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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