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Is there “Parenting Lemonade” to Make from the Last Year of Lemons?

By Michael Mackert, Ph.D | Contributor

Any parent who worked from home for the last year has ridiculous, funny, or wince-inducing stories of children making appearances on work video calls. 

One of my more memorable moments was one of our three-year-old twins demanding to make an appearance on camera and loudly declaring “I LOVE YOU!” to everyone on the call. But my children also had a chance to learn just a bit more about what I do; I teach, too, but not in an elementary school like theirs. 

It has been hard and tiring for people across the US since COVID-19 upended everything in March 2020, and as families transition from summer to normal-ish fall schedules and back-to-school programs, I want to encourage all parents and caretakers to reflect on what they might want to hold onto and what they actually appreciated in the last 16 months.

The impact of COVID-19 was never felt evenly. Disruptions to normal life, the burden of disease, and the mortality rate have disproportionately affected communities of color, which have long been impacted by health disparities, while others continued to work throughout the pandemic as healthcare specialists, delivery drivers, and other essential workers. Countless more lost their jobs as businesses across the country shut down.

Parents faced other kinds of challenges – how to handle childcare, deciding whether children should go to daycare or school in-person, if they should participate in extracurricular activities, and the long list of decisions that seemed to have no perfect answer goes on. It forced a lot of hard decisions on families around the country, which we’re still struggling with as we get back to “normal” through the summer and look ahead to the next school year.

Amidst all the chaos and challenges, it also seems likely that a lot of parents found new opportunities to connect with their kids.

Maybe a new activity in a park or playing sports in a backyard to be safe outdoors and get out of the house. Maybe it was rediscovering board games or completing puzzles as a family. 

Research shows that COVID-19 has had an impact on family dynamics and fathers. For example, during the pandemic, domestic duties became more evenly split, and 56% of couples reported sharing childcare duties—compared to 45% before the pandemic. While parents have faced many challenges regarding childcare during this time, the pandemic has had positive outcomes, as well. In fact, a Harvard study shows that nearly 70% of fathers (regardless of race, class, education level, and political affiliation) felt closer to their children during the pandemic. Fathers report having strengthened relationships with their children, as they have engaged in meaningful conversations with their children, shared more about their own lives with their children, and discovered new interests and hobbies with their children. This study suggests that when parents work from home, it is easier to build a relationship between parent and child, especially for fathers who have traditionally not been at the center of childcare and child rearing. The pandemic parenting experience shows there is space for improvement in family dynamics and how fathers interact and connect with their children. 

I was among the fortunate ones who was able to teach and work from home, so I got to be there and support online school and eat lunch with my kids every day. I loved hearing about what they were learning in school, though at times it was just more of a pep talk to get through a tough day of online school.

Schedules changed immensely, and so even those fathers working outside of the house had new opportunities to connect with their kids once they got home. All those cancelled after school sports and extracurriculars created more open calendars at the end of the school day, and those fathers had newly carved out time with their families after work. Less packed schedules turned out to be a lifted weight for some families – something that could stick with them post-COVID.

I know, at least from people on the team I get to work with every day, that those moments where work and real life collided helped make it seem normal and okay to struggle with all of our conflicting obligations; I also personally enjoyed the random child (and pet) appearances on work calls, because we had a chance to know colleagues more as parents and actual people.

As parents return to their pre-pandemic work life and children return to in-person classes, parents can keep in mind the lessons taken from the pandemic.

Maybe that means consciously working to get to know their kids better and spending more time with them. It could be focusing a little less on grades and a bit more on helping children make healthy social connections and friendships. Or maybe it will mean letting our children continue to see more of what parents do when they are at work — to help children see a fuller picture of their parents.

Even as I return to campus on a regular basis, I know I’m hoping to find ways to do more of those lunches with our kids. I’m sure a frequent topic of conversation will be what our kids learned in school and what I’m doing in the classroom, too.

About The Author 

Michael Mackert, Ph.D., is the Director of The University of Texas at Austin Center for Health Communication and Professor in the School of Advertising & Public Relations and Department of Population Health. His research focuses primarily on the strategies that can be used in traditional and new digital media to provide effective health communication to low health literate audiences, including a project on the Father’s Playbook, a mobile app designed to engage expectant and new fathers.

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