When my friend Pamela Benson Owens tapped me to talk about this, it was with a meme showing a sandwich board outside someone’s house that read “Simmer down, Karen… there’s no award for best quarantine mom.” Pam knows me well. We are cut from the same cloth. High achievement drives us. We laughed about the meme and she suggested I should write something on parenting during the pandemic. I laughed again thinking sure, that is just what every mom who is hanging on by a thread wants…..some other mother telling them how to do it. But upon reflection, I realized we are all in this together, learning, sharing, and leaning into and on each other. While there are no original ideas here, none of us has lived through this before. All we can do it gather information and cull through it to see what works for us. The following strategies outline what works for me (at least right now), and I hope it will be helpful to you as well.
Let me begin by acknowledging that I am beyond blessed in my particular set of circumstances during COVID-19. I have a home where I can socially distance myself and my family from others, that is a safe space in which to quarantine. I have an income. I am self-employed with the ability to mostly set my own schedule and work/life boundaries. I am someone who already worked from home, so this is not a new set up for me. I only have one child, so I only need to relearn 4th grade math, not multiple grades. By and large, my life has changed very little, aside from having my son home all day every day, which is kind of fun for me because I like him as a person. He is a good kid and a lot of fun. He is 10, almost 11 years old, fairly self-sufficient, as well as a people-pleaser, a rule-follower, list-maker, and a good side kick.
I recognize that not everyone can say these things. There are moms out there on the front lines of healthcare; there are moms out there who are hourly wage earners and can’t work their job from home; there are moms out there who have lost their jobs or been furloughed. There are moms out there who cannot afford to live alone and must share a space with others in order to meet their limited budgets. There are also moms our there with multiple kiddos at varying ages and stages and conducting distance learning for them right now is a step above playing Whack-a-Mole at Chuck E Cheese. Finally, there are moms with completely different social-emotional capacities from me. Not only was I built for crisis, I thrive in one. I have a professional background in fast-paced, drama-filled, problem-solving environments. I am the calm in a storm. So, while I don’t “welcome” global pandemics by any stretch, I am grateful that I am in a good place to weather the storm, and hope that these 6 strategies can help others find their port.
As Brene Brown has dubbed it, we are having the world’s largest FFT ever. Nobody knows what they are doing. We are literally building the airplane as we fly it. It is not just you, it is everyone. All of us are overworked, overwhelmed, overstimulated with a life largely online now, overeating, possibly over-served, but mostly just OVER IT. My son’s school posted a note reassuring us that they will get our children back on track, but our priority as parents is to maintain their social-emotional wellbeing because that kind of trauma prevents the brain from learning. Right now, our kids need our calm, strength, and laughter; and they need us to model flexibility and resilience. The note reminded us that “no kids are ahead. No kids are behind. Our children are exactly where they need to be. And that EVERY student in the US is in the exact same place.” Not to be Captain Obvious, but that last line was an aha moment for me.
Structure Creates Success
As a classic ENTJ, Type-A Control freak, I crave structure. I was born a list-maker. My first step in any new situation, whether at work or at home is make a list. As much as I would like to imagine myself as a romantic, impulsive, spontaneous wild-at-heart… alas I am a creature of habit. My morning routine is almost robotic. My bedtime routine is as well. Psychologist BJ Fogg just got rather rich writing a book about this called, Tiny Habits, but I have been doing this for years. It is like taking your vitamins or brushing your teeth, if you make it rote, you get it done. I have been tried to instill that in my kiddo and every morning like clockwork – and without being told now – he pops out of bed and makes it. Then gets dressed and feeds the cat. At night, he showers, brushes teeth, and takes his medicine automatically. These are the actions that represent the start and end of his day. As he has grown and we have added responsibilities, i.e. put on deodorant, wash face, put clothes in hamper, I’ve made a list on his bathroom mirror as a visual reminder until it becomes habit.
We also make new a plan for each day. During this time of the #Rona, our teachers are sending a list on Monday of assignments for the week. When we get it, we divvy it up by day and decide which assignments we are doing on which days. That list sits on his desk next to his computer to keep him (and me) on track. For the overall day, we have a block schedule posted on the fridge with schoolwork blocks, body breaks, household chores, physical activity or recess, and fellowship times (FaceTime calls with pals). The goal is to incorporate learning, fun/free time, household help, and socializing every day. It doesn’t look the same every day, but there is a structure to it. Being able to mark something off his list is motivating and helps him with executive function. He’s on the spectrum and has ADHD so planning and organizing is not a strong suit for him naturally. It is a learned behavior and I provide tools for him to be able to develop that frontal lobe muscle memory.
