2020 was a hard year that got harder with every passing week. If dads and moms thought parenting was tough before, we quickly learned that parenting in a pandemic was infinitely harder.
Before the pandemic, parents’ plates were already full. But the optimists among us focused on the light at the end of the tunnel. 2021. A new year. A beacon of hope piercing the fog of a chaotic year. A fresh start when we could stop parenting in a pandemic and return to, well, being parents.
It’s 2021 now. The fog has not lifted. Glimpses of light are elusive. The end of the pandemic is still unknown. That realization has sucked the wind out of our sails and we’ve smacked straight into the proverbial wall. As parents, we’re fatigued, depressed, desperate, anxious, or at best, bored out of our minds. You are not alone.
Parenting in a Pandemic by the Numbers
In May of 2020, 39% of American adults believed the pandemic had taken a toll on their mental health. Wee babes we were. As of 2021, the number has jumped to 53% according to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It’s even higher for African Americans: 68%.
If schools don’t reopen, two-thirds of parents worry their children will fall behind socially and emotionally (67%) and academically (65%). About half worry about losing income if they can’t go to work (51%). And, of those who work from home, 47% worry they can’t pay enough attention to their kids. The inability to access the services schools provide is a concern for some parents: 40% worry about their child not getting needed social services if schools remain closed, 31% worry they won’t have access to technology needed for online learning, and 24% worry about their children having enough food to eat at home.
So what do we do? How do we dig ourselves out of the parenting-in-a-pandemic hole? Here’s a rundown of the 6 best strategies to come out the other side.
1. Accept the Truth and Admit This Sucks (No, Really.)
Just like in AA, you have to start by admitting there’s a problem. Nancy Colier, in Psychology Today, says, “I miss the life I knew and am ready for this to end. At the very same time, now is the time to remind ourselves, with unrelenting kindness, this is what is. This is what’s true. I cannot change this. And, this too shall change and pass.”
The point is, don’t try to be the tough guy and ignore your feelings. Suppressed feelings of sadness or depression have a habit of coming out sideways if you don’t deal with them. At the same time, you don’t want to get stuck in negativity. Admit this sucks and then get ready to move to the next step.
2. Let Go of the Future
Our job as parents is to help our kids grow into the best version of themselves. We’re tasked with guiding our kids’ lives. We’re supposed to have all the answers, and if we don’t then we’re supposed to know how to discover the answers. No pressure, right? So, when a pandemic comes along and tosses all our plans for the future out the window, it’s no wonder we feel helpless and hopeless.
It’s important to remember that despite our attempts to control things, life is really all about continuous change. April Rinne, author of the forthcoming book Flux: 8 Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change, says this is exactly why we need to learn to let go. We hear that phrase all the time, but what does it actually mean?
In Rinne’s TedxFrankfurt Talk How to navigate our uncertain future, she says, “When we talk about letting go, we always talk about the past. But no one talks about the future.” She says, “Many of us fear the future, and in doing so, get stuck, paralyzed in a situation we can’t control.” Basically, the more we try to grasp what’s not working in the moment, the less able we become to grow out of the current dilemma. We have to adapt.
Rinne believes the ability to let go of the future is the key difference between people who fall apart and people who thrive in a world of constant change. She clarifies, “Letting go is not about giving up.” It’s about being open to change, open to new possibilities. Once you’re able to open yourself up to growth, you can move on to the next step.
3. Identify Your Biggest Stressors
Okay, so you’ve admitted that parenting in a pandemic sucks and you’ve loosened up your white-knuckled grip on controlling every little thing in your life. Now what? You’re exhausted from stress and your usual outlets are less available. The gym, vacations, dinner parties, family visits aren’t real safe right now. At this point in the pandemic, one of the best steps to take is to identify and remove your biggest daily stressors.
Maybe it’s watching the morning news, a stressful job, or a toxic friendship. Now’s the time to draw a line in the sand and set some healthy boundaries for yourself. Pick one a week, or even one a month, and make a plan to solve it. Amy Cirbus, a licensed mental health counselor in New York, said in a HuffPost article, “It’s the accumulation of those small things over the course of time that are going to make a difference. They do add up,” she said.
Gradually, the chaos will ease up, things will change, and the pandemic wall will feel smaller. We’ll soon be able to see over the top of it and eventually we’ll move past it.
4. Cultivate Gratitude
Remember when our parents tried to convince us to eat all the gross veggies on our plates by reminding us of all the starving people in India? It was an attempt to help us count our blessings. The problem was, our parents were heavy handed about it. It’s actually a good strategy, but it has to be leveraged in the right way at the right time.
Now that you’ve gone through the first three steps of dealing with the stress of parenting in a pandemic, you can look around and count your blessings. Everyone is stressed right now. Some have it much worse than others. The National Center for Health Statistics surveyed Americans in January, and found that 41% showed signs of anxiety disorder and depression. That was up from 34% in May of 2020.
Chronic stress and uncertainty takes a toll on our mental health. And that’s why therapists recommend cultivating gratitude as a powerful coping mechanism. Yes, things are stressful, but if you still have a source of income, food on the table, housing, and your health…well, that’s still quite a lot.
5. Rest, Sleep, Meditate & Breathe
We’ve worked through some mental and emotional strategies for dealing with the stress of parenting in a pandemic. Now it’s time to turn to the physical. You’ve got to take care of your body. It’s one of the best ways to combat stress. And first on the list is rest and sleep.
Chris Lemig, a former Buddhist monk, now a hypnotherapist and author, explains the importance of sleep this way: “We’re living in a sleep and rest deprived world. The consequences of this are pretty severe. Sleep deprivation has been linked to all kinds of health issues and disorders. Depression, heart disease, and even suicide are some of the results of the lack of good sleep.” Give yourself the gift of sleep and your whole body with thank you.
When you pair good sleep with daily meditation, Chris says the effect is even more powerful. “A daily meditation practice, can help us stabilize our minds. It’s a skill that can help us to calm down, focus, and relax both mentally and physically.” Even with just a few minutes a day, he says, “you can start to see the benefits right away.”
The cornerstone to the trifecta of physical wellbeing is breathing. Chris spent years studying religious ritual in India and Nepal, and he says at the center of all practices is the art of breathing. “When we inhale oxygen deeply, holding it for a moment before we exhale, it refreshes and enlivens our whole being. Proper breathing lowers blood pressure, helps with stress, contributes to better digestion, and a host of other health benefits.”
6. Get Moving
All of that brings us to the last tool to help us survive parenting in a pandemic. Exercise. No surprise there, right? But here’s the thing about exercise. It’s not just good for your body. It strengthens your mind too. Here’s why.
“Hitting the wall” is a term used by many athletes. It’s the moment when you burn up all your glycogen stores. Your body starts running on fumes, essentially. Runners use it to describe what often happens at about mile 18 or 20 in a marathon. Your body literally starts to shut down having burned through all its stored energy. Legs go limp. Your brain panics and commands you to give up. You feel like you’ll never reach the finish line. But as every marathoner knows, if you can gather up the will, you can break through that wall. Just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. One step forward turns into a hundred, which turns into a thousand. And before you know it, you hear the crowds cheering for you again. The finish line comes into view. You cross it. And it’s over.
But you’ve got to take the first step. You’ve got to put the beer down, clip that bag of chips shut, and put on some workout clothes. What’s that? You’re already wearing sweats? Great! You’re already one step closer to nailing this whole parenting-in-a-pandemic thing.