Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Moral Injury and Teaching

I originally wrote this as a message for an amazing school I work with and was asked to put it into a shareable format. 

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Yesterday, in a lecture on resiliency during this COVID-19 time, I heard the term “moral injury” used to describe what teachers are currently going through. This is usually a term applied to soldiers at war who are forced to do something they don’t believe in, and I was struck in hearing it used in reference to us. 

The Wikipedia definition is:
Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual's moral conscience and values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression,[1] which produces profound emotional guilt and shame,[2] and in some cases also a sense of betrayal,[1] anger and profound "moral disorientation".[3]

The concept of moral injury emphasizes the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of trauma.[1] Distinct from psychopathology, moral injury is a normal human response to an abnormal traumatic event.[1][4] According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the concept is used in literature with regard to the mental health of military veterans who have witnessed or perpetrated an act in combat that transgressed their deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.[5]

“Moral injury is the normal human response to an abnormal traumatic event” when we are unable to complete work that we believe in.

Teaching is what drives each of us. Each of us wakes up every day ready to make the world better because of the work we do at Carlin Springs. We see the faces of our students when we go to bed at night, and if we wake up at 2am are filled with worry about what is happening to our students. Normally, all we need to do is get back to school to see them. Hug them, listen to them, teach them, support them.

Right now, we can’t. And frankly, that sucks. (excuse my language. In my house we’ve recognized that while we don’t usually use words like that, sometimes we need to have language that matches the situation.)

Something about naming the term helped me understand the deep helplessness we are each going through as we fight to match our beliefs in helping our students with the current situation.

I have no great advice here other than to be kind to yourself. Sit with this feeling of moral injury, now that we have a name for it, and consider what it means for you. Realizing that we may not be able to do what we believe in now is hard, and facing that we cannot do what we are trained to do is perhaps the worst part. No one got into teaching to sit on the sidelines. We won’t be here forever, and we will be back with our students and able to do what we love. Meanwhile, be kind to yourself, take deep breaths, long walks, and find ways to show your students your smiling face. 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Cloud of Doom

This winter my family began reading Wayside School books by Louis Sachar. My husband and I both remember reading these when we were younger, so it was a treat to dive into them and revisit all the craziness that occurs at Wayside School.

While we were checking them out of the on-line library we noticed there was a new one - The Cloud of Doom that was just released on March 3rd, 2020. More Wayside stories? We were sold.


I want to know what Louis Sachar knew when he was writing this book that the rest of us didn't. In fact, I think we should start looking at any Wall Street deals he had going on and any trades he made right before the pandemic hit, because, um, the story feels pretty true to life right now.

And published ten days before we were sent into our houses under our own clouds of doom?

Yeah, someone knew something to write a book about a Cloud of Doom settling over one elementary school. Pretty much sums up where we are.

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"What's the point" one of the Wayside School students asks his teacher in regards to why he should bother with his work... "The Cloud of Doom is getting bigger every day! ... What does it matter if we can spell?"

(I mean, it's like Sachar's heard every conversation happening inside the houses of all the kids trying on-line learning. "What's the point?")

The class agrees with the student until Mrs. Jewls, the teacher, replies, "I understand you're scared and upset, but what's the point of quitting? We can all sit around and grumple (read the book to get the joke), or we can try our best, cloud or no cloud."

"And it hasn't been all bad," Mrs. Jewls continued.... "Someday the Cloud of Doom will be gone and the world will be a much better place, even better than before the cloud. Colors will be more colorful. Music will be even more musical. Even Miss Mush's food will taste good. The bigger the storm, the brighter the rainbow." 

We haven't finished the book yet, so I don't know how it ends. Maybe the Cloud of Doom will eat the school and this comparison will just make me really, really depressed. But right now, we're able to joke that we are currently living in the upside down world of Wayside School, and that we can follow Msrs. Jewls' words of hope. Which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your opinion of Mrs. Jewls, her classroom management skills, and Wayside School in general.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Creating Meaning Amongst the Madness

My daughter's large school district went "back to school" this past Tuesday. For my kindergarten and second grader it went great. Their on-line classes were an hour, and were extremely well-run by their teachers. I was exhausted by just navigating our new schedule and helping them get online by the time my second grader finished up, but also impressed.

