This week, the CDC announced new guidelines for fully-vaccinated individuals in the U.S. and, while the news brought a collective sigh of relief as the end of a long pandemic suddenly seemed like more than a fairytale pipe dream, it also brought a new brand of anxiety for bone-tired working parents. It’s no secret that the pandemic impacted families profoundly—especially working moms who suddenly found their careers and the equity they’d worked so hard to establish with their partners slipping away—but what about post-pandemic life? How would they tackle that? What would corporations expect from their employees now that in-office workdays were a viable option? How would they reintroduce their kids to childcare? What about the effects of social isolation on their children and on themselves? When would they recover from the pandemic-induced emotional regulation concerns, screen addiction, and Groundhog Day languishing they suffered through over the last 14 months?
COVID-19 made our parental juggling acts even more complicated and obvious, but, in the end, it showed just how much we all take on, in times of crisis but also in non-pandemic times. Back in 2019, when life was hectic and kids were overscheduled, I spent a lot of hours in my pediatrics clinic counseling parents on the value of paring down their children’s extracurricular activities, volunteer commitments, and school obligations—and their own. 2020 changed all that, even for those of us with young kids. There was suddenly no pressure anymore to sign up for piano lessons. The weekend birthday parties were all canceled. No one needed me to come to an in-person parent-teacher conference at 7:30 pm, thank goodness.
Quarantine also had one other benefit: togetherness—a shiny diamond in a dark coal mine. Families took more time on Saturday mornings to make blueberry pancakes and sausage because there was nothing else to do. We went together on long walks because there just weren’t many other options. We read more. You could feel the simplicity, the exhale we were taking from our prior day-to-day. We had a fresh slate—a new, totally bizarre opportunity to flip the script on the hectic way we all lived pre-COVID.
Our weekend and afternoon schedules were lighter, but, given the circumstances of our free time, the mood was palpably heavier throughout the week. Overnight our kids’ worlds were flipped upside down. Everything was suddenly a no—no school, no gymnastics, no playdates, no playgrounds. No, no, no. Closed, canceled, coronavirus. With togetherness came too much togetherness, a stifling, overcrowding from sharing space hour after hour, day after day. My sensitive firstborn, who needs structure and routine to mitigate her anxiety symptoms, wouldn’t even speak the word coronavirus (or let us speak it, for that matter) for 3 whole months. Like so many other kids I’ve worked with this during the pandemic, she regressed and acted out.
As working moms, our worlds were rocked too, not only because we were unexpectedly reeling ourselves but because we carry the emotional well-being of our entire families. What a moment to remind ourselves of the collaborative problem-solving philosophy that kids do the best they can when they can, and so do parents, honing in on taking care emotionally of our young children with evidence-based parenting strategies, empathy, and grace What an opportunity to develop real resilience by leaning into our emotions instead of pretending everything’s alright.
Here’s what I tell the mothers (and fathers) I see weekly in my clinic—and what I remind myself on the daily as we enter a new, brave, almost-post-pandemic world.
Remind yourself about what matters most to you in life and what you want out of it. It may have seemed like your hopes and dreams for your life and for your loved ones’ lives were completely out of reach during the pandemic. All our travel plans were off the table; our career advancement opportunities were stymied—sometimes it was hard enough just to get from breakfast to bedtime. How could we look to the future with any kind of confidence? But having a centered vision of how we want our lives to look in 5 to 10 years and a set of priorities we live by is, in fact, exactly what we need to keep hope alive when the days are long and the future looks far away. That need for clarity isn’t gone now that the sun is shining a bit brighter and the world feels freer. In fact, it’s even more important.
Adopt a loyal commitment to making space for yourself. Only when we take care of our own physical and social-emotional health can we fully take care of others, especially in times of crisis. The most joyful and centered parents, crisis or no crisis, make concrete plans to attend to their own needs and to intentionally care for themselves in real, practical ways. Even if you are a busy, working parent, you still need time to be you, just you, throughout the week so you can reconnect to your centered vision but also so you can reconnect to yourself as an individual who is separate from your role as a mom, partner, professional, or friend. Putting our deepest needs first actually allows us to operate from a place of presence and calm, instead of reactivity. Never was this truer that when we had a multitude of outside stressors (like a rapidly spreading virus ruining each and every part of our lives). It’s still true, though, once the virus becomes a non-issue and our to-do lists and compounding responsibilities threaten to steal that commitment away.
Treat yourself like you would treat your very best friend on her hardest day—especially in the next few weeks. As parents, it’s easy to treat ourselves harshly when we mess up—and mama (and papa), you’re in very good company if you’ve been messing up a lot more over the last year. Emotions ran high, our kids had no normalcy, we didn’t have a date night in months; it made sense. It also makes sense that you’ll continue to blunder your way through re-emerging into the world.
We’re all too good at criticizing ourselves when we feel like we’re failing in one area of life or another—or in all the areas. The most successful parents learn to emotion-coach our kids, acknowledging and helping them identify their feelings, validating their emotions, and then helping them to problem solve when they get upset. We can’t forget to do the same for ourselves too, especially as we navigate a new kind of work environment and our kids do the same for their social and educational activities.
Connect with Those in Your in Your Support Networks, But Feel Free to Take It Slow. Adopting an intention around the way we want to show up for ourselves and for our children during the pandemic was crucial, but doing it alongside others you respect and love was almost impossible. Now that the fog of crisis is lifting, remember: even though you’ve been a lone cowboy for a year, it wasn’t ideal. You need a village. Look at your own circle and reach out in a way that honors your particular circumstances and your energy levels in a post-pandemic world. Don’t over-schedule your weekends. Wait a minute to answer a text from your bestie. Make plans with vaccinated relatives, but take a breath before over-committing.
Trust Your Instincts—and Remember Other Struggles You’ve Made It Through. You are an amazing parent even if, during this pandemic, you didn’t feel like it at all. You can trust yourself to make the right decisions for you and your family now that it’s (almost) over now. Think back on the times you weren’t exactly sure what to do with your 6-week-old’s diaper rash, or when you had no clue how to fix your toddler’s thumb-sucking issue. What did you do? You read about it, you relied on trusted experts like your child’s pediatrician, but you also relied on your own intuition. The more you listen to your gut instincts, the more confident your parenting and your sense of self. That’s true any day, any year, but it’s never been truer than right now as you consider your needs and the needs of your little (or not so little) ones.
Emerging back into a more normal version of the world feels exciting—exhilarating even—for me and for parents nationwide. It’s okay, though, that it also feels daunting, and confusing, and maybe a little exhausting to think about handling this new transition. You and your family can thrive, though, if you get centered about what you value most, if you commit to honoring your own needs, and if you trust the hard-earned lessons you learned over the past 14 months.
This is a modified excerpt from The Working Mom Blueprint, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (May, 2021).