I’ve had my one-month trial of pandemic parenting and I’d like to cancel my subscription.
Being a parent is one of the most rewarding and maddening roles I’ve ever experienced. But parenting in a pandemic, where my whole family is being asked to shelter-in-place, I’m experiencing these parenting contrasts in much sharper and consistent ways.
This month has forced me to slow down and see the innocence and delight in my children’s faces in ways I’ve always longed for. I will never forget this. I have also known greater states of agitation and anger than I ever cared to show them.
How am I supposed to work from home, pivot my business in a recession, educate my children, cook three or four meals a day, pretend to be a German Shepherd for 10 minutes a day (my 4 year-olds latest coronavirus request), paint sticks that resemble Mario Kart™ characters (my son’s latest pastime), connect with my spouse, and remain emotionally stable?
Nothing prepares us to be a parent except for being a parent. Nothing prepares us to parent in a crisis except for parenting in a crisis. We are all learning and making things up as we go.
The reality, however, is that the parenting problems we’re now facing can’t be blamed exclusively on the coronavirus. Rather, the coronavirus may be revealing parenting struggles that have been there all along. Rather than falling into the pit of self-condemnation, let those messy parenting moments be an invitation to develop into the parent you desire to become.
GOOD ENOUGH PARENTING
The English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once said that children do not need “perfect parents,” they need “good enough” parents. What he meant was that no parent can be perfect and therefore we don’t need to strive for that mark. But what a parent can aim for is to be “good enough”. Good enough parenting means we accept that we will not always offer a kind, resilient presence (attunement) to our children, but we can always commit to returning to our mistakes and seek to repair the harm we’ve done. “Good enough” isn’t a license to excuse our failures with, “Hey, I’m not perfect.” “Good enough” means owning those imperfections and taking responsibility for them…in real-time.
To parent in a time of crisis is to recognize that we are going to make mistakes on a daily, hourly, half-hour (or more) basis. At the same time, we need the response-ability to repair those mistakes each day. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine has a simple and eloquent phrase to help us understand how to be a good parent in a time of crisis: rupture and repair.
Rupture is what happens when you’re irritated with your child, prefer to escape reality by fleeing to social media, or exist so much in a consistent state of anxiety or stress that you become calloused to the well-being of others. Repair is what happens when you face the reality of your failure and invite those you hurt or overlooked to share their experience of those moments with you.
In the context of a crisis, “good enough” parenting means you’ll likely be rupturing and repairing far more frequently than you wish. If we’re honest, in routine seasons of life, most of us aren’t very good at this, dismissing our failures as mere byproducts of a stressful job, a poor night of sleep, and phrases like, “sometimes I just lose my temper.” Occasionally, we apologize to our kids, knowing full well their resilient spirits will move toward us because they long for our embrace and loving attunement.
Apology, however, is only half of the repair. The other half is being able to reflect about our actions and then hear – openly without defensiveness – about the impact our imperfections caused others. As parents, we long to hear, “Daddy, I forgive you,” to appease our guilt, but our children need more from us. If our children are to later learn how to move through conflict in a healthy and honest way, they need to see us practice those traits first. And what could be a better time to get a crash course in intensified conflict resolution than being locked up together for weeks during a pandemic.
Here’s how to use this time to truly become “good enough” and not just imperfect parents.
RUPTURE AND REPAIR
Rupture in relationships is completely normal. We get irritated with our children, we dismiss their feelings, we scroll through Facebook and Instagram when they’re asking us how to do a math problem. Rupture happens with our spouse when we want them to prioritize our needs rather than focusing on theirs. At the end of a day, a family will have a large debris pile of ruptures behind them. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we have the invitation to repair those ruptures. What damages children is not the rupture, but a parent who abdicates their responsibility to repair. A crisis will inevitably intensify opportunities to practice how to repair with our kids. Repair is about telling our kids, “I got irritated with you for asking for help rather than setting aside time to guide you through that math problem. How did that make you feel?” Repair is about telling our spouse, “I haven’t been taking time to find calm and I asked you to bear my anxiety so I wouldn’t have to. How can I help now?” Repair is about telling ourselves, “I’m going through so much right now. I need kindness, not more judgment against myself.” Rupture is normative in families, but families that learn to thrive are those that practice consistent repair.