Then we woke up Wednesday morning. 

My girls were struggling the moment they woke up, and I soon realized it was because we'd lost what we had to look forward to. For awhile, we looked forward to Easter and then as soon as Easter was over we turned our attention to starting virtual school. Once that first day was completed we woke up on Wednesday to literally nothing else to look forward to but the routines inside our house. Of course, my children did not express this outright themselves, but after taking a moment and feeling where we were and reflecting on a class I'd been in the night before, I put it together. We took time and planned a virtual party for them and their friends on Friday. Clearly we are going to needing to actively work on making our own events we can look forward to in these coming weeks.

The "nothing to look forward to" problem solved, I busily started the day to prepare them for getting ready for virtual school - until we got an email saying there was a two hour delay due to improving security issues. OK, we can roll with this... Then we got another email from one teacher saying they were going to meet as planned... OK, we can roll with that. Our heads were starting to spin but this was important to our kids. Then we sat down to log on ... and tried... and tried... and tried. At first the error messages we were getting were amusing because they changed each time - Access forbidden! Error - try again! Network not available! You stupid parent, why can't you log on? 

All of us were in tears, trying to log on using different devices, scanning Facebook to find out if other parents were in the same boat. "Keep trying" someone recommended on facebook. But no one said they got in.

Finally we sent an email to teacher saying we loved her but that we couldn't do this anymore. We'll try again tomorrow. 

It was by far the worst day of our quarantine yet. 

SO, we put down our expectations and hopes of the day and just sat in our disappointment. No more rolling with it. No more "this is going to be OK!" We let ourselves just sit in the suckiness of it all. And it sucked. 

Yes, it sucks that we are stuck inside and you can't finish kindergarten in person. It sucks that there will be no kindergarten parade for you. We won't have our Kentucky Derby party. We can't hug our family members. You can't do gymnastics. We can't go to the park. You can't see your friends. You can't see your teachers. You've lost your autonomy outside of our family. It just sucks. 

Sometimes we need to feel it all.

And so, 
we ate ice cream Sundays for lunch. 
We held each other.
We colored our massive coloring page a bit.

Amazon came and delivered all the audiobooks I ordered last week. I let my children stay in their pjs, blow off their virtual taekwondo classes, and binge listen to the Boxcar Children. They listened to THREE novels. At one point my husband and I wondered what they were up to. They were so quiet we were sure they were up to no good, but we were both getting work done so we let it go. Turns out, the girls were re-organizing their bookshelves while they listened.

My husband and I recognized that our low moods were not going to let us get any more work done today so we turned off our computers and walked away. We took time for us, ordered delivery for dinner, and just sat as a family.

That night at dinner we were able to reflect on the "worst day yet", and you know what, that reflection made it all worth it. We recognized all the things we needed to do to calm down, talking about how we are problem solvers and we can get through this and do hard things - but that sometimes to do hard things you just need to breath. One of my girls commented on the fact that I was really good at taking deep breaths while we were trying to get onto their classes today - and we talked about why I'd stopped talking for a bit and just started breathing.

We made meaning of all of it. 

Research and academic writing on what makes children resilient shows that resilient children are not those with perfect childhoods, perfect parents, or children who are naturally not bothered by anything. Instead, resiliency is built from recognizing hard moments, sitting with those uncomfortable feelings, and reflecting on them later. We build our resiliency when we make meaning from how we handled the conflict, or how we restored a mismatch.

Yes, we lost it and yelled at someone, we sat and cried, we ate ice cream for lunch. Now, instead of ignoring the feelings we had then, we take those moments and create meaning. 

On-line learning in our district is postponed until Monday so they can work out the kinks in the system. I now know better than to put all of our hope on Monday. There will be future bad days, and there may be many of them. We can't avoid them, we can hide from them, and we can't just pretend everything is OK. 

These are the moments life is based on, and these are the moments we can come together and create the meaning we will rely on to move forward with the rest of our lives. 

So breath deeply, slow down, honor the feelings of sadness and despair. Sometimes we need to go slow to go fast.

