Woman with short hair and diamond earrings resting her head atop a closed briefcase

I’ve been wearing the same clothes for three days, maybe four. The last time I exercised was… I can’t even remember. Three weeks ago, maybe? 

It’s not that I’m being lazy. There just truly doesn’t seem to be enough time to get all the things done. And all the other things seem to be a much higher priority than…than my own needs?

Hmm… that doesn’t sound right. Feels like those should come first.

I’ve been doing some things to take care of myself. Each morning, for example, I make myself coffee and breakfast before I do anything else. The to-do list has also continued to be immensely helpful and, if I’m measuring my success by the number of boxes that are checked off, I’m knocking it out of the park. I color my hair every two months and blow it out every Friday.

It’s progress, but if I can’t find time to shower and exercise (which was on the list to begin with, but which I just gave up on writing in after awhile because it was so demotivating never to be able to check it off), then I’ve got a long way to go. 

When my son was just a couple weeks old, and I was struggling to produce enough milk to feed him properly, I sat in his doctor’s office weeping behind my face mask.

“How are you sleeping?” he asked.

Sigh. “Generally, okay, but last night we were at my in-laws’ house and nobody got any sleep.” 

“Why were you there?”

“Because our house is under construction.”

“And why didn’t anyone sleep?”

Fresh tears. “Well, it was hard to be in the house because my father-in-law just died.”

An understanding nod. “And how often are you pumping?”

“Every time he eats.”

“Which is…?”

“Every 90 minutes or so?”

“Is there anyone who can help you?”

I shook my head. “Quarantine.”

“Do you have a therapist you can talk to?”

I didn’t feel like I needed to talk with my therapist, though I’d had one until very recently and she would have been happy to help me with what was going on. “All the stuff is normal,” I said.

“Nothing about your situation is normal,” he responded.

And he was right. Everything was messed up right then, and it continues to be so. Nothing is normal. For us, with the home construction and my father-in-law’s death and the newborn, the messed-up-ness seems compounded a thousandfold. And the kids are home, and there’s nowhere to go, and their friends are all in their own houses, and we are all stuffed into two rooms, and my husband and I are both trying to work, and, rather than working like a valve to release steam gradually, my top just blows off from time to time from all the overstimulation and feelings of ineffectiveness and inadequacy.

I tend to believe this is just quarantine fatigue, because of everything that’s going on. When the construction is done, and when the kids go back to school, and when the baby gets a little older, things will be less overwhelming. They’ll slow down, and there will be fewer items on the list, and we’ll all be able to take a deep breath.

But what if it’s not just quarantine fatigue? What if this is depression and I’m minimizing it, as I’m wont to do? 

I suppose the outcome would be the same. There would still be the same mountain of items to accomplish, the same coping strategies to try and avoid losing my cool with my kids, who are really innocent victims in this whole mess. Awareness really is the first step.

Actually, I think taking a shower should be the first step. I stink.

Until next time,

-NK

 

 

 

Little girl with shoulder-length blonde hair and a long-sleeved white shirt covering her face with her hands

Children learn to work out their feelings by observing the adults in their lives

It All Started with an insignificant event

“Just stop,” I said to my seven-year-old daughter as we pulled out of the school’s parking lot. “We’ve talked about it. It’s over. You need to move on.”

“But — ”

“Enough,” I said, raising my voice another notch. “It’s not even that big of a deal. I don’t understand why you’re so worked up about it.”

She balled up her fists and I imagined I could hear the steam escaping her ears. In the rear-view mirror, I could see she was full to burst — cheeks filled with red; eyes filled with tears. “You’re not even listening to me!” she spat, at the top of her lungs. “You won’t even let me talk!”

Deep breath. Patronizing voice. “Honey, I did let you— ” Crap. I stopped myself. No, I hadn’t, actually. When she’d gotten in the car and immediately started in on her daily lament, I’d offered a statement to the contrary and shut the conversation down.

She was anxious about researching an animal for science class.

“You’ve got plenty of time,” I said.

She was frustrated about math homework.

“You’re great at math,” I said.

She was having friction with a friend.

“You two will work it out,” I said.

I thought I was being supportive. Giving her a positive perspective would shift her mindset, and the anxiety, frustration, and friction would go away, right?

Wrong. My daughter is nothing if not persistent. And these problems weren’t going to go away just because I polished them up, all nice and pretty.

The truth is, I didn’t want to deal with her feelings. I wanted to move on. I had already decided, before she ever opened her mouth, that whatever had her worked up was insignificant. And it was, to me. But to her, it was very significant indeed.

Another deep breath, this time out of exasperation with myself. “You’re right,” I said, softening my tone. “I’m sorry. We’ll be home in a couple minutes. Do you want to sit with me and talk about it?”

