Parenting in a Pandemic: Staying Calm Because We Have to

So, we’ve baked 1,002 brownies, made 76 LEGO castles, played 43 rounds of UNO, read seven chapters of a graphic novel, and it’s still only 10 a.m. This is not good news. After six days cooped up in the house with two children and no babysitters, I have taken to moving objects from one side of the room to the other and then back again, just because. 

It’s a strange time to be alive right now. We are all trying to manage a profound level of uncertainty and instability. Trying to keep hold of a state of peace and presence requires effort. But as parents, we don’t just have our own wellbeing to manage, we also have our children to take care of and their experience. 

We are tasked with keeping our children calm, busy, and okay at a time when our own wellbeing may not feel so steady or reliable. As parents, we don’t have the luxury of just being with ourselves and focusing on our own peace. We are trying to stay grounded while at the same time serving as our children’s parents, friends, entertainment committees, school teachers, physical trainers, and everything else. Without any of our usual structures, and any other people to help us, we are now responsible for keeping our children calm, engaged, and reasonably well. Parenting in a pandemic is not for the faint of heart. 

The most important thing to remember during this time is to put our own oxygen mask on first. We have to give ourselves and continually replenish ourselves with what we need to meet this current challenge. If we are okay, our kids will be okay. If we are shaky and unsteady, anxious and all the rest, then so they will be. Taking care of ourselves is different for each of us, but ideas to consider might be time away from our kids, even if just in the bathroom with the door shut, meditation, conversation with friends, music, playtime with our pets, silence, moving the body, and whatever else contributes to our feeling centered and well. We have to be okay—emotionally, spiritually, and mentally, so that we can be the caretakers we are now asked to become. Parenting ourselves right now is non-negotiable. 

The second thing to remember is that we don’t have to go through this alone. Even if we cannot do “in-person” playdates or go out to do things we would normally do, we can do virtual playdates, virtual parent dates, conduct groups through Zoom and other platforms, and reach out to everyone we know, through the wonder of technology. We can also make use of the countless free online activities that different organizations are offering including museum tours, courses for kids, performances, and other opportunities. As complicated as our relationship with technology is, now is a time to use it for all the possibilities it can offer, the ways it can connect us rather than disconnect us. 

Another critical guideline to follow as we go through this transition is that we must, without exception, suspend judgment of ourselves. This is the time to banish our inner critic, silence the voice in our head that tells us we should be a better parent. Now, and for the foreseeable future, when we have 16 hours a day to fill (or not fill), whatever we offer, even if it’s just the remote control or the Subway Surfer app, it has to be enough. Now is a time to remind ourselves, vigilantly, that we are doing our best, and whatever that is, it is enough. If we need to let our kid be terminally bored, watch TV for hours in a row, or just lay on the couch, because it’s all we can do to keep ourselves well, then that’s what we need to do. And here’s the thing, that’s fine. It is more important right now for us to focus on being kind and staying calm, rather than providing fantastic days of learning and fun. This is a time to let go of the idea of the perfect parent and focus on being the good enough parent. Good enough is good enough. 

Our kids are enormously resilient. We parents are too. As we move through this period of great uncertainty, we must refrain from jumping into the future, into what-if scenarios and catastrophizing. We must stay in the present moment, and forbid our mind from taking us into an imaginary future. We must practice getting okay without not knowing what’s going to happen, living one moment at a time, and finding the internal ground in the groundlessness. When we show our kids (and ourselves) that we can live with uncertainty, somewhat comfortably, we are teaching and modeling one of the most important skills our children need to be happy and well for a lifetime. We are teaching them, literally, to be resilient. 

The question we want to ask ourselves as we move through this time of change is this: Who do we want to be in this upheaval? How can we be of service and kind, even if it’s just to the little people for whom we are in charge? Being that person we want to be, for them, is as important a responsibility as we will ever meet. 

