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May 6, 2020
Dear parents, you probably won’t have time to read this, thanks to COVID-19.
Maybe that’s because you just got home from an essential job like delivering groceries after a long, underpaid shift. Or maybe you are working from home while also trying to homeschool your three young children. Or you could be caring for an elderly, vulnerable parent. It might be that you have a child who is stubborn, or hyperactive, or anxious, and who has sapped your very last bit of energy or resolve. Or perhaps you are a frontline health care worker, desperate to sleep, trying to get the images of what you have seen out of your mind, out of your dreams.
You’ve probably seen a ton of online posts with “to-do lists” for parents: how-to lists for how to parent during a pandemic. They are popping up like mushrooms! You are supposed to manage your children, provide structure, give them an enriching education, limit screen time, entertain them when they are bored, and ensure that your teens don’t sneak out to parties with their potentially infected buddies … and also work, manage the house, and stay sane at the same time.
Many of these are excellent ideas, and yet … I am struggling with them. I bet you are struggling with them too. My guess is that you are also overwhelmed, and thinking things like “I can’t do it, it’s impossible,” or “I’m just not enough,” and that your mind has concluded that “you are not a good parent. Good parents could do this. I am a hot mess, and my children will be ruined.”
First things first. Pause for a second. Take a long, deep, slow breath. And another. Let yourself look away from the screen, let your eyes rest on something pleasant—the sky outside your window, a photo on your bedside table, the houseplant in the corner, your cat purring softly next to you. There. Keep breathing.
You, parents, are not superhuman. You cannot do all the things, nor should you. It is ok to let go of being the perfect parent, of giving 110% all the time, of pushing yourself beyond your physical and mental capabilities. It is OK to give yourself a break; to be gentle with yourself. You do not have to beat yourself up—the world is doing enough of that for us.
It’s OK to forgive yourself for that moment when you lost your temper; for when you said, “Not now, honey, Mommy’s tired”; for letting your kids have Oreos for breakfast; for leaving the piles of toys where they lay. You are not alone. This is happening in households all over the world. Just because the world has shifted on its axis around you, it is not on you to set it right.
First, take care of yourself. There’s no parenting without you. Have you slept? Eaten? Talked to another adult? Take a few moments to do one kind thing for yourself, even if it’s being still for a few minutes, closing your eyes, and noticing the sun on your face as you sip your coffee. What might it be like if you could, even for a few moments, give yourself some solace?
COVID-19 has upended the world for all of us. Things feel enormous, overwhelming. So maybe now’s the time to think about those things that are most essential, and to think small. Sometimes the magic lies in the tiny, quiet moments that make up the fabric of our days.
Give some thought to the most important things: Have you done something today to help your children feel loved? Think about the smallest actions you could take toward this goal: gently cover your sleeping child with a blanket; leave the cereal out on the counter where they might reach it; pause a moment to smile at them, ruffle their hair, let the warmth of your hand rest on their shoulder, give a gentle squeeze that says, “I am here. You are precious to me.”
And remember to pause, breathe, and let yourself notice giving a tiny, exquisite gift in this moment. Imagine that these small acts, strung together, will become a strand of memories from these pandemic days. Being present for your children in tiny, messy, imperfect moments will nurture and sustain them, as the world pauses and takes a deep breath.
Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School, and is a senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.) at McLean Hospital. Dr. Coyne has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters on anxiety, OCD, and parenting. She is the author of “The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years,” a book for parents of young children.