This essay was contributed by Rachel Perks, PhD, mom of one and author of The Little A-Z: A Companion for First-Time Mothers and Their Partners
“You Got This”
“We are in this together.”
“Stay the course.”
These days it is easy to mistake ourselves for extras in a Nike commercial. But unlike the star Serena Williams who is svelte and limber, as extras we likely feel a bit flabby around the edges.
This is how the pandemic we have tenderly come to know as COVID-19 makes me feel. Slightly out of shape for the ultimate life marathon in multi-tasking. Because whether male or female, as parents we have had to become superheroes: parent, worker, spouse, educator, psychologist, household manager, and, most importantly, online grocery shopper. Let’s face it, if this were a job, it would be impossible to find a candidate who ticked all the boxes.
By consequence, COVID-19 is stress-testing our well-being to the limits. When the lockdown came in DC, my husband had sent me to our local grocery store days before to comb bare shelves for pasta and toilet paper. We’d prepared for it as if it were a genteel camping trip. But as the first weeks went by, and the dreaded weekly email from work and our son’s daycare arrived in our inboxes extending office and school closures, we realized we needed a real game plan.
The last time I felt this overwhelmed, drained and short-tempered was as a new mom. At that time, what helped me navigate those unchartered child-rearing waters was to create The Little A to Z: A Companion for First-Time Mothers and Their Partners. It is a wholistic compendium of advice culled from articles, blogs, family and friends and was my lifeline during those first 18 months of mothering. Fast forward 4 years and the greatest health and economic crisis my generation has known. Partly subconsciously, my husband and I started digging deep into our collective baby-rearing muscle. For if we were to get through the seemingly endless days of lockdown, we’d need to dust off some skills such as time management, interpersonal communication, “free-passes,” and meal planning. And as weeks turned into months, as working from home (WFH) without school for our 4-year old became the new norm, we found ourselves scribbling out AMini A to Z: Parenting During the Pandemic.
So as we limber up and set pace for the unforeseeable future of coordinating work, family and school all under one roof, my husband and I look to this list as a way to help us maintain a sense of well-being, balance and order. Here’s the beginning of our working list, A-F. Hope they help you and your family, and stay tuned for G-Z!
Ask for Help: When our original fall Pre-K program fell through, I was beyond the point of devastation. Spring had been full of problem solving and I had not a single ounce of resiliency left in me. I lamented to my girlfriends who rallied, offering a multitude of ideas on where to post a desperate ‘want ad.’ There are a few national websites which match all types of caregivers with families. One dear friend is a huge fan of Facebook homeschooling and pod groups which typically have local groups per city, town or residential area. She found a great pod that way. An old friend in Canada posted adverts at the university to find a student to help out with some day-time care for her three school-aged kids. What I’ve learned is just to keep asking and talking to people and you will eventually find help!
Buy Some Time: It took one of my oldest friends now living in London to introduce me to the concept of learning boxes (aka buying time). When the pandemic forced her city into shutdown, she signed up for one that is, ironically, manufactured in California. Learning boxes put together experimental lessons for children of all ages. You get a box each month with lesson plans and all the materials. You can choose from science to arts to etc. As these are meant to be hands-on activities, if you are using these boxes for very young children (say toddlers) you do have to be more hands-on. [Ed note: Check out YearCheer and use code LOCALMOMS15 for a discount!]
Cultivate Patience: for yourself, your partner, your children, your neighbor, the stranger on the street who walks too close to you, your colleagues. You name it. Every time I want to be frustrated with someone, I re-play in my mind what efforts it took me to get to that specific moment in my day, and imagine it was most likely just as trying for that person. With those I work with, I’ve found that just connecting by phone or video to talk over a virtual coffee has helped me to understand the challenges they are facing, the constraints they have at home, and how we can better support one another as a result. Patience requires cultivation.
Dress for Success: I am one of those people who genuinely enjoyed going to the office, and in part, because I love to dress the part. Dressing gives us confidence, is a beautiful form of self-expression, and in my case, puts me in a good mood for the day. Sadly, lockdown left all my shoes to gather dust while my suits hung wantonly from their hangars. But just because we are now WFH indefinitely does not mean we have to live out our remaining home office days in yoga pants. Many outfitters have caught on with suits, skirts and shirts that are made with ‘tech’ fabrics—designed to be flexible but still elegant enough to wear for that webinar you are hosting. Alternatively pull out that fabulous costume jewelry you’ve hidden in the back of your closet and surprise your colleagues at your next weekly video conference call. Even though my husband is not having to get in front of a video camera every day, he still makes it a habit to get himself dressed before he comes down for breakfast. No pajamas at the computer for this family!
Exercise Free Passes: In The Little A to Z, I describe the Free Pass Game as a way to pre-empt the escalation of spousal tensions frequently experienced during those early years of childrearing. We are in a similar context now with individual stress levels high, uncertainty about the short-to-medium term future, and perhaps sleep deprivation as parents burn the candle at both ends. The game is quite simple but it only works if you have explained the concept to your partner in advance. The next time your partner snaps at you about something, and their reaction seems out of proportion to the issue, hold out your hand to them and offer them an imaginary free pass. I did a lot of that in those early months with our baby, but what if my husband and I had made it a game between us? We would have definitely broken through the tensions, and in many cases, avoided a full-on, unnecessary conflict.
Find Time for Yourself (Even If It’s Early): After the initial giddiness of WFH wore off, I found myself feeling overwhelmed by the lack of time I had to myself. Remarkable how even a small 15 minute commute by bus to work gives you the headspace you need to breathe and find some stillness in the business of modern life. So my husband and I agreed that we needed to “Pay ourselves first” if we wanted to be the best we could be for each other and our son during the pandemic. We started getting up at 6am and alternating who could go walking or running while the other opted for a cup of tea or coffee on the front porch. We’ve gotten into a pretty good rhythm now with me walking MWFs and my husband running TThS. One powerhouse of a neighbor mom gave birth to her second child in May (hello pandemic) and went back to work 4 weeks later. Over a glass of wine the other night she shared her solution to finding time for herself in the day: getting up at 4:15am to hit the local gym. Now if that doesn’t inspire you…