‘I Have Given Up’: Parenting in Quarantine

By Rachel L. Harris and Lisa Tarchak

For January Murray, 5, enjoying some bubblewrap while quarantined helps pass the time.
For January Murray, 5, enjoying some bubblewrap while quarantined helps pass the time.Credit...Alice Proujansky

Opinion

Readers tell us how they’re managing the Parent-Employee-Teacher trifecta during the pandemic.

For January Murray, 5, enjoying some bubblewrap while quarantined helps pass the time.Credit...Alice Proujansky

By Rachel L. Harris and

Ms. Harris and Ms. Tarchak are senior editorial assistants.

What does parenting burnout look like during a pandemic? After a column by Farhad Manjoo on the subject, thousands of readers told us about their “new normal.” For many, excessive screen time was the least of their worries.

“Our goal is to survive: no divorce, no getting fired and no children running away from home. If we can do that, I’ll consider us a success story,” wrote Marie LaRiviere, a reader in Fremont, Calif. “We have lowered our expectations in every way possible.”

A selection of their stories, edited for length and clarity, is below, accompanied by images from Alice Proujansky’s series of photographs, “Six Feet Apart,” which focuses on her experience sheltering in place with her children, January and William, in New York.

ImageJanuary Murray, 5, the photographer’s daughter, reads a book on an iPad while her brother William, 7, waits for his turn to use it. Their schools are closed because of the coronavirus outbreak in New York.
January Murray, 5, the photographer’s daughter, reads a book on an iPad while her brother William, 7, waits for his turn to use it. Their schools are closed because of the coronavirus outbreak in New York.Credit...Alice Proujansky

I don’t even feel like I’m parenting at the moment. We’re all just alive and in the same room. I had twin boys in December and I thought that this would be a great extended maternity leave. But with their need for constant attention, I have just broken down and let my 3-year-old do whatever she wants. My husband and I were splitting shifts to take care of the twins and now my daughter has moved into his side of the bed so I have a near-constant shadow. From the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep, that child is with me. I cannot get away and yet I allow it, because it’s easier than fighting. — Elizabeth Kelley, Columbus, Ohio

My wife and I love each other, but this is just a lot. Frankly, we are kind of spiraling. Our house is a disaster and it is driving us all crazy but I can’t get it together enough to pick up. I blink and it’s time to feed these rascals again. Our older children (10 and 12) are OK, they can entertain themselves with books, music and chatting with friends on devices. But our 6-year-old is struggling. We finally broke down and allowed him to watch educational television (fishing shows or Nova) or play Prodigy (a math game) on the computer. No tablet, no YouTube (those things makes him insane). At night we build fires in the fire pit and let the kids feed twigs into it one by one. It’s cathartic and feels ancient in a weird way. — Justin Taylor, Schaumburg, Ill.

We’ve had to make decisions we never dreamed we would have to make. I missed our daughter’s birth so as not to not risk exposure and to keep something constant in my sons’ lives. We missed Passover with my mother-in-law, who flew in to help with the birth and still has not held her granddaughter. We named our daughter on a Zoom chat with family and friends, rather than in a synagogue with a celebration. My wife and I have lost our tempers more in the last month than in our entire seven years of marriage. I’ve cried more in front of my boys than my father ever did in front of me, and that’s OK because the boys have tremendous amounts of empathy and they give out hugs as much as we give out treats. We have learned amazing things as a family about each other and our faith. — Aharon Hyman, Jerusalem

My day starts at 4 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. I work as a chart analyst for the Hospital for Special Surgery and have to go into the office at least a few days a week. My husband is also an essential worker, a night shift cleaning supervisor in the food industry. He sleeps during the day so my Mom, who lives with us, takes care of our son, who is 6. But my son waits for me to get home before starting his school work. At first I was fighting with everyone to be quiet so that we could concentrate. He’d run around the house crying and whining that he didn’t want to do it. There were a lot of assignments — I counted 14 one day — and I had to speak to the teacher. I tell everyone I have two jobs and the second one, of course, is teaching. — Beatriz Ramirez, Queens, N.Y.

We have a 25-year-old nonverbal son with Down syndrome and autism. He needs 100 percent assistance in everything from showering to making sure he doesn’t choke while eating. He attended an adult day program until it closed on March 12. It was hard before this pandemic, now it’s exhausting because we have no relief, no caregivers, not even visits from his siblings or extended family. He doesn’t understand why his world changed on a dime and he looks for his lunchbox every day. We go on walks and take him for aimless car rides. My husband and I take turns losing our minds. — Cheryl Carbonell, Connecticut

Nick Murray, the photographer’s husband, works at his sister's house while he borrows her washing machine to do the family’s laundry. He works in construction and is unsure when job sites will reopen.Credit...Alice Proujansky

We are failing miserably with our 3-year-old and 8-month-old, cooped up in a New York City apartment. My billable hours at work have suffered to a point where I am scrambling to try and save my job (compared to last year when I got a big promotion). I’m not sure when things are going to explode, but the end is nigh. The threat of the virus seems minuscule compared to our mental and physical exhaustion. My husband has resorted to increased alcohol consumption to cope (I can’t drink because I am breastfeeding). I haven’t washed my hair in over a week. At the start of the lockdown I told my husband that we will come out of this either planning a second honeymoon or putting a divorce lawyer on speed dial. — Avy Pitamber, Manhattan

I’m a single Mom and a teacher. I started this with the expectation that I would personally teach my oldest child (in kindergarten), keep in contact with my students and keep up with housework. I also have a 1-year-old who gets therapy for his developmental delays. As time has gone on, I find that I’m frustrated, depressed and can’t finish anything I start. We haven’t touched school work in days. The kids are stressed and it’s undone all their sleep training. I feel overwhelmed and ashamed that as a professional I can’t do this. My house is in shambles. When I have to do work meetings I point the camera to the highest point possible to hide the chaos on the floor. — Sarah Nicklas, Harrisonburg, Va.

