We’re two weeks into the new year and one week into the latest phase of home-schooling. There’s no sugar-coating it: January is a hard month at the best of times, and these are tough times indeed for everyone – big and small.
The only way we’re going to get through the next few weeks is to cut ourselves some slack, says Jen Hogan, author, parenting columnist, and mother of seven. She has already accepted that she can’t do everything and “I won’t even get close to doing everything”.
Hogan says she felt "totally deflated and disappointed" when she heard that the schools would close until at least January 31.
She feels sorry for children, not to mention their parents, many of whom are trying to juggle homeschooling while also working. “The best you can do while working is to make sure your children don’t come into immediate danger but it’s a totally different story trying to engage with them in any meaningful way and hold down a job at the same time."
Hogan says she dreaded starting home-schooling again, adding that last March there was a novelty factor to it for both her and her children, but “there’s none of that this time”. She has four children in primary school, two in secondary and one in college.
"We have to make sure it isn’t an endurance test for everyone," she says. "We’re no use to anyone if we’re completely overwhelmed and it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed."
Parenting blogger Niamh O’Reilly agrees. She is mother to four-year-old TJ and Luke who was born in October 2019 and, like Jen, she was “hugely disappointed” when the schools closed.
TJ started playschool last September and is missing his little pals now. “It is so hard on that age group,” says O'Reilly, “because although they have a little understanding, they can’t comprehend this ‘silly cold’ as I explain it.”
For both O’Reilly and Hogan, a routine is key to coping over the next several weeks, as is getting out of the house. Even the recent snow didn’t stop O’Reilly from taking TJ and Luke out for a walk. Hogan recommends two mini trips, rather than one big excursion, if possible, and "perhaps not leaving it till the very end of the day".
Hogan says that in order to get her own work done, she has to get up before her children and stay up late at night. Her husband is an essential worker so he’s not around during the week. “It’s me and them. And in the interests of me not drowning, that’s what I’ll have to do.”
Like all parents, Hogan says she knows what her children need help with, what they need to practise and what they like doing themselves.
Her plan involves getting them up, getting them dressed, getting them breakfast and getting them started on their work, “to hit the ground running”. But she’s realistic. “There are days when it will all go to pot. If there are some days when we can only manage half an hour, that’s what we’ll be doing, because we are in the most demanding time a lot of our kids will ever have been through.”
She is very focussed on protecting her children’s mental health. “I want them to come out of this having endured as little anxiety and stress as is possible. It’s all so unnatural, they’re not seeing friends, family or teachers. They don’t have the routine so there is that impact there.”
Hogan wants to make sure that there is time for some fun every day. “It’s about knowing when it’s time to call it a day. So even if the plan is that we’re going to do something between 10 and 12, if it’s all going wrong at 11, or half then, then it’s time to call time on it and do something that’s fun for everyone.”
O’Reilly says this is a really difficult time. “I started off yesterday shouting at the children and felt guilty for the rest of the day. You have to accept this is hard, there are no easy answers. There’s going to be some really bad days where you lose the rag, you might shout and you move on. You deal with it. By the end of the day, everyone’s friends.”
She believes it’s crucial not to heap any more pressure on yourself. “You’re taking on Herculean tasks. What parents are being asked to do, especially parents of small kids, it is crazy.”
As a mother of three, coming to home-schooling for the first time, it is such a relief to hear others say to give yourself a break. We all put so much pressure on ourselves – the constant WhatsApp updates from other parents in school and playschool definitely don’t help.
Home-schooling is not for the faint-hearted. My five-year-old twin boys love school, adore their teacher and don’t see why they need to do schoolwork at home, while my three-year-old wants desperately to be involved in what her older brothers are doing. It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s vital to try and carve out some breathing space for yourself.
When it comes to devices, Hogan says that “it’s not a bad idea to accept that there are some benefits to the PS5 and the Xbox and whatever else because it gives them a chance to chat with their peers and that’s really important.”
She was surprised by the positive role that consoles played in the lives of her children during the first lockdown, and “that’s not to suggest there wasn’t a fallout of cranky kids when they were being called off them. But there was that opportunity for them to remain engaged, to be able to chat with their cousins and their friends. It feels really good as a parent to hear your kids having the craic.”
We’re all so worried about the impact on our children, says Hogan, and she doesn’t buy into “this whole thing of ‘oh children are so resilient’ because I think it’s a really easy platitude and a dismissive one that takes no account of what they have been through.
But the consoles gave them the connection that they need with their peers. And it was a great carrot tactic when you needed to motivate them.
“We can’t be too rigid in our approach,” says Hogan. “We are going have to go with how the mood of the day is in the house. We’re all spending a hell of a lot more time in each other’s company and it doesn’t matter how much you adore the bones of them, everybody needs a little bit of space sometimes and it’s very hard to get that at the moment.”
O’Reilly recommends doing whatever you have to in order to get through this time and forgetting all about dry January and diets. She tries to swim every day. “Whatever your particular version of sea-swimming is – if it’s a walk, listening to music or reading – put everything else aside and do something for you every day.
“There are some wonderful groups and forums, where you can connect with other parents and realise what you’re going through is exactly what all of us are feeling. You’re not alone in feeling you’ve lost your patience: we’re all feeling that way.”
She finds the online group Mum Tribe Ireland is very helpful, and she advises staying away from what she terms the banana bread brigade.
"Nobody’s life is perfect like that all the time. What you see is five minutes out of someone’s day and they’ve probably pushed all the crap to one side and taken a nice picture.
“There are a lot of Instagram mums who are sharing the reality of life, the messy side of stuff, the bad days and you might feel more of a connection with them. I’ve always found that when you find out you’re not alone, it’s a huge help.”