As I discuss the challenges of parenting at this time, I am also keenly aware of how blessed we are to get to be parents right now. To have another or more than one other being to take care of through this roller coaster ride is a gift. The fact that we are responsible for our children is grounding in and of itself. It requires us to stay strong and intact whether we feel that way or not, which is a good thing. As much as our children, at times, can feel disruptive to our wellbeing, they also help us stay centered and present. We are profoundly lucky to have people to wake up to and take care of, to be strong and present for. So too, our children keep us in touch with love—a force far more infinite than anything happening in our current situation. All that said, it is paramount that we stay connected with a sense of gratitude just now for getting to be responsible and strong for little ones during this time.  How lucky we really are. And so there is deep gratitude—but also, it’s incredibly hard.     

How we show up as parents through this time will impact our children for a lifetime. We are their models for how to be with difficulty. Our response now will be an important factor in how they will meet challenges like this when they’re older, which they will. Now is a time to provide our children with the seeds of grounding that later they will grow inside themselves. We keep this in mind and heart. And when we cannot be their models and have to hide in the bathroom stall and breathe deeply, then we do that, without judging ourselves, and with a lot of love for the profundity of what’s on our plate right now… just for now.

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Within Every Crisis, A Profound Opportunity Appears

In times of fear, we return to the simple joys, and to each other.

Yesterday, with all the craziness going on in the news, all the reasons we should avoid each other, not touch anything, not trust anything, not trust each other, I decided to take a walk in the park.  Why not?  It was a beautiful day as mother nature herself seemed to be conspiring (in my narrative) to encourage us back into her embrace. I headed to Central Park, not expecting to find anything particularly surprising, maybe just some fresh air and the normal healing that comes from being in nature.  But I was wrong.  Wow, was I wrong. 

What I found was a park with people.  It seems that everyone in New York City had the same idea.  Everyone was out—playing frisbee, playing catch, playing with their dogs, playing games, playing music, just playing … period.  People were talking, walking, running, singing, laughing, flying kites, conversing, biking, yoga-ing.  It was remarkable, a beautiful thing to behold.  Yesterday in the park reminded me of who we really are as human beings.

When life feels uncertain, in times of instability, we return to what is most basic—the simple pleasures: conversation, walking, nature, making music, being together.  When we are stripped of the ability and opportunity to acquire, avoid, distract, and entertain ourselves in the usual ways, we come back to what is most precious; we come back to each other and to nature.

Yes, there will be suffering that comes with this current health crisis. And, at the same time, perhaps there can also come some profound wisdom, a reminder of what really matters, and what’s always here.  Yesterday was a gift, a kind of shared Sabbath.  It was a day we all took a communal breath, a step back, a beat to assess what really matters.  When we are frightened, when our existence feels threatened, we return to each other.  When everything is in flux, changing from moment to moment, we remember what is unchanging, what cannot be taken away, no matter what is happening in our life situation.  We come home to people, to mother earth, and in a sense, to love.  We return to what truly nourishes us, calms and connects us, and reminds us that we are well—no matter what.

Under all the anxious thoughts, the choppy surface waves of our mind, there is a deep presence within us, an experience of being—a stillness, a silence.  You can feel this presence right now.  Just for a moment, unhook from the thoughts swirling in your mind, the fears and what-if scenarios (you can pick them up when you finish).  Bring your attention out of your head and down into your body.  Take a conscious slow breath.  Invite yourself to relax.  Sense your own presence, feel the experience of just being, the here-ness below the thoughts.  Within each of us, there is a peace, a calm that’s always here.  Now is a time to tap into this presence, this ground in the midst of the groundless. 

This time of uncertainty will pass and our lives will again become stable and reliable, as much as life is ever stable and reliable.  The time will come when we will again feel protected and sheltered by our external system—when the predictability of our world will again lull us into a sense of safety and immortality.  While this health crisis may be temporary, and also extremely challenging, let us not get caught up in just the fearful thoughts and thus lose sight of the profound opportunity that a time like this offers.  It is in times like these, which don’t come often, times when we can no longer rely on our system to ground us, that we have the opportunity to go within, to rethink and reclaim what really matters to us, to reacquaint ourselves with our deepest values. 

Now is a time to keep company with our friends, family, and animals, to convene with nature, be of service, walk, listen to and make music, listen too to silence, and find love where it lives.  This is also a time to cultivate the steady and well place within ourselves, the place that’s here with or without a system.  Now, when the guard rails have temporarily come off our lives, when the structure that provides safety and indeed a sense of who we are, is momentarily dismantled; this is a time to ground ourselves in the present moment, find the steady place inside, and remember what really matters, what cannot be taken away.  Ultimately, this is the moment to remember who we are—no matter what. 