She nodded vigorously, tears of relief rather than rage sliding down her windburned cheeks. “Yes, Mama. Yes, please.” She took her own ragged breath and relaxed back into the seat.

When we got home, my seven-year-old sat on my lap, while my five-year-old silently leaned against us. I asked what happened, and how she felt about what happened. I paraphrased what I thought I was hearing, and asked for clarification. I asked how I could help her through the situation, and what strategies she could use on her own. I asked what she needed — from me; from Dad and sis; from teachers and support providers at school.

At the end of the conversation, she hugged me tightly. “Mom, you’re the best. Thank you so much.”

And I wiped a tear from my cheek as I held her even tighter, thinking about what an asshole I am.

All she wanted was to be heard. She wanted me to ask questions, to learn what she was thinking and how she was feeling, and to really take the time to understand why this thing, which seemed so insignificant to me, was taking up so much of her emotional energy.

And I cut her off. Shut her down. Made it clear that my comfort was more important than her feelings. What kind of mother was I, anyway?

The Pattern Seemed All Too Familiar

When I was a kid, I felt misunderstood and not listened to. I had no idea what to do with my feelings, because no one seemed to have the time for them. While I don’t think I ever got as heated as my daughter did in the back seat of the car that day (because I would rather eat my emotions than get smacked) I do have very clear memories of balling up my fists, weeping silently, screaming into my pillow, and crying to my dogs because I couldn’t seem to get the humans to understand me.

Some big, bad things happened when I was a kid — things that were scary, and dangerous, and affected my physical and mental health for a long time afterward — and I never once opened my mouth to tell my parents.

Not telling wasn’t a conscious act. I didn’t, the day after I was sexually abused, decide I wouldn’t tell my parents. Rather, I realized I couldn’t. Hundreds of little micro-incidents over the years had conditioned to me to swallow my feelings and needs, or risk being berated, dismissed, or thumped upside the head.

I received their message, intentional or not, loud and clear: I really should just leave them alone with all my nonsense kid problems.

The thing is, kids grow up to be adults. And if kids’ needs aren’t met, they often grow up to be dysfunctional adults. If you don’t believe me, just ask me.

Children live almost entirely in their feelings. They can’t rationalize away their pain, or fear, or anger, no matter how many times grownups tell them it’s irrational. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s responsible for judgment, prioritization, and decision making, doesn’t even fully develop until approximately age twenty-five .

So expecting my second-grader to understand that whatever has her on high alert is no big deal is akin to teaching calculus to a houseplant: She’s not going to buy it, no matter how hard I sell it.

My seven-year-old is a little kid with big feelings: happiness is perceived as elation; unease morphs into despair; nervousness and anxiety become near-crippling fear. And, I’ll admit it, these extreme emotions are most definitely not my jam.

Just because I’ve been conditioned to label negative emotions as an inconvenience, though, doesn’t mean that my child doesn’t get a chance to feel them, talk about them, and work through them.

Reflecting on my own experience makes me realize that I must make time for my daughter’s feelings, even if they seem irrational or make me uncomfortable. Probably especially then, because that’s when she needs the most help sorting through them. And, probably, I do, too.

Children learn what they live

Yesterday morning, my kids were having an argument at the breakfast table while I was in my bedroom, getting dressed.

“You didn’t let me sit next to you on the bus,” said Little Sis.

“Mary wanted me to sit next to her,” said Big.

I had to chime in, because I’m told that siblings are supposed to take care of each other. “Girls, both of you should be looking out for each other on the bus,” I called down the hall.

Big sis burst out in tears. “I just — I feel like I’m a bad sister!”

Oops.

Little: “You’re not a bad sister! I just want someone to sit with on the bus.”

“But I feel like if I don’t sit next to Mary, she won’t want to be my friend anymore.”

“She’s still going to be your friend if you sit with me. We can sit next to different people every day.”

“But that’s what happened with Natalie in first grade.” My seven-year-old lowered her voice, and her tears were less urgent, more reflective. She was genuinely afraid to lose a friendship, and torn by the feeling that she needed to decide between her sister and her friend.

“Well, just because it happened with Natalie doesn’t mean it will happen with Mary,” said her little sister softly.

Both kids had de-escalated, and I lost track of the conversation at that point, but I returned to the kitchen a few moments later to find my two beautiful children in the midst of a warm embrace. They patted each other’s hair, and each told the other what a good sister she was. “I love you,” they said.

Two young children dressed in similar clothing, sitting on a green uphostered chair and hugging

And I definitely was not crying. No, not at all.

On my best days, I cannot express my feelings the way my five- and seven-year-old children did just then.

I lacked a healthy emotional model to follow when I was a child, and never really developed one until after I was married. But somehow, somewhere, my two little tiny humans learned that it was okay to acknowledge, explore, and discuss their feelings — not just with the grownups they trust, but with each other.

