The Emotional Weirdness Of Parenting As The World Slowly Opens Up Again

We're at a more hopeful point in the pandemic, but there are still so many questions — and "decision fatigue" is grinding parents down.
Parenting during the pandemic has been emotionally draining from the get-go — but there's something about this particular moment that feels especially challenging to wade through.
SDI Productions/Getty
Parenting during the pandemic has been emotionally draining from the get-go — but there's something about this particular moment that feels especially challenging to wade through.

A year into the pandemic, I’m struck by how different day-to-day parenting looks even among my closest friends and family. It’s different in a way that it wasn’t when the pandemic began and most of us were just fully locked down.

Some of us have kids learning in person five days a week; others have children who’ve been behind computer screens since March 2020. Some are planning vacations and seeing grandparents; others haven’t so much as formed a pod. Some of us have gotten the vaccine; others are months away from being vaccinated. We’re all just making guesses about what seems best for our families, working within our particular circumstances, but really, none of us have any damn idea what we’re doing.

Yes, pandemic parenting has been emotionally draining from the get-go. But there is something about this particular moment that feels especially challenging to wade through.

For one, there’s still relatively little concrete guidance on the safety of doing certain activities. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally offered recommendations about how to behave post-vaccination, but it did not offer much clarity on how things might change for children and families. Kids are also likely months away from being able to get immunized themselves.

Also, and perhaps even more importantly: Parents are just so sick of it all now. We’re tired of trying to make near-hourly thoughtful decisions about what our children should and shouldn’t do, balancing their physical and emotional health and forever comparing our choices to others’, worrying we’re getting it totally wrong. For a while, I personally felt detached and numb. Now I’m just plain exhausted.

“I do think we’ve reached a real inflection point,” Chelsea Allison, founder and CEO of the maternal wellness startup Motherfigure, told HuffPost. “There’s a light at the end of this ‘pandemic tunnel’ for once, and yet we’re still at a point where there is this lack of clarity in terms of when a vaccine will be approved for children — and what the ramifications are for pregnant and lactating people — and that lack of clarity has real consequences.”

“At beginning of pandemic, there was this very real feeling of fear and panic that made moving through these decisions somewhat simpler, and now what we’re seeing is people are just ... weary,” she added.

“We’ve reached a real inflection point. There's a light at the end of this 'pandemic tunnel' for once, and yet we're still at a point where there is this lack of clarity in terms of when a vaccine will be approved for children.”

- Chelsea Allison, founder and CEO of Motherfigure

There is a name for that feeling: decision fatigue.

“It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy,” the science columnist John Tierney wrote in a New York Times Magazine piece about decision fatigue a decade ago. “The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts.”

Those shortcuts tend to take one of two forms, Tierney argued. Either people become reckless because they’re just too tired to really contemplate the consequences of a given decision, or they tend to do nothing — they just avoid choices altogether.

Of course, opting out of all decision-making isn’t possible when you are parenting during a pandemic and you have a lonely kid at home asking whether they can have a play date with a friend. (Inside or outside? Masks? Eating snacks?) Or when your teenager begs to go back to camp this summer. It’s wonderful that we’re in a more hopeful moment now as more people get vaccinated and cases decrease, but as we slowly slink toward a post-COVID-19 future, the risk calculations parents will have to make for their children will only become more complex and nuanced. There are no binary choices anymore. Also, it’s clear that things won’t simply snap back into how they were pre-pandemic anytime soon.

“Many new parents will be very hesitant to get too excited about how things are ‘getting back to normal,’” said Los Angeles-based psychologist Helena Vissing, who specializes in maternal health. “It’s a very common way to protect oneself emotionally, not get your hopes too high. It’s also difficult to navigate this decision process as friends and family will be responding in very different ways.”

A lot of families are renegotiating expectations now and will continue to do so over the next few months — and beyond, Vissing added.

All of that will continue to weigh on parents, so many of whom have had a really tough go of it over the past year. There are no easy answers, though mental health experts say that we parents must do our best to “scaffold” ourselves in this moment — finding practical, daily ways to support our well-being. And to acknowledge how hard and how draining this has all been, and will continue to be, even with an end to the pandemic on the horizon.