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Have You Turned Your Partner Into the Villain in Your Inner Movie?

Married for 12 years, Lisa and Cliff were enjoying a fun date night out. Back at home, Cliff wanted to be physically intimate. Lisa, usually game, was exhausted and told Cliff that sex wasn’t in the cards that night as she could barely make it to the bedroom without collapsing. Cliff immediately became angry and sulky. He accused Lisa of being withholding. He then told her that she was emasculating him, making him feel undesirable and inadequate.

Isabel is a doctor of medieval history. Her partner, Lars, has a Ph.D. in mathematics. Over dinner the couple got into a discussion about a philosopher from the eighth century, Isabel’s area of expertise. At one point, Lars made an interpretation of something the philosopher had said. Believing his analysis to be a misread, she told him that it wasn’t what was meant by the quote. Lars became incensed and accused Isabel of being controlling. He insisted that his wife had called him an idiot and was (intentionally) humiliating him, treating him like he was uneducated.

Finally, let’s consider Kelly and Steven. Kelly was driving when, unexpectedly, she made a turn that took the couple out of their way. Since they were in a hurry, Steven suggested that it would be faster to go the other way. In a flash, Kelly became furious and accused Steven of always having to do things his way. She further complained that he treated her like she was stupid and that her judgment couldn’t be trusted.

These situations may seem extreme, but in truth, they happen all the time—literally, all the time. Small disagreements end up in gigantic, painful impasses. In each example, it starts because one partner experiences negative feelings of some sort. In reaction to these negative feelings, they criticize their partner (you’re controlling, withholding, have to have it your way). But then, more dangerously, they blame their partner for causing their negative feelings. They convince themselves that their partner made them feel this way, did this to them, and ultimately, was the perpetrator of their pain.

We all carry certain beliefs, often from childhood, wounds and memories that we use to define who we are—our sense of self. We carry these forward into our intimate relationships. In the examples above, Cliff had always been the last kid picked for sports teams; he had felt inadequate his whole life, long before he met Lisa. For Lars, having to repeat third grade had caused him to doubt his own intelligence. Even with two graduate degrees, the fear that he was dumb still haunted him. In Kelly’s case, the belief that her judgment couldn’t be trusted was something she’d learned from a dismissive and ridiculing father. 

Our negative self-perceptions are difficult enough on their own, but what makes them excruciating is the way we transform them, through our own narratives, into aggressions our partner is doing to us. We recreate the experience of being shamed or blamed, re-traumatize ourselves with the same pain we’ve lived, all the while believing it’s our partner doing it to us, and making us feel this way.  Worst of all, we believe our partner actually holds these negative perceptions about us. It’s not me who thinks (or fears) I’m dumb, it’s my partner who thinks it. And so I live, still, as the one who is perceived as dumb, even though it’s now me who’s doing it to myself. 

More than anything else, what alleviates this universal problem (which leads to endless other problems) is awareness. We have to develop the ability to observe what’s happening inside ourselves, to become conscious of the feelings arising in the moment, and particularly the most charged moments. But here’s the catch: We have to notice this before we react, before we start looking to our partner to blame, before we start constructing our causal narratives. While our partner’s behavior may have set off these negative feelings, we need to remember that the idea that our partner is the one doing this to us, thinking these negative thoughts about us, is an illusion, a made-up story. Right there, in the eye of the emotional tsunami, we have to be able to detach our experience from our partner’s actions, to stop creating causality and intention where they don’t exist. 

In Lisa and Cliff’s case, Lisa’s exhaustion and subsequent decision to go to sleep rather than have sex was not about Cliff; it was about her own needs. Cliff’s sense of inadequacy may have been awakened by her choice, but she didn’t cause his feelings. Furthermore, she didn’t believe him to be inadequate; that feeling belonged to him. This is the distinction we need to be able to make for ourselves, again and again and again.