Friday, April 10, 2020

stream of consciousness from a quarantined working mom

There is a roller blade in the middle of our living room. Just one. Alone. Propped against the coffee table as though it's going to join in our next game of Clue. The coffee table itself is covered in a giant coloring map of the world, with markers strewn across. A taekwondo belt is in the middle of the floor, next to a pair of sun glasses. The box of Easter decorations sits nearby. Easter is on Sunday, three days from now, and the decorations are slowly being placed around the cluttered surfaces, one by one, by a bored family member.

Easter. The girls are worried that the Easter Bunny may have the corona virus, or may spread it if he comes in. And yet they still want it, and ask repeatedly, can we still do normal Easter? Just without the church and the big family dinner.

My to-do list grows by the day between my various work projects and keeping up with the family. Why does it seem so much harder to keep on top of it in our new reality? On paper we are home all day. Shouldn't it be easy to get through work, do laundry, keep up with the mess of the house and play with my kids? Doesn't my normal guilt come from the fact that I don't spend enough time with my kids. Now we are together, day in and day out. Just, with a door and a stop sign between us as I try to work and balance their needs.

Advice is everywhere, from everyone.

Cherish these moments with your children. These are the moments they'll remember when they are older - the ones where you connected with them. Let them as much TV as they want - let them indulge and they'll remember how great that was too. Make a home-school schedule (don't see too many of those out there anymore, do you?) Learn something new. Start a new project. Plan ahead for next year. Deep clean the house. Practice self-care. Manage your emotions. Breath. Wash your hands. Don't watch the news. Limit your social media. But watch enough to make sure you are learning all the advice everyone else wants to share.

When this first started, I filled my days between work and my girls. I knew I needed to stay busy, so I made sure I was. Now, I'm starting to realize the busy-ness was simply masking panic - like reorganizing the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. That's great, but what I need is to slow down enough to listen to my body and to listen to what I need.

I need an uncluttered house. A moment to dive into the deep work that drives me. I need to snuggle with my girls. Take deep breaths. I need my commute where I spent time in deep thought and listened to audiobooks and podcasts that intellectually challenged me. I need time to check facebook without feeling guilty that I'm not working, connecting with my kids, my husband, my extended family, or friends. I need permission to just be.

We all need to grieve. Be able to stand up and say "this sucks". Recognize that we are going through a grief process that no amount of creativity, organization, productivity and positive memes will mask. We've lost the world as we knew it, and that's quite a blow. We need to be able to sit with that. Not wallow in it, but sit with it. Sitting with it, naming it, talking to it, will all help us identify what we need instead of pushing it down and ignoring what is pulling at us.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Being Emotional Honest and a "Good Enough" Parent with COVID-19 Knocking on the Door

In the stillness of the morning, when it is just me and my cat awake, my anxiety is the worst. The day is looming before us and so much of its success feels it will depend on my Mary Poppins Mom ability - can I pull off another magical day with the perfect balance of structure, expectations, connection, love, and spontaneous joy?

The stakes, if I cannot, feel high - there will be meltdowns during conference calls, screaming outside while the neighbors - all home to hear - will wonder what sort of monster parent I am. Will I be able to balance my own work with the needs of my children who are doing something - who knows what- somewhere in the house while I work? And the greatest fear of all - what long term implications will there be for moments of pure exhaustion and loss of patience on my part? What will my children remember from this unique time in their childhood? An invisible threat looms outside of our house and yet we are inside where it feels safe, though confusing. What memories and long-term narratives are they creating?

The first weekend - it had only been a few days into quarantining - I suddenly lost my mind and just walked out of the house for a walk. There had been no space for me amongst trying to meet their needs and in the middle of a crying fit from someone I just needed to leave. (Benefits of quarantine - my husband was there to pick up the pieces as I cry-walked around the block). What emotional damage did I do to my children in that moment?

Right before the world went into COVID-19 lockdown I was attending the opening weekend of my fellowship program in Infant Parent Mental Health at U-Mass Boston. It was an intense filled four days of lectures from people I'd only known of as expects and writers, and I was so divinely happy. It feels like so long ago now.

On Sunday, after my uber-driver and told me he didn't want to take me to the campus because he thought that was where the virus was first found in Boston (he also told me that within two weeks we'd be shut down. I laughed at his extreme thinking. It was less than a week later that school closed) I heard a lecture by Dr. Claudia Gold on Dr. Donald Winnicott. I wasn't familiar with Winnicott before, but his words spoke to me as a mom, especially as a PANDAS mom.

