'Lower your expectations' and other practical advice for parents during COVID-19
Working from home while home-schooling the kids. Arranging video play dates while putting three meals on the table every day. Keeping the house clean while mediating sibling spats and soothing your kid's worries about an uncertain future. Juggling all of this while keeping your sanity in check.
Pandemic parenting. The struggle is real.
Ann Douglas is a writer, parenting columnist and an advocate for mental health. Tapestry asked her to address questions from frustrated parents who are struggling to manage life and childcare at home during the pandemic. Douglas offered everyone her personal brand of practical advice and moral support.
"I would say, lower your expectations," she said. "I think that so much of the pressure that parents are feeling right now is a lot of misplaced guilt. They're feeling like they're somehow failing their kids and failing their employers by not being able to magically morph into multiple human beings who can do everything that's being dropped on their plate right now. So at a time when the resources available to you are dropping, I think you have to nudge those expectations down as well. Or it's exhausting."
The following questions are from Tapestry listeners, sent through email, Twitter and Facebook.
Q: How am I supposed to be okay with hours and hours of screen time, when the message 'screen time is bad' has been beaten into me for the last four years?
These are not normal times. I think screens are providing us with vital social contact at a time when we can't connect with other people in our lives in a face-to-face way. And they're also almost like a life preserver for parents and kids who maybe feel like they're treading water and they're starting to sink and they need something to grasp onto. I honestly think after [isolation] a lot of us are going to be happy to close the lid on our laptops and toss the phones aside and go out and hang out with a real human being.
Q: We are no longer attempting online school in my house. It was just unmanageable. Young kids need a parent beside them to accomplish most tasks, and for me to keep track and understand all the tasks, guidelines and different computer interfaces, logins is beyond my capacity. Every day I make sure we read, get dressed, go outside, have quiet time, have free time, eat three times. Anything on top of that feels like a miracle. What do you say? Is that okay to just bail out of e-learning?
That is the approach I would be taking. You have to recognize that what parents are being asked to do is a pretty massive and crushing test. So I think that if people roll up the carpet and say, 'we're going to learn in a different way,' — I might have some people not loving me saying that — but that is the kind, compassionate thing to do for yourself as a parent and for your kids.
Because if you're getting into daily battles and tug-of-war and angry outbursts, the learning isn't going to happen anyway and you're going to damage your relationship with your child. And then you're going to come out the other side of this pandemic with a whole bunch of other problems as opposed to 'we didn't master fractions this year.'
Q: My biggest challenge is irritability. Honestly, it's not exhaustion. I know how privileged that sounds because we don't have the other huge worries. But I do need to work on my irritability. Like, for instance, just now when I snapped at my six year old when he wanted to pick a flower on our bike ride and delayed us by 30 seconds.
It makes total sense. Most of us have used all of our emotional reserves in the past few weeks just treading water and coping with whatever is arising in the moment. I don't think there's an honest person alive who isn't feeling like they're pretty close to the edge all the time. Recognise when you feel the waves of grouchiness or grumpiness rising and say to yourself 'it's the situation that's making me frustrated, not this, you cute little four-year-old who wants to take a flower home.' You can understand they think it's a lovely gesture. Maybe they've noticed that grouchy look on your face and they're thinking, 'Hey, Mom would really love a flower,' and this is their response.
Q: I would like to know about routine and discipline. [Our] kids have only ever worn PJs and dress-up clothes since this thing began. I am letting them do things at their own pace and placing very few demands on them. Is that going to bite me in the butt if and when they ever have to go back to school and have to follow routine and structure?
Parents are worrying a lot about this. Most of us are in a school-year rhythm where you go to school from September till June and then all the rules change for July and August and then the rules change back again in September. If we look at it in that context, kids can change paths and figure out what the new expectations are. When it comes to routine, maybe have a gentle, reassuring rhythm to the day where we all have our meals, we all maybe get some physical activity in some way, and we go to bed at a decent time, we get up at a decent time, that kind of thing.
Q: I'm the parent of a very happy, very friendly two year old. He doesn't have a good sense of six feet yet. So when we go out for our walks, I have to keep him from running up to people. He doesn't have a lot of language yet. And I worry he's learning that other people aren't safe. How do I temper his physical enthusiasm without dampening his social enthusiasm?
I don't know if there's an easy answer to this question. I've been thinking about it a lot. Will we ever sort of spontaneously rush towards a friend and give them a hug again? Or will we run three feet, scream and recoil in horror? I don't know. So I think it's a legitimate thing. I think that we can have [a] conversation with our child, reinforcing those very human norms within your bubble and then talking about the germs outside the bubble for now. And maybe — hopefully please world! — let us get to a normal place again, where we can really lean into those hugs.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Ann Douglas, including her answers to more parents' questions, click 'Listen' near the top of this page.