Parents: It's OK If You're Barely Getting By Right Now

"In this time of the coronavirus, keep your kids safe, make them feel loved and feed them. That’s all."

We’ve all seen the beautifully color-coded daily schedule making it’s way around social media right now. It’s meant to help parents create structure for their children while schools around the country are closed to protect communities from the transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

That cheery spreadsheet is also raising a snarky middle finger at those of us who don’t already have Pinterest boards called “Rainy Day Activities” and “Living Room Yoga Fun!” just waiting for their moment to shine.

We’re not the joiner dads, the super-organized moms, the themed-playdate-planning parents. Our playrooms look like someone broke in while we were at work and dumped the Lego bins looking for diamonds. (There weren’t any.) We don’t meal-plan (unless Taco Tuesday and the occasional McDonald’s drive-thru surprise count as planning), and we’re still working on using our inside voices when we’re frustrated.

We’re anxious and lonely and terrified, and that was before the world turned upside down and we were absolutely sure that our cough was going to kill us.

We were already stretched too thin, budgeting within narrow margins, treading water in individualized educational plan meetings and staff meetings and college application meetings. We were parenting with nothing left, and now we are being asked to give everything we have to keep our children entertained and educated and our households running. If we thought we were anxious and overworked before, well...

Pull this permission slip out of your kid’s discarded backpack, and take a deep breath. Actually, wash your hands first. You have no idea where that backpack’s been.

A Permission Slip for Petrified, Paranoid Parents During This Pandemic:

1. It’s OK to fly by the seat of your pants.

If schedules make you feel better, and your children respond well to them, then by all means have at it. But if your heart starts beating fast when you think about how to fill the time between 9 a.m. “Family Meditation” and 11 a.m. “Kitchen Science Lab,” then take a cue from creative classrooms everywhere and change it up. Your child’s teachers have spent countless hours learning how to care about blending sounds in phonics and dissecting math equations. You haven’t. Find a subject you’re excited about, and teach that. Or don’t. Keep them safe, make them feel loved and feed them. That’s all you have to be an expert in.

2. Teach your children how to listen to their own needs.

Start with a family check-in each morning. What do our bodies need right now? Mine needs coffee, and a toaster waffle, thanks for asking. What do our brains need? Ummm ... a quick hit of Twitter and a Julianne Hough dance video. Sometimes our kids need to play tag in the yard before tackling a homework packet. Maybe snacks in front of the TV are necessary while Dad is on a conference call. Maybe we all need a family meeting where we can be honest about how hard it is to not see our friends every day. Part of creating resilience and empathy in our children is modeling for them how to be flexible and gentle with themselves. The color-coordinated schedule doesn’t allow for that, so show your kids how to throw it out if they need to.

3. Cut yourself some slack. A lot of slack.

This brave, germ-filled new world is scary for all of us, not just our little ones. The social constructs and financial foundations we rely on are shifting and disappearing, and we are still tasked with protecting and providing for the little people in our care. Of course we love them. We love them so much we’re willing to lock ourselves in our tiny homes for days on end to keep them safe. By the time you read this, many of us will already be sick with COVID-19. Allow yourself to rest, to read, to zone out on your phone. Your body needs a reset, and your kids do too. Whether you’re feverish or just plain stir-crazy, your kids can also benefit from learning how to Netflix and Be Still. Who am I kidding? They won’t be still, but they can at least be free.

4. Remember that this is a finite amount of time.

Even though it feels like this might go on forever, this period of isolation will end. Remember that preschool song about “Going on a bear hunt”? When the kids find the next big scary obstacle, they sing, “We can’t go over it! We can’t go under it! We’ll have to go THROUGH it!” There’s only one way to get past this, friends. We’ll have to go through it.

At some point we will be on the other side of this, dropping off our loud children at school and realizing that we forgot to pack them a lunch. Your children will not dissolve into mushy puddles of useless toy advertisements if you let them have more screen time. This is not forever; this is for now. If you need to send them to their iPads so you can call a client or finish your presentation or eat a bowl of cereal in peace, then do it! The only person judging you, is you. I mean, it’s not like there’s anyone else around to see you.

5. Self-directed play will save your sanity.

Our kids build confidence and independence when they’re allowed to make choices for themselves. When things are scary, we grab the reins a little tighter. Giving your kids some control will help them to feel in control. Let them help you create a dinner menu, give them the power to decide where you go on your family walk, let them have a place to be really loud or really jumpy or really wiggly. Break the rules. Eat the frosting while you’re making the cupcakes. Or don’t make the cupcakes. Just eat frosting.

6. Make room for big feelings.

The world is asking us to keep ourselves within four walls for the next four to six weeks. That means our feelings are also packed in tight. Give yourself the space to be angry and cranky, and let your kids know that it’s normal to react this way to change. Go outside and throw things at the wall with them. Write angry letters to the coronavirus. Make a list of all the places you’re going to go when the world feels safer.

7. Social media is not a measure of success.

You can’t measure your love for your children in hand-lettered bucket lists and carefully curated nature field trips. You can’t hashtag attachment or retweet nighttime snuggles. Comparing how well you’re doing at quarantine fun to what your neighbors are posting on Facebook isn’t a valid measure of what your child is feeling from you. Measure your daily success in minutes snuggled at bedtime, tears shared over ice cream, the laughter that comes from discovering potty jokes, and the relief that comes when they’re finally fast asleep.

This is a great time to officially end the Mommy Wars. My COVID-19 proclamation is that I declare the Parenting Competition over. I forfeit. I promise you that the carefully filtered Insta stories with elaborate backyard scavenger hunts and pipe cleaner crafts have been created by parents who also go to bed at night thinking that they’ve failed their children. We’re trying to keep each other alive. That’s the only goal.

We can’t go under it. We can’t go over it. We have to go through it. But we don’t have to do it alone. We don’t have to perform it for our friends. We don’t have to add to our fear by judging each other, competing with each other, or calling each other out. We show up. We try our best. There isn’t a schedule in the world that can teach our children that. But we can. Love hard and listen to your big feelings, parents. We’ve got this.

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