID crisis has ended and so should other employers
It sounds trite, but taking care of our kids should be a shared responsibility. Mothers are stressed, not because they aren’t taking care of themselves, but because they’re taking care of everyone else and working around the clock to solve what’s really a national problem.
Marshaling the public and private resources to finally secure meaningful childcare assistance and accommodations for all families is a whole lot better than telling overwhelmed moms to take a walk.
Jeffrey Reynolds is the president and CEO of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association.