Parenting in lockdown: 4 ways to keep yourself well
For many parents, being in lockdown means spending a great deal of time alone with your children. Under normal circumstances, being alone with our children for long periods of time might not be a problem, and many may consider it a blessing. However, the effects of social distancing have brought new challenges.
When our main or only source of social interactions is with our children, we might begin to feel we are running on empty. As a counsellor and mother of two children, I understand how this can put a lot of strain on our mental resilience.
As parents, we are our children’s everything: we are a teacher, nurse, cook, chauffeur, cleaner, peacemaker, friend, entertainer, disciplinarian, diary manager, agony aunt and maybe more. This shape-shifting is mentally draining and an enormous responsibility. Yet we don’t often complain; we signed up for it - and they are worth it. But what happens when we are at home all the time with our bundles of joy? What happens when opportunities for ‘me’ time dwindle to non-existence?
With no chance to release our tension, the pull on our inner elastic becomes tighter, until eventually, we snap and then hate ourselves for it. As many of us are so conscious of social expectations, as well as our own expectations of parenting, we are often burdened with guilt, shame and remorse when we fall short of them.
On top of the usual pressures of parenting, many primary carers are juggling working from home. This means the lines between work and family life have shifted and blurred. We are finding it more difficult to balance these demands because they both happen in the same four walls. We no longer have the journey from work to home, which usually helps this transition. Instead, we are eating dinner with the kids one second, and the next conducting zoom conferences with our boss, or are working in the office while hearing the children argue over the remote control. There is a constant duality at play, and it is stressful.
So here I’ve put together four ways of thinking that might help you mentally survive this testing time. This is not just yet more unsolicited advice, because we get enough of that. Instead, my hope is that you will hold this lightly and take what you need from it.
1. Accept that rules will be bent
In these unprecedented times, we are in a situation where the rules that generally govern our parenting need to be bent. There are basic rules most parents know by heart, and generally comply with. Our own ideas about how we parent will depend on many things, such as our own upbringing, our culture or even our personality. But there are a few universal rules a lot of parents aim to follow.
For example, most parents try to follow some sort of a routine and know the importance of children getting enough sleep. Other rules might be about the kinds of foods you feed your children. A more recent general rule perhaps could be about limiting screen time.
Something I have heard from clients who have children is that their normal sets of 'shoulds' and 'shouldn’ts' are being challenged. Some parents may be finding their routines have slipped a little, or perhaps playtime is being extended longer than usual. Maybe you are letting your child have more sweet treats than normal or being more flexible about screen time.
I am not here to tell you what the rules are. Nor am I advocating that we abandon all our tried and tested parenting strategies and ignore solid advice given by experts. What I do advocate is an acceptance that the normal rules we try to follow cannot be strictly applied because we are not in normal times. More to the point, it is not the rules themselves that are the priority – the priority is yours and your family’s well-being, so it is ok to cut yourself some slack.
2. Stop trying to be perfect
Sometimes our drive to be the perfect parent can suck the joy from parenting. In an already pressurised environment, it is easy to become bogged down with guilt while we are trying to live up to our ideals and falling short.
Firstly, let me say that the perfect parent simply does not exist. A phrase coined by British psychologist D.W. Winnicott is the ‘good enough’ parent  and this is widely used by psychologists. The theory states that it is important for children to learn that parents are imperfect and will sometimes fail them - because the world is imperfect. Parenting is a balancing act between being there enough for them to feel secure, while also allowing them to adjust to reality.
That might be enough to reassure you and if so great! If not, then let us assume for one second that the perfect parent does exist. Ask yourself these questions: what does the perfect parent look like to you? Are these expectations realistic in this environment? What kind of time and energy would it take for you to achieve them? Would this actually be good for your children and prepare them for the real world?
Make peace with the fact you will never be perfect. If it gives you all a break from each other to let the children on their devices for a while – let them. If you are too tired to cook today and would rather order takeaway, or it is easier to boil pasta or rice – do it. And if you feel that is selfish, know that it is good for everyone, not just you, because no one benefits from seeing you worried, stressed, weary and unhappy. Let me say it this way, you are good enough as you are.
3. Do what you enjoy
This is an easy one. Many parents are trying so hard to keep everyone else happy. Meanwhile, they lose touch with what it is they want. In the present circumstances, the demands of others in our home become even more apparent as we try to keep everything on an even keel. Our sense of happiness becomes hinged on everyone else’s happiness.
What if we were to flip this around and start making ourselves responsible for our own happiness first? What if we were to prioritise our own well-being and start doing things we like? Maybe, we would radiate happiness instead of trying to do it for everyone else.
I am not suggesting that we stop caring for our children, quite the opposite. Children learn most from what they see, not from what you tell them. They will feel happy seeing you happy.
So, learn to do what you enjoy. Take that bath. Read that book. Watch an episode of that series. Dance or sing along to your favourite music. Show them how much you have enjoyed it. Let the kids see you enjoy yourself and that you know how to make yourself happy.
4. Practice gratitude
We’ve heard this before, right? This is another 'should' that is often thrown at parents. My message is a little different. I am not preaching gratitude because you should be grateful, instead I say that seeking out things to be grateful for is a choice you can make.
Choosing to be grateful is the pathway to any sense of contentment and joy. Think about it, any time you have felt truly happy or content you might find was accompanied by a warm sense of gratitude. Maybe it was when you got married (or divorced for that matter!). Maybe it was when you first met your child and held them in your arms. Or maybe it’s the little things, such as when your children tell you they love you, or how they can’t go to bed without giving you a hug and kiss.
Now back to the current situation. On the surface, the world might be looking a little bleak right now. We might be finding it a little harder to find things to be grateful for. When our children behave in a manner we find difficult, it is very easy to lose sight of those things we cherish. When we’re working so hard at keeping our children happy, we may feel this is taken for granted, and therefore respond similarly.
But I will repeat what I said above - gratitude can be a choice. What if when our children are yelling or crying because they don’t like your food, you choose to be grateful for the fact they can express themselves. You can choose to be grateful for how they feel able to let you know when something upsets them. We could be grateful for the fact we are present with them, that they are not alone, and we can learn more about them. It might not always be easy to feel grateful, but it is always possible.
The enemy of gratitude is comparison. Yet comparison is something we all regularly engage in. Particularly now, we may find that we are checking social media more, comparing ourselves to our friends or other families. We may look at them and feel that we are failing in some way. It is important to remember that while other people have things to be grateful for, you do too because as long as you are living there is something to appreciate. We can actively seek it. We can pay attention to the little things going on right now. Have a go. Look around you. What do you appreciate? You’ll probably be surprised by how quickly the list racks up.
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