UW News

May 7, 2020

For Mother’s Day, the gift of compassion: UW psychology professor on celebrating parenthood during a pandemic

UW News

Mother’s Day is often associated with iconic (if idealistic) images: fancy restaurant buffets, breakfast in bed, hand-drawn cards and colorful bouquets.

Not on this list, of course, is the social isolation of a pandemic, which can make Sunday’s annual celebration of Mom — in person, on the phone or over video chat — feel a little less…celebratory.

Schools are closed across the country. Millions of people live under stay-at-home orders. Moms everywhere are playing the role of teacher, manager, entertainer and loving parent, on top of any other job they may be doing from home or outside of it.

So what does it feel like to be a mother on this Mother’s Day? And how can we make the day seem special when life feels so uncertain and stressful?

University of Washington psychology professor Liliana Lengua offers some perspective.

Liliana Lengua

“Everyone, parents and children, is experiencing sadness and grief over lost experiences, lifestyles, activities and social interactions,” said Lengua, who specializes in mindful parenting education as director of the UW Center for Child and Family Well-Being. “Mothers (and parents) can be kind to themselves, give themselves a pat on the back for all that they are doing and use Mother’s Day to celebrate that we’ve made it this far. Sincerely, be proud of everything you’ve accomplished, even the little things, because these are challenging times.”

How is parenting/mothering during COVID-19 different?

We are around our family members all the time with stay-home and social-distancing orders, and sometimes in small spaces. It means we are around our children a lot more. Sometimes this feels great — we get to spend time together and hang out more than usual, maybe slipping in some fun time here and there.

And sometimes it is hard because we don’t get our usual down-time from parenting, either when our children are at school, when we are at work or when they play with friends. Just like when we do anything nonstop, it can get tiring — for our children and for us. Younger children may wonder why their parents are home and not paying attention to them or playing with them; and older children might find it convenient to ask parents questions as they arise instead of trying to figure things out on their own.


What are some ways to structure the day?

Children will need help finding constructive ways to burn off energy. It helps to build a schedule around the times of the day that need to be quiet (work/school time), and times of the day that can be energetic.

Parents can set up a clear schedule of when they are working and should not be interrupted, and a time when they are available to answer questions and help with schoolwork. Parents should remember to build in some intentional fun, quality time with children and some quality time for themselves every day.

It also helps to build in a set time each day when everyone helps with chores. (There seem to be more dishes and more mess and more laundry all the time!) Instead of pointing out the things that aren’t done all through the day, give everyone a window of time that the chores get done.

Finally, be consistent about enforcing the family rules or expectations that matter most — your family’s core values — focusing on safety and respect, and let the other things slide a little.


And…you’re a teacher! Any suggestions for how to handle this new job?

 This is a time-management challenge, especially for many parents who are simultaneously supposed to be “at work.” It can create tension between parents and children, as parents are trying to get their kids to stay on top of their assignments and teaching material their children aren’t understanding, while receiving the brunt of their children’s frustrations. Parents can remind themselves that they can only do so much, that whatever they can do is enough, and enough is good enough.


How can mothers find joy?

The greatest gift moms can give themselves for Mother’s Day is some self-compassion. Their best is more than good enough.

Mothers should make sure to make time for themselves to do the things that help them manage their stress and emotions but also doing things that they find enjoyable and refreshing. There might not be a lot of time in the day, but even just 15 or 20 minutes a day of a favorite hobby or fun activity can make a difference. As my daughter put it, balancing your “mom duties” with your mental health is important, because if mom’s not in a great spot, it affects the whole family.

Now that we’re home with our families all the time, we might feel like we are spending plenty of time together. But parents can make sure to build in 15 or 20 minutes of playful, fun time as a family each day. We have all heard that quality time is more important than the quantity of time we spend with our children, and that is truer than ever. When we create pockets of enjoyable time together, we build stronger bonds and joyful memories that nurture us.


This Mother’s Day, there are so many limitations on what we can do, whom we can gather with and where we can go. How can families mark this day?

Children can write notes or poems, make signs, art, simple and creative meals. Have a picnic in the yard or in the family room. Mothers can let their families know what they would like to do or if they would like some time to themselves. And families can think of simple ways to communicate what they are grateful for and what they appreciate in their mothers. For example, have a bowl with compliments and favorite memories written on small strips of paper — have 20 compliments for Mother’s Day 2020. And remember to FaceTime with grandmas and other mother figures who might not have family around to celebrate with.

Maybe it gives us a chance to appreciate a simple, low-key Mother’s Day.


For more information, contact Lengua at liliana@uw.edu.