Over the past year, Kate Dinwiddie of Bedford has worried about the impact that isolation will have on her son Andrew, who is 18 months. Andrew was still an infant when social distancing became the norm, and Dinwiddie fretted that he was missing out on developmentally important interactions with other toddlers.
“As quarantine and the pandemic went on, I became more and more concerned that he wasn’t getting exposure to the socialization and stimulation that is going to be reality when the pandemic ends,” Dinwiddie said. “I felt pretty trapped.”
The pandemic has left many parents, particularly mothers, feeling overwhelmed. A study from the American Psychological Association found that parents are more stressed than people without children, with 70% of parents saying that family responsibilities were a significant source of stress in their lives. A lot of that burden is being shouldered by moms: 78% of partnered women with kids say they do more to manage their children’s schedules than their partners do.
“It’s really hard right now,” said Allison Furbish, a Canaan mother of two. “It’s harder now than ever to find the time and space to take a break or to take care of yourself.”
Despite the high expectations placed on mothers, society provides them with little support. That’s been underscored during the pandemic, said Dr. Kate Vaillancourt, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified perinatal mental health counselor based in Exeter.
“There is no universal system that mothers can count on when they need help,” Vaillancourt said. Instead, moms like Dinwiddie, Furbish and others in the Granite State are left to craft their own solutions.
Small pod playdates take off in Hooksett
After worrying about her son’s social development, Dinwiddie decided that she had to follow her mother’s intuition, while also balancing health and safety guidelines. She began taking Andrew with her to the grocery store, just to get him out of the house. During the summer, she started attending classes at My Gym, a children’s activity center in Bedford.
Then, last month, she connected with four other moms to create a playgroup that meets at Thrive Family Resources in Hooksett.
“For me, it was about balancing the risk versus the benefit of a lot of things,” Dinwiddie said.
That’s what Sarah Papamichael, director of Thrive Parenting Resources, was hearing from a lot of mothers. Prior to the pandemic, Thrive hosted playgroups and classes aimed at providing young children and their caregivers with the opportunity for socialization. The space had been closed since last March, but in February reopened. Thrive wouldn’t offer classes, but groups of up to ten people could reserve the playroom.
Then, Papamichael went a step further, using Thrive’s Facebook page to encourage caregivers — mostly mothers — to form pods with others. She hoped they could connect with new people who had kids similar age, or similar approaches to COVID risk management.
“Right now, there’s nowhere you can go to meet anybody,” Papamichael said. “We’re trying to help facilitate that.”
Dinwiddie, who had moved back to New Hampshire just before Andrew was born, formed a group with a woman from My Gym, another she had taken a class with at Thrive pre-pandemic, and a fourth who they met through the Thrive Facebook page. They meet weekly at Thrive, allowing their toddlers and themselves a glimpse of normal social interaction.
“You reach a point where enough is enough. We have to figure out how to bring safe normalcy back for us and our kids, Dinwiddie said. “It’s about the shared experiences that we’ve been missing over the past year.”
Dinwiddie and her pod members aren’t the only moms who have appreciated the chance to get out of the house. Playgroup reservations are now booked out weeks in advance, Papamichael said. Thrive Parenting Resources limits groups to ten people (including children), and sanitizes the space between sessions.
A move back home
A year ago, Amy Boshco was living in Nashua with her husband and son, who is now 4. When Boshco lost her job as a server, she worried that her family couldn’t afford to stay in their three-bedroom apartment.
“We didn’t see a viable way, with me being unemployed, to keep living there,” she said.
The family had been saving for a down payment on a house, and Boshco worried about spending that money to cover rent.
“We’ve been in that gray area where a lot of 30-somethings are, looking for that right credit report and right house to come up,” said Boshco, who is 33.
In mid-June, Boshco realized that she wouldn’t be comfortable returning to work until she had a vaccine, because of underlying health conditions. That led to the difficult decision to move the family back in with Boshco’s mother in Billerica, Massachusetts. Living in one bedroom with her husband and son hasn’t been easy.
“Any mistake you make, it’s all happening under the loving, watchful eye of your mother, which can be a strained situation,” Boshco said.
As the pandemic stretched on, so did the time that the family was living with Boshco’s mom.
“We were hoping for three months to be the goal, then six months was more realistic, and 8-12 is what it will end up being,” she said. Despite the difficulty of living with family, Boshco has stayed focused on her ultimate goal: being able to purchase a home.
“You negotiate with yourself about what's important and what’s not,” she said.
After spending too much time debating whether she should put groceries on a credit card or “eat lean,” Boshco started getting SNAP benefits (commonly known as food stamps). She’s appreciative of the government programs like SNAP and unemployment, but would like to see more robust supports for families.
“There’s ways to do it because you see other countries doing it well,” she said.
Vaillancourt said that policies like paid family leave, affordable childcare and flexible work schedules often come up when she talks with her clients about the challenges they face. She points out that while most moms struggle from time-to-time, at least one in five will have a clinical postpartum mood disorder, including postpartum depression or anxiety.
During the survival mode of the pandemic, Boshco said she doesn’t have time to tend to her own mental and emotional health.
“The emotional concerns I have completely wrapped up, put in a box, and put in the back corner of my mind. I’ve labeled them, ‘this needs attention when I have time,’” she said. “But with the obligations I have, it’s just not in the cards right now.”
Mental health and adjusted expectations
For Furbish, the Canaan mother of two, making time for mental health has been critical during the pandemic, for her whole family. With all the adjustments of the early months of COVID, including Furbish starting a new job and her husband losing his, Furbish’s six-year-old son began having outbursts that had the whole family on edge.
“His behavior got extreme,” she said. “It was affecting everybody,” including her 11-year-old daughter.
Furbish and her family started weekly therapy sessions via telehealth. Being able to connect with a therapist was not something Furbish took for granted.
“We were really lucky to get into counseling for our son,” she said. “We had tried before a couple years ago and we couldn’t find someone.”
At the same time, she and her husband also prioritized their well-being.
“We’ve sought mental health care for ourselves,” Furbish said. “It’s hard to manage things as a parent, a human being in general. Then, add the pandemic…”
Furbish, like Boshco, has recognized that there’s an element of survival to parenting during the pandemic. With constant obligations and limited energy, Furbish has given herself permission to prioritize what feels important, and let other things slip.
“I have enough on my mind, enough going on, that I’m not going to prioritize dishes,” she said. “There’s currently a futon in the middle of the living room floor, the cushions are all off the couch, five blankets are in a heap and there are towels that need to be folded. I haven’t even gotten to the other half of the room. But the more important things are taking care of my kids — making sure they’re healthy and happy — and focusing on my job to keep a roof over their heads.”
Like Furbish, mothers need to find solutions that work for them and trust their judgement about what is best for them, Vaillancourt said.
“At the end of the day, moms make the best decisions they can and do what they feel is right for their families,” she said. “Moms are doing the best they can and it's not easy, especially not now.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.
Pictured: A toddler participates at a pod playground at Thrive Family Resources in Hooksett. The resource center has encouraged small groups of caregivers to connect. (Courtesy photo).