Q. I’m utterly overwhelmed. I’m resentful of those who have support from a partner and grandparents and guilty for feeling resentful. Frustrated that there’s no end in sight. Exhausted, emotionally and physically. Sad. I miss my family and friends. Lonely. 3 kids 1, 4 and 8 entirely on my own. Working 60 hours a week. Trying to be grateful I’m employed but there is no balance possible when you have 3 kids in tow. I don’t bathe or sleep without them and if I try, they scream or immediately ‘need’ me for something which is their anxiety showing up. It’s endless. How do I stay sane?
A. We’re on year three of a global pandemic and all of us, especially parents with young unvaccinated children or families with unpredictable child education schedules due to positive COVID cases, are still very much in the throes of it. If we thought we were exhausted in May, 2020, it’s certainly not gotten better for a lot of people. Maybe we’ve become more accustomed to our reality, but emotional stress among our hardworking families is very real and present.
In a recent article by The Atlantic, titled COVID Parenting Has Passed the Point of Absurdity, we saw moms meeting not to chat or trade parenting tips but to simply scream. Even during a frigid Boston January, these mothers met outside in a parking lot to let out exhaustion and rage against the unmoving state of stress. They met simply to know that they were not alone.
I cannot presume to solve your problems, but I hope we can reduce your angst. First, go right ahead and feel resentful. Who wouldn’t in your shoes? Let go of that guilt. You have every right. Lonely and physically exhausted, sure. No way around that. But let’s try to unload the emotional exhaustion somewhat.
Emotional exhaustion comes from thinking and expecting: I should be doing a, b and c, I shouldn’t be doing d, e and f, and why can’t the kids do g-z. Emotional drain comes from thoughts, judgments, fears, and expectations that spin around in your head 24 hours a day. Once you can name those and reframe them, that exhaustion will drop significantly.
So, name each thing you think you should or should not be doing. Name what you resent your kids for doing and not doing. I mean actually write them down on paper and give each one space to write a reframed thought.
• Example: I should be spending more time with my kids. That takes you to judging yourself as wrong, inadequate, not good enough, which, when triggered, will lead to reactions to your kids that you hate, and then you feel even worse.
• Reframed thought: I would love to spend more time with the kids. My choice is to work so that I can provide for us even though it’s damn hard. Being a single mom with a full-time job and 3 little kids does not work when there is a global pandemic. No one can be expected to handle a situation like this well. This reflects the reality of the situation without the judgment. These thoughts will take you to more self-compassion than self-blame and will lead you to giving yourself an emotional break.
• Example: Is that a sniffle? Or, could it be COVID? I guess I need to test him again and tell my boss I’ll be out for a doctor visit. I’ll have to stay up again tonight to get caught up on work. I may even need to keep him home from school an extra couple days. Thinking through and taking care of all that takes a huge toll on you. As caregivers, we tend to take care of our needs last. When life throws curve balls, we react with anxiety. This negativity comes through to our children in our tone, body language and the words we say.
• Reframed thought: Okay, here we go again. I’m stressed. This is stressful. That’s just what it is. I can remain in control of my reactions. The erratic nature of school/childcare with COVID exposures and testing is so hard. Be kind to yourself. Take one thing at a time. Try to relax in another area of your life and give yourself a break however that looks to you. Maybe a pizza night, a movie night or calling a friend.
• Example: The 8 year old, who is home from school (again!) should be doing his school work and leaving me alone to do my work. This feeling of resentment toward your child’s neediness comes from setting unrealistic expectations of his capability and ignoring the stress he is under too. You will snap easily. When he cannot meet this expectation, resentment builds and both of you fail.
• Reframed thought: Of course my 8 year old needs me. He’s upset because his world has been turned upside down. He’s scared because I’m scared. He’s not getting the help he needs, and I cannot be his teacher. We’re all experiencing huge emotions that need to come out. Again, compassion comes up and drowns out the judgment and resentment. Compassion is what you need in order to acknowledge what the two of you are going through instead of trying to muddle through. The younger two are probably just happy everyone is together but get unhappy when your expectations lead to scary reactions.
If emotions are bottled up attempting to protect your kids from them or trying to stay sane, they find ways to explode, and you fail at both. You always need to honor your emotions. What that looks like is dropping down in the middle of whatever is going on, even if your kids are fighting, and letting your feelings up. You don’t have to scream, “I hate everyone who has help,” but you can let yourself cry and say, “I’m having such a hard time right now. Looks like you guys are too.” Or, “Let’s say everything we hate about having to stay at home.” Then breathe together. What better time to teach your kids how to breathe to relieve stress.
Being real and truthful doesn’t mean sharing every detail—just be honest with yourself and your kids. When you do, so will your kids. When you do, compassion will rise to the surface, when you do, an emotional break happens.
Especially in winter, when we are stir-crazy and ready for a break in the weather to hit our favorite outdoor recreation venue, emotional stress can compound. The weight of remaining cooped up can be particularly tough for active (all) children. Fresh air really does help us all breathe a little easier, stay a little calmer and keep our positivity.
Make actual appointments with a trusted friend who will understand and listen without judgment. Then offload every angry, resentful, hateful thought you have. Let yourself cry and scream. This is far more important than you think. The more you allow your feelings, the more you will find you have control over your thinking.
When you think, “I can’t do this,” you give permission to every thought that will confirm your belief that you can’t do it. You build a story that will make your life more and more miserable. When you think, “This is really hard. I don’t have to do everything,” or “I will be better if I let the kids watch another show,” or “I can stop trying to be perfect,” you will give yourself an emotional break. They add up.
When you are real and not trying to be supermom and teacher all the time, you will be better able to connect with your kids. All of you are having bigger than normal emotions throughout this pandemic which necessarily show up in behavior. Let that behavior—both yours and your kids—be your signal to stop your agenda, drop into your feelings, and just be with your kids.
We punish our children in an attempt to keep them from pushing our buttons, often escalating the original problem into a cycle of anger and blame. When Your Kids Push Your Buttons is not about what to do to your kids to get them to stop pushing your buttons. This book is about how to be the parent you wish you could be-the parent that only you are holding yourself back from.
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