Walk With Me (#30): Pandemic Parenting Pandemonium

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

Dear Asha,

How can I make myself go the fuck to sleep?

I’m a stay-at-home mom who felt great relief and joy when my intense, bright, high-energy girl started kindergarten in 2019. I was ostensibly gearing up to reenter the workforce, mulling over a variety of paths. Part-time something low-commitment, but would the money be worth the time? Freelance to maintain my flexibility, even though I struggle with scheduling? Dive right back in to full-time work at a “real” job, although in my field that often means more than 40 hours a week? I struggle with anxiety disorder, so I was feeling overwhelmed. And then, that spring, Distance Learning started.

As the pandemic wore on, and we could see how many people weren’t wearing masks, or keeping their 6' distance, and letting their kids play together in close contact, we realized we would not send our daughter to first grade in person. Miss Handful has a history of asthma. She was hospitalized twice in the pediatric ICU when she was a year-and-a-half old for breathing distress. So many tubes and wires! We never want to go through that again. And the bald truth is, no one knows for sure who will recover from COVID, who will be permanently altered with lung scarring and complications, and who will die.

So, in some ways I’m doing great, and in other ways, I’m in the weeds. I am behind on what feels to me like an impossible list of important things. I hate the sound of my voice scolding this kid. We haven’t had child care or a night off since last March, and our only bubble is to have play dates outside, with masks, and as much distance as we can muster, with her BFF. Fortunately, her BFF’s family is equally cautious and conscientious about protecting themselves, so we’re a good match. And video visits — oh my God what do these girls talk about for 3 hours at a time? Who cares?! Hallelujah!

But before meals, between Zooms, before bed, I find myself needing… vacant time. Since I have almost zero alone time, or quiet time, that isn’t also do-this-chore, make-that-phone-call, clean-up-the-other-thing-over-there time I just scroll — sometimes news (but not at bedtime), sometimes Facebook (half news anyway), lolcats, Solitaire, shopping for shit I rarely buy. I spend a stupid amount of time scrolling, and it’s not refreshing or restorative, but I keep doing it anyway.

After our 7:30 dinner (should be 6) we get reluctant child to bed at 9–9:30 (should be 8:30), then we weary parents cuddle up for some TV, get in bed by 11 (should be 10) where I watch another show on a tablet, and then even though I’m tired and sleepy, I scroll some more, and then it’s 12:30 or 1 (should be 11:30) before I finally close my eyes.

How can I take better care of myself? I know all the “shoulds” but I have a hell of a time doing any of them. I need some help with pandemic parenting prioritization!

All Mommed Out

Dear Mama,

We’re a visually-oriented culture these days, so adding pictures to this column is an essential part of appealing to modern expectations. But they have to be free-to-use for us plebians, so there are a handful of sites that provide those kinds of copyright-free images. Do you know how long it took me to find a picture that even vaguely approximated the parenting reality that you (and most American parents) are currently dealing with?

“Parenting” brought up utopian visions of blissful adults with clean children, dancing in fields in the sunshine and snuggling on couches, with nary a mess or tantrum in sight. “Messy kid” brought up stylized messes, like food porn but toddlers, and “Exhausted Mother” on one site brought up a sow and her piglets and a chicken sitting on a just-cracked egg.

There were moments when my oldest was a baby that I would have happily hid in my barn with our entire flock of sheep and a mess of chickens because it actually smelled better than my bathroom, was cleaner than his bedroom, and was quieter than any corner of my house. And that wasn’t even during a pandemic, mind you. Parenting as a utopia is a fiction.

I smoked cigarettes for thirty-two years regularly. I am absolutely convinced that I would have quit successfully years before I ultimately did if that step out onto the porch finally for a cigarette after I got the kids to bed, which my ex-husband never joined me for because he hated that I smoked, didn’t feel like such a relief. I was alone. It was quiet. No one was touching me.

For 15–20 minutes, I felt like an autonomous, obligation-free adult again. It was like heaven, purchased cheaply from the corner store.

