I read an article in the NY Times last October about Nicole Kidman’s acting choices and thought of it this morning when I started planning this post.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how covid is changing us, the implications at home and across the world, and the psychological effects too. How challenging and fateful parenting (in a pandemic) feels right now with 8-year-old twins and a 6-year-old.
When I was eight, I went to school, then played after school at the park or my BFF’s until dinner, then went home, ate, and had a short window of family time before bed. Almost every day.
It seems idyllic when you contrast it to what my children are experiencing — no time in the classroom, no time with friends, limited time outdoors, and almost no unsupervised time at all. And frankly, it feels awful to enforce what instinctively doesn’t feel that healthy.
That said, it’s the right decision for us for now for several reasons. Still, it stinks. And one reason it stinks is that I can see our kids wilting. They were smart, vibrant, creative, brilliant flowers, and they’ve been losing their bloom little by little over the last year.
The “No Police”
It’s the combination of too much screen time, too many rules, too much fear, too much distance, too much disruption, and not enough connection.
It’s hard on mom and dad too, and not just for the obvious and well-documented reasons: stress, the threat of job loss, economic implications, constant defense, taking on the roles of managing virtual school while working full-time etc., etc. No, Covid has also stolen all the fun of parenting (and it’s much worse for the children).
I’m the “no police” right now, and I want our kids to believe that the world is safe and irresistible, full of joy and possibility. I want them to want to see, do, and explore it all, and I’m afraid that they are getting the opposite message imprinted during this foundational time in their lives.
I guess that’s why I chose this quote:
A lot of people, as they get older get more protected and terrified. My desire is to keep throwing myself into things. My parenting, my relationship, my work. I’ll take the pain. I’ll take the joy. Because the feeling makes me go, I’m in life. It’s an enormous gift, this life. My ability to love is so deep. — Nicole Kidman
Up, the Movie
I’ve often wondered why inspiring people become curmudgeons. That old guy on the movie Up seems like a cautionary tale. I guess I hoped it was a choice or a series of choices, perhaps a conscious decision like the one Kidman makes to throw herself into life, to take the pain, the joy, and love deeply, despite the risks.
But maybe it’s an inevitability? Is becoming a curmudgeon an act of self-preservation when the human heart maxes out on how much it can hold? Is life inevitably too much joy and pain? Does the back and forth beat us down until we surrender?
Was I simply one of the lucky ones, born at the right time in the right country to the right family to escape unscathed for four decades before it came to this?
We are living amid the first global mass trauma event for several decades. It’s arguably the first of its kind since World War Two and the first of such severity in my lifetime.
Trauma is far subtler than I thought. It isn’t just an immediate response to something incredibly and unimaginably stressful, and it doesn’t only come as an unexpected shock. It turns out that it can be vicarious and collectively experienced too.
After the pandemic ends, the effects of mass trauma will linger. Collective trauma can temporarily shatter basic assumptions about life or people, such as trust, safety, predictability, but it can be lasting too. The feelings may be so intense that they do not fade with time but continue or get worse.
When experienced globally, even those who will never catch the virus are traumatized. At first, most of us went months, seeing the disease as a deadly invisible threat, frightening but somehow manageable.
As the toll mounted, we didn’t escape the impact, the disruption, the ceaselessness, or our growing fatigue and compounded anxiety. The looming threat, the brain fog, the forced responses, the lockdowns and protocols, and relentless media attention, as well as the advancing proximity, adds to “vicarious traumatisation,” which triggers traumatic stress even in those who haven’t caught covid.
In one week, one of my friends and one of my husband’s both lost their fathers to complications from covid. The next week, our neighbor’s little girl down the street caught it. Then, my three best friends experienced it. One’s husband caught it, another’s daughter has it, and one’s mother is battling it even as she had already had the first of her two vaccination shots.
Despite it all, we (my husband and I) and we (my best friends and I) try to stay optimistic, positive and keep moving forward despite the uncertainty. But I have to admit, the little things are starting to get to me, and the heaviness of life carries over to our parenting, even as we try to minimize it. We find ourselves doubling down on restrictions even as we witness our children’s painful struggle and drooping petals.
Is the World Unsafe, Mama?
Children’s exposure to trauma is especially critical. Since their anchors are less concrete than adults, children are more adaptable and more sensitive. “They could develop a view of the world which is pretty terrifying,” says Trickey of the UK Trauma Council. “You know, ‘My parents aren’t coping; the world is unsafe, and the people that should be looking after us aren’t doing their job.’
My daughter read both of the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series over the last few months. While it seemed a harmless way to pass the time, I’m now questioning even that decision. It seems she somehow conflated her responsibility in it. If she were better at magic or knew the right people, she’d be in a position to influence the pandemic somehow. It’s heartbreaking to hear her anguish and see her dip into fantasy to attempt to reconcile the world’s problems.
And what will happen to our children if they are traumatized long-term? We know covid risks being an intergenerational phenomenon once they grow up and have kids of their own.
We called twelve counselors before one said they were accepting new patients. It seems nearly everyone specializing in treating children is fully booked and has been for months. It’s encouraging that they are out there and that parents are reaching out for support, but it’s disheartening to know how many are hurting.
So back to connection. Self Determination Theory explores and explains human motivation. It says all human beings possess positive tendencies towards growth and development that are enhanced by an environment that supports three innate, universal, psychological needs:
- autonomy — having a sense of choice
- competence — using capabilities to make an impact
- connection — being in community with others.
People thrive when these three needs are fulfilled, but they are at risk right now, especially for little ones. Our children aren’t merely missing the in-person engagement; many miss out on the connection of family and friends altogether. Their choices have been taken away, and they feel restricted as much as cared for. They aren’t empowered to come up with solutions while adults struggle with the problems, and it’s as if their contributions are insignificant in the face of it all.
This week I also read about the pandemic wall; a milestone, really, a conscious (or subconscious) marker that we are a year into covid. As we note the first anniversary of the pandemic and associated social distancing measures, kids and parents grieve how our lives used to be. It doesn’t even matter how dramatically the impact; the fact that disruption has become normalized is traumatizing enough.
But are we grieving it, or are we merely enduring and carrying on? I wonder, what is the long-term damage and what is the alternative? Is it worse for the child who is remote-schooled for a year and has some semblance of continuity but misses the in-person experience or the child who gets to go to school but is quarantined for the 6th time because of exposure and engages all day in a mask? Or is it worse for the child whose parents don’t enforce mask-wearing despite what he/she is seeing on television and hearing from others who perhaps can’t process the disconnect?
There are so many layers, and although I want to believe we are doing the best we can, I wonder when we will get to the finish line, how our resiliency and families will hold up, and how long we will deal with the after-effects. And don’t get me started on what it will mean if there’s another pandemic.
As much as I want to give you a pep-talk or share a solution, it’s beyond me. So instead, in a departure from my usual bright-side take, I thought I’d share our story in the hope that you will identify with our journey and know you aren’t alone.
And I guess I’m hoping that the parents’ collective will is strong enough to get through this. Together.