Dr. Mini Tandon is an associate professor of child psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She stressed that when it comes to how the pandemic has impacted parent-child relationships, the only right answer is, “it depends.”
“Two people handle things in different ways. People’s stressors are different. No two people are the same and you take those people and put them in a relationship, no relationship is going to be the same.”
What we do know is that the pandemic has revealed the cracks in all of us. Our experiences haven’t just been colored by our relationships, but race, class, gender, how many kids are in a home, and how acutely felt COVID was in the family environment. Did someone they know die? Did they get COVID-19? “There is no universalization of reactions, especially when it comes to families,” says Tandon, and there is no right or wrong way to process what’s happening. She encourages parents to keep an open dialogue within their families, even after we’ve returned to a new sort of world. We will all be dealing with the effects from this time for the rest of our lives, so we have to keep talking about it.
I tell her that I think my kids are okay, but I am not. She gently pushes back. Reminding me about the adage from airline emergencies: “Secure your own mask first.” It has double resonance in the pandemic era. What she means is mothers as martyrs are no good to their children.
Six weeks ago, I broke my wrist by slipping on the ice after attempting to build a massive snow fort with my kids. For an hour, I scooped up snow and dumped it on my wrist, “I’m okay” I told them. “It’s probably a little sprain.” I thought I was going to throw up. Finally, I faced the facts and called a friend for help. This year has taught me how much help I need.
Later, after our friend picked them up and drove me to the hospital, where it was confirmed that this was not just “a little sprain.” I told my kids how impressed I was with them. How kind they’d been in that emergency.
“We didn’t know it was bad, because you seemed okay,” my daughter said. “And if you are okay, then everything else is.” I held them with my arm in a splint and cried. Before the pandemic, I would have hid my tears. Now, there was nowhere to hide.
Parenting in this pandemic has felt like I am the only barrier between my children and the cliff’s edge of the world. I’m tired and I am literally broken and I am so worn down. I worry I’ve relied on them to become independent adults too soon. I’m worried I infantilized them. I worry that I didn’t tell them the reality of the horror facing the world. I’m worried they’ve seen too much. I worry I was too lenient with pandemic rules and allowing them to play with a friend. I worry I was too strict and alienated my kids from their friends whose parents are more lenient.
I worry my kids and I have become too close. My daughter talks to me like she’s 47. In our podcast, my perfectionism takes a back seat to the whims of her 10-year-old impulses and she calls herself the CEO. My son swears and calls me bro, does all the math when we play games, and often makes me coffee. They empty out the dishwasher without asking. They whine when they can’t find the ketchup. I’m not sure how I’ll ever enforce screen time limits again. I’m so worried that somehow I’ve broken them. But I’m also amazed at the humans they’ve become. And we are still here. And in the middle of this profoundly broken time, I’m so grateful that at least, they are in this with me.
Lyz Lenz is the author of Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women and God Land. She lives in Iowa with her two kids.