A better normal

The pandemic changed everything about family life. These are the parts parents want to keep.

Updated April 27 at 2:00 p.m.Originally published April 20, 2021

Nothing about the past year has been easy for parents. They’ve lost loved ones, lost jobs. They’ve been cut off from their children’s grandparents, cut off from child care, cut off from friends and support systems. They’ve missed out on graduations and bar mitzvahs, proms and vacations. They’ve juggled remote school and remote jobs, or been forced to put themselves and their families at risk by continuing to leave the house for jobs that must be done in person.

But at some point in the pandemic, we in The Washington Post’s On Parenting section started to hear a common theme amid all the despair and fear and utter exhaustion. Even in the worst circumstances, parents were finding something worth celebrating, something worth holding onto. A slower pace of life. Neighborhood walks. Jigsaw puzzles at the dining table. New hobbies, new skills, new appreciation for their children and one another.

So we asked parents to tell us, as we start to see light at the end of this pandemic tunnel: What is one change you’d like to carry with you into post-pandemic life?

These are their answers, lightly edited for space and clarity.

Work-from-home flexibility

“It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I already know what I need to do and how to do it. I don’t need to be in an office space to do the job.' That’s how I feel. For so long my life has revolved around my job. Now I feel like it needs to be the other way around.”

— Lymari Vélez Sepúlveda, 45, Vega Alta, Puerto Rico

The pandemic gave parents the chance to work from home. Now they don’t want to give it up.

Having proven they can do their work remotely — often under difficult circumstances that included too little child care and too much virtual education — many parents are now loath to return to full-time office life and the toll it took on their families. — By Ellen McCarthy

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Relaxed academic expectations

“I’m realizing that our learning priorities should not be dictated by the school, but by what my child needs. Can she read? Does she understand how to do the math, even if it isn’t the method the teacher wants them to learn? Everything else is gravy, and I hope and trust that she will eventually figure out for herself how to get the most out of school.”

— Diane Cole, 42, Silver Spring, Md.
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(Lia Tin for The Washington Post)

Kids need less academic pressure and more support after a year of isolation and learning losses

Less-stringent academic expectations can help parents breathe a little easier — and they’re better for kids’ mental health, too, experts say. — By Kelly Glass

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Connection with adult children

“We started a virtual dinner with all the kids, no matter where they are. It creates connectedness, which I think helps us all build resilience during these times that can be lonely. It reminds us of how much we love each other and also gets us all on the same page of what is happening in each other’s lives all at the same time.”

— Sonia Stines Derenoncourt, 55, Olney, Md.
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Sonia Stines Derenoncourt’s family. Clockwise from left, Kijani, Herby, Sonia, Max, Leeah and Goëthie. (James Newton Photography)

For some parents of young adults, the pandemic offered a second chance at connection

After months of finding creative ways to connect, stay in touch and weather a scary, grief-filled time, some scattered families are hoping to hold on to their rediscovered connections. — By Amy Joyce

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A slower pace

“The running was killing us and exhausting us. I don’t want to go back to that and want to find way to stay slow without completely withdrawing from society.”

— Jason Cochran, 47, Silver Spring, Md.

The pandemic has caused parents to slow down. Here’s how to preserve that pace.

With light at the end of the covid tunnel, some parents don’t want to go back to their families’ rushed and over-scheduled lives. — By Christine Koh

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Honesty and openness

“I feel like we’re struggling together, going through it together. And that’s the whole point — that we’re in this together. It made me really be more honest with my 12-year-old about what I feel and what I’m dealing with and how I process things. Before I really wouldn’t be that open with him because it’d be so quick — ‘Hi.’ ‘Bye.’ ‘I love you.’” And now he’ll be like, ‘Okay, this is how I feel. This bothers me, this doesn’t bother me.’ If they see that you’re present, they’ll be more present.”

— Jacqueline Medina, 41, Millville, N.J.
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(Lia Tin for the Washington Post)

Teens in quarantine: Some parents found surprising closeness during the pandemic

The adolescent years can be difficult for parents and kids. But some parents say the pandemic brought them closer to their tweens and teens, both physically and emotionally. — By Ellen McCarthy

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Grace and understanding

“The one change that I would like to carry with me into post-pandemic life is how I have been embodying the idea of grace. Grace for myself, grace for my children, and grace toward any unforeseen, unwanted shifts that will inevitably come up in our lives.”

