Flipping the Script: from Fear to Fortitude
Parenting through a Pandemic
MOM/MEREDITH (34), super pregs, bedhead/ponytail, wearing yoga pants and husband’s shirts, appears slightly disheveled
MARIE (2.5), blonde hair, blue-eyed bundle of smiles wearing her heart on her sleeve; overly energetic, always curious
“Marie, I know how excited you were, but we can’t visit your new preschool this week: it’s closed.”
“I understand that you don’t want to, Marie, but you have to wear a mask.”
“No, my love, we aren’t going to see Nene or PoPo this weekend.”
MARIE (sad, confused): “But, why?”
MOM (also saddened): “Well, people are sick right now. We don’t want to get sick, and we don’t want to make other people sick.”
Approximately one week has passed. Mom and Marie pull into a local playground parking lot; the playground is empty.
MARIE: “I’m happy that there aren’t any children at the playground.”
MOM (confused): “What, why?”
MARIE: “Because then I won’t get sick.”
Mom delivers palm to face.
Marie is wallowing on the floor with her face buried in preferred blankie.
MARIE (distressed): “I don’t have any friends because all of the children at school are sick!”
Mom breaks into tears over the felt heartache of her daughter.
This has been the lived drama for my daughter over the past several weeks — ever since our Thanksgiving trip to visit family was cancelled due to COVID concerns.
Life since February 2020 has essentially been just the three of us (Poppa, Mama, Marie), when we happened to coordinate a spontaneous move to Seattle with a Worldwide pandemic. Two weeks after our arrival, Seattle shutdown, along with any opportunity for us to form new friendships in a new city.
To compensate for our unique and very solitary situation, we try to connect with family and friends as often as possible over FaceTime. Unfortunately, a toddler’s engagement in such things is extremely limited, especially when that toddler is prone to shyness — and no, a pandemic isn’t so supportive of social skills development either.
When she is comfortable, Marie is a talker. She is a listener and learner. She is uniquely in tune with the emotions and energies of people around her, as if she can feel a room and understand its essence before words are even spoken.
While her empathic spirit has lead her to have the most profound and loving heart, it has also empowered her ego.
Toddlers believe the world is centered around them: “I want” and “I need” are heard almost as often as the question, “Why?” At this age, a toddler aims to figure out her unique role in the world, including the interdependence between the individual “self” (ego) and everything and everyone around her. When this phase of development happens within the context of a pandemic, there is significant room for confusion and, for a sensitive child like my daughter, emotional pain.
Marie, like many young children, had confused basic societal restrictions put into place because of a pandemic with something very personal and emotionally distressing:
- Social distancing meant that she had no friends.
- Wearing a mask meant that everyone is sick, and thus, also sad.
- Stay-at-home orders meant that no one wants to visit her.
My husband and I have always tried to speak to Marie using logic and honesty, but we now worried that her 2.5 year old brain was not yet developed enough to understand that the logic and common sense regarding a worldwide pandemic had nothing to do with her — or her ego.
Changing the narrative
As parents, we needed to revise our script with Marie about the state of life in a pandemic. My husband and I decided to be more thoughtful and calculated in our language with this developing toddler brain. We decided to talk more hopefully (e.g., “things will get better”) with less emphasis on and use of the word “sick,” which Marie had obviously attached to.
Several days later in Marie’s bedroom. Marie is frowning, rolling about in her bed.
MARIE: “I don’t have any friends because all of the children are sick.”
Mom appears to fight tears for a brief second. Then, straightens her posture, firms her facial expression, and turns directly towards Marie.
MOM: You don’t need friends right now.
MOM’S THOUGHTS: Was that what I wanted to say? Well, it’s what I said. So rather than confusing a toddler by backtracking, I am going with it and will rely on intuition to guide this discussion — too late for “calculated.”
MOM (con’t): Right now, you need to be strong. You will have plenty of time to make friends. You are only two years old. Soon, you will go off to school every day and make so many friends! Right now, you, Poppa and I get to spend lots of time together. It won’t always be this way, so we should enjoy our days together and be grateful for all of the love we share.
Marie stares into Mom’s eyes, suggesting that she is listening, but she remains quiet. Mom feels a need to continue her explanation.
MOM (con’t): Yes, some people are sick right now, but most people are not sick, and very soon, even more people will be healthy. Everything is going to be ok.
Still no response from Marie, but the pity party seemed to have ended. She got up from her bed and meandered to her box of books and toys — indicating a return to normal, healthy toddler life.
That seemed like a lot of language. Did she get all of that?
Yes, she did. Children are incredibly perceptive and so much more intelligent than the adults around them tend to acknowledge. If being a parent has taught me anything, it’s that life happens in the Now: nothing brings you more into the present moment than a child. My response to Marie’s distress was not what my husband and I had planned. It was not calculated or even all that hopeful — it was what my heart felt needed to be said to my child in that moment, and it worked.
Just a few hours later, Marie affirmed that she had absorbed my message, when she spontaneously — and joyfully — asserted:
“I am a strong girl: I will have friends later.”
Do I want Marie to think personal strength means being friendless? No, but that is not the battle being fought right now. What I need my daughter to know — right now, during a pandemic, and forever — is that she is her own source of strength. There is no external thing or person that will bring her true inner peace and fulfillment.
While I didn’t think this lesson would need to be learned so early in life… here we are: 47 weeks and 2 days into a pandemic. We are all learning so much.
Here’s to 2021.
Care to chat more about parenting a toddler through a pandemic? Let’s have Zoffee! (that’s Zoom+Coffee :))
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