Fall Scheduling: To Do or Not To Do, That is the Question!

Dr. Corinne Masur

In an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times (see link below) Emily Oster suggested that starting now, we can all begin to make more conscious decisions about what we want on our schedules and those of our children.

But can we?

Having our schedules empty out during the quarantine was a revealing experience for many of us – and for our children. What could we do with our time when we didn’t have to go to a million activities? We had to draw on resources we didn’t know we had to figure this out.

Even though most families found the quarantine experience extremely difficult, I heard a lot of comments from parents and partners about the benefits in spending more time together. While family life could get claustrophobic at times, at others, parents found they were getting to know their children and partners better and many people appreciated the slower pace of life.

So now – the question is – do we have the courage to turn down some of the activities that are becoming available again? Are we willing to give thought to whether we want all that busy-ness back?  Can we get ourselves to consciously go through each of our prior activities and decide if we really want that back in our life – or in the life of our children?  

Emily Oster has some ideas about this – and so do I.  The thing that she does not mention explicitly in her article is the importance of communication. Are we able to talk together as a family to make our priorities clear before accepting all the sports and lessons and activities into our lives again? Are we able to have discussions about whether we want to be as busy as we were before?

I have a few suggestions and then you can read what Emily has to say as well:

1. Sit down with your partner, if you have one, before autumn starts and talk about how busy you want to be.  Talk about what your family priorities are. Talk about what you want back in your life and what you do not.  And if you do not have a partner, you can think about this for yourself and perhaps even write down what you do and do not want back in your life.  The purpose of all this is to make these decisions consciously rather than just deciding on the spur of the moment as each activity presents itself.

2. Sit down with each of your children and have this discussion with them. You now know what your priorities are for the family. Within the confines of those, ask your child what his or her or their priorities are and what activities he or she or they want back.

3. Don’t be afraid to set limits.  For example, if you have decided you want one day of the weekend – or even the entire weekend – for family times, stick to that. Try to help your children understand your priorities for the family and to make decisions keeping those in mind.

Life is getting more back to “normal” – but we all have to decide whether we want it to be the old normal or a new normal, informed by our experiences during this past year and a half.

For Emily Oster’s piece: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/31/opinion/sunday/deliberate-parenting.html

How To Be A Better Aunt, Uncle, Grandparent, Or Friend To A Child

Dr. Corinne Masur 

Recently, the New York Times Parenting Blog posted on the topic of how to be a better aunt (see link below).  What an interesting topic!  And I have a few ideas of my own for aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends of young children.

Some people are naturals when it comes to forming relationships with young children – and some people are not.  Some people know how to engage a child easily – and some people feel hurt when they ask a young child, “how was school today?” and the child just stares blankly at them or runs away.

Here are a few tips for those who want to be closer to their nieces, nephews, grandchildren or children of friends and just can’t seem to bridge the age gap:

1. Visit.  Visit often. Do not rely on the phone or video chats to make a relationship work with a child.

2. When you visit, get down on the floor with the child.  Whatever they are doing, join them.  Make observations about what they’re doing.  Compliment them in some way – for example, you can say “Wow!  That is a BIG lego car you’re building!” Children, especially those six and under, live in the moment.  Questions about something they are NOT doing at the moment (school, sports teams, etc.) won’t go anywhere, but discussion of what they are doing right now may.

3. Time with the child is a good investment. Each time you visit, spend at least 10 or 15 minutes focused just on the child,  Just this small amount of time will start to build the relationship you have been wanting with the child.

4. When you visit you can sometimes bring a project or an idea for a project.  Find out from the parents what the child’s interests are and clear the project with the parents first.  Do you want to make cupcakes? Would you like to build this lego spaceship with me? Do you want to do a puzzle together? Doing something together on a regular basis will build your relationship with the child and your feeling of closeness with them.

5. If you know that a parent is not feeling well or is extra busy at the moment, offer to step in for an hour or two.  This will build your relationship with the child and the parent will be eternally grateful!

6. Gifts are good – but they are not the best way to actually deepen a relationship.  All children love gifts – but many aunts and uncles and grandparents have felt disappointment when a child does not thank them or seem grateful for a gift. Moreover, as thoughtful as the gift may be, outside of the context of an already established relationship, they will probably not work to make a relationship happen.

