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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another humorous post by Tejal Toprani Misra who is a psychotherapist in part-time private practice and a most-time stay at home mom. She lives in California with her spouse and two young sons.
Playground etiquette … What is that anyway? I wish there was an “Ask Tejal” column on this topic. There’s a lot I could say.
What’s that? You’d like to know what I have to say? OK, I think I’ll just go ahead and say it:
So last month my boys, ages 2 and 5 had “spring break.” Not the “let’s go the beach and somebody hand me a Piña Colada” kind of a spring break – but the kind where I have to entertain two kids in a pandemic while my husband works the whole ten days kind of spring break. At some point the three of us forgot what my husband looked like. But I digress.
For some reason, I decided to graduate myself to taking two kids to a public park. I wanted to see if I had any zone defense skills. Spoiler Alert: I don’t have any. This may be shocking to some readers but I have never taken them both “out” on my own. When our youngest was 15 months old and I was finally getting my “two kid mom wings” a pandemic hit and local parks had SVU caution tape around them. DUN DUN. I put my training wheels back on, my wings aside, and waited things out. Now one year later I put on the Rocky music and said “I can do this.”
In order to control some of the elements as well as my own anxiety, I got there early, brought snacks, prepared for bathroom trips and brought a ball. A ball. Yes, one shareable item.
The golden rule of park etiquette according to me is:
If you as a parent allow your child to bring toy(s) to the park then you have to be able to handle the fact that those toys may want to be shared by other small park patrons.
Let me explain how I created this rule. Over the 10 day “spring break” (but who’s counting?) when I decided to take my two children to the park, I saw a dad with a 4-year-old. And when I say he was “with” a four-year-old, I mean “with” figuratively. He was more letting his child play with 7 large dump trucks he had brought from their home while his head was down in a tiktok rabbit hole.
My 2- and 5-year-old were immediately interested in the truck-a-palooza. And since the park is a shared space, they assumed these items were shareable as well. I asked Tiktok dad if he was okay with sharing and he nodded in the affirmative. His 4 year-old seemed to be okay with it too. And for about 120 seconds everyone was in harmony. That is, until the 4 year-old started to feel some type of way about his toys being played with by others. Remember, he brought them from home, to a public park, in a pandemic, where other children were desperate to see new faces and new play things… My 5 year-old understood. He moved on and other park friend parents sweetly offered their less coveted toys like buckets and shovels.
Tiktok Dad took this as “problem solved” and resumed his phone activity.
My 2 year-old, however, was not having it.
How could he grasp that these toys, the ones brought to the public park, that he was just playing with, were now off limits? Well, he couldn’t. So, this led to a full scale tantrum. The kind where I am physically dragging him from the dump trucks and he’s trying to jump out of my arms. I tried all the things – which for me means distracting and bribing – and none of that worked. My two-year-old ran back to the dump trucks and grabbed one and ran away. The 4-year-old owner of the dump trucks became upset, and when I brought the truck back to the four-year-old a minute later the Tiktok Dad had the audacity to say “two is a tough age.”
No s**t Sherlock! Of course, it is when you bring toys to the park and then don’t have the wherewithal to manage the consequences of those actions. Was I in the wrong? Was my two-year-old supposed to understand the mood shift of the dump truck owner?
I don’t think so.
Tiktok Dad should have said “no” to bringing the dump trucks to the park or had a conversation about sharing with his child. To quote Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain “It’s like being in charge of the weather and then crying about the rain.” Just typing this out has got me heated. I need an ice tea.
I was reading scientific journal articles about how the pandemic has affected people and I came across it:
This term was coined to describe the “unknown-ness” in our lives right now and to highlight the distress being experienced by all of us during the pandemic, even when we are not in especially threatening circumstances at the moment.
And I am glad to now have a name for what everyone – children and adults alike – has been feeling. We don’t know what the summer will look like. Or the fall, for that matter. Will kids be able to play together? Will kids’ sports leagues operate? Will pools be open? How about camps? And later, schools and colleges?
