As Pandemic Drags On, Parents Cope With Mental Health Challenges

by Alexa Peters

Before COVID-19, Ballard resident Gracey Cockram lived the busy, fulfilling life of a stay-at-home mom. On a typical day, she’d wake up early, get her 15-year-old daughter up for swim practice, shuttle her to the pool with friends, come home, check the news, take a shower, do the laundry, go to the gym, go to the grocery store, walk the dogs, drive her daughter to a part-time babysitting gig, then begin to prepare dinner.

These days, despite living in a 900-square-foot condo with her fiancé and daughter, Cockram spends a lot of time alone, feeling “defeated” — and it’s no wonder. Her once-active 15-year-old now remains in her room for nearly twelve hours a day studying for her AP classes, and has since become prone to anxiety and worrying emotional outbursts. After holding out for months, Cockram and her fiancé were forced to reschedule their June 2021 wedding due to the pandemic. Cockram’s extended family in Florida has stopped talking to them due to disagreement about how to handle COVID-19. And now, she can’t even get out of the house for a trip to the gym for an important kick of endorphins.

“Last Saturday, I had so much laundry to do and I just wanted to cry instead because I’m PMS-ing, it’s dark outside at 4:30, [and] my kid’s stressed out, so I told my fiancé, ‘I’m not getting out of bed today,’” said Cockram.

Cockram and her family are far from the only family in Seattle or across the country whose mental health is suffering during the pandemic. In fact, according to a recent study from the Official Journal of American Pediatrics, 27% of American parents have reported worsening mental health for themselves, and 14% have reported worsening behavioral health for their children, since March 2020. Plus, with Governor Inslee’s new, stricter restrictions on indoor gatherings — which closed restaurants, bars, and gyms for indoor service in early November — Washington families can’t engage in what was already a limited list of outside activities that may have helped them manage their mental health.

Zuleyma Gonzalez, a South Park resident and single working parent to her 5-year-old son, reports a marked change in her well-being since the pandemic set in, particularly due to changes around her son’s childcare and schooling. She used to be able to work all day and leave her son in school, but now her sister, who also works remotely, has to come over and watch him as he distance-learns.

“She works from home, so she can’t [always] do the activities with him that they leave on [the classroom app] Seesaw,” said Gonzalez. “When I get home I have to do the work with him and sometimes it piles up because he’s [tired and] not willing to do the work at the end of the day.”

As a result, Gonzalez often catches her son up over the weekend, leaving no time for either of them to recharge and release stress. Now, she can’t even take a night off from cooking and go to a restaurant like the family may have done previously.

West Seattle attorney, BIPOC advocate, and parent of three Rob Saka has also found distance learning to be a significant challenge and stressor on his family. As a result, he and his wife decided to send their first grader to a YMCA day camp part-time to offer her the attention she needed and to take some pressure off Saka and his wife.

“Like a lot of parents and working families, [we] are struggling with mandatory remote-only learning options,” he said. “Especially those of us who have kids who are in the youngest group where literacy is so important. There’s so much literature on the problem right now: Kids can’t learn because they don’t understand how to read yet, they don’t understand the instructions [or] how to click through and they need help.”

But Saka, who grew up in low-income housing in Kent and now lives in West Seattle, is quick to acknowledge the privilege inherent in outsourcing their child’s care part-time, adding that his stress around being a parent during COVID is more rooted in his fears for the future of his community than for his family specifically. After all, many BIPOC families can’t afford to pay to send their kids to community programs like YMCA, which means opportunity and learning gaps will continue to widen for BIPOC kids the longer they are kept from schools.

“The Black community, we’re not only impacted by the virus; we’re also impacted by the education and implications on equity more broadly,” he said. “I grew up in low-income apartments that were blocks away from a jail in Kent. I went to school, at times, to receive services. It was a form of education second. So many families right now are being stripped of that. The number one thing we could do, the number one solution really, is to give families, specifically BIPOC families, the choice to return to school buildings now.”

In the meantime, facing these myriad school-related stressors, compounded by the new indoor gathering restrictions as well as the economic impacts of the virus, families have to be increasingly creative and proactive in order to cope.

Along with virtual therapy sessions, Cockram and her family have started doing theme nights — including “pasta night,” where her daughter cooks a new pasta dish for the family — to add some variety to the week. In addition to advocating for schools to reopen for young learners, Saka has made a point of adding a daily UNO game with his family into his day to create something regular to look forward to and bring everyone together.

Emelia Heck, a working mother of two, and her husband have found some solace by prioritizing time to do what they need to decompress. In fact, Heck’s husband ditched the gym membership he couldn’t use and set up a home gym because he knows that it increases his ability to deal with stress. For her part, Heck looks forward to the time after her kids go to bed for retail therapy and a few rounds of the video game “Animal Crossing.”

“That’s pretty much it. I’m just tired. We’re all just tired, right?” said Heck. “As a parent of two small children, you just have to put one foot in front of the other.”

 Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based writer. You can see more of her work at

Featured image: Illustration by Maxx (for the South Seattle Emerald).

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