7. Take the child on adventures. Once you feel you have a relationship with the child, after having done some projects together, with the permission of the parents, take the child on some adventures.  For young children, keep it simple: a visit to a particularly fun park, lunch in a restaurant, tea at a hotel or a trip to the zoo for a few hours is a good way to start.  If you have multiple nieces, nephews, grandchildren or young friends, try to take each child, one at a time, for an outing,  The parents will love you, and the child, if they feel comfortable with you, will feel special. For an older child, a movie or a play is fun, but even better is doing something where the two of you can talk and experience something together.

Relationships are precious and the more children in your life, the better! If relating to young children is not your forte, try some of these ideas and read more below:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/21/parenting/how-to-be-a-better-aunt-uncle.html

Reflections On A Hard Year, Part 5: A Mother Reflects On Her Own Sorrow

The hardest part of the pandemic for me has been tolerating the deep sorrow that accompanies illness and mortality while simultaneously protecting my children from this very feeling within myself. 

Although I am one of the lucky parents – I did not contract COVID and was vaccinated in early 2020 – there was illness and death all around me.  The first months of the pandemic were hard — my uncle, who I grew up adoring (and feeling adored by) died suddenly from COVID. I remember one day in early April 2020 my mother called to tell me that he was feeling ill.  Three days later he died in a nearby hospital.  Luckily, his doctor was a family friend and allowed my aunt (his wife of fifty-five years) to be by his side as he took his last labored breath. 

My heart felt broken.  

Days later my family gathered on Zoom for his funeral and shiva.  I sat in my own home, on our family couch. I was surrounded by my husband and my two boys, my youngest, sitting on my lap, wrapping his little fingers inside my palm.  And, even though there were familiar faces and voices on my screen – my cousins, aunts, parents, and sibling – I felt very alone in my grief. So many parts of these rituals were missing – hugs with my family, communal vibrations of song that soothe when many voices join together in a single space, and of course, the presence of my family elders ushering us (the younger generation) through loss.  

All of a sudden everything and everyone around me felt fragile and I could no longer take anything for granted.  I stayed awake at night wondering how I would raise our two young boys if my husband (a physician who treated COVID patients) became ill and died? And what would happen to my dear boys if I died?

Without a government that took the pandemic seriously, how would I keep my boys safe even if I did manage to survive? And, in my most terrifying moments, the only thing I could think about was how George Floyd’s last words spoke every boy’s deepest source of security – “mama.”  

It is misleading to say that the pandemic is solely responsible for the slow tear that pervaded my veil of security. In the months prior to the emergence of COVID in the US, my life had already been uprooted by illness. In fact, I spent most of the fall of 2019 caring for important people in my life who were ill.  In October of 2019, I stayed with a close friend and helped with her two daughters as she endured treatment for stage IV lung cancer.  And then, in the final days of 2019, my father was diagnosed with Leukemia and I underwent surgery, donating my bone marrow to him to increase his chances of survival.  

By the time the pandemic hit, I was exhausted and needed time for reflection.  In a normal year I would have used the spring to sort out the feelings that came with the previous fall.  On my hours off from work and while my kids were at school, I would have enjoyed visits with my dad and taken long runs by the river. I would have met friends for tea and shared my experience, emerging from the interaction feeling grounded and full. Now, my whole world shrunk down to the few rooms of my home – with my kids at home for school and my husband working at the hospital I could no longer leave the house to hold my dad’s hand nor to go running by myself.  Suddenly, it was no longer safe to meet friends in person and as a therapist I often did not want to set up one more Zoom session even if it was for the purpose of talking to friends. I found myself crying in the shower so that no one would hear me, especially my children.   

