Indian Moms Are Now Back To School For Their Kids, And It’s Not Always Fun

Are online classes and assignments proving to be the last stubby pencil on the camel’s back?
Representative image. 
Representative image. 

Ever since my first-grader’s online school lessons began in early April, my husband started taking suspiciously deep interest in cleaning and cooking. When I confronted him, he admitted that he wanted to leave me with more time to oversee our daughter’s education. Anything, anything, was better than explaining punctuation and number combinations to a six-year-old. After all, housework does not fidget, talk back, cry, or fix you with a blank, uncomprehending stare while you try to mime the life cycle of a butterfly.

Another day, he chose cleaning pigeon poop on our balcony over teaching and figuring out worksheets.

“Schools do not really know what they are setting off at home with their weekly plans and worksheets,” said Dr Aditya Dev Sood, father to two boys — 8 and 5 years old — who attend a progressive school in Gurgaon.

He and his wife Nita Soans — who both happen to have companies to run — are forever fighting the clock to keep up with their kids’ schoolwork.

While their third-grader has three 40-minute online sessions every weekday and is more self-sufficient, their younger son needs far more active teaching to be done by the parents. The school sends elaborate lesson plans and instructs the students to upload worksheets by the end of each week. “After a long work day, it’s difficult to even read through the detailed instructions we must follow in order to teach our children using the school’s experiential methodology. We love how they do things usually, but we simply are not trained to execute these plans, especially with no bandwidth left,” Soans said.

The couple, like many others, is feeling a heightened version of a constant parenting guilt: not being able to do enough.

Many parents are stuck between a rock and a hard place in a grim economic climate rife with job losses and pay cuts. Right now, cutting corners at work is not an option. Yet, incomplete assignments and missed online sessions are reminders that they are falling short as parents.

“If we don’t finish daily school work with our daughter, it makes us feel guilty and we feel as if we are not trying hard enough to make her successful. But after a day of full-time work, when you are finally free post 7pm, who wants to sit down and finish homework?” said Amrita Bose, a Bengaluru-based senior content manager.

The age factor

Sahiba Arora, a Noida-based small business owner said there is a world of difference in how her daughter (age 11) and son (5) are taking to online learning.

“It’s much easier with older children who can handle full online classes, answer emails, and take charge of their homework. Parents actually get a break then. What is maddening is when you are dealing with younger kids in pre-primary classes or grade 1 and 2,” she said. “You need to hand-hold constantly and have infinite patience when supervising the learning of littler ones… which is not really something anyone has time for during lockdown when you are also a full-time cook and cleaner.”

Activities for younger kids are generally also more fiddly and require more props and accessories.

Nimisha Goswami, a Delhi-based development professional, said her 2-year-old (yes, you read that right) attends a half-hour Zoom session run by his playschool every day. While these ‘classes’ are meant to be fun―children sing songs and are introduced to simple concepts such as ‘big and small’―parents still feel burdened. “How does one get a 2-year-old to sit still and engage with people on a screen? The kids like seeing each other and their teacher, but I cannot just leave him there. He will wander off!”

One of the activities Goswami and her husband were recently asked to prepare for entailed gathering objects like leaves, cotton and rice for ‘sensory walking’. For the couple, who have to arrange their conference calls around their toddler’s preschool activities, such additional projects aren’t always feasible.

“My husband does his part in the house, but education is my domain. It’s a huge pressure point for me now to make sure my son does the assigned work and understands all the concepts”

Women’s work?

Goswami and her husband take turns to do childcare, and Sood and Soans have devised an equitable one-child-per-parent strategy. However, in many other families teaching children has taken on a gendered hue, with the responsibility falling squarely on the shoulders of women even if they are working full-time. According to a casual survey I did with a few dozen parents in Delhi-NCR, fathers have become a little more visible than earlier on class WhatsApp groups, but it is primarily women who are engaging in discussions about the syllabus, teaching methodologies and assignments.

Aanchal Garg, a management consultant with a frenetic schedule, is busier now than ever with clients stepping up their demands. Yet, she takes almost sole responsibility for her six-year-old son’s schoolwork. “My husband does his part in the house, but education is my domain. It’s a huge pressure point for me now to make sure my son does the assigned work and understands all the concepts,” Garg said. She wondered if her own upbringing — where her mother was responsible for her education, despite having a full time job — had conditioned her to take full charge of her child’s studies.

Ironically, several women I spoke to said they spent more quality time with their children when they were out working all day. Never mind what the memes about lockdown-induced familial bliss claim, working moms are getting less leisure time with their children than before. “My son and I are home together all day but our one-on-one time is all about his school work,” Garg said. ’We cannot do all the creative, fun stuff we used to do earlier.”

Another Delhi-based mother of a preteen daughter laughed wryly when asked about the contributions of her husband. “Every bit of it is on me. My husband refuses to even join the class WhatsApp group because he says it is too full of women chattering away. At most, he will have a look at the discussions on my phone,” she said.

Elvira Pinto D’Souza, a professor on a sabbatical who lives in Goa, said frankly that she is “both mother and father” to her two daughters, especially now. “My husband works in an essential service, so he is away all day. It is up to me to ensure that my children keep up with schoolwork,” she said.

