Shifting Priorities as a Pandemic Parent
I woke up to the smell of smoke in my house.
As somebody who sweats very easily, I have been sleeping in shorts and nursing tanks, without blankets, to deal with the recent heat wave and my house being over 80 degrees at night. And I have often slept with the windows open, inviting the breeze in for some relief.
But as smoke and ash from Bay Area fires filled the air and began wafting through the house, I woke up with a tightness in my chest, pit in my stomach, and lightheaded feeling. I couldn’t tell if it was actually from the smoke in the air, or if they were all figments of my hypochondria and mounting anxiety.
As if on cue, my 3 year old also woke up very anxious.
For almost 30 minutes, she low-level cried and whined about being “sick” and her nose being snotty (which it barely was). And no matter what I tried, she could not be consoled.
She was convinced that she was not okay. She had me take her temperature multiple times. She pouted around the house. She had me suck her snot with a nose Frida, and almost nothing came out. She mentioned to me multiple times that she may have allergies. She laid down on the floor naked, refusing to put clothes on and get ready for school, because she was “sick.”
Finally, I decided to hold her on my lap. And while hugging her, I prayed for her- acknowledging that she was a bit worried, which was okay. I said it was also okay to be sad, but that Jesus was with her and that she was (probably) going to be okay. And somehow after that, she stopped complaining. (Truth be told, watching a clip from Disney+ while doing her hair afterwards may have helped).
All throughout the morning, as I was getting my kids ready for school and getting myself ready for the day, I realized that I also needed consoling. I, too, was feeling quite anxious.
In the middle of packing lunches, filling backpacks with loveys and diapers and snacks, my mind went into “catastrophic thinking” mode. I began thinking about all the things I needed to do, ways to find control in an anxious moment- making sure we had air purifiers to turn on, wondering if we have adequate fire insurance, taking action to gather some (long overdue) emergency preparedness supplies at our house. I wondered what would happen if there were earthquakes on top of fires and a pandemic.
And as I was trying calm myself by remembering to breathe slowly and deeply, I was also conscious about the air I was breathing- was it safe? Was it too hazardous? Would it make me sick?
It felt all too overwhelming.
And I know that I’m not alone.
As a parent of an 11mo old and a 3 year old right now, the number of new and unprecedented decisions I’ve had to make these last 6 months is overwhelming. Parents everywhere are struggling with challenging questions have no “right answer.” Every day seems like it is filled with new and weighty decisions.
Do we send our kids to day care and risk them getting sick? Do I go to a protest and risk exposing my kids? Do we ask for much needed child care help from friends and family and risk exposing them ? Do we delay doctors appointments and vaccinations to minimize risks? What do we do for their birthdays?
Even as a relatively privileged person who owns a home, has a steady income, co-parents alongside a supportive partner, and can work from home, I’ve been struck by how much there is to be anxious about. How much is out of our control. How many unknowns there are. How much potential suffering and catastrophe might be right around the corner. And I know that these realities are exacerbated by realities of race and class and immigration status, and I can’t even imagine the challenges that other more vulnerable families might be experiencing, especially those who have experienced sickness and loss in this time.
Somehow, in the midst of being a pandemic parent, I am realizing that my priorities are shifting. I am examining what values drive these difficult decisions.
So much of the parenting that I experienced in life, from my Korean immigrant parents who grew up in a nation ravaged by war, colonialism, and militarism, was a parenting that mitigated suffering. Everything that my parents did for me- the way they thought about their careers, the place they chose to settle down in, the faith community they joined, the schools they sent me to, the enrichment opportunities they gave me- were all about mitigating suffering. In fact, I imagine that most people of my parents’ generation, whether American Boomers or Asian immigrants who grew up in a post WWII world, were eager to build a life that was without suffering and death. They had faced so much of it. They had experienced so much trauma. Why wouldn’t parenting be about building a life for your kids that meant they wouldn’t have to suffer the way you had?
But in this moment, I am realizing that my primary job as a parent is not to protect my kids from suffering. It is not to make them happy by minimizing pain and discomfort.
And this is very hard for me.
I am quick to want to relieve my child of discomfort- to immediately give her a snack when she says she’s hungry, to give her a jacket when she says she’s cold, to help her when she asks for help, and to give her what she wants if she seems distressed. The sound of crying distresses me. When my kids get anxious, I get anxious.
Yet this moment is reminding us that we are all mortal. We cannot cheat death. We cannot avoid pain. We cannot control the world around us. We (sadly) cannot escape the realities of global climate crisis and even the possibility of future pandemics. And my children are going to grow up in a world where suffering, crisis, and global catastrophe may be unavoidable.
So more important than immediate comfort or a mitigation of suffering, what my children really need to gain from my parenting are grit, resilience, perseverance, flexibility, kindness. What they need to learn from me is how to deal with hard things and to cope and adjust when things are out of their control. To learn how to fail. To find joy in any circumstance. To learn what it means to truly be human.
This means that my conceptions of how to parent also need to shift. It means offering the gift of my presence in the midst of pain. It means being with my kids more than doing things for them. It means choosing endurance over efficiency. It means teaching them how to name their hard emotions and to face them head-on rather than appeasing them. It means repeatedly reminding my kids that they are not alone, and that that they will (probably) be okay. It means helping them to see the gifts in any moment. It means teaching them to pray, and cry, and sit with others, and to know (as my daughter prays for me nightly), “that Jesus is already here.”
And most of all, it means that I need to learn these lessons too. That might just be the hardest part.
While my husband and I may not be in a time where we can offer our children lots of fun outings, expensive presents, valuable enrichment activities, vast educational opportunities, or elaborate play dates, I am grateful that we are being pushed to remember what really matters.
Our presence. Simple moments of joy. Being together. Facing ourselves and all our big feelings. Practicing patience and kindness. Learning how to try and to fail, to survive and persist, even when things don’t go our way.
I may not be able to offer my kids a world without suffering or hardship, but I can prepare them for how they might handle it. And I can work on how I handle this world alongside of them.
How do you foster resilience in yourself and your loved ones?
What priorities are shifting for you in these times?