Mother Knows Best: Finding Sanity in the Chaos

Shannon McGinley, Executive Director

This Op-Ed was printed in the NH Union Leader April 14, 2020

I may be the executive director of a busy non-profit, but first I’m a mother. Nothing has reminded me more of that than the craziness of the past month. Not only is my husband working from home, we are graced with the constantly active presence of our five sons ranging in age from four to 23. If I ever thought I ran a tight ship, it is evidently leaking like a sieve. Don’t get me wrong. It is happy chaos, but chaos, nonetheless.

And, let me tell you, I’m far from alone. The mommy network is buzzing as we try to maneuver not only being home 24/7 with our children but attempting to carry out the overwhelming job of schooling our children at home as directed by our schools, who themselves had to pivot and put together these programs quickly.

Take my niece for example. She lives in Florida and is on maternity leave with her third child. Her oldest is just six. Going into that first week of schooling from home, her daughter and her classmates were tasked with four hours of computer time each day consisting of classroom and online learning, and that was just for first grade. To make things more stressful, the online program the school uses for remote learning employs frequent timed tests to assess progress. Her friend’s daughter, a gifted student, “failed” several of those assessments in those first days, resulting in more than one meltdown. As that mother put it in a letter to her superintendent, “This is dangerous territory to enter into on a good day, much less during a quarantined pandemic day while withdrawing our children from society and socialization.” (Fortunately, since those first days of social distancing, some adjustments have been made thanks to parent feedback and teachers figuring out what works for their students.)

She’s right. It’s time we all give ourselves permission to step back and take a few cleansing breaths. For parents and schools abruptly thrust into the totally unknown territory of extended quarantine because of a global pandemic, we need to take some of the performance pressure off ourselves and our children. For a start, we all need to acknowledge our children are children, not data points or learning machines that can simply be switched on and off at will.  And the same goes for mothers. Yes, we are amazing and capable, but we can’t be expected to run miniature replicas of fully staffed brick and mortar schools in our homes while we try to maintain some semblance of normalcy and good order.

Perhaps it’s time to look to our homeschooling community for inspiration. As the Granite State Home Educators organization recently put it, “School at Home Isn’t Homeschooling.”  The key distinction is that homeschooling is organized and directed by each family. And, homeschoolers don’t typically chain their children to a desk for hours on end. They tailor teaching to each child and encourage self-exploration and a variety of activities. That’s the beauty of it. 

Here are a few quarantine thoughts from this mother (and from some of my battle-tested brethren):

Children are always learning. Our children are natural learners, constantly observing and taking in information. And, they will be watching what happens at home during this unusual time. The more flexible and relaxed we can be, the better they will adapt. And, there is nothing wrong with giving them more unstructured time. It’s called “play.” In my opinion, children don’t get enough of it.

“Mother” Knows Best. Schools and teachers work on your behalf, not the other way around. No one knows their children and what they need better than his/her parents. This is an opportunity to concentrate on what you think is most important. Trust your instinct and don’t worry that you and your child don’t complete everything the school assigns. 

Take advice with a grain of salt. I don’t know what it is about times like these, but everyone is suddenly an expert who is happy to offer you lots of advice on how to manage your new normal. Forget color-coded charts and by-the-minute planning unless that’s totally how you operate.

It’s OK. Whatever it is. If your home is messier than you’ve ever seen it, or your child has transformed your living room into Fort Ticonderoga, or if there’s more screen time than you might wish, let it go. As Dr. Jennie Weiner put it in her New York Times op-ed, “I Refuse to Run a Corona Virus School,” “We are eating cookies and carbs and hoping for the best. We are loving one another and trying not to go insane.” I can relate.

As for the McGinley household, we’re finding lots of opportunity to laugh and practice some “grace” distancing – surrounding ourselves and each other with a cushion of love and forgiveness. And it works, most of the time. And, that’s ok.For some more encouragement, check out our Quarantine Content for the Family and our new sister website, dogood603.org.