As a daughter of a severely depressed mother, I have worked hard to hide my sorrow from my children.  I don’t mean I never let them see me sad or upset.  Rather, I’ve tried hard to protect them from the deep sorrow many daughters of depressed mothers inherit – the feeling that we are undeserving of goodness and are responsible to make our mothers better so that we may have the goodness we see others enjoy.  Over the years, I’ve buoyed myself with my professional work and beautiful experiences that remind me I am worthy of joy (such as fun family vacations).  And, I’ve healed the broken part of me through many deep relationships – my therapist, mentors, friends, and especially my husband who understand this part of me and support my many endeavors to live fully, with strength and joy. Together, we have been able to give our boys the things that my mother could not give me – a deep sense of hope, agency in the world, and freedom to be children. Now, without my traditional ways of recuperating – usually out of my children’s sight – how would I manage not to slip into my own depression?  How would I protect them from my own fears and sorrow – stirred by so much illness and death (not to mention protect them from very real threat of COVID)?

I wish I could say that over the last 15 months I rallied by establishing a daily practice of yoga, baking bread, and used the extra time at home to “Marie Kondo” my closets (as I witnessed so many others do in the many articles I read online at 3 am).  But, I did not.  My children are still home for remote school and they are unvaccinated. I had to find ways to allow myself to feel what I was feeling.  And I did.  I found a way to stay close to the rhythms of my sorrow and move through them, this time along side my children rather than outside their view.  

Over this pandemic time of sadness, I have come to realize that I do not have to hide my sorrow from my children in order to protect them.  In fact, I have recognized that in order to prepare them for life as it really is, I have to allow them to know about sorrow and sadness. And I have decided that we can now talk, as a family, about how some parts of life are naturally hard and sad and that giving ourselves care and comfort in these hard times is essential.

Before it was safe to have a babysitter, I would run around the baseball field, tracking my miles, while my boys played catch and cheered me on to run one more lap. Now, both of my boys look forward to beginning the week when they have “extra movie time,” while I meet with my therapist online.  They know that I often need to cry when I learn that their grandpa was re-admitted to the hospital and they see me moving through the pain by baking him his favorite date-nut bread for when he returns home.  Additionally, they accompany me on visits with my friends in the park, developing their own loving relationships with them.  

I am still tired.  I still look forward to the time when my kids can return to school. I need more time to myself and they need to feel independent and have time with their teachers and friends. In the meantime, I am doing the unthinkable – I am healing myself along side my children.  Without burdening them with my sorrow, I have let them see how I find my resiliency in the face of hardship. I am hopeful we will all emerge stronger and my boys, if they ever lose their own sense of inner strength, will know they can always find their way back.

Reflections On A Hard Year, Part 4: The Mother Of A College Aged Child Reflects On This Past Year

The hardest thing this year about being a mom was letting go.

I have a college aged son with a chronic disease and having him away at college during a pandemic was not easy.  Of course, I went through the worry of what it meant for him to be apart from me multiple times when he was growing up – when he went on sleepovers to friends’ houses, when he went away to camp and then again when he originally left for college.  

Each time he left, whether it was for a night or a week or a semester, knowing I would not be able to check on him at night was nothing short of panic inducing.  He has Type 1 Diabetes and what most people don’t know – and what I did not know before he was diagnosed – was that night time low blood sugars are a real danger which can result in hospitalization or death if they are not caught immediately. There really IS something called “dead in bed syndrome” and of course once I knew this, I simply could not get it out of my mind.  There is all sorts of new technology which helps to make this MUCH less likely – like alarms on blood glucose monitors  and phone apps that alarm when the child’s blood sugar level goes too low – but of course these things work only if the child or parent wakes up to the alarm.  As a result of the fact that I had a very good sleeper for a son, I often checked his blood glucose levels three or four times a night when he lived at home. 

So when he went away – whether for a night or a semester, and I could not check on him, I had to learn to tame my anxiety. 

Every parent wants to protect their child from danger.  But we have to struggle between fulfilling this wish and allowing the independence and autonomy which are necessary for our children to grow. 

At each stage of development, we learn to allow a little more independence; we hang back a little to see what our child can do on his or her own.  But it’s hard.  We have to be able to tolerate the possibility that they will fall, fail, hurt themselves or feel defeated.

I could not stand that I would not be there to check my son at night – and I considered not allowing sleepovers or overnight camp and having him go to a local college and live at home. I just was so worried that he would not take adequate care of himself.

But again, each time I had to tame my anxiety and allow him to move forward.

And when a pandemic struck and I did not know whether he was at more risk for severe illness due to his disease or whether he would abide by the rules of physical distancing when at college, well, I had to really work on my anxiety.

