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Parents Of Young Children Are Worn Out From Constant Decision-Making During The Pandemic

An illustration of a parent carrying a child on its back. Another child is wrapped around one of the parent's legs.
“My biggest concern beyond safety [is] the mental load," said one mom about dealing with the stress of managing a family in the midst of a pandemic.
(Alborz Kamalizad
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On Jan. 3, Theresa Yang dropped her 3-year-old daughter and infant son at daycare for the first time since the holidays.

The coronavirus transmission rate was higher that at almost any other point during the pandemic. Her children aren’t old enough to be vaccinated, and while the risk of them getting seriously ill from the virus is low, the likelihood their lives would be disrupted was not.

“It was like a bad feeling that we were going to be affected by this for sure," Yang said. "And not being able to really do anything about it."

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Parents Of Young Children Are Worn Out From Constant Decision-Making During the Pandemic

Within three days, her daughter’s daycare classroom shut down after a teacher tested positive for the coronavirus.

Yang and her husband, who also works full-time, scrambled to figure out who would watch the kids while they quarantined away from family.

“I feel like every single decision is fraught with balancing the risks,“ Yang said.

I feel like every single decision is fraught with balancing the risks.
— Theresa Yang, Sherman Oaks parent and doctor

Children’s safety has been a constant concern during the pandemic, but what LAist heard most from parents over the past two weeks is that the mental load of navigating the world is more crushing than ever.

“The pandemic has just introduced this climate of uncertainty and fear and inconsistency and unpredictability that has just kind of layered on top of what was already a pretty impossible balancing act that a lot of working families were trying to accomplish,” saidDarby Saxbe, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s psychology department.

‘There’s No Safety Net’

“Are we going to be able to have day care today or not? Am I going to be able to make my meetings? Am I gonna have to cancel things? Do I hire a babysitter? Are they vaccinated?” are a few of the questions that fill mom and journalist labor organizer Nadia Taha’s mind.

“There's no safety net for families with small kids, and they're largely at the most risk,” said Taha while her son napped — his daycare was also closed after a positive coronavirus case.

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Other parents such as Cal State San Bernardino assistant professor Manpreet Dhillon Brar have never felt comfortable with their children being cared for outside of home. Her son has a congenital heart defect, making him more vulnerable to serious illness.

“Last semester was so hard for me. I pulled maybe 32 all nighters,” Brar said. “I can't work and take care of a kid during the day.”

Brar was just coming around to the idea of finding child care when the omicron variant started spreading rapidly.

Listen to Brar and other L.A. parents on KPCC's AirTalk:

Omicron And Stress On Parents 1.14.22

The stress of the pandemic is a reality we live with, as omnipresent as masks and jugs of hand sanitizer, but there have been moments that felt particularly excruciating.

Like last winter, then-Woodland Hills mom Rachel Stuhler told us, "I don't know any woman in my circle who isn't crying all the time, who is literally losing hair, stress vomiting — and I don't think that ends with the vaccine.”

And she was right.

“It's been like this for two years,” said Trina Greene Brown, who leads Parenting For Liberation, a virtual community for Black parents from Orange County. “That mental fatigue and exhaustion creates a level … of doubt in ourselves,” Brown said. “We don't even know what the right thing to do is anymore.”

Let’s Unpack The Mental Load

It’s not just making the decisions that’s exhausting, it’s all the work that it takes to get to the decision in the first place. One term for this is “cognitive labor.”

Harvard University doctoral candidate Allison Daminger, breaks it into four key parts.

  1. Anticipating a need: For example: Who will care for your kids if daycare shuts down?
  2. Identification: “Where you say, ‘OK, we've got this issue, [a] potential problem. What are our options for dealing with it?’” Can you take time off? Afford a babysitter? Call family? Work from home? Take your kid to work?
  3. Choosing an option: Turns out your partner can take a sick day — this time.
  4. Monitoring: When will daycare reopen? Do you need a new care option for the next day? What support does your partner need?

According to Daminger’sresearch, women typically take on more of this cognitive labor, especially when it comes to anticipating their family’s needs and checking up on the outcomes.

“The pandemic is like one big project that just never gets closed off,” Daminger said. “It's like this continual open loop that you're always monitoring.”

There’s also the looming concern that everyday decisions could have consequences to a child’s health and happiness.

“It's a no-win situation because you are there to safeguard their current future and their future future,” said sociologist Leah Ruppanner, who directs the Future of Work lab at the University of Melbourne. “We can't control that … that’s superhuman.”

Caregiving is an essential, public good, and we need an infrastructure to support that.
— Leah Ruppanner, University of Melbourne sociologist

The effects of cognitive labor are still being studied, but existing research shows unresolved stress has negative consequences on health, family relationships and child development.

“Caregiving is an essential, public good, and we need an infrastructure to support that,” Ruppanner said.

That infrastructure is bigger than any single household. Ruppanner and other researchers and policy analysts say it includes affordable, accessible child care and paid leave — supports that exist in dozens of other countries. Those policies are included in President Joe Biden’s now-stalledsocial spending plan. California’s most recent budget takes the next steps toward creating a universal preschool program for 4-year-olds.

Private companies could also act. Mom and doctor Theresa Yang said the Great Resignation is evidence that workers want employers who respect their family responsibilities.

“People are realizing that … they are replaceable in their work, no matter how good they are at it,” Yang said. “My patients will always have other doctors, but my kids and my family are just going to have one mom.”

Early Childhood Engagement Producer Stefanie Ritoper contributed to this story.

What questions do you have about early childhood education and development? What do you want to know about kids ages 0-5 and those who care for them in Southern California?
Decades of research indicates early childhood education significantly boosts children’s readiness to learn. Mariana Dale wants families, caregivers and educators to have the information they need to help children 0-5 grow and thrive by identifying what’s working and what’s not in California’s early childhood system.