Parenting During COVID-19: Fall Edition

Things to keep in mind—and on the fridge—as September nears.

Posted Aug 27, 2020

This past Monday, our family drove over seven hours home after spending a week in Maine. About three hours in, I began picturing the piles of laundry I’d need to do, the work emails I’d need to return, the groceries we’d need to order and put away. As my thoughts spun round and round on their hamster wheel, my 4-year-old whined from the backseat those dreaded seven words: “When are we going to be there?”

My jaw clenched and my cheeks got hot. “Are you kidding?” I whipped around and snapped as if my son could understand either a rhetorical question or sarcasm (he couldn’t. He’s 4.)

No!” He matched my tone. “I want to know! Tell me!”

Luckily, my husband took it from there, while I made it my priority to take some “straw” breaths to activate my parasympathetic nervous system

Finn Hackshaw/Unsplash
Source: Finn Hackshaw/Unsplash

After I did, I started drafting another refrigerator list in my head, a set of bulleted points to help us all continue to parent during this challenging time, now that a strange and surreal September is upon us. So here goes: Six things it will be crucial to keep front of mind over the next several weeks. You know the drill: Print ‘em out and hang ‘em up.

  • Transitions are hard. Always. Even under the best of circumstances, back-to-school season is stressful—there are new routines to create, new rhythms to find, and a lot of trial and error to tolerate in the meantime. This year is all of that multiplied by a thousand. Be patient with yourself, and with your little ones. We’re all going through a lot. If you can’t embrace the chaos (and many of us can't), at least work toward tolerating it, accepting its presence, and noting the feelings it evokes (a practice known as radical acceptance).
  • Transitions make little things feel like big things. In the car on Monday, I wasn’t really angry at my son for asking about the drive’s duration (OK, that question is never not going to be annoying but I wasn’t angry). I was just feeling increasingly worried about all of the tasks I had to get done once we got home, and my son had the bad luck of asking the wrong question at the wrong time.

    But there’s a deeper layer. In retrospect, I wasn’t even that worried about the various tasks that awaited. No, these were just surface stressors doing what surface stressors do best—covering up the deeper, more complicated feelings that lie underneath. If I worry about the laundry, then I don’t have to experience the sadness about how different our time in Maine felt this year (typically our whole extended family goes together, but the virus made that impossible), or the longing for my older son to have a normal first-grade experience. And so:
  • The iceberg analogy is the most helpful tool you haveuse it. In other words, snapping at my son? That was the tip of the iceberg, what everyone could see. My stress about the post-trip tasks I had to do? That was just below the surface—only I knew it was there for sure, but it wouldn’t be too hard for others to see or understand. The grief and longing that have characterized the past few months, with no sign of lifting anytime soon? That’s the part that’s way underwater, and the part we actually need to address—that is, acknowledge, make space for, feel—in order for the snapping to subside.

    As usual, the same is true for our kids. Over the next month or so, when my 6-year-old calls me “Bad Mommy,” or slams his door declaring it the “worst day of his life,” chances are it’s not about whatever small thing just happened. It’s about the bottom of the iceberg, about everything that’s been happening since March.
  • To change behavior, focus on feelings and connection. Picture this. After I snap at my son in the car, my husband turns to me and says, in a firm voice, “Rebecca, speaking like that to Zeke is unacceptable. Please apologize and do not do it again.” Note that this did not actually happen, but if it had, would it have helped? Not in the least. In fact, it would have made things worse. Not only would I still feel frustrated with my son, but I’d feel defensive, and alone, and ashamed—not exactly a winning trifecta. But what if my husband had turned to me and asked if I was OK? Or better yet, what if he had just rested his hand on my thigh, as though to say—without words—I'm here, I get it. Just that simple gesture would do so much toward calming me down, settling my nervous system.

    This is how we need to be with our kids right now, when, for example, they protest Zoom school because it's stupid, and they hate it. We need to hear them, get them, acknowledge how weird and hard this time is. It's the connection to us that will build their resilience more than anything else, and the feeling of being understood and supported that they'll remember far more than, say, Zoom social studies.
  • You don’t always have to believe your brain (and it’s empowering not tofor you and your kids). We are living in an uncertain time; the daily rhythm we’d all love to find is more elusive than ever. Even if, by some miracle, we were able to relax into a routine, we all know it could change on very short notice. Our brains are wired to interpret ambiguity as a threat; after all, from an evolutionary perspective, this is how we survived. Research bears this out; for example, the negative health outcomes of job insecurity—fear of losing one's job—are comparable to those of unemployment itself.

    And so living in a constant state of uncertainty means living in a state of constant hypervigilance, of being on guard for when something big and bad and terrifying happens, just in case it does. Our brains think they’re protecting us in this way. And on an evolutionary level, that is certainly the case. On a day-to-day level, though, our brains are exhausting themselves, and exhausting us. All of our brains—of parents and children alike—are working overtime “behind the scenes” and we are paying the price. We are tired, irritable, overwhelmed.

    Thank your brain for working so hard to do its job, for trying to protect you from danger—in the form of uncertainty and big feelings—and then see if you can chart your own course, in an intentional way. Doing this is actually what mindfulness is all about—learning to become an observer of your feelings without becoming attached to, and enmeshed in them. It’s an amazing tool and one that will serve us well to practice as we enter a fall unlike any we’ve experienced before.
  • The laundry will get done. I promise. It always does.