This is our first in a series of parenting columns, which you can have sent to your inbox on Thursdays by signing up at globe.com/parentingnewsletter.
For the past six months, we’ve been talking about protecting our kids: how to keep them safe, how to preserve a semblance of normalcy, how to log them into 500 vaguely dysfunctional learning platforms with style and ease. But I want to talk to parents — because we need support, too.
We’re doing something enormously hard: navigating a pandemic for which there is no playbook. An August report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education says that over 60 percent of parents of all income categories agree or strongly agree that they feel nervous, anxious, or on edge. And is it any wonder?
But so much family-oriented coverage relies on the unattainable, and that tendency has seeped into pandemic parenting: the remote-learning setup that looks like a Container Store ad, the matching masks, the potential opportunities for newfound family togetherness. Or else it’s one long Twitter panic-scroll of everything we’re doing wrong, how doomed we are, and how today’s decisions will affect our kids forever. Every choice feels fraught, and how could it not? We used to be told that very few parenting decisions are life or death. Um, except right now.
But parenting isn’t extremes, and it still isn’t. It’s a day in, day out slog that exists far away from sound bites and Instagram. And that’s where kindness happens. That’s where self-compassion happens. For most of us, it’s about simply getting by with some grace and good humor, and that’s what I want to talk about today. Right now, kindness is hard to come by. There’s a lethal, invisible virus out there that could turn our friends and neighbors into a potential enemy. We’re on edge. Add in differences of philosophies, and we’re all teetering on the brink. That’s why this first newsletter focuses on self-compassion. It’s the foundation that allows us to function in every other facet of life.
I’ll get to expert tips in a second, but another thing: I want to hear from you. Parenting looks different for each of us, and I want to reach as many of you as I can. Feel like a topic isn’t getting enough coverage? So completely over something else? Tell me; I’m listening.
And now, some ideas for taking care of yourself in a completely strange world.
Offload the noise. The healthiest thing we can do for our kids is pretty straightforward: creating a home life that’s as peaceful and predictable as possible. That means controlling our own anxiety as best we can, says Dr. Gene Beresin, director of MGH’s Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. I can hear you now: Are you serious?! That doesn’t mean you can’t freak out sometimes. But it does mean getting credible information and ignoring the hype. “Avoid endless social media streams and misinformation. Focus on fact-based, helpful information, like notices from your state, town, or school,” Beresin says. Pick your trusted resources. Delete or mute the rest.
Remember that no decision is perfect or permanent. Right now, we might feel like every choice is laying a permanent trajectory. It’s not. “Accept the fact that you will make a decision, but things can shift and change. The decision you make today might not be the one you keep in a month,” Beresin says. Maybe you enroll your kid in art next spring; maybe you pull her from hockey this winter. Very few choices are binding. Remember his words: “Maybe you didn’t get it right, but it was good enough at the time. This is a novel virus, and these are novel times.”
Create happy, reliable moments — even small ones. You don’t need to craft a meditation retreat in your crammed playroom. This can be as simple as carving out a 10-minute afternoon walk or waking up five minutes earlier to loll around. The trick is to find a haven you can rely on in a world where there’s so little predictability, says Dr. Donna Pincus, director of research for the Child and Adolescent Fear and Anxiety Treatment Program at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. She’s currently researching the effects of COVID-19 on family life. “Schedule in detox. Down time doesn’t just appear suddenly,” she says.
Think: What would I be doing if I wasn’t worrying? Next time you’re doing the COVID-19 worry-scroll, ask yourself what you could be doing instead. What else do you enjoy? (Surely there’s something.) What would be more fun? Pincus suggests putting a sticky note somewhere prominent: “If my attention weren’t here, where else might it be?”
Honesty is OK. Don’t expend fake energy pretending that everything is normal when it’s clearly not. Beresin encourages us to use stories with kids. “Kids love family narratives — remember when the hurricane hit and the pipe burst? Remember when we lost our dog? It was tough, but we got through it,” he says. Give your kids a concrete example of a time when things were hard but you persevered as a family. This gives us permission to feel (and verbalize) real feelings. Pincus points to a similarly traumatic event — the Boston Marathon bombings. Kids showed lower post-traumatic stress when caregivers informed them about the attack and expressed confidence in their safety and higher stress when caregivers avoided discussing the topic, according to BU research.
Lower your standards. Really. “Life used to be a bento box, with different sections” for work, family, and school, says Pincus. Now it’s running together on the same plate. It’s messy, and that’s fine, normal, and inevitable. Instead of beating yourself up, end the day by asking: “What was the most important thing I did today?” Pincus suggests. It can be small.
Shift the anger. Just as experiencing grief, anger, and sorrow over this unholy mess is completely valid, it’s important to channel it once it consumes you. “It’s important not to block anger but to shift it, or else it will bury you alive,” says Divya Kumar, a psychotherapist with the Leggett Group in Framingham and Roslindale, where she treats perinatal mental health and trauma. Even simply moving your body — getting out of your brain and into the physical sensation of moving — can help. “We’ve been hypervigilant, and you can only sustain that adrenal output state for a short point of time. We have collective adrenal fatigue,” she says.
Last but not least: Rage is real. Instead of drowning in self-reproach over the choices you’ve made, whether it’s about school or social life or vacations, blame the systems that got us here. “The reframe is, ‘You weren’t given good choices,’ ” says Kumar. “You aren’t to blame. Your feelings make sense. You feel like you’re failing, but you were set up to. You were taught to. You’re doing a great job.”