Rupture and repair will only occur to the extent to which you develop insight and awareness about your motivations and behaviors. As stated earlier, if you only try to repair a conflict with your child in order to ease the tension or lessen the impact of your anger, reconnection will not occur. Instead, you’re teaching your children how to mask their intentions and skirt responsibility. Rupture and repair is first an invitation to study why I chose anger or escape in a time of my child’s need or vulnerability. When I choose to be honest with myself, I can then give my child a clear map of my mind (e.g., “I was so focused on getting dinner done on time that I made you pay for asking anything of me. It was easier for me to blame you than confront how I need to grow in my ability to handle stress.”
When our kids see our capacity for self-awareness, it not only helps them feel safe and secure with you, it also equips them to do the same. When we reflect on our motivations and share those with our children, we are giving them one of the greatest gifts they could ever receive: language to understand others and themselves. The paradox of good parenting is that I work to equip my children with all the language they will ever need to critique me. But the fruit of that language will be giving my children the tools to show themselves, and those they love, honesty and grace amidst a storm. Use this tool to reflect on the ruptures you’re causing and how you might repair them.
RUPTURE PREVENTION: SECURE YOUR OWN OXYGEN MASK, FIRST
Perhaps the only helpful lesson I have learned from an airline’s pre-flight safety instructions is that in the event of an onboard emergency, I should secure my own oxygen mask before securing others’ masks. Essentially, if I cannot breathe, what help am I to anyone else? One of my friends practices this principle with parenting: He must drink one cup of coffee in the morning before commencing his day as a dad. Ruptures during crises are often the result of running low on oxygen. To avoid ruptures induced by frayed nerves, you need to prioritize self-care.
In times of uncertainty like the one we’re in, it doesn’t just seem counterintuitive, but downright wrong to prioritize personal needs. How could I possibly tend to my own needs when there are more needs in my family than ever? To be a parent is to live in a constant state of deprivation: we tend to ignore issues of self-care and prioritize the need of our family.
Securing your oxygen is about understanding the things that help you “breathe” and making sure they are clearly stated and planned for on a daily basis. As a therapist, I work with individuals and couples to prioritize self-care patterns. But often when one parent does this, it can kick up a lot of their spouse or co-parent as they begin to ask, “What about me?” And of course, they must secure their oxygen too. Partner with one another to make this a reality.[i] If you want to navigate the inevitable ruptures during this crisis, you need to learn what repairing them looks like. And if you want to prevent some (not all!) of them, you need to ensure your oxygen mask is on securely.
6 things you can do right now to prioritize your self-care:
Develop a daily schedule for you and your children. If it is not on the calendar, it very likely will not happen. While you kids are occupied with reading or writing, tell your children (or work with your partner) to let them know you’re having some “me” time to play an instrument, go for a jog, or put on your favorite headphones to listen to music.
Watch this short video from Dan Siegel. Siegel offers a simple and eloquent phrase for people who find themselves in distress: “name it to tame it.” When we identify and name our distress, our emotional life is soothed.
Download an app like Headspace to learn how to pay attention to the ‘traffic’ going on inside your mind. It will help you practice new ways of finding calm as the anxiety intensifies both within and outside of you.
Pursue activities that engage the senses. Cooking a new recipe, playing an instrument, or writing a haiku will all allow you to experience two experiences that this coronavirus has stolen from us: relief and control. My wife is also a psychotherapist and developed a self-care ritual to guide individuals or families through stress and anxiety.
Ask yourself what might need to heal within you. Self-destructive and compulsive behaviors will intensify during times of crisis. Whether you struggle with an eating disorder, porn, gambling, etc. those issues will become more appealing in times of uncertainty. Unwanted covers how to identify and transform some of the unwanted sexual behaviors many parents are struggling with in secret.
Talk to a trusted guide (therapist or mentor) or an ally about some of the anxiety you’re harboring. Many therapists are now offering sessions online. Go to psychologytoday.com to see therapists in your area who can work with your insurance (if you have it).