I’m not expected to put in a full eight hours a day when my children are with me, but I have split custody so I put a lot of pressure on myself to overachieve or work overtime the days I don’t have them. When I do have them, the Mom guilt is out of control as my boys (2 and 5) begin their fourth or fifth hour of television. My 5-year-old has been potty trained for more than two years but has started to regress. My soon to be ex and I signed divorce papers the weekend before everything started to shut down in Utah. Is it terrible to say that I’m so thankful I have somewhere to send my children so I don’t have to be with them 24/7? — Michelle Sayers, Salt Lake City

January occupies herself by repurposing some shipping materials.Credit...Alice Proujansky

I have given up, and for the better. The kids (8, 10 and 12) are in charge of themselves and their schooling. I go to work in health care every day and don’t have the bandwidth. I trust them, and if there are issues, I ask the teachers to email me. They’re learning little aside from school work sheets, how to fold laundry, sweep, mop and fix their own meals. My bar is very low but there is much to be said for kids learning self-sufficiency. If that is the most they learn these long months, so be it. — Alexandra Leigh, Louisiana

This has been one of the hardest things we have done as working parents. I’m a high-achiever type personality, and not only am I not doing well, I’m barely keeping things afloat some days. I’ve been outspoken at my company from day one about this new reality and how those of us with young children in particular are bearing a burden that makes work impossible to sustain at normal capacity. The constant feeling of never crossing items off a to-do list is incredibly tough for my mental well-being. Thankfully, my employer has been supportive. But this marathon with no finish line has shifted our standards. — Katherine Lehmann, Roswell, Ga.

The first two weeks that we stuck to the school-provided schedule were miserable. The kids (3 and 6) missed their friends, going to playgrounds, and my husband and I were high strung, trying to do exemplary work to avoid being laid off in addition to full-time home schooling. We realized that level of unhappiness was unsustainable. Our new normal involves going for long walks, watching lots of movies, making Lego creations, gardening and reorganizing Pokemon cards a thousand times over, in between fits of hyper-focus on work. Homeschool is relegated to no more than an hour a day, if that. Our pediatrician told us that boredom is good for kids and to stop worrying about entertaining them all the time. — Eleanor T. Chung, Baltimore County, Md.

As a deputy general counsel of a large company and a single Mom who is home schooling a kindergartner in a language I don’t speak (he attends a French bilingual school), the whole thing has been frustrating and tear-inducing. But now in week six, I’ve reached a plateau and gotten comfortable with being a mediocre parent and subpar employee. Sleep is super important, as is riding bikes or hiking in a large park every day. Co-parenting seems like a dream. Someone else to take the kid for an hour so I could go for a run or hit the store? Not happening. — Laura Altieri, Berkeley, Calif.

Nick holds January as he checks the news on his phone.Credit...Alice Proujansky

I work at a Trader Joe’s, so I’m on the proverbial front lines. My ex-wife is working from home with the children, and I still get them on my days off. In both households, they do very little of the school work assigned. It’s too much of a battle. And we’ve largely stopped fighting it. When I’m with the kids, we try to do a lot of creative play — both sports in the driveway and elaborate family rituals with dolls. It’s exhausting but it keeps them amused — and then I feel less guilty about giving them screen time. I thank God I’m co-parenting with someone who isn’t a panicker and is fairly relaxed about letting the children go out to the taco truck or ride their bikes around the neighborhood. I know other divorced couples at each other’s throats because they have different danger thresholds. — Hugo Schwyzer, Hawthorne, Calif.

I was home-schooled in a fundamental evangelical household so I knew how much work this would be from the beginning. It’s all my worst nightmares at once. I’ve decided to tune out all the advice from my elders about how they kept their toddlers busy — when were their toddlers at home during a global pandemic? I’m just doing what makes sense to me right now. So I bought the kids a trampoline. We also created a code word: “Space Attack!” Whenever one of us says it, we all have to scatter so we don’t lose our tempers at each other. — Liz Ivkovich, Salt Lake City

The first two weeks seemed easy, then everyone’s emotions became bigger, more sporadic, harder to manage. So we created space to just be with the feelings; more hugs, more new strategies, more self-care, more gratitude. We use prayers to motivate our kids (6 and 8) to reflect and be thankful. And a daily nap for both kids and grown-ups was a game changer! Think like a team. Help each other up like a team would. I’ve never been more thankful for my husband and our differences than right now. — Alison Elliott, Ontario, Canada

Initially, I thought we could give our 7-year-old a more entertaining, well-rounded and meaningful education than he was getting at school, and that it would be fun. I am an idiot. Now we do the bare minimum and are thankful for distance learning. My younger son, 5, has a rare genetic disorder that makes him immune-compromised. This epidemic has been a frightening and perilous journey. We have seen him nearly die of respiratory infections at least three times in his life. If he gets Covid-19 there is no question in our minds that he will not survive. Playing games — Monopoly, Uno, Poker — helps us forget for a time that we’re huddling indoors, afraid.

And, for me, quiet intimacy with my wife after the kids are asleep, having more time to share thoughts, helps. We cook and drink expensive wines. We don’t talk about the future. Everything is so immediate these days, so moment to moment. But there is a freedom in that as well. — O. Gabriel Avila-Mooney, Seattle