The parenting manual didn’t include a chapter on pandemics

A yellow flower in the foreground held between two fingers. There's dark purple nailpolish on the thumb. In the background are two shadows: on the left a woman with shoulder-length hair and a dress, on the right a slightly shorter shadow

There was a post on Twitter by Anne Helen Peterson that I’ve been mulling over a lot: “What’s an aspect of parenting during the last two years that, even with a whole lot of pandemic parenting content, still feels like people aren’t talking about it/acknowledging it enough?”

Some of what I’m about to share about my own experience falls in line with articles written by Kelly Baker for Women in Higher Education (Working Mothers Still Aren’t OK and The Parents Aren’t Alright, Still) and Dr. Jess Calarco (“Let’s Not Pretend It’s Fun”: How COVID-19-Related School and Childcare Closures are Damaging Mothers’ Well-Being and “My Husband Thinks I’m Crazy”: COVID-19-Related Conflict in Couples with Young Children). 

I also wish we were talking more about how to speak with children carefully about the realities of human cruelty, Bandaid solutions to bleeding out situations, and relationships that got developmentally frozen in 2020. 

Speaking truth

It has been so very hard to speak to my child about reality as it is. I am so angry, sad, and horrified at the suffering and injustices we’ve sown during the compounding crises of (now multiple) pandemics, climate change, violence toward marginalized others. Living in a culture of fear, denial, conspiracy theories, and mis/dis-information makes it hard to speak the truth through the noise. 

We have massive inequities and gaps in our social nets of care. Millions of people have died from COVID since 2020. So many of these deaths could have been prevented with more equitable, multi-level, systems-level, and global efforts. Uptake of basics – masks, vaccines, ventilation, generous sick leave policies, basic income protections, universal health care, and child care availability. The stranglehold of capitalism’s mindset of productivity, competition, extraction, and manufactured scarcity has kept our systems moving toward “back to normal” when nothing actually has been back to normal. Every surge has been worse than the last in cases, hospitalizations, deaths, incidence of long COVID symptoms, burnout, and trauma. As new infections-of-concern pop up, I’m concerned we’re finding out what happens when millions of people have dysregulated immune systems from COVID.

I think carefully about how to titrate and moderate his exposure to these truths while assuring him that he is cared for, loved, and as protected as we can offer. How do you both show someone the extraordinary love and care that is possible and at the same time prepare them for life that is uncertain and full of harm and disappointments?

Reactive, maladaptive solutions

Many of our choices – both public and private, collective and individual, policy and agreement – have been urgent, reactive decisions. I see us working with short visions of the future – “let’s get through [these two weeks, through this surge, through the end of the semester].” I saw people try to adapt quickly in ways that mostly maintained the outward-facing facade of productivity and back to normal. Often, the adaptations were duct tape, but they weren’t necessarily more stable, reliable, efficient, sustainable, or humane. 

In my own household, our duck tape looked like a throw-back to the stereotypically mid-20th century, white, middle-class nuclear family: two parents, one working outside the home full-time, the other at home with the children. For my work and home experience, I fell into socially conditioned behavior patterns. I tried to keep the “normal” Before Times domestic things going while also helping to manage pandemic crises in my work area. I also supervised remote learning for my son. It’s surprising the number of times the dishwasher gets full in a day when there are two people at home on a weekday. I was spread thin and taking care of so much simultaneously for over two years. 

The duct tape held for long enough, “through this wave,” that one time. And yet, these new distributions of labor, work, and rest have stayed and are becoming fixed, as if this is the way life should be. But they’re exhausting, maladaptive, individualistic, and limiting of our possibilities, especially for those of marginalized identities. 

Delayed development

I’ve also experienced delayed development and watched it occur in my son. It’s different from dreams on pause, which has also happened – vacations, family/friend visits, new home/work projects. And I’m not talking about cognitive/academic learning loss when we’re talking about the deaths of millions of people, major adjustments to our ways of life, and many other compounding crises. I’m speaking of the natural flow of human development as we age, develop new capacities and sense of self, move through major life transitions, and put ourselves and our skills/strengths to new purposes in our communities.

My 12-year-old son and I have spent much of the last two years together 24/7 while he attended school remotely. We became enmeshed, engulfed, and overinvolved in each other. We didn’t have separateness in our intellectual, emotional, creative, social, and institutional selves. Furthermore, we weren’t really building social bonds with each other; we were just trying to get through each day. 

Our confinement together came at a critical developmental milestone for him as a tween. He should have begun to separate from his parents as his primary social circle. He should have been engaging much more with friend groups and exploring his own interests. While I know his social self was delayed, I see him catching up now that he’s been attending summer camps and school in person, accelerating his involvement with friends and his own interests.

My development was delayed, too. I know I have been stuck trying to follow institutional rules that didn’t fit or serve me well. At the same time, I could feel myself wanting to be bigger, and transcendent of those institutional boundaries, and wanting to be in service to communities and working on my spiritual self.

Whelp, here we are, so now what? 

A blue sky background with pink cherry blossom in front. In the middle is text in pink font: "I am grateful for my dreams of liberation, abundance, and love for myself and others

My son is back at school with his social groups. I now have more interest in exploring my spiritual self. I’m rekindling my desire, initiative, and the spark within. But I don’t have the magic wand answer for how to fix all of our human existence dilemmas, reactive problem solving strategies, nor delayed development. 

I want to start taking tiny steps in the direction of a future that supports a sustainable, vibrant, reciprocal, and courageously communicative way of life for me and the people around me. A trauma recovery framework has been helpful to me to think through where I am now (see Judith Herman’s 2015 book, Trauma and Recovery).

Stage 1 Safety: For my family, I feel like our safety is managed as best we can with the level of control of our bodies and environment that we currently have. I’ve come to terms with what is expectable of the institutions, systems, and people around me. We are doing our best to keep ourselves and members of our community protected – vaccinated and boosted, masking in public, choosing outdoor social activities when we can, minimizing time with indoor social gatherings, and asking people to minimize risk around us. And my leave of absence in April/May was one very overt way I restored my inner sense of safety at a time when I was feeling particularly unsafe and reactive. I’m now applying the politics of consent (i.e., do I and marginalized others have agency over my/their experience and safety right now?) as well as right of refusal principles (i.e., I don’t have to be in or contribute to a space that makes me or marginalized others feel unsafe).

Stage 2 Remembrance and mourning: I reflect on and validate what hurts and what needs care, as well as what I’m leaving behind and what’s becoming for me. I grieve what I’ve lost, what didn’t happen, and what disappointed me. I acknowledge that I did my best at the time with what I knew and the resources I had. I join with others who want to share what we’ve learned. Remembrance and mourning are witnessed activities done in communities of healing.

Stage 3 Reconnection: Herman (2015) speaks of this step as speaking the unspeakable, public truth telling, and redeeming the (inner) victim by telling the story of the (inner) survivor. I am telling the truth of my experiences. I am communicating expectations to manage my safety well enough around institutions that aren’t working so well. I’m saying no to the maladaptive, fear/avoidance/denial-based systems, such as uneven, inequitable distributions of labor. I am taking up more space and time. I’m being more protective of how I spend my time, what actually lights my fire, and what my sense of purpose and passion is now. I’m being more intentional about the people I surround myself with and the communities I want to be in. I’m hopeful for a life that includes a whole lot more love, acceptance, truth, communication, interdependence, liberation, rest, reciprocity, stewardship, and emergent abundance.

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