I had to remind myself that the need for independence for my son trumped my desire to keep him safe or even my wish to KNOW if he was safe.

I also had to restrain myself from too much questioning of his habits.  I struggled with my wish to be in control and my knowledge that I was not. And I think for all of us, this pandemic taught us that thinking we have control over our lives  – and that of our children – is, at least in part, an illusion.  Not only could I not control whether my son went by all the CDC guidelines, but I could not control his three roommates – nor could I even begin to know what their habits were in regard to keeping themselves safe from Coronavirus.

At some point, early in the pandemic, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation issued a statement saying that kids with Type 1 Diabetes were not more at risk for complications and death from Covid than other kids. Whether or not that was actually true, I have no idea, but at the time I found it tremendously reassuring.

I also found it helpful when my engineering-major son would joke that for engineers, this pandemic did not present a tremendous contagion risk as they didn’t socialize all that much to begin with. AND I liked the fact that his college seemed to be doing all it could to ensure safety and to keep parents and students aware of the precautions being taken (including daily analysis of the waste water from all the dorms to identify new cases!) 

I clung to these reassurances and worked on keeping my anxiety at bay. My son needed his autonomy and independence.

Of course, I DID call him and email him and forward him articles about Covid…..

But limiting my anxiety through energetic use of all my defenses – and keeping the NUMBER of calls and emails to a minimum – well, that was the best I could do. I had to learn how to let go on an all new level, even though I had practiced so many times over the years.

Reflections On a Hard Year, Part 3: A Mother of Three Describes Her Year

2,085 Father Hugging Son Illustrations & Clip Art

The last year of Covid was scary for our family.  At the beginning of the pandemic my husband worked on the frontline for three months straight without any break. With the tons of patients he was taking care of, I felt sure he would get Covid. I thought, “He’s not in the best of health and what if he dies?”  It felt inevitable that something terrible would happen.  This freaked me out and I went into survival mode. 

Also, I wanted to protect our kids as much as possible – but I couldn’t stop asking myself what I would do if our kids had to grow up without their father. 

And then there were the day to day deprivations: my husband would come home after a 15+ hour day but the kids and I couldn’t even hug him. Before we got to see him every night he had to perform a routine of entering through the garage, disrobing and taking a shower; it was only then that we could get close to him.  My kids and husband did “bubble hugs” (hugging the air) if we happened to see him outside before he got to do his disinfection process. 

And he and I slept in separate bedrooms for months because God forbid if we both got Covid – who would take care of the kids? 

My husband felt like a hero to me and to my children and I felt so guilty that after serving so selflessly each day, he had to be treated like an alien in his own home. But we knew it was necessary.  He even had his own designated sofa in our family room that we coined the “nether couch” that only he was allowed to lie on. I felt so isolated and lonely.  Both of my parents are physicians and yet they were unable to relate to what we were going through; they generally regard us as superhuman and basically thought we would be fine. Those first couple of months were truly the scariest moments because of the large possibility that I could lose my husband. We did not know the contagion risk and the true mortality numbers amongst health care workers at that point. I have gotten through a lot of adversity with him by my side but what would I do without him?  I often cried myself to sleep.  

I tell my husband everything and we have an honest relationship – but with all that he was going through I couldn’t and didn’t want to add to his burden. I thought that telling him about my fears of his getting Covid and dying would just be too much for him.  We stayed up most nights so that he could unload the days’ events. I listened patiently but I think I cried more than he did as he recounted his stories.  I felt his helplessness during those early days when the treatment for Covid was not standardized yet.  

I also worried about the kids and how my anxiety about my husband getting sick was being projected onto them.  Thank goodness we had a trampoline; they spent a lot of time on that trampoline! I’m also glad that the kids had each other.  But during this year not everything was scary – we got closer as a family, lived life a lot more simply, cooked a lot more and celebrated birthdays at home. Surprisingly, each child remarked that this birthday was their best ever.  

