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.

70%

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

Heartbreak

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?



Sunday, February 23, 2020

Family Point System

A few people have asked about my family's morning point system. It's something we started over a year ago, and it works for us. Every family is different and has different needs, but this is how we currently stay sane on weekday mornings.

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At some point last year I decided I was tired of spending the morning yelling at my children in order to get out of the house. At that point, the only incentive I had to get them to move faster in the morning was the fear of KISS AND RIDE. I basically had my children believing that the kiss and ride line involved a terrifying fire-breathing dragon and if we missed the bus life would basically end. (I mean, we are lucky enough to have a bus - I am NOT waiting in that ridiculous line of cars just because you couldn't get your shoes on fast enough. Run Girls! Run!) In actuality, the kiss and ride line isn't that bad, but still. No one has time for that.

I considered giving up all together and just letting us be late, but since I work that didn't make sense either.

Instead, we went to a morning point sheet. Each girl earns points individually based around two basic requirements - that she moves quickly and acts with love. At the end of the week, the points are pooled together for a family experience over the weekend. It's a group contingency plan - no one is winning or losing, and they are working towards an experience we can do as a family. This is key because it fosters working together to earn something together, instead of competing with one another.

The Nuts and Bolts:
Our morning is divided into the three critical breaking points for us - the upstairs time (getting dressed, brushing hair, putting on shoes, getting out of bed), the breakfast period (you know, just EATING the breakfast), and then leaving the house (getting your backpack and leaving the house on time).

There are only two official rules - Move Quickly and Act with Love. Both of these cover a variety of sins, distractibility, feet-dragging, and "don't want to get out of bed" moments. Each period gives each girl a chance to earn 3 points - one for acting quickly, one for acting with love, and one that is parent discretion. Over time, this has moved to include things like clearing the breakfast dishes or making the bed - things that weren't even in the cards when we started this, but now we can add on.

You will not earn points for "acting with love" if you yell at your sister, your parent, or even the cat - if you ignore someone talking to you, say something mean, etc. You may wake up grumpy and that's fine, but you cannot take it out on the rest of us.

On the other hand, you may be as loving as possible, but if you sit there telling us how much you love us and don't actually get dressed or follow the morning routine, then you won't earn points for moving quickly.

So each day there are 18 points possible - 9 for each girl. At the end of the week 90 points is a perfect score, and my girls decided the best possible experience is dessert at the American Girl store. (Other than actually driving to Tysons, their desserts are reasonably priced so this isn't actually extravagant). 85-89 points gets us ice cream out as a family
80-84 points gets us ice cream in as a family
75-79 points is a cookie treat at home

Why it works for us:

Teaches us to forgive ourselves:
The system is set up so that even bad days can be recovered from, so that no one can just give up on Friday. I also have one child who always wants a perfect score, no matter what she is doing. I intentionally set it up as having so many points so that she can see it is OK to miss one or two here and there. It's OK to forget your breakfast dishes one morning of the week - we all make mistakes. (And thank goodness, I couldn't handle the AG store weekly).

Changes our parenting language:
What I love about our point system is that it lets us work as a team toward a common goal in the morning. It changes the conversation from "PUT ON YOUR SHOES!" to "Let's get our points for this week! What do we need to do to get all of our points?" and "Don't forget - you need to be down stairs by 7:30 to get all three points. What do you need to do before then?"

The "don't use that tone of voice with me" response became "I'm going to remind you to act with love."

Supporting Teamwork
Most importantly - they will occasionally help each other out - clear one another's dishes, help each other find their book bags, or shoes. Of course, there are times they are totally ready to let their sister suffer the consequences of losing points, but at other times they do step in and help each other out.

Yes, I wish we could have perfectly peaceful mornings without a point system, but this lets us work towards a common goal, supports our constant message that perfection isn't the goal but working hard is, AND gives us an excuse to eat ice cream, all while preventing me from yelling.