Your way vs. my way

Compelled to be more involved in their children’s education in the absence of regular school and tuitions, some parents are making the unpleasant discovery that they are not as aligned in their teaching and parenting philosophy as they thought they were.

“My husband is a bit of a tiger mom, and is particular about discipline and focus while school work is being done. I am more easy going and tend to take a friendlier approach and gently coax my daughter into getting the work done,” said content manager Bose. This, she admitted, has led to a few disputes between the two.

Quite the opposite scenario is unfolding in Sahiba Arora’s Noida home. Formerly a corporate trainer, Arora called herself a “perfectionist”. While she spends a lot of time making learning “effective” for their children, her husband is a bit too “laidback”, she said. Arora prefers to be in charge as she is afraid that their conflicting style of teaching will lead to confusion and conflicts.

Some parents experience a greater pressure to comply with what the schools ask them to do. Once again, it is often women who feel the need to follow prescriptions faithfully. M, a mother of two in Delhi, said that she feels as is if she is being assessed by the teachers and finds herself wanting to please and be a “good girl”. Her husband K finds this exasperating. “I teach my children what I think will benefit them and for them to keep up with the class. But I do not give a hoot about the school’s specific demands to make flash cards or shadow puppets. Guess what—the schools don’t really care what you do. They are under pressure to showcase how much work they are doing for your child. They are worried about fees and paying their teachers. They are trying to earn their keep by having long sessions and complex lesson plans. They are struggling businesses too,” he said.

Resource crunch

With the government giving a mere four-hour notice before the lockdown, stationery and electronic devices were not top of the mind for most people shopping for last-minute supplies. Some families are falling short of notebooks and paper, while others do not have printers at home.

The result is that parents sometimes stay up late at night copying worksheets by hand, or drawing lines with rulers on A4 sheets so their kids can write. Others end up playing ‘passing the laptop’ from parent to child, with several suffering paroxysms of guilt at being forced to subject the tender eyes of their children to tiny mobile screens on occasion.

Bridging the gap

While the parents I spoke to varied widely on the forms they would like online education to take (from longer classes to none at all), a common thread emerged among those who have begun to adjust more comfortably to the new routine: Candid and direct communication with the teachers, and with the school.

Mahima Suri, a corporate banker and single mom to a five-year-old son, said that she was verging on getting panic attacks. Suri’s son’s school doesn’t hold online classes but sends at least 30 worksheets a week. She has ailing parents to care for and no partner to pitch in. On top of it, bickering over homework has strained her relationship with her son, who is occasionally resistant to working for long stretches.

“In tears, I just wrote this long email to the principal. She actually called me to comfort me, and it lifted a weight from my shoulders. She reassured me that the school understood everyone’s constraints, including my specific case, and that I should not put so much pressure on myself. I still want my son to keep up with concepts and do the work—that’s the way I am—but psychologically I feel a ton better,” she said.

Aanchal Garg got a similarly understanding response from her school when she opened up about her difficulties as a working mother. “Now I am more relaxed if I can’t complete every single activity. And I allow myself to teach using traditional methods when the school’s experiential style proves to be too difficult to replicate at home.”

According to Nita Soans, schools may have the best intentions, but there can be a gap in their understanding of parents’ capacity at this time. “They may not fully grasp that we cannot teach at home the way they do at school, and this gap needs to be bridged” said Soans, who has also communicated her concerns to the school.

Some parents, however, said that the biggest battle is with the self. Shampa S Taneja, a freelance makeup artist and mother to a six-year-old, said that one of her coping strategies is to tell herself that she does not have to get her daughter “admitted to IIT as soon as the lockdown is done” and that she does what she can, and then does not worry about it. “The teachers are understanding,” she said, but parents need to be kind to themselves as well.

Some have it worse

To say that not all children in India have the same opportunities would be a gross understatement. The internet penetration in India is only around 36 percent, which means that millions of children do not have the luxury of an online education. Even in the national capital Delhi, the education of lakhs of underprivileged children are not only disrupted but suspended either because they do not have access to devices, or because their schools have not found a way to teach them. Many do not even have access to parental assistance due to issues such as illiteracy and jobs in essential sectors such as sanitation.

Smita Mishra, who lives in Delhi but manages two rural schools in Uttar Pradesh, said she is not inclined to “crib” because she has seen first-hand how children on the other side of the privilege divide have been affected.

“I get it that parents are having a tough time, but think about the millions of kids who are completely cut off from school during the lockdown. I am grateful that my 12-year-old daughter benefits from the structure and routine of classes from 8 in the morning to 1.30 in the afternoon. I have to sign off on her assignments too, but I’m fine with it despite the extra work.”

Mishra said there is a stark contrast in how children in expensive schools and those in government or smaller private schools perceive the opportunity to study online. “My own daughter takes her classes for granted, as a given. But the girls in Priyadarshini Inter College, the rural higher secondary schooI l run near Allahabad, were simply ecstatic when we introduced YouTube tutorials and Zoom sessions last week. Most of them have to use their parents’ mobile phones and there are connectivity problems as well—but they are happy with whatever they can get. For them, it is life-saving.”

Yet, while it may seem as if parents are complaining about first world problems in a third world country, the fact remains that whether you are in Bharat or India, the lockdown has altered the essence of parenting, schooling, and childhood itself.