We don’t want to have to feel our insecurities, our negative self-perceptions, the insults we hurl at ourselves when the lights are out. And so we make our partners the perpetrators; we tell ourselves that they are the ones making us feel this way, the ones doing this tus. It’s easier to hate our partner for thinking we’re dumb rather than to wrestle with our own fear of being dumb, to blame our partner for humiliating us rather than to feel our own experience of humiliation and its real source. We have to become aware of when we are assigning to our partner what are in fact our own fears and self-criticisms. 

In communicating with a partner, it’s critical that we express our experience as something separate from their actions. We can share what has arisen in us, but also acknowledge that our partner is not to blame for our experience. So too, we need to stay focused on what actually happened in the interaction, specifically what our partner did or said. We have to stay with the reality—not add anything to it, not tie it to everything else that’s ever happened, and not decide what it means about our partner’s perception of us or our self-worth. At the same time, we must separate our experience from our partner’s intentions and remind ourselves that they did not choose to make this happen. 

Presented to our partner as our own experience, separate from them, without blame, they may even be able to show new compassion and empathy for our hurt. We may find that they even stop doing or saying the things that awaken our pain, because they care for us and don’t want us to suffer.     

The next time you feel triggered by your partner, stop for a moment and take a deep breath.  Smile even though you don’t want to. Relax, just for a moment. Now ask yourself, What am I experiencing right now? What’s happening inside me? Before saying anything to your partner, become aware of the feelings and sensations inside you. Notice any negative self-perception arising. Name it. Ask yourself, Is this is a fear I have about myself or a feeling I’ve experienced in the past? Who or what was its original source?  Pause and offer yourself compassion; tell yourself that this matters. 

If you choose to share this process with your partner, simply let them know what happened for you. You can say what triggered you, but keep the conversation tight to your own experience.  Start your sentences with I: I feel, I experience, as opposed to you are, you think, you do, etc. Don’t turn your experience into something about your partner, something they did to you or feel about you. With this new approach, taking ownership for your own experience, I promise you three things:

  1. You will feel more understood. 
  2. You will be happier. 
  3. You will have a far more peaceful (and better) relationship.

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What Do You Want in a Relationship? A Partner or Parent?

What happens when we realize our partner is not the parent we wished for?

If we’re very fortunate, we have a parent who is 100% devoted to us, unconditionally.  We experience a caretaker whom we believe (whether true or not), is entirely selfless and exists only to take care of our wants and needs, whose needs are indeed synonymous with our own.

Many of us get some part of this parent: the one who gets up at 3 a.m. to comfort us, even though they have not slept in weeks.  The parent who spends her weekends shuttling us to ice skating and soccer practice, because our wants and needs are also her wants and needs, or at least more important than hers.  This time in our life, when another human being exists only for us, is a time of relationship perfection—a time when we are, ultimately, not alone in the universe.   

As we get older, we start to see our parents more as fleshed-out human beings than invisible need-providers.  Life slowly divvies out the hard truths, including the reality that our parents are individuals who have their own experience, wounds, limitations, and even their own wants and needs, which, shockingly, may be different from our own.  We learn that our parents do not dematerialize when we, their children, leave the room.  This awareness is natural, healthy, and can occur without too much suffering, particularly if we’ve received enough of the first kind of love, in which the relationship is all about and for us. 

But the truth is, for many people, there remains a deep longing — and sometimes even a demand for — our intimate partner to play the part of the selfless parent, to be that person for whom only our needs exist.  Within each of us, there exists a primitive desire to remain at the center of someone else’s universe — to be someone else’s entire universe — as we believed we were for our parent at one time. 

Abby and Ken had been married for about five years.  Abby had always referred to herself as the free spirit in the relationship, the traveler, the one who would always pick up and go at a moment’s notice, the one for whom continual change was required for a good life.  Ken, on the other hand, was someone who was nourished by friends and family, and for whom the simple rhythms of daily life and familiarity were thrilling. 

