When I reached out to my therapist to discuss how Covid-19 has affected me, I didn’t expect to hear how it had affected her: she had left work. After 2 years of practicing at Bethesda Chevy Chase Counseling & Assessment Associates, Shantell Pitts left to support her children’s online learning, like so many parents in this country.
With a 7-year-old in 2nd grade and a 16-year-old sister in 11th, Pitts has her hands full. Howard County, where the kids attend school, has no hybrid schooling option, meaning they’ve been completely out of school and learning online for coming on a year. Since the March lockdown, Shantell had been working from home, which worked during the 2019-2020 school year because the kids didn't have a set schedule and her cousins were there to help. But, with the 2020-2021 school year on the horizon, her help gone, and the kid’s continual online learning, Pitts knew she had to make a decision. It was clear balancing work and monitoring her kids schooling would not be possible.
Shantell feels fortunate to have the option to leave work to focus on her kids instead of dividing her attention between the two, like many of her friends with young children do. While Shantell was working from home, virtual sessions with clients aligned with her son’s gym class, which she remembers as “sounding like my child is going to come through the ceiling.” Shantell says hiring someone to help her kids doesn’t feel safe in the midst of a pandemic.
Like many of us, Shantell misses getting dressed and ready for work, not just a walk from the fridge to the couch and back. Jobs give people a sense of purpose and motivation, plus a reason to invest in clothing besides leisurewear. Going to work and in-person interactions force people to put on a strong face, putting many in a better mood. “I’ve got to put on a brave face for my family, coworkers, and clients,” she says.
Shantell believes Howard County has done a great job handling Covid-19, and her children’s education isn’t suffering as much as she worried. She reminds her son’s teachers how appreciative she is of them daily, saying “teaching 20-something 2nd graders on Zoom is like herding cats.”
Like millions of students, her son is missing out on sports, social interactions, and isn’t getting as much out of school activities and lessons, especially those like typing that require a teacher’s oversight to ensure it’s being done right. Not being able to see his friends is also hard on her son, as socially-distanced 2nd-grade play dates result in kids ripping off masks and going in for hugs. Zoom lunch with eight-year-olds all yelling and making strange faces into the camera isn’t ideal either. Missed social interaction doesn’t only result in loneliness but behavioral problems. Shantell’s son’s friends could help him learn how to behave; direction which he’s now missing from someone besides his mom. Pitt’s sister won’t get a junior prom, and her hope of taking the SATs and building a college resume is now difficult to achieve. However, this school year is working better than March of last year because kids have set Zoom schedules, allowing her to get some stuff done while kids are on their calls.
The combination of suddenly spending much more time together and nagging a child about “getting” to class on time puts a strain on familial relationships. “Kids don’t listen to their parents like they do their teachers”, Shantell tells me, “so the back and forth between me and my son can get exhausting.” Besides the quality of education and lack of social interaction, online learning produces more challenges: the Internet. Shantell must teach her child internet etiquette, something she didn’t think she would need to do so soon. A young child on their computer alone with access to the Internet is a recipe for disaster. “Zoom school” leaves kids feeling unmotivated, and it doesn’t help they have the world’s funniest videos and best games at their fingertips. They immediately switch to another screen when the “Zoom day” is over. Keeping especially younger children on task and dealing with technological difficulties is hard even on a non-working parent. All the nagging, reminders, and difficult conversations parents must now have with their children about the dangers of the Internet is tough on relationships. “It’s not as fun as him going to school and coming home and I miss him and he’s happy to see me,” Shantell admits.
If given the opportunity, she would send her kids back to school if she was convinced it would be safe. It would take a lot to make her feel comfortable with her kids going back: she would have to examine the protocols and infection rates. “If you asked a month ago I would have said YES, but now Covid’s getting worse.” At the time of the interview, Shantell’s friend was infected with Covid because her husband is a police officer who was at the Capitol during the January 6th insurrection. Her friend’s infection was a reality check for Shantell. Many parents want their children to go back to school but are afraid this won’t be safe.
Pitts initially planned on going back to work when her children return to school, but now she sadly feels her return this year will be unlikely. After the kids go back to school, she’ll want time alone in her house before going back to work. Kids at home make running errands and household chores nearly impossible. “I don’t know what free time looks like anymore. By Friday I’m like do whatever you want! Run outside naked. I’m done.”
How has covid impacted a therapist’s mental health? “Oh, it’s been an impact! It’s been good and bad for my mental health, it honestly depends which day you ask me” Pitts says. Her previous job wasn’t stressful, but not having a job can be, even if one is financially stable. Being home surrounded by the same people causes stress and isolation can lead people to become depressed, anxious, and unmotivated. “Even as a therapist, I would see a therapist. I don’t see her anymore, but I kind of feel like I’m losing my mind.”
At first, she was optimistic: wasn’t sure what this meant but the world was slowing down and making a new normal while simultaneously grieving the loss of our normal. “That was fine for a little while,” she says “Now I’m tired of this. I just want to see my friends and I never did all the things I wanted to do. I want my kids to go back to school and I want some alone time.”
Being a therapist, Pitts has many skill sets she recommends to clients like adult coloring books and meditation that she’s supposed to be using, but claims she’s “just over it.” Therapists, they’re just like us. Shantell admits: “I’m tired of pretending I’m gonna learn a skill. I’m not gonna meal prep, I’m not gonna learn how to make bread. I probably have less free time than I was when I was working. My only free time is when these children go to bed, and my 16-year-old never goes to bed.” After describing my mother’s mistake of admitting Wifi troubles to our neighbors with 4 elementary school children, Shantell agreed “a certain part of you doesn’t want to complain to other parents who are working and juggling online school. I’d rather suffer in silence than complain to people in a bad situation.”
Shantell would rate her family’s home-schooling during covid experience 3 stars. Her reasoning: “I took a star off because this sucks and I took another star off because it just sucks. The more I talk about it the more stars I take off, but compared to other people, I feel like it’s going okay and could be worse. For what it is, people have adapted well but the situation on its own sucks. I don’t have Covid and my kids are getting an education and I’m grateful I can be home with my children to help them.”