But that doesn’t stop mothers from berating themselves. For failing to stay on top of the remote curriculum. For insufficient nagging about homework. For outsourcing child care to the computer, even though that’s where most of these kids’ friends can be found these days — loitering in the mists of cyberspace.
Most globally, they blame themselves for not finding interesting ways to make this unprecedented time seem meaningful. As one mother of two teenagers wrote to me:
This whole thing is reshaping my kids’ lives and worldview and I’m not doing much to help that shaping. We don’t have new family traditions. We’re not volunteering. We haven’t expanded our community. We watch way more TV, oftentimes alone. We fight over puzzles and board games. And our extended family hates Zoom.
Yet once again, I can’t help but notice that we are fretting about the very things that made us feel incompetent before the pandemic began. In Galinsky’s study, seventh through 12th graders were asked slightly different questions about their parents than the younger children were. We mothers still scored worst on controlling our tempers. But we scored almost as badly on “knowing what is really going on” in our children’s lives (35 percent of us got As) and “establishing family routines and traditions” (38 percent).
Lots of us, it seems, were born with limited patience and an only average imagination for making family fun. (Myself included. My idea of pandemic variety is finding ever more obscure Paul Rudd movies to watch.) Yet here we are, contending with a Category 5 disaster that forces us back on the meager resources of the nuclear family and our extremely ordinary — and at this point overextended — brains to come up with ways to cope.
It’s hard to know how to console ourselves at this particular moment. But here, personally, is what I have found most useful.
With regard to our failures of self-regulation: As Galinsky likes to say, it’s impossible to grow without conflict. If we feel we’re having more moments of tension and anger these days, that means there’s also more opportunities for repair.
As for our so-called failures of engagement: We have to remember that the nuclear family has never, ever been enough to raise kids. Even in 1962, a peak mom-and-apple-pie time in American life, no less an authority than Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote:
The woman who chafes at the monotony of child rearing (and I’m assuming that most mothers do at times) is really beset from two directions: the separation from adult companions, and being bottled up with the continual demands of the children. I don’t think Nature ever intended the association to be quite so exclusive.
“We’re so individualistic that we think of ourselves as responsible for our successes and failures,” Galinsky told me when I reached her this past week by phone. “Whereas I’ve watched the child care system teeter near collapse. I’ve watched schools go back and forth about what’s safe. And we shouldn’t be expected to be teachers! We aren’t teachers. Teachers are teachers. And now we can appreciate how good the good ones are.”
Indeed. “In a good situation,” she added, “we can be the parents we want to be. It’s much harder in bad ones.”