Abby had just told her husband that, after a long period of struggle and contemplation, she had thankfully found clarity.  What she wanted most for her life was to travel the world, for a year—alone.  And, possibly, for Ken to join her every few months in different locations around the globe.  She was thrilled by this self-discovery.  Upon hearing this, Ken paused and took a long breath.  His face then morphed into a smile that seemed to contain sweetness, pain, and anger, all at once.  After a bit of silence, he said that he was happy Abby now knew what she wanted.  And (or maybe but), he was also hurt, angry, and betrayed.  He wanted a wife who wanted to be with him, physically and emotionally.  Upon hearing her husband’s response to her important discovery, Abby too felt hurt, angry, and betrayed. 

It had been a year since Nina’s father died.  It was a long, slow and painful death, one that ended with three weeks in the ICU, and with the family having to eventually take her father off life support.  It was a huge and difficult loss for Nina, one that she was still processing for sure.  Several months after her father died, I met with Nina and her partner of two years, Andrew.

During that meeting, Andrew said that he wished Nina’s father hadn’t died in the first year of their dating.  At first blush, it sounded like a benign comment, but there was more.  He went on to say that he wished her father hadn’t died because it happened so early in their relationship.  As a result, it made everything heavier, and his girlfriend sadder and less fun than the girl he had first met. The death of her father, for Andrew, had been a damper on the excitement of his new relationship.  Upon hearing Andrew share his experience of her father’s death, Nina decided to end the relationship.

When we share our truth with our partner, there’s a part of us that just wants unconditional support.  It can feel painful and even angering when our partner has their own separate experience of something we want or need or an experience of us that’s different from our experience of ourselves.  At a primitive level, we want our partner to see it our way, to just want what we want — because we want it.  This part of us doesn’t want to know or have to consider our partner’s wants and needs, and sometimes doesn’t want them to exist at all.  In this very young place, which never entirely goes away, we want a relationship with that parent who existed completely and only for us. 

No matter how much we want to be the only person whose experience matters, the reality of this other human being’s separate experience is unavoidable.  In such moments when this reality forces itself into our awareness, we need to step back, pause, and offer ourselves compassion.  It is not okay to shame or attack ourselves for what we feel in these moments, no matter how irrational or whatever else our feelings might be.  It is natural to rationally understand our partner’s experience and at the same time, feel profound loss, betrayal, and even outrage.  How dare our partner have their own experience of something so important to us.

What is happening inside us is that we are discovering, again, that our parent (now represented by our partner) is actually separate from us, not us.  While, of course, we know this on an intellectual level, to realize it on an emotional level can trigger unfathomable grief.  This is the moment when we realize that we are fundamentally alone in the universe, that our experience is not shared by anyone.  In these moments of intense emotion, we want to figuratively (and literally) place our hand on our own heart,  to acknowledge and comfort that part of us that is grieving the loss of the one person who existed only for us (or the one that we wish had existed solely for us). 

On a practical level, what’s most important is that you are careful not to react to your partner from this young place, and not to engage and foment the thoughts that ask how your partner could dare to have (much less express) their own experience.  You can, however, ask your partner to be mindful and sensitive as to how and when they share their own experience.  This is fair.  But you must stay aware of what’s happening inside you at the deepest level, so as to keep from falling into blame, and from attacking your partner for having their own reality. 

What’s called for (difficult though it may be) is that you make space for your own shattered illusions and longing for union, and also, simultaneously, for your partner’s existence.  Ultimately, you might even be able to recognize that your partner faces and struggles with the same existential human aloneness as you.  And therefore, in reality, in the absolute — you are in fact wholly united.

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Why Our Expectations of Marriage Must Change: A Lasting Marriage Means Learning to Live With Broken Promises

When we get married, we make all sorts of promises.  The marriage contract, by its very nature, is a series of promises.  But, when you really think about it, the institution of marriage, what we assume and expect of each other within a marriage is, if not ridiculous, certainly in conflict with reality.  I say this as a couple’s therapist and also someone who’s been married for many years, and who also deeply respects and enjoys what marriage offers.

I frequently see clients who complain that their partner doesn’t want what they wanted when they got married. “But you said you wanted kids when we talked about it!”  Or, they feel guilty for not wanting what they used to want.  “But I said I wanted to move to the country, so now I have to do it.”  I hear stories all day long from men and women who feel confused and trapped because they don’t want or need what they used to want and need in their life and for themselves.