We took things a day at a time and we were able to relax a little more when the incidence of Covid slowed over the summer. Thankfully, the prospect of the vaccine was becoming more real through the Fall My husband was able to get vaccinated the first day the vaccine was offered – December 18th – because of his priority designation. As a physician, I was able to be vaccinated about a month later, and fortunately our parents were able to as well. This enabled us to feel more comfortable gathering and being close with one another.  I’m grateful for our good health and the fact that we made it through this scary time safely. Now we are planning our return to “normal” and we have travel plans to look forward to. Thankfully life in the hospital has improved steadily and the strain has lessened considerably on my husband, myself and my children.  

Reflecting On A Hard Year, Part 2: One New Mother’s Experience

The hardest part of this past year for me was fearing how the virus could affect my pregnancy. I was two months pregnant in March 2020 when we went into lockdown.  Limited information began to trickle out of Wuhan, China about the minor negative impacts seen in babies born to Covid positive mothers. But I knew these were all women who had gotten Covid in their third trimesters. Who was to know if Covid wasn’t the next Zika, the latest in a subset of viruses known to cause significant birth defects, especially early in a pregnancy when the baby is still forming its basic parts? 

I did not want to risk catching this virus. 

As a doctor myself I knew the basics of what happened at routine obstetrical appointments. With that knowledge and the consultation of my friends in the field, I concluded that the benefit of being at the routine appointments in person did not outweigh the risk of exposure to Covid-19. This was before the CDC recommended people wear masks. This was months before my OB office required that many of these appointments be virtual. How nice to be ahead of the curve. 

But I missed the face-to-face interaction and the physical touch from people trained to help me navigate my first pregnancy. I missed childbirth classes. There were only so many zoom interactions I could have in a week. I was so fortunate to be able to move my psychiatric practice online. But it meant spending the entire day interacting with people virtually. Very few of us had done anything like that before Covid.

Breathing heavily behind an N-95, I went to my twenty-week anatomy scan ultrasound. At the end of the appointment, the doctor handed me a napkin and said to use it to turn the doorknob on my way out.  Everyone was scared. That was early May 2020, well before we had clarification on surface transmission not being a great risk.

The birth itself was too big an experience to have been significantly influenced by Covid related precautions. Wearing a mask throughout the labor and the delivery was the least of my discomforts. And thankfully, my husband was allowed to be in the room.

The threat of Covid affected me more in terms of the difficulties of introducing my newborn daughter to my family. My seventy something year old parents were willing to quarantine heavily before meeting the baby, but what if we had gotten infected in the hospital, were asymptomatic and then gave it to them? This was not what we wanted to worry about while getting to know our newborn. 

And then there were my husband’s parents living in a foreign country, also in their seventies. It seemed too risky to have them fly over. So, everyone had to wait until they were vaccinated, about seven months after our baby was born – and that felt like a long time. 

I’m so grateful that the threat of Covid is diminishing now and that I’m able to experience having a young child with less day-to-day fear and more opportunities for healthy social interaction. 

Reflecting On A Hard Year, Part 1

The reflection in the water shows the biggest challenge you will have to  overcome. - Africa Revealed

Dr. Corinne Masur

Now that things are opening up again and many children will be back in school until June and then off to camp or other activities, parents have a moment to reflect on this past year.

Never, ever, in any of our imaginations, could we have imagined a year like the one that we just had.  

EVERYONE suffered so much loss.

Some of us lost loved ones, some of us were ill ourselves, and ALL of us lost smaller things: our peace of mind, our feeling of safety, our freedom of movement, our ability to see those we loved when and how we wanted.

Have any of us even acknowledged all the losses?

I think it is important to name them and to mourn them.  I think it is important to give ourselves time to think about the past year and all we went through – and to grieve who and what we lost.  

Mourning requires stability and internal resources and it may not be until life returns to a more normal state that many of us will actually be able to have the stability to reflect and grieve our losses from this past year.  It is important to recognize this and give ourselves space and time for our grieving processes.

And we also need to go over this with our children – whether they are young ones or teenagers.  We can say it over and over again: we ALL had a hard year last year.  We need time to think about what we went through and to talk about it and to recover from it.

Whatever our children are experiencing now – elation over going out into the world again, anxiety about doing things they have not done for a year, or some of each, it will be important to remind them of what they have been through and how it has affected them AND us – and how different life will surely be going forward.