COVID-19 has left parents trying to find the time, energy, and skills to teach their children amid working in essential jobs or trying to develop new work-from home habits. Scroll through your social media account and see a variety of often conflicting advice on how to achieve this balance. Parents are urged to continue with structure and make distance learning a priority. But keep scrolling and you’re reminded that your child’s mental health comes first and if distance learning doesn’t mesh with their developmental needs, you can abandon it. Similar recommendations abound for your child’s consumption of media, sugar, and fresh air. Coupled with a push to make this time “productive” (whatever that means) parents are left paralyzed.
My intent here isn’t to provide more advice. Because the truth is, you know how to be the parent you want to be. A global pandemic, social distancing, and the breakdown of the societal structures that we have become habituated to has just clouded the picture. So many things have changed, but your commitment to your family has not. I would like to help calm the storm of emotions swirling in your head each morning as you face another day trying to keep it all together. I would like to help stop your parental compass from spinning wildly.
I think parents feel better about parenting when they see that they aren’t alone. The shelter-in-place order in the region is crippling your ability to see parenting live. There are no more interactions with other parents at daycare, extracurriculars, or playdates. You cannot hear from coworkers. Parents have lost the time and ability to connect with friends or family members to validate and normalize their parental stress. What is available is social media; a space focused on self-selected content. Other parents are killing it when it comes to keeping it all together, or so your Facebook feed would have you believe. And almost no one is putting their parenting challenges online right now. The potential for shame feels too high and no one is willing to risk it at a moment when it feels like everyone’s parental identity is up for review. You try to curate the shiniest moments, failing to see that this furthers the echo chamber of GREAT PARENTING. I want parents to remember that what they are seeing on social media is often the best moment of the day. The rest of it could have been utter garbage but you are not cognizant to that because you cannot see it. There is no ability to see the real-time hard parenting moments: cajoling a child to get on the school bus, a power struggle temper tantrum in the cereal aisle, or an argument with a teenager.
It is reasonable to consider that parenting during a crisis requires some abandonment of the structures we were used to; we’re also being told that this will be a new way of life for a few months. At this point, the directions are consistent: stay home and wash your hands. Continuing to parent as if in a crisis only amplifies the perception of crisis, contributes to family dysregulation, and denies the opportunity for fostering resiliency. Children (and adults) like having some kinds of consistency in times of stress and change. Reflect on how structure and routine happened for your family prior to the crisis. If you were a family that had dinner every night at 6, continue that. But if you were a family that was more flexible, attempting to insert precise scheduling may only increase stress and frustration among all who live with you. Give yourself permission to decide what works for your family. Your well-being and mental health are worth the energy of parenting well and taking good care of yourself. Now is the time to talk with a spouse about how to parent well together; you are both entitled to daily time to nourish yourselves so that you have energy in the tank for others. This isn’t selfishness; this is deciding that the tools you bring to parenthood (your energy, patience, and nurturance) are worth protecting by taking good care of yourself.
Let’s start with reflecting on where you were six months ago (before the holidays that also makes parenting crazy stressful). It may feel like effort you don’t have energy for now, but it may well be the best thing to do for your long-term mental health. What your parenting was like prior to the crisis is important to help you start to define how parenting will work now. Think about what makes you happiest as a parent. Consider times when others have complimented your parenting. Consider the parts of parenting that are hard. What are words you’d like to avoid associating with your parenting right now? It’s important to have an idea of both where you’d like to go and where you’d like to avoid. Settle on three words that describe what’s important to you. These will become your priorities to reflect on when parenting gets tough.
So how do you recalibrate that parental compass? First, write down your parenting goals and put it on the fridge and the bathroom mirror. Keep this in the front of your brain so that as you make daily decisions, you are aware of your big picture goals. Acknowledge that stress, irritation, and anger often cause impulsive parenting. In these moments, reflect on your three words and decide if another course of action helps you get back into alignment with your priorities. Having three qualities to focus on is much easier for an overwhelmed brain. Three things allow you to be consistent in your parenting practice which is key to reducing stress. If both parents and children know generally what to expect, everyone can make room for times when things must change.
Next, think back over the last few weeks and examine the highs and lows. The last few weeks were survival mode as we adjusted to dramatically different information, sometimes on an hourly basis. Consider what worked and what did not. Perhaps family dinner helps connect family members, while forcing everyone to break from their activities for lunch created distraction and irritability. Accept that you may not eat every meal together but asking for one meal a day is a fair balance. The impromptu dance party that developed in the backyard one evening was joyful and is something you should include. Keep the patterns that children are used to involving cleaning up shared space, hygiene, or sleeping routines. Consider your family life like a balloon. Leave it untied so that you can inflate or deflate as necessary to accommodate the new normal we’re living in. But don’t put so much air in the balloon to warp it or manipulate it into a shape that you don’t recognize.
To close, I don’t have any recommendations regarding “self-care”. I think lots of articles are telling parents to make time for self-care and articles are written in response laughing at the idea of self-care. I think these articles reflect crisis parenting. While we needed to jettison our self-care in lieu of adjusting to the new normal in those first few weeks, it’s now time to try and fit those things back in in ways that make sense for you. Hold space for the ways that things won’t fit quite the same way because you aren’t in the same world. Give yourself permission to have new expectations because we are in a new world. But 10 minutes a day of reading, a phone call with a friend, prayer, yoga, or sex were meaningful to your mental health and well-being before COVID-19 and should be included now. Now is the time to consider what doesn’t fit with your priorities and may need to be softened or let go of for the time being. Consider delegating some chores to older children. Do things that bring you joy and that are in alignment with your parenting goals. Adjust expectations and hold space for the grief that we all feel as we adjust to a new normal. Be present to what is foundational: your commitment to parenting and to yourselves and your children. This isn’t changed by COVID-19.