Winnicott, a physician and psychoanalysis, is known for his work on the "good-enough" mother. He writes that overtime, as we move away from the infant stage, our ability to be fully present and meet our children's every need decreases. We start to miss our children's cues - those same cues that we were so carefully tuned into. In the end, the "good enough parent" will meet their child's cues only 30% of the time.  This isn't just referring to those basic needs of food, shelter, security, but the needs of connection. Throughout a day a "good enough" parent misses 70% of their child's cues.


That seems high.
I don't want to miss 70% of my chid's cues.

And yet, Winnicott found that this was a good thing. Not that we should be intentionally ignoring our children's needs, but that in the midst of life we will not be able to be perfect. And it is in those moments of non-perfection that we create the room for growth and resiliency in our children. Our children need the 70% of moments we miss their cues. It is in those moments that we can come back, repair our connections, create safety, let them know that the world doesn't end when we make mistakes or their needs are not met. Naturally, through mis-matched connections and then coming back together and repairing the interaction, we slowly give our children the power to be resilient. We make mistakes and then come back and reconnect. 

Donald Woods Winnicott quote: I would rather be the child of a ...

Right now, in the time of a global pandemic, we would do more damage if we were a perfect parent to our children. We would be showing our children that during scary, upsetting times, the best thing to do is to hide your fear, push down your anxiety, create pin-worthy activities, smile for the camera, and pretend like nothing is wrong. That is not how we want our kids to handle a crisis 30 years from now. That gives them no tools or internal narratives to fall back on when their own lives get rough.

It is OK to be emotionally honest with our children. Yes, there are things that mommy doesn't know the answer to. Yes, there is a strange virus outside and we don't understand it. No, mommy doesn't know what will happen. Yes, mommy is a little scared and worried. No, this has never happened before - we don't know what will happen next. No, I don't like being quarantined either. This sucks. No, mommy should not have used that word. Yes, you will be in trouble if you use that word. But frankly, it does suck.

But now let's make a list of what we do know. Let's look at what we can control. Yes, mommy stormed out of the house for a walk because she couldn't take it anymore. I probably shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry. That must have felt scary for mommy to just walk away when you were crying at her feet. Man, I'm sorry. Next time I am going to try to find some space for myself before I get so upset that I need to leave. I'll try to pay attention to where my worry is. I think it's in my chest - have you found where you keep your worries in your body? Where do you feel it first?
I feel a lot of that right now - that worry in my chest, that moves to my stomach. But you know what? when we are together - cuddling - reading books and talking? It makes me feel better. That worry goes away. Because what we do know is that we are together, and that inside these walls we can take care of one another. We will get upset - these are tough times. And we can't control our feelings. We can't stop the worry or the frustration of being stuck here away from our friends. But we can control what we do with those. What gives us joy? I notice you find joy in creating art projects. What can we create together tomorrow? I wish I could do it with you all day, but I have so many boring meetings. Let's find a time in my schedule that I can be with you - no phone, facebook, meeting, or to-do list and we can create your masterpiece. I wish it could be all day, and I wish I didn't have to work so much on the computer when I could be with you. It must be strange to know I'm behind the door with the sign that says "Mommy is closed". When you feel sad about that check the schedule - know that I will come back out of that door and we'll play together soon, OK?

Wednesday, March 25, 2020


On Monday the governor of our state announced that schools would be closed for the remainder of the year.

My initial reaction to this was "There is no way you can expect me to break that news to my children. At all. The governor himself is going to need to come to my house, and standing six feet away from us, break my children's little hearts."

Realizing that in this time of a global pandemic the governor is not going house to house, I finally put on my big girl parenting pants and told them myself.

My second grader took it like a champ. I was surprised by this because every single day we have been home she has said she wants to go back to school. She has one of those magical second year teachers who is full of energy and excitement and has made my daughter feel like second grade is life. Over Christmas vacation all my daughter talked about was going back to school.

My kindergartner took the news a little harder. She nodded, then said she needed to go to bed. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. We got her up for her on-line book club, and then she went back to bed. We caught her on and off sneaking back to bed over the afternoon. She looked at dinner and cried, "I don't know why, but I just can't eat."

I'm watching my little six year old experience her first true heartbreak.

