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You’re probably reading this in a snatched moment of peace, perhaps during naptime, after bedtime, or even on the loo – the only place you can ever get a few seconds to yourself these days.
I’m going to hazard a guess that you’re also feeling guilty right now, knowing that there’s something more useful you could be doing than reading a blog post: sorting your child’s toys, cleaning the kitchen, catching up with a work deadline.
And perhaps some of you are starting to feel submerged by this #newnormal. You’ve been peddling furiously beneath the surface for the last couple of weeks, trying to keep family, home and employer happy – but you’re wondering just how long you’ll be able to live at this pace.
A challenging season
When schools closed a couple of weeks ago, and the stress-levels of parents were rising faster than the number of Joe Wicks’ YouTube subscribers, I blogged to remind parents that they were doing just great, and so were their kids.
If your child isn’t yet in school, you can thank your choice of god that you don’t have to deal with a) schoolwork, b) reluctance to do said schoolwork, c) sibling fights, d) Big Mood Swings, and e) non-stop YouTube videos of Mr Beast and Chris MD. (Don’t ask. If these people aren’t in your life right now, I’d advise keeping things that way.)
But I’m all too aware that you have your own set of challenges. Your child demands a lot of you from morning till evening (and perhaps also evening till morning). He/she isn’t yet able to play independently, thus requiring your input for pretty much any activity they set their mind to. And, like a dog (excuse the comparison), your child needs a lot of outdoor space each day otherwise things get ugly.
I’m also aware that usually you manage these challenges really well: you frequent toddler groups and parks, swimming lessons and playdates, to keep yourself from going insane – and, when you’re ready for a well-earned rest, you go to work.
In case you hadn’t noticed, NONE OF THE STUFF WHICH MAKES LIFE WITH TODDLERS BEARABLE IS ON OFFER RIGHT NOW. All the helpful things have shut up shop. Closed. Goodbye. Hasta la vista, baby.
It’s all about you
Your own sanity is at risk. More importantly – for since when was sanity a pre-requisite for a fun life? – your mental health is at risk.
Tell me this: if the plane’s about to crash, whose mask do you put on first?
Yes, I know you know the ‘right’ answer.
But this is a metaphor. Are you caring for yourself first, or your child?
The irony is that just when you particularly need to look after yourself, all the things which make it easy to do this have vanished, while all the things which make it harder have just multiplied by twenty gazillion.
So – how are we going to do this? How are we going to survive – and even thrive – in this strange season?
Don’t stress about providing high-level childcare
I can totally understand that if your child usually attends nursery, you may be anxious about whether you can match their level of awesomeness when it comes to childcare.
But you are not a childcare professional. You’re a parent. (I mean, some of you reading this may be both. But your role in this lockdown is the latter.)
One of the best things about staying at home with my kids for the ten years it took to get them all into school (oh, the irony of them all being back home again within months), is that my childcare standards are ridiculously low.
Wait up! Did you just say that on a parenting blog?
When we pay for childcare, we get experts. Rightly so: if you pay for a service, it should get delivered to a high standard.
But I did my own childcare and, believe me, I’m no supermum. I didn’t provide enriching activity after enriching activity. Largely we just hung around, arguing about whether they needed coats on to go outside, and gearing up for the next meal. Every so often, we’d bake. Twice a year, we’d paint for about five minutes, and then whack the telly on for two hours so I could clean up.
Friends, I want you to know that this is normal.
If you haven’t made your own playdough this week, or set up a sensory invitation to play, or played trains with your engine-obsessed 3-year-old for two hours (or even ten minutes), you’re not the World’s Worst Parent. In fact, I think you’re probably quite a good one, purely because these concerns have crossed your mind at all.
Have you fed your kids today? Have they cleaned their teeth in the last couple of days? Had a bath in the last week? You are doing flippin’ awesomely, and deserve the Nobel Parenting Prize for sheer stamina.
Honestly, do what feeds your soul and keeps you healthy right now. Drink lots of water (and wine). Do a home workout. Eat some chocolate. Chill out of an evening with your other half.
Don’t stress about the parenting manuals
If it takes a world pandemic to make us see that the vast majority of parenting advice given over the last 20 years was more about making a living for a few so-called ‘experts’, and less about actually helping families to thrive, then HELLO COVID, we are grateful for the wake-up call.
No one ever wrote a parenting manual for surviving a world crisis. That’s because if there’s time to write, read and ingest parenting advice, you’re probably not fighting for your family’s survival.
So let me be the first to offer you a parenting manual for this kind of situation:
Get your kids up each morning and put them to bed at night. Feed them regularly. Make sure they know you love them. The End.
Friends, we’re in survival mode. You may have an extremely well-thought-out parenting philosophy – and you’ll be able to return to that in the future if you wish – but for now, it’s all about the basics. Take life one day at a time. Do what works for your family. Go with your instincts.