I would encourage you first to congratulate yourself on managing to survive parenting without potentially giving yourself cancer. Huzzah!

Now that that little celebration is over, I think we have to talk about harm reduction, because it’s the only thing that is going to get us beyond the shoulds, which, like most of us, you clearly have a case of and helps none of us.

Harm reduction is the notion that when people are engaging in harmful behavior the answer is to meet them where they’re at and give them practical steps to reduce their harm rather than requiring them to cease the harmful behavior entirely.

Despite the utopian images of parenthood shoved down our throats by pop culture, parenthood is harmful to your health and your sanity as often as anything else. Add parenthood to a pandemic and you’re on a fast road to a smorgasbord of harm. But dropping Miss Handful off on the corner and going cold turkey is not a good option, so better to start thinking about how to incrementally reduce your harm.

Here are some possible options which you can avail yourself of in order, or cherry-pick as you please:

  1. Stop beating yourself up for scrolling. Social media specifically, and the internet generally, is built to be addictive and suck time straight out of your lovely head. You aren’t doing anything that all the rest of us aren’t also doing. Way more than is good for any of us, but still. You’re not alone. Don’t add insult to injury by telling yourself you should be better at all of this than the rest of us.
  2. Read books instead. Even if it’s ebooks, which you can access for free through any public library website, so you don’t even have to leave the house. You’re still staring at a screen, but you’re using your brain differently. You’re maintaining sustained attention. You’re feeding your imagination. This can be amazingly restorative, even if it’s trashy romances or pulp fiction or some other sort of barely literary brain candy. Looking at your evening schedule, I’d think about reading a chapter of a book after you finish your last tv show rather than returning to scrolling. Or maybe even skipping both the last show and the return to scrolling and declaring that once you’re in bed for the night you’re only going to read books. Make your bedroom at night an electronic free-zone (if you prefer paper books), or at least a tv and scrolling free-zone. You will go to sleep earlier and you’ll rest your brain from the constant energy suck that is scrolling and pandemic parenting of a rambunctious child.
  3. See if you can move the entire evening routine 15 minutes earlier. Set daily alarms on your phone to remind you it’s time to start dinner prep. Discuss with your partner how you can work together to move things along. If 15 minutes earlier becomes routine and feels easy, try another 15 minutes earlier. Or go for 30 minutes earlier right out of the gate. Slowly but surely buying yourself another hour at the end of the day after the kid is in bed will drastically change your exhaustion level over time, even if it means you’re in a marathon with no vacant-time breaks until then.
  4. After the kid is in bed do something physical to create a break between daytime-parenting-mom and nighttime-free-adult, either on your own or with your partner. Take a quick shower. Take a lap around the block. Put on some music and dance around the room. Sit (or lay down!) for five minutes and do diaphragmatic breathing. Pick five yoga stretches and do them in the same order every evening for a minute or two apiece. Develop a daily Makka Ho practice. Hug each other (like really hold on with as much of you touching as possible and don’t let go for a minute or two) instead of immediately turning the tv on. Lay on opposite ends of the couch and listen to a song together. Anything which drops you into your body and tells your brain that you’re free and settling in for “you” time.

Even if you can’t get more rest, you can still build more restoration into your daily, or certainly your evening, routine. Any small thing you do that increases your peace matters. All the small things add up. Pandemic parenting may have turned your psychic bucket into more of a sieve, but you can keep topping up the bucket drop-by-drop.

You are in survival mode right now, and rightfully so. Don’t tell yourself that you should be doing any more than surviving. Congratulate yourself that you are surviving, and so is your partner, and so is your crazy, amazing kid. Lots of people haven’t, and aren’t, so surviving is no small thing.

When my friends ask me how I’m doing I’m often liable to automatically say, “I’m not dead yet!” and everybody chuckles. But seriously, everything is uphill from there. You’re not dead yet and I’m damn proud of you, even if you manage nothing more than that, and take none of this advice, and only manage to hold on and keep breathing until we get to the other side of this thing and your kid goes back to in-person school again. We will get there. I promise.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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