Most therapists are all too aware that the pandemic is straining everyone in myriad ways. The demands of staying attuned to each person’s story, day after day, often while attending to our own challenges, don’t always allow us the space to step back and see how this crisis is affecting larger systems—families, communities, and our broader culture.
But couples therapist Alexandra Solomon, a professor and clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, is focused on the bigger picture these days, even as she’s navigating shifting family responsibilities and online learning in her own household. Her work on couples and family systems gives her a unique perspective on how the pandemic has exposed a longstanding caregiving crisis.
Psychotherapy Networker: What have you noticed about the hidden effects of the pandemic on kids and families?
Alexandra Solomon: One in four mothers is seriously considering scaling back her career or leaving the workforce altogether in order to manage childcare and online learning, according to some of the data we’re seeing now. Our collective failure to reckon with what women in the workforce mean for the micro-ecosystem of the family has become glaringly obvious. People have been saying for decades that we need to be raising our boys to be caregivers as much as we’ve been raising our girls to be leaders, and it’s clear we haven’t done as good a job with the former.
The pandemic has exacerbated a longstanding problem: the caregiving crisis in our country. Childcare is a huge burden on single parents, of course. But as a couples therapist, I see parents whose relationships have been hugely strained by this impossible situation. Because we don’t have larger systems in place to help couples support their families’ economic and emotional needs in ways that are truly sustainable, the issue of caregiving becomes a problem for an individual couple to solve.
When a problem feels unsolvable, the first place couples go is either blame or shame. Many couples with two careers and children are having to devote their daily interactions to figuring out who will supervise online school. With the backdrop of pandemic fatigue, economic stress, and job insecurity, when something goes wrong—both parents have important meetings at the very moment a child needs help logging in to class—partners will often look at each other and think, What have you done for me lately?! That’s the blame.
Instead of having fierce compassion for themselves and for one another, parents—especially mothers—risk sinking into shame about why they can’t keep up with these demands. But when a therapist can acknowledge the bigger picture with them, it helps couples move from the myopic What’s wrong with me, you, or us? toward a larger recognition that this caregiving crisis is a societal failure, not the result of their or their partner’s shortcomings.
PN: What do you believe the long-term effects on kids and families will be as a result of pandemic-related stressors?
SOLOMON: I’ve been thinking a lot about the kids whose parents are in vulnerable marriages, because a lot of kids have now been more exposed than ever to their parents’ relationship distress, and I suspect they’re feeling responsible for it in many ways. If parents are arguing over who will sideline their work responsibilities to supervise a child’s online learning, that kid is probably blaming herself for causing the stress. I encourage parents to remind kids, “Whichever one of us gets to help you tomorrow is lucky!” And I encourage partners to give a lot of affirmation to the parent managing online learning.
Something else I’ve been thinking about is how many parents become laser-focused on making sure their own child has opportunities and advantages. But when we parent with a laser beam, instead of a floodlight, we become blind to the ways in which systemic inequality makes it impossible for other families to give their kids the same opportunities. This pandemic really highlights and reinforces economic inequalities. Some families are banding together, renting office space, and hiring private teachers to create mini schools, while other families don’t have reliable internet connections for their kids to access remote public school.
I’ve wondered if one of the positive long-term effects may be that privileged parents shift away from the laser-beam focus that often makes life frenetic, overscheduled, and demanding. What kids need to thrive may be much simpler than our parenting-on-overdrive leads us to believe. Maybe we don’t need to worry so much about kids getting into honors programs before they’ve finished kindergarten and elite dance competitions before they’ve hit puberty.
Back in August, I was talking to my own therapist about my concerns about how one of our kids would fare with online learning. She said her husband had grown up during World War II, and he didn’t attend school for four entire years. He went on to get a PhD and have a long and successful career. Hearing that was like a deep exhale for me. And it was a reminder of my own tendency toward laser-beam parenting and my own beliefs about education as being linear, without detours. Really, education is more expansive and curvaceous.
PN: Have you seen any other positive effects on families or kids?
SOLOMON: There’s no denying that this pandemic has created a mental health crisis across the board. Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has been studying the effects on kids and adolescents. One of her findings is that teens have been using their phones in more social ways, to actually have conversations, rather than for asynchronous communication like texting. Many kids are better rested and have had a chance to step out of the adolescent rat race.
This spring, we’d be walking as a family in our neighborhood and see so many families doing the same thing. What’s striking is what an anomaly this was for us, and I imagine for others. Usually, we’re so busy, frenetic. My hope is that families will return to a kind of simplicity around schedules and a revaluing of the importance of things like family dinners and walks.
PN: How will we, as therapists, lead the way in helping kids and families repair, recover, and process the losses so many have experienced?
SOLOMON: Therapists have an exquisite understanding of what clients are facing and how they’re suffering. Even when the exact nature of our clients’ challenges is different from our own, there’s a shared sense that we’re in this together. We can validate for our clients how incredibly embodied grief is. We can validate that they’re not exhausted because they’re weak: they’re exhausted because grief is exhausting. But there’s also something challenging about facing the same struggles as our clients. For instance, the pandemic has highlighted so many racial disparities and injustices in our country, and I worry for my colleagues of color who are having to process their own pain around that while helping clients process theirs.
Therapists are invisible frontline workers, certainly, so there’s a big concern about burnout. It’s so important for clinicians to have reasonable expectations for themselves. One way of preventing burnout is to allow authenticity to be our guide. When we’re ourselves—just one human talking to another fellow human—we don’t have to be the person in the prescribed role, wearing our therapist hat. That lessens the work because we’re just showing up and engaging and being present.
A crisis can be a turning point. I suspect that we’ll mark our life stories in terms of the time before the pandemic and the time after the pandemic. I’ve been framing it for my clients like this: “We’re in the middle of a crisis; your work is to put one foot in front of the other. We don’t have the luxury, mid-crisis, to have a ten-thousand-foot view of this yet, one that allows us to understand fully what it means for our lives. I wish that the 2025 you could whisper into the ear of the 2020 you and offer some reassurance and perspective, but we don’t know yet how this is going to change us. It’s unsettling not knowing, but that’s what resilience is born of.”