Like so many of our fellow parents, my husband and I have gotten almost eerily adept at raising kids during the COVID-19 pandemic. Things that once seemed utterly inconceivable — like the fact that millions of American kids have not stepped foot in a classroom for 10 months — now feel routine. My husband and I know how to get through simultaneous Zoom meetings while watching over a kindergarten class and taming a wild toddler. (Camera off.)
And we’re fortunate. None of us have had COVID-19, and my husband and I are still employed. But ugh, I’m burnt out — and I’m not alone. Seventy percent of American parents report that their family responsibilities are a significant source of daily stress, while 60% say they are extremely stressed out by the economy, according to the American Psychological Association. Parents aren’t complaining. We are exhausted. We were prepared to take care of our kids, and we love to do it — but we weren’t prepared to take care of our kids while working full time and overseeing six hours of remote school a day with little to no outside support and coping with a pandemic and a recession.
Fortunately, brighter days are around the corner. Multiple COVID-19 vaccines are becoming available, and a majority of Americans could be inoculated by the spring or summer. But mental health experts who specialize in parenting warn against simply continuing to white-knuckle it through this next stretch. We parents need to find ways to take care of ourselves while we take care of our kiddos.
So personally, my New Year’s resolution is to find small ways to put myself first.
I like the way Claire Nicogossian, a clinical psychologist and author of “Mama, You Are Enough: How to Create Calm, Joy and Confidence Within the Chaos of Motherhood,” frames it: In 2021, parents need to focus on replenishing our “parental reserves.” It’s not a luxury, she said, in the same way that realizing it’s been hard to parent during a global pandemic isn’t whining. It’s a must.
“As we head into the final stretch (hopefully) of this pandemic, what is required is for parents to take agency over their health and well-being in small moments, that build each day to slowly replenish all that has been depleted,” Nicogossian said.
So here’s how to make New Year’s resolutions that are all about simply taking care of ourselves in small — but very necessary — ways.
First, limit your resolutions to the only things you actually have any control over: your own thoughts and your own choices.
2020 was a harsh reminder for many of us that we have very little control over our lives. In fact, “the only two things humans really have control over are our own thoughts and our own choices,” Kate Kripke, a clinical social worker and founder of Colorado’s Postpartum Wellness Center of Boulder, told HuffPost.
Over the past year, we parents have thrown ourselves into taking care of our families like never before — partly out of necessity (hello, remote school), but also partly because it helps many of us feel like we’ve got power over the things happening outside of us, Kripke said.
As we head into 2021, she urges parents to try to slow down and focus inward. Acknowledge that there are huge stressors right now that we simply cannot control. The pandemic is stressful. Losing a job, worrying about your family’s health — these things are stressful.
The trick is for us to find ways to acknowledge that while also asking ourselves, “What are the thoughts and choices I can make that are simple and easy that make it more likely I’m going to start feeling ‘better’?” (Kripke noted that “feeling better” is relative.)
So as you think about any resolutions heading into the next year, ask yourself: Are these thoughts or personal choices I actually have some control over? Or am I trying to take on outside stressors that could just leave me spinning my wheels and even more depleted than before?
(Also, if you find yourself dealing with levels of stress or sadness that you can’t get a handle on, that’s really beyond the scope of basic self-care practices and you should reach out to a mental health professional who can offer you support.)
“Three minutes of deep breathing is not going to make COVID suddenly not suck or your kids not a pain in the neck because they’re home all the time. ... That's not actually the goal. The goal is to allow us to handle stressful situations better.”
Resolution option #1: Breathe deeply, three times a day.
With all that in mind, here’s one simple, tangible (and free!) self-care technique to consider in 2021: Commit to one minute of intentional breathing. Then do it three times a day — once in the morning, once midday and once in the evening.
“It’s not like all of a sudden we’re going to create these moments when you feel like the zen mama of the world. That’s not the goal,” Kripke said. “A lot of people, when I talk to them in my office, say, ‘I don’t have time to meditate every day.’ And I say, ‘I’m not asking you to meditate every day. I’m really not. You’re already breathing. It’s already happening. I’m just asking you take three minutes when you’re being more intentional and expanding your breath.’”
Breathing that way feeds your brain more oxygen, which really should make you feel better immediately, Kripke added. And research shows that over time, it can change your brain — up to a point.
“Three minutes of deep breathing is not going to make COVID suddenly not suck or your kids not a pain in the neck because they’re home all the time,” Kripke said. “That’s a bit of a myth, that life is going to feel easier if we’re doing these practices, but that’s not actually the goal. The goal is to allow us to handle stressful situations better, not to make them go away.”
Resolution option #2: Focus on quality hangout time with your kiddos.
Personally, I find the idea of spending more time with my children than I already do right now exhausting, but Nicogossian believes it can actually be an important way of letting go of personal judgement.
“If you’ve been feeling a lot of guilt about how you’ve been parenting, I want you to answer this question: How much quality time having fun and enjoying your child’s company doing an activity together have you been able to do?” Nicogossian said. Not time spent cleaning, overseeing remote learning, telling them to do chores, etc. — real quality time. Then add it up.
“This is not to make you feel more guilty, but give you perspective,” Nicogossian siad. “Often, we as parents spend so much time in the supporting roles of parenting, we lose out on the fun, quality-time moments.”
Whatever number you land on, try and tack on 15 more minutes throughout the day — even if (or maybe especially if!) that means you have to drop other things, such as washing dishes or yelling at your kid to finish that last page in their workbook. Spending that kind of quality time with our kiddos can actually be a way to take care of ourselves by remembering the good parts of parenting.
Resolution option #3: Squeeze in a few extra minutes of rest.
Another simple one? As you head into 2021, Kripke suggests asking yourself: What is one choice I can make that can add a little bit of sleep or rest to my life?
And you really can just think of it as time in bed. Sometimes, people start to get stressed because they can’t sleep — or because, I dunno, we’re in the middle of a stressful and frightening pandemic. But Kripke said that even just lying down can help.
“I really want people to understand the value of rest and restoration for our bodies,” she said, adding that this isn’t just for your mental health. Getting a sufficient amount of sleep supports the immune system — which can boost a person’s ability to fight off infection, whether it’s COVID-19 or something else.
Resolution option #4: Connect.
A common problem for people during the pandemic, Kripke said, is that our brains tend to embrace all-or-nothing thinking. So we think, for example, “If I can’t connect with people in the way I’m used to, then I’m going to be isolated.”
But small acts of connection — looking someone in the eye, saying “hi” to a neighbor across the street, a text or phone call — are “like a life raft,” Kripke said.
One possible resolution could be to make sure you’re having one real moment of connection each day, every day. Again, keep it simple. Chat with a colleague at the end of a Zoom meeting instead of just signing off, for example.
“We’re not looking for extraordinary measures here,” Kripke said. “And most of us will feel better pretty quickly in that moment when we access that kind of connection.”