Stay-at-home parenthood has been viewed as an easy luxury. But the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing much-needed attention to what being an at-home parent is really all about.

Conversations are changing about stay-at-home parent
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

If you're a stay-at-home or work-from-home parent, chances are you've had to deal with questions about what you do all day or statements along the lines of, "Must be nice to not have a real job." And you've probably even wished the people who made those comments and asked those questions could experience a few weeks in the life of an at-home parent (which for the record, involves very little sitting).

And then came the pandemic, bringing an unexpected—yet welcome—shift to that thinking. Social media is lit up with memes about how, after staying at home with children, no one will ever ask a stay-at-home parent what they do all day again. Justin Timberlake also deemed 24-hour parenting "just not human." We're finally having frank discussions about how, no matter how much we love our children, being with them all the time is a massive undertaking.

"I think everyone is realizing that this is a lot harder than just staying home and getting to watch shows or be on Facebook all day or play with your kids," says Emily Bass, a mother of three who has vacillated between stay-at-home and work-from-home motherhood in the eight years since she welcomed her first child.

Bass, who runs a frugal living blog, used to hear all the comments at-home parents frequently receive. "[My friends have said things like], 'Well, why aren't you working? What do you do all day? It must be so easy to be home,'" recounts Bass. "[But now] I've seen so many posts on social media [from them] saying, 'I had no idea what stay-at-home [parents] did. This is so much harder than I thought.' I hope more people will acknowledge and respect what we go through."

Stay-at-home mom Amber Jaye Robinson echoes this idea. “I have been asked on multiple occasions what I do all day, while others take the ‘I could never do that’ approach,” says Robinson. “People are now praising me and reaching out for my schedule. They want to know how I structure my day. All of a sudden I don't seem so crazy about having super strict nap times.”

Truth About At-Home Parents

It's not about arguing that at-home parenthood is harder than working outside the home when you have kids. It isn't a competition, and even if it were, there are so many factors, privileges, and nuances you need to weigh in order to compare the two situations. But there isn't much awareness of all the stuff that comes with at-home parenthood.

Maybe that's because many of us are afraid to complain about what is, in so many ways, a position of privilege (it's worth noting that being home with your children during this pandemic is as well, in many cases). Jamie Birdwell-Branson, a freelance writer, understands that all too well. Her husband, a college professor, has been on family leave for months. "I feel like I can't really complain about how hard things are because not only am I home, but my husband is home full-time right now," she says. "And it's still difficult. That's the crazy thing. Having a child at home with you all day—entertaining them, feeding them, bathing them, tending to their every need—it is absolutely exhausting."

As a freelancer myself, I couldn't agree more. I set my own hours and I typically don't work five days a week. And I'll tell you this: The days I work for a paycheck and the days I devote to mothering full-time to my twins are equally difficult...and equally fulfilling. It's not so much the juggling of competing priorities, though that's certainly a challenge. It's more the intense pressure of never handing over childcare responsibilities to someone else.

As at-home parents, we're often single-handedly responsible for our children's' schedules, meals, development, education, and behavior, while also struggling to find a moment to ourselves. It's also not always easy on our mental health, something that is also getting a lot more attention during the pandemic.

New Attitude on At-Home Parenting

But we may gain more than just societal respect from all this. "I feel a lot less pressure right now to hide the fact that I'm working at home with kids," says freelance writer Kelly Burch, whose husband is a stay-at-home dad. "I hope that change is permanent. If one of my girls interrupts a meeting it shouldn't be an embarrassing moment. Yesterday my bare-bottom toddler interrupted a Zoom meeting with my editor, and it was no big deal, which was really nice."

Jeff Wertz, a work-from-home video editor, agrees saying parents who have been forced to work from home are realizing there is no perfect setup. "We try to create the illusion that we have an effective workspace and that we get the job done and there's no distractions," says Wertz, whose wife also works from home. "But [now] everybody knows the biggest challenge is creating that illusion. Everybody's overwhelmed."

We may also come out of this pandemic with a more realistic set of expectations within the home. As an at-home parent, you're doing work professionals (like daycare employees, teachers, and nannies) are trained to do—in many cases, without any sort of education. That's not something we talk about much.

"The expectation is that we are able to do it all and have the answers to everything and automatically know how to juggle and prioritize and handle every situation. It's a learning curve for us too," says Taylor Hubler, a stay-at-home mother of one. "It's like going to work and having a boss who gives you a different task every day and expects you to complete it even if you've never heard of the situation before." Hubler's husband is a pilot and has been home more due to the pandemic—and according to Hubler, he's finally grasped what truly goes into full-time parenting, and it's given him an understanding of why things can be so chaotic around the house.

There's a consensus here: Being at home with our children is a privilege and a blessing and we're grateful for our setups. But it's not easy. It certainly isn't perfect—there's no such thing as easy or perfect where parenting is concerned, whether you stay home or work or do some combination of the two. I feel incredibly lucky to have made the choice to stay home with my kids. It's not a decision that was easily made, but it is one I'd make again. And having the option to maintain a career while doing so? In many ways, it does feel like the best of both worlds. It also feels overwhelming and isolating and so misrepresented.

That is, until now.

"I think everybody's going to have a lot more empathy," says Wertz. "And a greater understanding of what goes into it when we're done with this."