Balance the Day, AKA Jenn’s Three P’s: Productivity, Play, Process
I sort of touched on this above with our daily goals to combine these activities. School during normal times is a combination of these things. By working toward that combo in quarantine, I am not only keeping myself sane, but providing him that much needed structure and consistency that signals that just because we are home does not mean we are on vacation. Something’s gotta differentiate between right now and July. A 6-month summer won’t help any of us. And who wants to detox from that come September when the new school year starts! Children feel safe when they have boundaries, clear expectations, and consistency in their environment. Children like mine whose internal systems are completely disorganized rely heavily on external factors being highly organized to help them stay balanced.
I have lots of friends who homeschool their children in a traditional way and by choice. What we are doing now is not homeschooling. I am calling it Corona School. Unlike homeschool, it is not knocked out in a matter of 2-3 hours at the beginning of the day. That is great during normal times when homeschoolers can spend the rest of the day on adventures or field trip, doing hands-on learning. During a pandemic, if we finish by 10 am, I spend the rest of the day arguing over screen time or answering the “what’s next, mom” question ad nauseum. I also know that in our case, my son’s attention span is only about 30 minutes at a time, so powering through 3 solid hours of work is going to result in the wheels coming off. Our day is purposely designed around productivity, play, and process. This plays to my son’s strengths, fills our days, and gives him a well-rounded balance.
Leverage All Learning Styles
I have talked a little about the visual cues we have on hand with lists, charts, and schedules. But incorporating all the senses is an important and necessary strategy that goes hand-in-hand with mixing things up throughout the day, as we’ve discussed. We take body breaks with 15-minute dance parties. We practice fractions by baking or learn about money playing a round of Monopoly. Getting outside in nature for an art project or science experiment is great kinesthetic learning. Rapping our “be verbs” helps us remember them via auditory learning, and doing a FaceTime call with our math tutor where she has him looking for parallel and perpendicular lines in our house, or making them with his body, helps him see and use geometry in everyday life – and remember it.
The Art or Recess to Reset Sensory
Get. Out. Seriously. Just get outside. We may be social distancing, but the great outdoors provides ample space for everyone to stretch their legs, minds, lungs and patience. Sometimes we go for a walk first thing; sometimes we save it to break up the day after some morning work. A couple of times we have gone just before dinner. There is no magic time of the day. Each day dictates its own needs, but all of them include outside time. I have a small home. There is no extra space inside for a playroom. We LIVE in every inch of our house. So, when we all got grounded, I stopped parking in our attached garage and turned it into a playroom. We’ve sidewalk chalked the floor, built a fort, had plushie battles, and gone to town on the punching bag. We have also set up the cornhole game, a limbo bar, and ski ball permanently. This weekend’s project is to install the slack line. Recess, like a time out (see below), is of vital importance to all of us. Trust me.
Take Yourself to the Teacher’s Lounge
I have seen some hilarious memes out there throughout the quarantine. A girlfriend suggested we should have an award show for best memes that got us through it when this is over. She also said we could call it the “Coronnies”, which is GENIUS. One of the funniest I’ve seen said “if you see me walking around talking to myself, mind your own business. I’m having a parent-teacher conference.” #truth. We all need a time out sometimes- now more than ever when all the people are in the house doing all the things all the time. It. Is. A. Lot. Even an acquaintance who lives in 8000+ square feet with 2 guest houses on her property, a live-in nanny/maid, and an only child recently lamented that there were just too many people underfoot and she was feeling crowded. Honestly, I had a hard time feeling sorry for her, but I empathized. It is kind of the converse of feeling alone in a room full of people. Regardless of how big your space is, when everyone is there all the time, you feel like you don’t have a moment’s peace. It is ok to take a time out. I used to sit in my pantry to make phone calls, as it was the only place I could hide for some quiet minutes. Find your space, set the timer on the Alexa, and give your kiddo screen time or send them off to play. Better yet, go for a walk and listen to a podcast and let your kiddo listen to music, each of you on your own device, with your own ear buds. Start a movie for the kids and sneak off for a Zoom Happy Hour with girlfriends. It is amazing what adult conversation and face time with friends can do for your soul. Whatever you decide, take your time out. 15 minutes can make a world of difference.
Momming in the time of Coronavirus is not for the faint at heart, but we really don’t have any choice. As in all things, I rely on my mad practice of process and gratitude to get me through it. The real silver lining is truly our time with our kids. Time to teach them life skills, to get to know them, and to make memories. They don’t have to be epic Disneyland experiences (Disney is closed anyway). What they will remember is how you responded, how you treated them and others, and how you made the most of a bad situation. There are myriad life lessons wrapped up in this pandemic. Look for them, share them, live them. And when you just cannot see the silver lining, shift gears into autopilot and put one foot in front of the other to get you from point A to point B. It may be true that there is no award for best quarantine mom, but the reward will be some amazing kiddos who look back on a crazy time in our world’s history with fondness, resilience, faith, and gratitude.
Images by Breezy Ritter