Some parents have organized their lives so as to address multiple goals. They are loving, devoted parents. They are highly invested in demanding careers. They have important friendships. How do they accomplish all these goals? Typically they are organized, hard working, and spend little time relaxing or taking care of themselves. If they go running or to the gym, they will do it early in the morning before the kids wake up or at lunchtime while the kids are in school. They get satisfaction from being creative and productive in their work. So what happens when they have to leave work and stay home with their children? I have a long ago memory of saying goodbye to my husband as he went off to work, my newborn son in my arms. I had never loved anything more than this baby. Yet, when my husband walked out the door, I thought, “Wait a minute! What about me?!”
Many parents have a rhythm of self-regulation that depends on intellectual stimulation and high productivity. Empty—or apparently empty—periods of time are not relaxing to them. They do not like waiting. “Empty” times make them anxious. They do better with their children in short periods of structured activity—a walk to the park, reading books. They sometimes have to control their impatience when their children hesitate or take a long time doing it themselves. These parents thrive when they have good schools and grandparents or babysitters to share the childcare. This is consistent with the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
These parents’ personal equilibrium requires feeling in control, and hanging out with young children does not allow much of that. Going with the flow is more like it. When it goes well, it is like playing jazz with someone, each with autonomy but also reaching for harmony, and open to novelty and surprise. If the parent feels the need for an intellectual focus, there are many opportunities for sharing ideas with older children, and for very young children, parents can become “baby watchers”, like Piaget was with his children. Infants and young children are fascinating.
The parents I am talking about will likely have a hard time staying at home with their children during the time of the virus. Although in an earlier blog I noted the growth potential of being forced to live differently, this growth can be hard to negotiate. I have come up with some tips to ease the transition for these super people.
- Schedule your day so that you have time with the kids and time to work. If you have a partner, make the schedule with them and share the work. While you are working at your job, allow the kids screen time that you otherwise wouldn’t allow. In your time with the kids, plan some activities that you enjoy as well. Card games or board games–even some video games– are good for older kids. Messy activities that they can enjoy in school are to be avoided, even if they beg for them. While you are with the kids, discipline yourself to pay attention to them—what they are doing, what they are interested in, what their behavior is telling you.
- Make sure that you schedule some car trips that involve an interesting or a constructive errand. If you are taking care of a household errand that you put off, you will be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment, and that will make you feel better. Take the kids with you unless they cause trouble in the car, in which case, scrap this idea. If they can tolerate the car, play games with the kids in the car. Depending on their age, for example, count all the red cars, black cars, or count all the Audis, all the Subarus.
- Everyone says take care of yourself by eating and sleeping right and getting exercise, but this redundancy does not make it less important! Sometimes you can combine these healthy activities with time with your kids by walking or sports, or by cooking with them. Other times, you will want to be alone while you exercise and cook.
- Taking care of yourself also means being tolerant of negative feelings associated with impatience, boredom, and irritation. Criticizing yourself only drags you down further. Reflect on your style of self-management; try to maximize your strengths and make use of your usual self-comforting tools. Just surviving this period will result in personal growth. In a comparable mode, try to be tolerant of your kids’ problem behavior. Remember that everyone is under stress, and if they behave badly it doesn’t mean that they will always act this way.
- Above all, stay remotely connected with other adults. Make sure you keep up to date with work projects with colleagues, commiserate with friends. Sit down in front of your computer, facing a friend, both of you with a piece of cake or a glass of wine, and pretend you are enjoying an evening out together.