During a Zoom class meeting last week, my 5-year-old — who was inexplicably stringing dried mango on a strand of dental floss and dangling it in front of the laptop camera — leaned back in his chair, flipped it and hit his head. While I got him resituated, my toddler emptied all of our toothbrushes and a box of Q-tips into the toilet. I screamed, we all cried and I parenting-shame spiraled in a way I haven’t since the pandemic was in its infancy and I still cared about things like screen time or whether everyone in my home is wearing pants.
I’m being such a crappy parent right now, I told myself after the Zoom/Q-tip debacle. My older kid is comically bad at remote learning. My toddler is basically feral. I feel so depleted, all the time, and I know I’m not giving anyone — my kids, my husband, my boss, my friends — anything close to what I’d like.
So now, with the new school year in full swing, I am on a new quest: learning to be truly OK with being an adequate (at best) parent.
As the pandemic moves into what feels like its 167th month — and as parents have begun to really settle into an academic year unlike any other — now more than ever is the time for grace. We parents must cut ourselves slack, mental health experts say, and embrace the fact that being adequate is more than enough. We don’t have sufficient help. We don’t have enough time. More than 50 million parents have lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of parents have left their jobs because it’s their “best” option and parental burnout is rampant. And who knows how long this is going to continue?
But developing self-compassion is surprisingly hard, particularly because it goes against so much of what we’ve been conditioned to expect of ourselves in this competitive, social media-saturated era of parenting. In my less secure moments, I’m certain there are scores of other parents who have figured out this whole parenting-during-COVID thing in a way I cannot.
So I spoke with a person who literally wrote the book on the topic — psychologist Claire Nicogossian, a clinical assistant professor at Brown University and author of “Mama, You Are Enough: How to Create Calm, Joy and Confidence Within the Chaos of Motherhood” — about how parents can really, truly learn to be OK with simply being OK right now.
1: Remind yourself that we are still in survival mode.
Parents are all dealing with varying degrees of crisis: Some of us have no child care, we’ve lost jobs and our kids have no school. Others of us have help, our kids are decently settled into whatever school situation they’ve got and we’re not confronting personal health or financial crises. It’s still hard, all of it. Together, we are all in survival mode.
Nicogossian often uses this metaphor in therapy: If you were swimming in an ocean and knew there were sharks all around you, you wouldn’t pause and ask yourself: Am I good swimmer? Am I doing this right? You’d put your head down and swim. You’d do what you needed to stay safe — and that’s it.
It’s a good metaphor to have in mind in those moments when you find yourself spiraling, worried you’re failing to live up to your typical expectations in these truly insane times.
2: Examine your standards
Nicogossian then recommends spending some time thinking about where those typical expectations of yourself as a parent actually come from.
“That’s super varied and variable, because none of us have the same experiences,” Nicogossian said. So carve out the time to think on it a bit. Like: Huh, why do I think XYZ is what should happen? Why do I think my family should be doing this particular thing? Personally, I realize I’m susceptible to self-doubt when I engage too much with local parenting forums. No matter what I read about, it always seems to end with me questioning the extent to which I’m being a horrible, neglectful parent by sending him into school two days a week.
With a bit of digging, you might realize some of those standards and expectations are things you truly do not care about. Think about ways to cut down on some of the noise. Like unfollowing. Or not engaging in conversations about pandemic parenting with people who just don’t get how challenging it can be.
3: Keep a time log
Nicogossian’s final suggestion? For a few days, jot down how much one-on-one time you’ve given your kiddo — time when you have not been multitasking or barking at them to stick with remote learning or cleaning... or whatever.
If you feel like maybe you could carve out five minutes a day to really give them that undivided attention, try it, Nicogossian urged. It could go a long way in helping you really make peace with being a good-enough parent right now — and could give kids, who’ve really been dealt a tough hand, the care and attention they’re craving.
Then pat yourself on the back. You’ve fed them, kept them safe (to the best of your ability during a completely bonkers time) and even managed to hang out with them a bit. Adequate, indeed.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.