Don’t stress about screen time
If you’ve felt guilty about the amount of screen time your child has had in the last few weeks, you’re not alone.
Yet the older my kids have got (10, 8, 5, 5 at last check), the more I’ve been able to clarify in my own mind what the serious issues are when it comes to screen time – and 90% of them don’t apply to preschoolers.
When I’m worried about online bullying, porn access or social media apps I’ve never even heard of, it makes me want to hop in a time-machine and tell the Me of five years ago that it really is of very little consequence whether my kids watch half an hour or three hours of TV in a day. There are, as they say, bigger fish to fry.
When your kid is 10, their teacher won’t be able to discern that for a few months of their third year of life they binge-watched Numberblocks and Paw Patrol so that their parents could earn a living, make dinner or, you know, sit down for 10 minutes with a cuppa. Honestly.
And Philippa Perry, in The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, reminds us that children make and break habits very easily. You don’t have to worry that by loosening your standards in the area of screens, you’re ‘making a rod for your own back’. Ah, there go the money-making best-selling parenting experts again.
This season is different. Your kids sense that. What you do now will not be what they expect when life gets back to ‘normal’.
Don’t stress about entertainment
You want to be a great parent, I know that. And, while your child is too young to direct their own play, you feel a huge burden to provide it for them.
But, left to their own devices, even young children are good at exploring and entertaining themselves – if they’re in a safe environment, full of things they’re allowed to touch and investigate.
You don’t have to be providing either constant entertainment for your child, or constant narration of what they’re doing. Small children usually play and learn at what seems like a slow pace to us. If we can slow down to enjoy what they’re doing, rather than pushing them on to the next ‘activity’, it will do us a heck of a lot of good as well.
If buying a stair-gate for the living room door means you can sit down for a few minutes without fear of your toddler escaping, do it. Sitting down is FINE (when you can, which I know is rarely, but when you can, then do it).
If you have outdoor space, give your toddler a paintbrush, a bucket of water, and see how much of the space they can ‘paint’ while you sit and observe. You’ll end up with wet fences, walls and patio – but they’ll have had a lovely time, and you’ll have had a bit of time to think, process and relax.
This is not a time to pat yourself on the back for maintaining a certain standard of parenting. This is a time for remembering that, if your family is to survive, YOU must survive. Remember: fix your oxygen mask first.
Don’t stress about mess
I know Every.Single.Person tells you this when you have young kids. I also know it’s pretty difficult for those of you who like everything in order.
So, my solution? Divide your home into essential spaces to keep ordered, and non-essential spaces you’re going to let go. Call it survival.
For example, my essential spaces are the kitchen, dining room and – to some extent – our living room. Study/utility/hall, I don’t fuss about. Bedrooms – they can be chaotic.
Your essential spaces may be different, but the point is: don’t try and keep the entire house immaculate. Unless it strongly affects your mental health, I don’t believe it’s the priority right now. Prioritise the spaces you use regularly, the spaces which need to be clear in order for stuff to happen in the least stressful way.
And when it comes to clearing up – involve your child, even if that means just giving them a wet cloth to scrub whatever they fancy.
Don’t stress about your child’s socialising
I totally get why you may be worried that, with a few months out of nursery and/or toddler groups, your child is going to fall behind in their social interaction development.
My kids did LOADS of groups at preschool stage, and I would have been pretty gutted for them all to be cancelled for a few months.
Yet, while it’s great for our kids to meet other kids, they totally can and will survive for a few months without doing so. I have friends raising three young kids in rural Ethiopia, where they meet very few other children. Yet they’re the most sociable, bright and well-adjusted kids you could meet.
Your child’s conversation, people skills and general development will not be harmed by the collapse of their hectic, middle-class social calendar. Kids are pretty resilient like that.
(But you might struggle. Make sure to keep checking in with friends via WhatsApp, Skype and Zoom. Staying connected does help.)
Don’t stress about providing ongoing verbal commentary
It’s tempting, when hanging out all day with a non-verbal child, to think that you have to fill the empty space with chat. After all, isn’t that how your child learns?
Yes and no. Yes, they pick up their language from copying what they hear around them. But they also need time to process this – and YOU need time to marinate in your own thoughts too. Non-stop chat is exhausting! Whereas silence is not only OK – it’s a necessity.
Don’t stress about your paid work
It’s important, for sure. But your family comes first.
Work out – with your partner, if you have one – how you will care for your child between you. Then work out how many hours are left and what you will be able to contribute to your job.
THEN communicate this to your employer. Under the circumstances, they have to be understanding. Don’t try and fit in hours which don’t exist. Again, your mental health has to be a priority. It’s in your employer’s interest that you return to work fit and healthy, so they need to take your health seriously at this stage.
This is hard. Parenting is hard anyway, and now we have a whole new level of hardness whacked on top. Survive, any which way you can. You’ve done pregnancy, labour, and then some more. You’ve totally got the superpowers to handle this challenging season.
Your child will be just fine. And so will you.