Summer is upon us, and many summer camps across the Northeast — and other parts of the country — have been canceled. We all know what this means: three more months of family togetherness! 270 more meals! 540 if you have teenagers! All without the nominal structure of online school! Who’s excited?
I know. It’s a formula for enough tantrums to split the atom.
Because I’m a mother, and because I once wrote a book about modern parenthood, I’ve spent a lot of time these days trying to diagnose why it is, exactly, that the nerves of so many parents have been torn to ribbons in the age of quarantine. I’m talking about the lucky ones, the ones who still have jobs and do them from home. Here’s my best stab:
• 1. Quarantine parenting is marked by a dire absence of flow, which is more essential to our well-being at this moment than we ever knew, and
• 2. We’re living with the household requirements of the 1960s but the work and parenting expectations of 2020, which is a rotten combination, especially for mothers, and
• 3. Both of the above are probably related.
Proceeding in order: “Flow” is that heavenly state of total absorption in a project. Your sense of time vanishes; it’s just you and the task at hand, whether it’s painting or sinking shots through a basketball hoop.
It turns out that flow is critical to our well-being during this strange time of self-exile. A few weeks ago I spoke to Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who recently collaborated on a survey of 5,115 people under quarantine in China. To her surprise, the people who best tolerated their confinement were not the most mindful or optimistic; they were the ones who’d found the most flow. She suspected it was why Americans have spent the past two months baking bread and doing puzzles. “They’re intuitively seeking out flow activities,” she said.
Flow, unfortunately, is rare in family life. The father of flow research, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, told me so point-blank when I wrote my book. When kids are small, their developing brains actually conspire against flow, because they’re wired to sweep in as much stimuli as possible, rather than to focus; even when they’re older, they’re still churning windmills of need.
And that’s during the best of times. Now, not only are we looking after our children, an inherently non-flow activity, and not only are we supervising their schoolwork and recreational pursuits — two things we used to outsource — but we’re working.
You need a stretch of continuous, unmolested time to do good work. Instead, your day is a torrent of interruptions, endlessly divided and subdivided, a Zeno’s paradox of infinite tasks. There’s no flow at all.
Now add to this blurry slurry the other half of my theory: We’re both 1960s parents and 2020s parents all at once, a nightmare mash-up in the space-time continuum, brought to you by a wormhole from hell.
Without school lunches and cartons of takeout at dinner, most of us, both men and women, are doing more cooking — and therefore more cleaning — than we’ve ever done in our lives. The home has become the renewed locus of attention, just as it was when Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963.
The trouble is, it’s 2020. More than 70% of all mothers now participate in the work force. And as soon as women entered the work force, the first thing that went to seed was their homes. Instead, we compensate for our domestic delinquency by actively, intensively parenting our children, spending more time with them now than we did in 1965.
But in quarantine, we’re doing all of it. We’re homemakers. We’re stay-at-home parents. We’re paid workers. All at the same bloody time. But there isn’t time for all three, only time to feel like we’re failing at all three, sometimes simultaneously, devoting low-quality or insufficient attention to each role. We’re all making choices about where to cut corners.
I cut corners on cleaning. But also, if I were to be honest, on intensive mothering. It’s basically a return to the laissez-faire parenting of the 1960s in my house. Fortnite has become my favorite child-care provider. It’s just fine, really — my son is self-regulating, so I can always get him to stop, and Fortnite gives him a chance to talk to friends he dearly misses. But I still can’t shake the dull sense, unique to our era, that this is simply wrong. Even though I know Betty Draper would never have harbored this kind of guilt. She’d have shooed Sally out of the kitchen and enjoyed a cigarette.
Recently, a grateful employee tweeted out a memo from the Canadian federal government, which told its workers not to hold themselves to pre-pandemic standards during this time. “You are not ‘working from home’,” it said. “You are ‘at your home, during a crisis, trying to work.’ ”
It was such a generous distinction. It should be extended to raising kids. We are not really “parenting,” in whatever sense that usually means to us. We are managing parenthood during a pandemic. They are not the same. And whatever we’re doing? It’s good enough.
Jennifer Senior is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.