As COVID-19 laws ease, many have mixed feelings about going back to ‘normal’

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As the country begins to move slowly forward through the stages of re-opening, people are starting to feel that there is a path towards a return to normal. I am seeing enormous hope and relief expressed by many, economically, socially, and emotionally.

That being said, the feelings associated with this shift towards normal — or a “new normal” — are actually more complicated than just happiness and relief. Many people feel other types of feelings, sometimes at the same time as the happy/relieved feelings.

First, the reopening is triggering some to feel more fearful about exposure to the virus, and about medical safety for themselves, their children and other family members. Individuals/families have different tolerances for risk right now, and so are allowing themselves different amounts of exposure. This is based upon their life circumstances, a necessity to leave home, whether they are a generally a ‘worrier’, their need to be concerned about their own or a family member’s risk level for serious illness if infected (caring for older people, someone with a medical risk factor etc), and their general tolerance for risk.

As long as official guidelines are followed (mask, 6-ft distance, hand washing, etc) there is no factually right or wrong way to be approaching the reopening — every person and family’s choices must be based on their own assessment of need, safety and emotional comfort. Some people will return to work, others will continue to work from home, some are ready to eat in an outdoor restaurant, others aren’t; some will send their child to day camp, others won’t. It is important that we don’t allow these differences to divide us. Rather, we need to respect our differences in this area, as we strive to do in every other area. Respect each other’s approach and understand that it is what works for them.

Of course figuring out how to approach re-opening is more challenging when those living in the same home disagree about how to approach it. This is likely in homes with teens and young adults who just want to go out and see their friends, go back to school and even get a job— who can blame them! When parents believe a child is trying to move back into the world too fast, too soon, it might be necessary to slow them down. But, it is very important to listen to your child, to process with them and try to find a compromise that is acceptable to both sides. This has been a terribly difficult time for most young people, who feel socially isolated and craving time with their friends and re-engaging with the outside world. Listening and processing, even if the parent makes the ultimate decision, is a very important part of the parent/child relationship.

Some people — kids and adults — don’t really feel ready to move back to ‘real life’, but not because they are worried about illness. Many have told me that they are enjoying some of the changes that quarantine has required and are struggling with the idea of giving these up. I have heard from moms and dads who have been able to work from home, or furloughed, that not needing to commute has been a gift to their family — they have more time with their kids, and more flexibility. They are sad at the thought of not having this anymore. Of course, it is definitely a complex feeling, especially for parents who have not been able to work — it is may be hard to enjoy the ‘time off’, while worrying about finances. Yet, these parents are still concerned that their child has become accustomed to having them home all the time, and it will be difficult for everyone to adjust back.

The prevailing feeling among kids and teens is that opening up can’t come soon enough so they can see their friends and get back to a regular life. But, even so, some feel that their social life has been less complicated during quarantine, and they have liked that part of it. Some kids have shared that they secretly hope that school doesn’t go back to normal in the fall because since quarantine, they have felt more rested and less academically stressed than ever before. School has not been a burden for them because the workload is so much less, they aren’t up all night studying, they don’t have hard tests or competition with peers. At the same time, many kids miss school terribly — especially if school is the place that they get reliable meals or if home is stressful. Kids that struggle socially, miss school a lot because it is the only time that they have regular social interaction. Some kids and teens feel ALL these feelings at one time. It can be so confusing to have such a wide range of feelings from hating quarantine to loving it and not wanting it to end.

Stay at home parents have also felt a sense of relief (at times) during quarantine because they aren’t running around to so many activities, and making sure piles of homework get done. Some have also felt that their partner has been around to see how difficult it is to do the daily job of raising kids, and is more appreciative of it. Of course, parents are looking forward to getting out more, getting a break when kids return to school, and spending less time cooking and cleaning, so, as with the kids, parents are experiencing a wide range of feelings that are complicated.

Even aside from parenting, adults are battling their own internal feelings about enjoying being home, with few social obligations and feeling little need to feel pressure to achieve and succeed and prove themselves. It is hard to think about gearing up to go back into the world — as much as it is something we all desperately want.

Many people tell me they are embarrassed to share these feelings because so many people are excited about being able to go out, and we are ‘supposed’ to be thrilled about the quarantine ending. They worry that there is something wrong with them if they are not feeling so enthusiastic about it. If you feel like this, even some of the time, you are definitely not alone. There are many kinds of normal feelings and they can come and go in waves and change from day to day and minute to minute. These feelings need to be able to live together inside you. You can want it to end and not want it to end. It’s okay, and it’s normal! We are living through a time for which we do not have a blueprint. It is important to talk about how you feel and not feel embarrassed about these feelings. Remember that ‘normal’ is a wide range and we all are processing our stresses, feelings and lives differently, so we need to to judge ourselves and others with kindness.

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized psychologist, consultant, speaker and author in suburban New York.

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