On my oldest's last day of kindergarten she announced it was the worst day of her life. At the end of the day, when I asked her what she did that day, she told me she cried.

"When did you cry?" I asked, assuming it was the beginning of the day.

"I started when my teacher put up the 0 for 0 more days of school. I never stopped." Oh baby girl.

There is a magic to kindergarten. Even though both of my girls had gone to full day preschools and had amazing experiences with strong pre-K teachers, there is still something about kindergarten itself. I don't know if it is being old enough to be in the big school and ride a bus, or something about the developmental age, but kindergarten changed both of my children. They grew that year. They leaned into the person they are becoming and discovered interests they didn't have. Both of their classrooms had strong communities that made kindergarten feel like another family.

For my youngest, that ended too soon. The school has not started any virtual experiences yet as they work to get themselves organized and all of the on-line platforms up and running. I'm hoping once they do there will be more of a sense of connection and community.

In the meantime, I have very sad children who are truly mourning a loss.

That afternoon I let them binge watch Mr. Rogers and I curled up with a favorite book because I needed a bit of comfort too. All of this - all of the upside downness that is happening for all of us - is a loss. As parents and teachers we are trying to stand tall and take care of those around us, but we have to recognize our own feelings of loss as well. If we don't let ourselves grieve, we won't be emotionally available for our kids who need us the most.

It's hard right now. All of it. The closed schools, the trapped at home, the unknown future, the scary news stories. It's hard and scary. It's OK for it to be hard and for us to acknowledge it is hard. Yes, this sucks. We are heartbroken. We are sad and lost and scared. We have to recognize how hard it is so that we can take the next step. We can do hard things. We've got this. Together. One step at a time.

Monday, March 23, 2020

COVID-19 - How is everyone holding up?

So. This is... a new experience. I hope everyone out there is staying sane, healthy, and able to maintain access to whatever fills your cup - whether it is moments alone (which are hard in a house packed with kids) or moments with others (that is hard when you are an extrovert and stranded alone in your house).

We survived the first week, and after initially getting over the disappointment of canceled parties, playdates, and school, my girls have been enjoying themselves - somewhat. One of them looked at us with a confused glance last night when we made a comment about how this was something we just had to get through. In her six year old eyes this is a pretty good gig (at the moment) and she doesn't see why being stuck at home with no schedule or responsibilities is a problem.

Of course, we have two full-time working parents, so suddenly trying to take four people's lives and force them into an on-line schedule with only two computers and one struggling internet has been a cognitive task that should get all of us into Mensa. We went into survival mode, and survival mode needed to encourage independence, allow for free play AND school work, and of course, together time when possible.

Knowing my kids' personalities and what they need to stay busy, we implemented two different systems to fill their days while we try to continue to handle our full time jobs.

The first is a to-do list with a total of ten items on it. Something to do with reading, something to do with writing, something to do with math, something to do with a content (science/social studies), then help mommy, help daddy, do something kind, play outside and practice the piano.

Every time they complete four tasks (or tickets) they can turn them in for screen time. At the moment it is educational screen time, but I'm sure eventually we'll move to anything. We are in survival mode. Let's be real.

This is working for us because one of my girls loves schedules, so with this she can plan her day and make out her schedule. She likes to choose what will go on the to-do list the night before, choosing what she will read, what sort of writing activity she will do, what math project she'll play. She gets a deep sense of satisfaction from this list.

My other child is more of a free spirit. She doesn't need the guidance from the list and often doesn't realize how much she's completed until we sit down and go over it with her.

Our other current COVID-19 hack is that each girl also has a bingo board. This is how we are surviving. The boxes include anything from "Left Mommy alone when she was working", to "put on a puppet show" "took a bath" "got mad at my sister but just walked away", "did two worksheets", and"got myself a snack"

Ever since we implemented these we haven't heard an "I'm bored". The girls enjoy choosing what to do, and realizing that if they are trying to decide between playing dollhouse or an art project they can game out the system and strategically do something to make sure they get a bingo. Bingo = two chocolate kisses. Yes, candy. It's working. Back off.

BINGO gives the right amount of structure mixed with choice, kind of like a menu. While I am happy to share what I've done with you, I created it quickly in google docs using a 5 x 5 table. It's not fancy, but it's keeping us sane!

What are your parenting hacks these days?