Sometimes, what changes is what we want in a partner.  We may have been drawn, for example, to our partner’s steadiness and reliability.  Perhaps it soothed our feelings of ungrounded-ness, satisfied our need to feel more rooted.  But now, years later, we no longer need a calming force, but instead, wish for adventure, possibility and change.  We have created our own ground and now need to fly.  Or perhaps we were originally attracted to the differences in our partner. When we married, we needed to feel less connected, less the same; it was emotional space at that time in our evolution that allowed us to not feel judged.  Now, however, we want a soul mate, to feel connected, to be with someone who deeply understands and shares our experience.  As we change, what we need in a partner also changes.  Our emotional holes fill up and we don’t need our partner to satisfy what’s been satisfied or what we can now do for ourselves.  But still, we feel guilty and confused when what drew us to our partner is no longer what we need.  

So, what are we to do then, when marriage means promises and reality means we are going to change and what we promised may no longer be possible?  How can this endeavor called marriage ever work if both people are constantly changing?  To begin with, we must shift our expectations of marriage and what it includes.  We cannot blame our partner and cannot be blamed for becoming someone else as we go through life.  It is not a betrayal when we or our partner feels different than how we felt when we were first married, when we want a different experience and life from what we wanted when we married.  It is not a betrayal when who we are is completely other than who we were in the past.  

The question is not if we are going to break promises in a marriage—we are.   We must accept this truth. The question is how do we want to dance with the broken promises that will happen, dance with the changes and disappointments, and dance with the continual losing of the partner we used to know? 

In most every marriage, there comes a time when we realize that our partner cannot be, for us, what we had hoped they could be.  We discover that our partner cannot fill our own emptiness or be our reason for living, our purpose, as we had once imagined.  We bump into the reality that our partner is also a human, with limitations, fears, and just trying to find their way.  Our partner is not something to fill our needs and holes.  Sooner or later, the promise that our partner can save us from our own struggle is broken.  This involves a certain degree of heartbreak and disillusionment.  It is the ultimate reality check.  But we need to have our heart broken in this way, in order to fully mature and take ownership of our own life, our own needs, our own unanswered questions.  At some level, a healthy long term relationship should include disappointment; in order to really love our partner, we must give up all hope that our relationship and our partner is the answer, our salvation.  When we give up this hope, we enter the beginning of something real and sustainable.

We take our vows as a proclamation of who we are, how we feel, and what we believe at the moment we stand at that altar (or whatever we stand at).   But we must remember that marriage is not an agreement to stay there, to keep being that person, feeling those feelings.  That’s not possible and not wise.  Marriage might have better odds if we saw it as a commitment that includes broken promises.  It might be more sustainable if we understood it as the promise to meet our partner as they also change, to not assume that they are who we met at an earlier time, and to give them the chance and encouragement to become who they need to become.  And simultaneously, marriage might be more successful if it meant a willingness, not to keep wanting the same things, but to be honest about what we actually want and need as we move through the life cycle, and to communicate those truths, no matter how difficult. 

Although this may sound like heresy, we may even want to give up the idea of marriage as a promise to love each other for all time, and rather to see it as a promise to be loving and honest with each other as we discover where life is leading each of us, and who it’s leading us to become.  As we walk together through a marriage and indeed through life, we can and should be able to continue promising to provide loving support and encouragement for each of our own journeys.  This is a promise we may be able to keep. 

Marriage is a most remarkable endeavor and one worth practicing.  But it won’t survive as an institution if we take the human part out of the equation, if we forget that it’s humans who are doing the marrying and not some imaginary static species.  We cannot and should not expect ourselves to be what we fundamentally are not, just because we say “I do.”  We are going to change as time passes and this includes how we feel about everything, including ourselves, our partner and our relationship.  Change is not a betrayal.  More often, it’s a sign of growth.  This reality needs to be taken into account when we consider the expectations of marriage.  This reality, accepted, begins a conversation about true intimacy and what it means to be partnered with another human being in the dance of life.  When we accept broken and changed promises as part of the dance, we say “I do” to a marriage that’s made of the truth.  And, when we know each other’s truths, no matter what they contain, we begin the dance of real love.  

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