Still not crying.

And my kids never fought again, and now we are all experts at expressing our feelings and listening to each other. The End.

Ha ha, just kidding.

My kids still fight. I still find myself trying to wriggle out of talking about uncomfortable feelings. I still get impatient with my children. Sometimes, my first reflex is still to minimize their pain, the way that mine was minimized when I was a child.

Every day, though, I work to recognize this impulse and curb it. The last thing I want is for my children to grow up thinking that, if something big and bad happens in their lives, they shouldn’t bother me with it.

Thankfully, I was blessed with two persistent children: two strong little girls who speak up for themselves when they don’t feel heard; two budding young women who know that their feelings and experiences, even the icky ones, are important; kids who know our family can work through anything together, and that we’ve got each other’s back.

And if that’s the only thing they ever learn from me, I think I could live with that.


This story was originally published on Medium.com.

Young child leaning over the back of an office chair with their head resting on their arms, looking lonely

Social isolation has preyed on everyone’s vulnerabilities, and our children are the silent victims

In my house, social isolation began after my first- and third-graders came home from school on March 12, 2020. We all saw it coming, but we had no idea back then that as we came up on American Independence Day nearly four months later, we would still be holed up together in the three rooms that currently make up our home. 

I had a baby. Two family members died, and one moved to a long-term care facility. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, my birthday and my daughter’s. My husband’s 40th. All quietly gone by as the doors to schools, amusement areas, and friends’ homes remain closed due to social isolation.

When the stay-at-home orders began, some posed it as an opportunity, a challenge: Bond with your family! Take up a hobby! Learn a new skill! 

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it’s played out for many families who have been in social isolation as long as we have.

Working parents were suddenly left with no childcare, and those who had the fortune to be able to continue employment from home were now charged with caring for and educating for their children while also trying to achieve their job responsibilities. 

Much has already been said about how practically unrealistic that situation was and continues to be. But as the other side of this social isolation grows farther away than we ever could have anticipated back in March, I’ve been reflecting on how my children themselves have changed in these few short months. 

Social isolation has managed to find all our vulnerabilities and exploit them, to the point that all our most troublesome qualities are heightened and, since we can’t leave the house, our healthy coping mechanisms have become close to nonexistent.

For children, this is exceptionally concerning. This is such an essential and impressionable time in their young lives, and I’m beginning to fear when this is all over, when we settle into whatever the new normal looks like for us, they will emerge changed people — and not necessarily for the better.

Social development and relationships suffer when you’re stuck with family day in and day out

For my children, school provided built-in social opportunities that just aren’t there when you’re surrounded by family all the time. Kids don’t get the opportunity to talk through their learning or work on problem solving with other students when their only communication is relegated to a computer screen. Increasingly, they’re able to opt out of the classroom rituals that make them feel like part of a community.

With parks closed and social distancing guidelines in place, there’s no replacement for running around hunting grasshoppers or practicing the newest gymnastics move with a rotating group of other children at recess. 

Sending the kids away in the morning and receiving them in the afternoon also provided a line of demarcation for us adults, a boundary between work time and family time. With all the distraction inherent in helping the kids with their school assignments and otherwise caring for them throughout the day, those boundaries have become extra blurry. Children end up feeling like they’re in the way and interrupting whenever they talk to their parents — because, usually, they are. That’s why adults don’t typically take their children to work with them.

And, after spending all day corralling the kids and trying to persuade (threaten) them into managing themselves from 9–5, it’s pretty hard for parents to be as emotionally available as we want to be in the evenings. Not to mention the work we missed out on during the day that somehow needs to get finished.

Relationships with friends and family members that would typically be nurtured outside of school are also stunted when kids are confined to a nuclear family group. Divides begin to build between us that weren’t there before — divides which are heightened by the differing risk tolerance (and, unfortunately, political beliefs) of different families. Things we parents would have never discussed before become reasons our children can’t see each other now, leading to even more social isolation.

Mental health suffers without coping mechanisms and outside support

I realize not everyone receives mental health support, but for those of us who need it, this is a particularly trying time. Three out of the four members of my family who know how to talk receive some level of outside services, and we have all suffered with not seeing our usual providers in the typical way during this time.

Virtual therapy just isn’t the same as in-person therapy. I know we’re all trying and it’s the best we can do, but trying to establish the deep connection needed for effective therapy just doesn’t work when you’re sitting in your home, surrounded by all your junk.

Therapy time used to be sacred. It used to be a place where you could walk in, close the door, and be alone with someone whose only goal was to help you work through your issues for an hour. During quarantine, it’s become a distracted, disjointed attempt at maintaining the bubble gum and duct tape that holds your sanity together. 