— Jessica Gorsuch, 34, Atlanta

This isn’t the parenting Olympics, and when you realize that, you win

We do get a major reward: These weeks and months where many of us get to be with our immediate families pretty much uninterrupted. — By Kristen Chase

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Reading together

“Our family book club has been probably the only activity that keeps my daughter engaged in conversations around the dinner table; we have conversations on larger themes, shared experiences, etc. The kids pick the selections we vote on, and I read it to them pre- or post-dinner, and then also design activities related to the books.”

— Katrina Foelsche, 43, Alexandria, Va.
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(Lia Tin for the Washington Post)

Raising book lovers: Why I still read aloud to my tween and teen

I was sure that if I raised my sons around books, they, too, would be readers. Motherhood, it turns out, is the best lesson in learning that you can control very little in this life. — By Amy Joyce

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Blended lives

“We no longer stay in our own lanes in my household. My 9-year-old preps coffee for us, my 11-year-old helps the 7-year-old with schoolwork, my husband and I discovered that we can’t really talk about our individual days any longer because we experience them together, for the most part. We have so many family discussions about current events and our hopes and fears. Our lives have blended in a way I didn’t realize was possible.”

— Kathleen Britton, 44, Washington

‘What was your oops today?’ How to help kids practice self-compassion, even on tough days.

Kids’ internal chatter is not always kind. In uncomfortable moments, that voice weighs in with such authority. And kids don’t always have good strategies for bossing it back. — By Deborah Kris

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Family walks

“To keep healthy and sane, we instituted daily family walks almost as soon as lockdown started. We are lucky to live close to a beautiful trail, so we walk that in the daytime, or we walk the streets of our neighborhood when it is too late to roam the trail. We have walked two to four miles (sometimes more) every day for the past year. The kids, 11 and 15, now demand the walks even when sometimes my husband and I feel too tired at the end of a long day. The walks have become the bond that keeps our family together.”

— Ellie Pojarska, 43, Belmont, Calif.
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(Lia Tin for the Washington Post)

A pandemic tradition worth keeping: Walking together

With sports and activities canceled in the pandemic, some families have turned to this simple exercise to keep kids (and parents) moving. Experts say it’s a habit worth hanging onto. — By Galadriel Watson

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Time to bond

“I have bonded with my stepson, who is 7. I became his stepmom in April 2020, and the extra time together has made us thick as thieves. With no roller derby practice for me and no in-person school for him, we have had plenty of time to do workout videos together and make up silly inside jokes and nicknames for each other.”

— Meryl Williams Clark, 34, Williamstown, W.Va.

Family meetings

“We have started regular family meetings a few times a week where we talk about two things we’re thankful for during our day. Because of the pandemic stress, we also take time to talk about our fears. During some of these family meetings, we read a book out loud together and discuss it. I hope we can continue this because it’s helped give us time to talk and listen together.”

— Tonya Gilchrist, 47, Silver Spring, Md.

Exercising together

“My 14-year-old daughter began running with me after school a few days a week. Though I have tried to encourage her to run with me for years, it has finally happened! It has been wonderful to have this extra time together when she can tell me about her life, and I know she feels proud of the accomplishment of logging many miles together. She has learned that being athletic doesn’t have to mean being competitive or joining a team, and I think she’s learned how a run can clear her mind and feel good — something she can take with her to college and adulthood.”

— Beth Stewart, 45, Odenton, Md.
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(Lia Tin for The Washington Post)

About this story

Topper image by The Washington Post; images courtesy of Dallys Cochran Rivera, Lia Tin for The Washington Post and iStock. Videos from families. Video editing by Joshua Carroll. Editing by Kendra Nichols. Photo editing by Monique Woo. Art direction, design and development by Audrey Valbuena. Additional development by Jake Crump and Leo Dominguez.

Amy Joyce is a writer and editor for On Parenting.
Ellen McCarthy is a feature writer for Style. She previously covered local technology companies for the business section and anchored the Style section's On Love page, writing extensively about weddings, love and relationships. She is the author of “The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter's Notebook."