Friday, March 27, 2020
Being Emotional Honest and a "Good Enough" Parent with COVID-19 Knocking on the Door
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.
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?