It’s hard to make real progress when your kid, partner, or little sister is banging around on the other side of the computer screen. It’s hard to concentrate when the baby is crying or the doorbell is ringing, even if you know someone else is going to attend to them.

As a result, anxiety and depressive symptoms — in this house, at least — are at an all-time high during social isolation.

Coping mechanisms, meanwhile, are all but forgotten due to our collective heightened state. And when the adults’ coping mechanisms have fallen by the wayside, how can we help our children remember theirs?

Physical activity and nutrition suffer without the routines and opportunities that used to be available

Exercise used to be a non-negotiable in my family. Both my older kids were involved in organized physical activities at least a couple times a week, whether it be gymnastics, softball, dance, or some program put on by our local recreation department. I went to the gym most days and often took the girls with me; my husband exercised and meditated regularly.

We prioritized having a fitness routine, because we know how difficult they can be to re-establish in earnest after a period of inactivity. 

But, with organized sports halted indefinitely, gyms closed, and everyone crammed into the house together, it’s impossible to keep to the routines we had before. Outside activity is weather-dependent and, as with virtual socialization, when no one else is involved, it’s easier for the kids (and, let’s face it: the adults, too) to opt out.

As exercise routines have gone by the wayside, discipline around mealtimes has also gradually eroded. 

Anyone avoiding crowded places so as to protect themselves and family members from possible infection with the coronavirus is at the behest of grocery delivery services, which are convenient but can be problematic. Delivery windows might be a week into the future, and by the time the order finally arrives, it is often missing some key items.

Proper produce and meat have been especially hard to come by. Snack items, on the other hand, are readily available and require no preparation, leading us all to fill our bellies with unsatisfying junk and value a balanced menu and set mealtimes less and less.

It seems all our efforts over the years at intentionally embedding fitness and healthy eating into our lives have been thwarted, and I truly worry for my children’s health.

Educational development suffers without trained professionals with consistent expectations

Many parents have been frustrated with schools’ and districts’ implementation of distance learning during social isolation, particularly the fact that kids of many ages can’t really be independent with it. The most concerning aspect, though, is that every district — and, many times, every school within a district and every teacher within a single school — has implemented it differently.

Special education, counseling and related services were likewise unevenly implemented and, in most cases, can’t take place in any meaningful way online anyway. Social groups aren’t effective when kids can’t be in the same room together. One-on-one or small-group instruction often takes for granted that students are in a classroom with the necessary materials; parents have varying ability to procure or print these materials, and the practicality of conducting such sessions is seriously limited when the teacher can’t observe the student. Counseling relies on a sense of privacy it’s nearly impossible to achieve with the rest of the family around.

And this is all assuming the technology works flawlessly and kids are able to focus and attend to it for a sustained period. Many kids with various learning differences can’t.

And, let’s not forget, traditional classroom teachers were trained to teach in a traditional classroom. Remote teaching is an entirely different beast with its own set of benefits and challenges, and the learning curve has been steeper for some than for others.

The net result of all this is that kids are going to start the next school year in vastly different places academically — even more so than usual — and many will be missing skills from the previous grade level that have been taken for granted in years past. The need for remediation will be greater but at the same time less predictable than usual because teachers didn’t have the chance to properly assess kids’ strengths and needs prior to the end of the school year. 

And kids with special learning or socio-emotional needs, like my nine-year-old, will suffer the most.

Whatever the new normal is, it’s going to be harder than we expect for our kids to fit into it

At the beginning of quarantine, many of us thought we were walking into a brief respite from the norm. For a couple weeks, we thought, we could relax our rigid schedules, take a break from our exhaustingly persistent obligations, and even recharge.

For a hundred thirty days and counting, we’ve all been living in a kind of social isolation survival mode, and it’s taken a toll on all of us. 

But while our sights are set on how to get through each day, our children are getting more dysregulated by the minute. Our day-to-day maintenance has come at the expense of the structure and support kids need to continue growing into balanced, well-adjusted humans. 

My girls each have different strengths and needs. My oldest, an athlete who has a learning disability and is at strong risk for anxiety and depression, won’t struggle with her diet or exercise but will probably have anxiety attacks when expected to return to school, even though that’s what she desperately wants. Her little sister, who is ahead of her peers academically but prefers more sedentary activities and refuses to eat fruit or vegetables, will return to school just fine but likely refuse to engage in the sports she used to enjoy or eat the balance meals I send with her.

So it will be with many children.

Kids who were anxious about going to school before will be a hundred times more anxious when they have to go back after being gone for months on end.

Kids who had trouble being motivated into physical activity will be even more reluctant to rejoin their sports and activities.

Kids who were behind academically or socially will return even farther behind.

Children are resilient, but this is time they’ll never get back. As our social isolation stretches farther than we ever expected, I’m increasingly concerned their paths will be forever altered once we emerge into the world once more.