Lessons Learned From My Toddler During a Pandemic

How a physician's toddler revealed meaning during a year of turbulence.

Posted Dec 30, 2020

Nitasha Shetty, MD, used with permission
Source: Nitasha Shetty, MD, used with permission

Following is a guest post by Dr. Nitasha Shetty, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

As the new year approaches, I am stunned by how dichotomous 2020 has been: At once the most rapidly changing time in my memory, while seeming on the surface to be eerily stagnant. If you are also the parent of a young child, then you understand the feeling. We look back on a year of lost opportunity and major upheaval at a crucial time in our children’s lives, and yet watch in wonder as they continue to reach milestones and grow daily, unaware of the worries swirling around them.   

On March 14, my husband and I packed up our 11-month-old daughter with a plan to visit my parents for a few days; nine months later, we have not returned. We celebrated Maya’s first birthday with extended family over Zoom, unsure if my husband should even hold her since his work as a physician took him into the epicenter of the pandemic each day. That night, as I rocked my daughter to sleep, I found myself clutching her chubby frame like a life raft. I desperately was trying not to feel alone, afraid, and adrift. In the ensuing months, Maya has continued to offer vital reminders to continue living. 

I initially attempted to flee from panic during the early days of the pandemic. I willed myself to use the strategies that I have offered my patients, as any good child psychiatrist would. My frantic efforts at baking, jogging, and forced family yoga sessions helped, but only temporarily. Soon, my family began to sense the unsettled place from which these efforts arose.

I noticed that my parents were having a different response. As immigrants who had worked tirelessly for most of their lives, they had every reason to feel shocked by having to pause their livelihood and the security and identity that comes with it. Instead, they were smiling, laughing, and finding purpose in precious time spent with their granddaughter. Maya, in return, offered the reliable resilience that all children do, that innate compass that stubbornly keeps pointing toward normalcy.

We found ourselves grounded by the most natural processes of interacting with a toddler: soothing touch and carefree play. It occurred to me that while I was well aware that both are non-negotiable for a child’s healthy development, they are often considered indulgent for adults under stress. Yet, here we were, adults under immense stress, who found undeniable solace in tickling little toes, refuge in games of peek-a-boo. Once I gave myself permission to play as though my health depended on it, I could finally recharge in a meaningful way. 

As the days wore on, and I started to rile against the sameness, sometimes I was able to inhabit my daughter’s world. I relished in the mundane and savoring the constancy of that on which we can depend. I smile at her evening ritual of saying goodnight to the moon, and her earnest search for the sun’s rays as soon as she wakes. For her, the same environment can offer infinite ways to master skills and then build upon them.

A child will continue to thrive as long as a few key needs are met, which Maya’s grown-ups instinctively got to work at assembling: providing an expectation for secure caregiving, opportunity to adapt to challenges and regulate her own emotions, and instilling hope. With each spoonful of tender caregiving we offered her, we, in turn, were nourished; our own faith in progress fortified.

I have found myself disoriented by this at times. How can I possibly feel moments of such joy and possibility when there is devastation taking place all around me? I turn to my toddler for the answer: We are hard-wired to make the most of what we have in the moment. Our children know instinctively to seek joy in the everyday, and we would do well to pay attention

The pandemic has been a calamity with external and internal dimensions for all of us. As I attempted to continue my clinical work as a psychiatrist, my own defenses were also laid bare. Between sessions, as I watched Maya go through a toddler’s tornado of emotions: squealing with delight one moment and wailing in frustration the next, I sometimes felt a pang of envy. I recognized a similar mess of powerful emotions within me that had nowhere to go.

But young children have not yet learned to feel ashamed of showing exactly how they feel, in fact, this is how they ensure that their needs are attended to. Maya learned the word, “no,” which quickly became an emphatic “No! No way, no way, no way!” Soon to follow, an astonished, “What happened?” each time she realized that actions have consequences, whether desirable or not.

She wielded her powerful phrases when asserting herself in her world, a world in which she still feels like the central character, deserving of attention whether triumphant or distressed. I considered the many times in the past months that I wished to belt out an unbridled, “No, no way, no way, no way,” in the hopes of being heard. My psychiatric training had taught me that I must show up to a crisis as my most mature self, but Maya showed me that this is not possible if I ignore my own fundamental needs. 

My daughter had become an important nexus for our family and friends — a reason to have a morning video call and face another day with some hope. The risk, of course, is that sharp sting of knowing that as we draw closer together, the dread of loss grows. Toddlers face this risk with brazen courage: Biologically driven to forge deep bonds with their caregivers, their future ability to care for themselves depends on being trusting and vulnerable. This has served as a powerful reminder of why I work: to connect with others in their own human experience. The process requires vulnerability on both sides in order to be meaningful.

Maya has taught me over the past tumultuous months that sometimes, I need to unlearn. There may be wisdom in unlearning the decidedly adult tendency toward shame, guilt, and discontent, in favor of our earlier nature. For me, this ongoing path through adversity has called for honest assessment, perhaps a tantrum or two, and constantly adapting. I continue to watch in awe of the lessons of childhood and recognize that each of us has the resilience and capacity to endure. We were all born with it.