“Note—if you are feeling headache / dizziness / difficulty breathing / elevated pulse / nausea / broken heart / digestive difficulties / disorientation / a sense of disconnect from reality / or existential anxiety—it is a sign that you are starting to realize that from tomorrow on your kids are at home.”
“Given school closures, parents will beat the scientists and find a Corona vaccine in five days!”
These jokes, posted to social media by parents quarantined at home during the COVID-19 pandemic -- parents who are simultaneously juggling their children’s daily needs and education, as well as their own careers -- are no doubt funny. But they reveal much more than humor.
By examining social media posts made by Israeli parents locked down with their children during the pandemic, Associate Dean for Programs and Distinguished Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Dafna Lemish, and her co-author Nelly Elias at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, showed that the humorous posts parents shared both provided a way for them to cope with their severe stress and anxiety, and also revealed much about parenting at the end of the second decade of the 21st century.
Their paper, “We Decided We Don’t Want Children. We Will Let Them Know Tonight”: Parental Humor on Social Media in a Time of Coronavirus Pandemic” was published in the International Journal of Communication.
Their findings, Lemish said, “Tells us that parents are under tremendous pressure to manage their children’s care and schooling while also maintaining their own work, resilience, and even sanity. They cannot rely on the traditional sources of assistance – like grandparents, who are now isolated because of their potential vulnerability, or teachers and schools, which are mostly closed or operating ineffectively from a distance. Mothers, in particular, feel exhausted, underappreciated, and relegated back to traditional gender roles that put the majority of the responsibility for caregiving and household maintenance on their shoulders, at the expense of their own careers and self-care.”
Lemish and Elias said parents’ posts provided a way for them to make light of their challenges, and/or express their negative, more “taboo” feelings of desperation and hostility. Lemish and Elias grouped the postings into several broad themes. The hardship created by the pandemic and the coping-related humor were the largest themes, they wrote, and other broad themes they identified included the changing role of grandmothers (who were also quarantined and therefore no longer able to help take care of their grandchildren); and teachers and education.
Of the coping strategies parents posted about most often, Lemish and Elias said one centered around their attempts to use rules and itineraries as a way to provide structure to their days and manage their environments. Lemish and Elias wrote, “Rules and itineraries focus mainly on three topics—food, screens, and nagging—and attempt to control all three of them.”
One post they included in their paper as an example of this type of humor was titled ‘children are at home,’ and was posted with a photo divided into four parts (following the format of reporting COVID-19 rates on Israeli TV channels, Lemish and Elias noted) and presented the following statistics:
“’Kids, stop it!’—15,234. 320 since the morning.
Fights in the living room—12. 3 since the morning.
Broken glasses—6. 1 since the morning.
Learning in the bedroom—0. 0 since the morning.”
They also observed that their inability to “blame” teachers for various problems, as they might have pre-pandemic, is another common theme. Lemish and Elias saw a post from one mother who wrote a ‘letter to the teacher:’
“‘Good morning . . .
How are you?
Can we ask the school principal to add the following to the curriculum of remote teaching: Science—how to melt grease in the kitchen;
Geography—from which direction does dust accumulate on the cabinets?
Math—how many rags does one need to clean the counter?
Physical education—practicing with the vacuum cleaner for half an hour straight; English—reading the English cleaning instructions on the detergent;
Bible—praying for your parents as well;
Thank you very much for your cooperation.”’
Parents also posted violent images and desperate messages as jokes, which provided a window into the extremely levels of anxiety many parents were experiencing. “Parents resented the burden and hardship of caring for their children during the stay-at-home-period,” Lemish and Elias wrote, “and at times the texts reflected this by playing with the fear of death brought about by the virus, turning it around subversively as a parental coping mechanism: ‘One good thing came out of this situation of being stuck at home with the kids—I am not afraid of death anymore,’ confessed a mother. Blunt suicidal ideation also appeared in an image which stated, ‘An idea for activities for parents at home with the children,’ and presented four adult faces—two women and two men— engaging in suicidal activities: swallowing pills, wrist cutting, tied in a noose, and aiming a pistol at the head.”
Asked what surprised them during the course of their research, Lemish said they were surprised by “the severity of the anxiety and the related issues, the blunt expression of taboo thoughts of desperation – such as hostility towards children and spouses and acknowledgment of violent impulses and suicidal ideation. But this is what humor allows us to do – to say something very deep and meaningful, but to pretend it was only in ‘jest’ as a protective mechanism.”
Their inspiration to conduct this research, Lemish said, began when they “were in the middle of a study on parents and mobile phones and how their use impacts interaction with their children when the pandemic put it to a halt. We started entertaining each other by sharing humor that was circulating in our social networks, as a form of self-therapy – to keep our spirits high, stay in close touch, share our stress and anxieties. At a certain point, we realized we have a treasure of data on our hands, and being the researchers that we are, decided to turn it into a systematic study. It is a great example of how so often, life’s events and challenges drive the questions that we ask as scholars.”
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