We’re now 1,389—well, four—months into quarantine. Nothing is predictable. Lifelong norms continue to melt away. School? Who knows. Camp? A crapshoot. Hanging out with friends? Possibly risky; maybe mentally essential. Hospitals? Go only if it’s absolutely dire, but definitely go if you need to! Grocery shopping? Panic-inducing. Seeing your parents? Only with a mask, but remember, loneliness can kill, too!
The issue here is that science is changing constantly, and we’re in a perpetual state of risk-versus-benefit analysis. Think about idling at an intersection and deciding whether to hit the gas as another car speeds toward you. We’re doing that constantly, in all areas of our life. Our entire life is one big, congested, second-guessing intersection, and the traffic signals aren’t working.
Sure, there are irrefutable facts about COVID-19: We know wearing masks reduces transmission. We know that certain behaviors, like staying outside and standing at least six feet (or is it 20 feet?) apart, can hopefully reduce our risk.
But there are plenty of social gray areas that just can’t be addressed by applying numbers and data points, only through highly subjective common sense and instinct. And that’s hard! Nobody can tell you whether or not sending your stir-crazy kid to camp is an awful idea (nor should they!). You can weigh the pros and cons, but ultimately, it’s about what you feel is beneficial. Same with remote learning. I know some parents who won’t send their kids back to school until there’s a vaccine, even if schools do reopen. But they also worry about their kids falling behind or about being judged. Other people are afraid to hang out with anyone; others are desperate to socialize this summer because we’ll all be sequestered like rotting sardines when the temperatures drop and we can’t go anywhere again.
In parenting, as in life, some judgments are based a bit on numbers but mainly on instinct and on values. That’s where the second-guessing comes in. I know so many parents who are wondering if they’re doing this whole quarantine thing “right.” Are they structuring their kids’ days enough? Are they balancing work with parenting properly? Are they doing enough to take care of their mental health? Are they living safely and responsibly? There is no playbook for parenting during a pandemic; there’s no checklist or reward.
That’s why all standards need to go out the window. We need to give one another space and grace to feel bad, to mess up, to second-guess, to wonder and to do what feels right in the moment and maybe rewrite the script tomorrow or the next day. We will sometimes screw up: We’ll let our kid scamper too close to someone on the playground; we’ll forget a mask before rushing out the door; we’ll plonk our child in front of the TV for six hours so we can get some work done. This isn’t a referendum on your level of achievement, success or worth as a person or as a parent; it’s real life right now, and it’s ringed with rough edges.
As such: One thing I’ve learned throughout years of writing about families is that we’re shamelessly hard on one other and we’re hard on ourselves, and this tendency worsens when there aren’t clear answers. We sometimes treat our fragile selves as miniature science projects, groping to do things right or best, when the healthiest thing might be to simply get by. There’s no data point for happiness; no graph for serenity; no NPR story that’s going to tell you how to unlock your very own pandemic magic.
There’s just this: Acceptance. I know, I sound like some kind of woo-woo new age snake charmer. I’m not. I’m a messy human, just like everyone else. Right now there’s a propensity to frame this period as one of opportunity for growth, but that’s also a tall order. What is growth? It isn’t just about learning a new skill, like baking bread, or cleaning out your closet or beatifically paring down your life to the essentials, even though that’s fine. Enlightenment? Clean closets? New sourdough starter? Fantastic, but it doesn’t have to be your ideal.
I think the biggest opportunity for growth, especially for parents, is getting comfortable with frustration, with hazy ambiguity, with gray areas. It’s about acclimating your brain to the foreign notion of imperfection and the unknown. You don’t have to be “on” all the time; you don’t owe it to your child to meticulously structure their day; you don’t need to beat yourself up for failing on all fronts, whether it’s home or work or parenting or cleaning or marriage. Right now, you don’t need to measure yourself at all, because the yardstick is constantly changing and because it will only make you feel helpless. We need all the energy we can muster right now, simply to live: to deal with a pandemic-stricken world in chaos.
Sometimes it’s enough to simply get by, to wake up in the morning and to go to bed at the end of the day, hopefully spending the hours in between on something satisfying and worthwhile, or maybe wasting the day entirely, but knowing there will hopefully be a new one tomorrow. When this is over (and it will all be over, someday; I keep telling myself that!), I hope we come away knowing that simply being isn’t a sign of complacency but of kindness.
As we muddle through the summer and try to evaluate what the fall holds, remember: The pandemic isn’t one more opportunity to hold yourself to an impossible standard; it’s an excuse to simply let yourself be.