I have a pet peeve. So much parenting advice assumes that parents are at 100%: they aren’t overly stressed about their job, they have lots of energy, they’re getting enough sleep, they’re not sick themselves or overwhelmed by a child’s needs. Because that’s the amount of energy it takes to apply a lot of that advice. Of course, that just makes parents feel bad.
How do you parent when you are sick or exhausted? What kind of parenting advice actually works at those times? For the last two and half months, I’ve had the opportunity to find out.
Despite my best efforts, COVID got me.
As a pediatrician, I made sure to get my COVID vaccine and boosters as soon as they were available. Because of my history of severe asthma, I knew that COVID-19 posed a real threat to me. So when I got COVID-19, probably omicron, in early January 2022 it was no surprise when my asthma got very bad very quickly. Very very bad.
What followed was 10 days of isolating within our home from my children, which worked because no one else got COVID, and weeks of being up every hour or two around the clock fighting to breathe.
I also knew I had a lot to be grateful for. If I hadn’t had those vaccines I would’ve ended up in the ICU and I might’ve died. I counted my blessings that I was still here for my kids, even if we were doing bedtime routine over zoom. (I couldn’t really talk because I was so short of breath, so we listened to audiobooks.)
I’ve now been at home and out of work for nine weeks, and it looks like it’s going be a while longer. “It’s nice that you’re home when I get home from school,” my younger son said, “but I wish it wasn’t because you were sick.”
Eventually the weeks of struggling to breathe evolved into a host of new unpleasant problems due to Long COVID, including unbelievable levels of fatigue. But I’m still a mom and I have to be a parent. And that has provided some surprising opportunities for us as a family, which we’ll talk about in part two.
Here are some of the things I should be doing and can’t, and how I’ve used Sigh, See, Start to parent anyway.
When parents can’t be consistent:
Even in our “normal” busy lives it is nearly impossible to be consistent all the time with the schedules and expectations our kids need. But when my kids start finding mommy asleep at various unexpected times, consistency becomes a very loose concept.
Parenting advice typically tells sick parents that they should just do the best they can. But I always get hung up on the word “best” which triggers all of the ShouldStorm’s unreasonable standards. I know I’m not the only mother who hears “you should be perfect” when someone tells me to “do your best.”
Instead of trying to do the best you can, what if you just do what you can?
That’s what being this sick has taught me: I cannot push past my body. That’s not something I’ve ever dealt with before. Sure, my asthma has gotten really bad in the past, but never like this. My body has me up a concrete wall of what I can and cannot do.
If there is no best, then there is only what I can do and what I can’t do in that particular moment.
Sigh, See, Start helps. When I sigh, I use nature’s method to connect with my body and myself and get a sense for where I’m at. Do I have the energy and the physical ability to do “consistent”? If yes then I do. If no, I look around to see if I can tag team with my husband. When he’s not able to take over, then I see what’s going on with the kids and start making an exception.
Fortunately, I know that when it comes to expectations, the key is to simply tell kids when you’re making an exception. “I know we usually do it this way, but just tonight as a special exception because I’m so tired, we are going to do it a different way,” I might explain. This reinforces for the kids that their world is still safe and that they still can know what to expect.
When parents can’t stay calm:
When the body is very ill for a long time, we feel irritable. And we also deal with the side effects of the medications that treat our illnesses or save our lives. Prednisone, an anti-inflammatory steroid that is crucial for treating my asthma also creates irritability, or what my husband affectionately calls “‘roid rage.”
Sigh, See, Start has helped me here too, both by giving me a coping strategy when I lose my cool, and by the way it takes the pressure off trying to “get it right” as a parent.
I am normally the parent that stays calm and helps everybody regulate their emotions (until I get totally overwhelmed and pop my top of course). But while I’ve been sick, my own emotions have been dysregulated. Staying calm and helping everybody else regulate has felt far out of reach. I have not been my usual self.
All I can do is acknowledge it, to my kids and my husband. If I catch myself acting angry in the moment, I sigh to recenter. I try to see what impact I’ve had. Then I start by pointing out my behavior and it’s connection to the medicine. We will look more closely at repairing our connection with our kids in part two.
When parents can’t pretend it’s going to be okay.
Every time I watch a movie or a TV show with a dad in it, at some point he tells everyone that it’s going to be okay. Dads on TV say everything is going to be okay even when things are definitely NOT going to be okay.
As parents, telling our kids that everything is going to be okay is a “should” in our parenting ShouldStorm. And sometimes that’s true. But sometimes that phrase denies what kids can see right in front of their eyes. My kids spent over a month watching me to see if I’d tip the wrong direction and end up in the hospital.
Sometimes, our parenting task is to provide reassurance and leadership without invalidating their experience. That’s how our kids can learn to deal with the stress of life.
The other night, my older son asked me gently, “Mom, are you okay?” I sighed and noticed my heavy breathing. I looked up at my son and took a second to see him. His expression showed both worry and compassion. I asked myself, “What does he need right now?” Then I started by setting a goal to tell the truth and reassure him.
“You are going to notice a lot of symptoms,” I said, “You might see me breathing heavily or getting dizzy. And it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.” As I spoke, I continued to see him, watching his reaction. He was listening closely.
“But I am on the path to getting better,” I said next. “I just don’t know exactly how that’s going to go.” He hugged me, and seemed satisfied. Then, looking like a kid again, he left to do his thing. I had succeeded: he felt safe enough to go have fun.
I am not trying to pretend that I know what it is like for anyone other than me. I’ve had the benefit of great medical care, financial stability, and a supportive partner. And my kids who are old enough to do a lot for themselves. For parents who are facing tougher circumstances, even Sigh, See, and Start can feel like too much.
In part two we’ll look at the surprising opportunities that came with my sickness. We’ll also look at how to repair mistakes we make with our kids.
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