And for the adults: will we go back to the job or the office? Will businesses that closed reopen? Will the jobs that evaporated become available again? Will people feel safe shopping in person? Getting haircuts? Taking the train or a plane? Meeting at each other’s houses and apartments?
Even though half of all adults are already vaccinated in the US, and more than half of the UK population has received at least their first dose, we STILL don’t know what the summer or the fall or the future will look like.
And this is VERY stressful.
Children are used to having their parents be able to answer their questions. But for all of us, the answer to the questions above – and all the others we have – are elusive. When we try to answer our children’s questions, we either have to be honest and say we really don’t know the answers right now – or we have to guess.
Neither option is ideal.
Kids want certainty. Kids like to know what to expect. Kids want their parents to know the answers to their questions. This makes them feel safe.
And we adults would like some certainty around now, too. It would make us feel safer, too. Will the vaccine protect us against the Covid-19 variants? Will the vaccine confer immunity to Covid 19 for at least a year? These things would be important to know.
Except we don’t.
So we all experience some degree of “uncertainty distress”.
Not knowing is hard.
The best thing we can do right now is to try to figure out how to live with uncertainty and how to help our children to live with it too. Tolerating difficult emotions is not something most people know how to do well. And yet, life is full of difficult emotions. Helping our children to learn how to live with difficult emotions is one of the best things we as parents can do.
So how do we help our children to do this?
In addition to the things you may already be doing, here are some suggestions:
-In times of uncertainty, it is best to keep the things that you CAN control stable. Routines are important. Try as best you can to keep bedtimes and meal times regular. Try to maintain any family customs you have set up during Covid time – Friday night pizza, Wednesday night tacos, Saturday night movie, whatever. Children tend to like routines and traditions even if they sometimes rebel against them. These routines and schedules also provide some predictability in circumstances that are otherwise unpredictable.
-Provide children with something to look forward to. This gives a sense that good things CAN happen and that some things can happen according to plan. Even if the things are small – a trip to a drive through for take out, a day trip to a State Park or a picnic at a favorite playground.
-Acknowledge children’s feelings, whatever they are. For example, if your child says, “I’m sick and tired of you saying, ‘I don’t know!'” You can respond, “You’re absolutely right! I’m tired of not knowing! It’s really hard right now, isn’t it?”
-Tell them stories from your own life of times you didn’t know how things were going to turn out – and then what happened.
-Tell them about times in your life when you were frustrated or bored or angry (tie it to what they are feeling at the moment).
-Thank your child for telling you how they feel. Even if you are at the end of your rope and the feeling your child is expressing is not particularly welcome at the moment, try to say, “Thank you for telling me how you feel”. Even if the next phrase is “but I’m sorry we cannot have pizza again tonight” or “I just can’t tell you whether camp will be open or not”, try at least to let your child know that it is a good thing for them to tell you what they are feeling.
-Reassure your child WHENEVER possible. Even if you don’t know the answer to their questions about when things will get back to normal, you can still rub their back (if they’ll let you) and remind them that you are keeping them as safe as you can and as soon as it is OK, you will make sure they get to go back to doing whatever it is they are missing at that moment.
-Talk about how hard not knowing is for you. Talk about what you do when you don’t know how something will turn out. Talk about how sometimes we all have feelings that are hard to bear.
-Distraction. After you have done all of the above, (probably over and over again), get out the cards or the board game, take everyone for some drive thru or take out food, suggest a hike or make some popcorn and put on a silly movie. (I recommend “The Pink Panther”)
-But most of all, try to model having difficult feelings, accepting that they are part of your life, that they can be talked about and that they can be survived. If you’ve gotten angry or if you’ve shown your frustration or your exhaustion, talk about it later. You can tell your kids something along these lines, “You know, I was really tired last night and I yelled. I’m sorry, you didn’t deserve that – but right now things are really hard and I think we are all having a hard time – and we need to do the best we can.
Take care, and remember, you are not alone if you are feeling distressed at all the uncertainty in your life right now. We are ALL experiencing this uncertainty, and it IS distressing.