Back to School During Coronavirus
Uncertainty surrounds this school year amid all the Covid-19 news. Dr. Lisa talks about what families need most as they juggle working from home and school. How do you respond when everything seems out of your control? Reena discusses some of the work-life tradeoffs that she has struggled to manage, including making the hard choice to go to Benghazi with her breast pump.
August 26, 2020 | 25 min
Transcript | Back to School During Coronavirus
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.
LISA DAMOUR: Hey Reena, how are ya?
REENA NINAN: I am hanging in there.
LISA: I feel like we all are at this point. We have discovered. actually my husband discovered, Costco’s street tacos. Have you tried this?
REENA: No is that in the frozen section? Where is this?
LISA: It seems to be in the non-frozen section. Costco is under his responsibilities and it’s kind of a mixed bag because he’s actually this really rational person who’s actually very cautious with money, and then he gets to Costco any kinda loses mind, like the stuff he comes home with is sometimes crazy, but actually the Costco street tacos, if you happen to go to Costco I highly recommend them.
REENA: He sounds like my twin, first off. Clearly my twin. I don’t walk away without spending less than $250.
LISA: I think my husband thinks that once he gets to Costco, stuff is free. But luckily into the mix of other bizarre things he has brought home, he’s brought home these Costco street tacos and that is what is getting me through today.
REENA: Really? That’s interesting, I’ll have to look out for those.
LISA: Okay here’s actually my main question for you.
LISA: What are you hearing about your kids and their school and the plan for how they are going back to school?
REENA: I think it’s hard, you know, I live in the state of Connecticut where the COVID rates have been pretty low. We’ve seen a spike as we’ve seen everywhere but not incredibly drastic.
LISA: Yeah, and if they do open where you are, which is of course this huge question mark, what are you hearing about what it’s going to be like at school for your kids?
REENA: Mask the entire day and you know when I go to the grocery store it is just impossible. You talk about a Costco trip, I mean, I can barely in a 30-minute window getting in and out of Costco keep my mask on it’s just not comfortable. And then you wonder, you know, my children might be able to wear a mask, but about other children who who don’t want to. The fall is inevitably cold and flu season you know. Everybody walks in with something at some point and you know the numbers. Once they start congregating there is no way around how Coronavirus spreads.
LISA: Yeah. I know it’s very hard to picture really at any grade level kids being able to wear masks all day without fussing with them. And and I say this with no judgment, I mean, you and I can’t get through to the grocery store without fussing with our masks and and I do wonder how that’ll feel for kids who are trying so hard to manage theirs to see another kid fussing and then of course the kid is trying so hard is actually fussing with theirs without even realizing it. I mean I think I just all I think about those poor teachers and then having to decide how much they want to bark at kids about their masks and the management. It just feels like such a tough atmosphere. And, you know, it’s not like there’s an easy answer or there’s a good answer, even, but I’ve just been lying awake at night thinking about all of the complexities of any outcome, any configuration of kids in school. I mean they’re all going to be pretty tricky.
REENA: You know Foo Fighters singer Dave Kroll said that teachers want to teach not to die and he’s gotten a lot of attention just saying we’ve got to look out for the teachers as well. A lot of teachers unions are pushing back against being in school five days a week. They’re worried about their own health, they have sometimes parents of their own that they’re taking care of, children that they worry about that they’re coming back home to. I think it’s hard because we’re at this point where we want to be able to have a sense of normalcy, and that end date isn’t coming anytime soon.
LISA: No, it’s worrisome. And so what you’re describing about teachers that’s where it’s at here. So I live in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Our numbers are not good in terms of COVID cases. It’s been pretty messy here, pretty ugly and what we know now is that our Shaker Heights public schools are going to start remotely. That was in part I think as a result of teachers, and a group of teachers saying like, this is really frightening for us, which is understandable, but then it was I don’t know when the decision was made or exactly how but then the Cuyahoga County Board of health and we’re in Cuyahoga county came out and said that they recommend that all school start remotely. So that’s what’s happening here. And the good news is we know that and we can then plan for that reality. The bad news is I’m kind of freaking out about the fact that my kids are gonna be home all day every day for a good chunk of the start of the school year if not through December. I am really preparing for that reality of them being home through the rest of 2020.
REENA: It’s funny you say you’re preparing for it to the rest of 2020. I have a girlfriend who has a 5 and 3 year old and she was telling me, every day it’s like I have a jar full of hope and then I read the headlines and little by little that jar of hope fades away and it’s hard to be optimistic and it’s very difficult especially when you have young children. And reading in The Washington Post this week there was a story that said that Dr. Fauci is being too optimistic saying that there’s going to be a vaccine by the end of this year, the beginning of next year because the truth is we’re right now in a stage three clinical trial, and anything could really go wrong in that stage three clinical trial and that you’ve got to be more realistic with the public that this could be beyond the beginning of next year we could be in this for easily another year and that is just so difficult to stomach that we could lose an entire school year where parents can’t really work properly from home and kids, I mean, from a psychologist perspective what do you worry about when children meet, you know the tiger mom in me is saying, oh my gosh they’re not learning anything for a year, if they’re learning remotely it’s nearly impossible. So what matters right now? What’s at the top of the pyramid that you’ve got to be most concerned about?
LISA: This is a great question and actually the way you describe it, like what’s at the top of the pyramid like what’s the number one concern? And as I’ve turned this in my mind where I’ve arrived is every family’s pyramid is gonna be different. That there are going to be some families where learning loss, and there will be learning loss, I mean there’s no getting around it, some families that’s the number one concern, and it may be because their child was just starting to blossom academically and intellectually, or maybe it had a little bit of a lag in progress in a learning way and so you know the family was looking forward to this school year as in catch up year. So for some families that’s going to be at the top of the pyramid. Other families may feel like, eh my kid’s a great reader, she’s crushing it academically, we can shore up whatever learning she may, in fact learn some more at home than she might school who knows, but they’re really worried socially. They’re worried that their kid isn’t going to build or maintain social connections or is gonna lose ground in terms of social skills. You know I think we we could probably come up with five or six different pyramids. Reena, I gotta tell you at our house one of my biggest concerns, my daughters are 9 and 16, one of my biggest concerns is I’m worried about how I’m actually gonna get my own work done when we’re all in the house together all day. And when I think about my my problem pyramid, like good or bad, that’s pretty high up on it is my own worries about managing on the realities of working from home with kids in the house. Even even now before they started school I am so aware since the night I really am home all the time but I’ll be , and I’m using finger quotes, between meetings I’ll run down from the third floor to like grab a snack or something and then of course I ran into a kid and then of course she wants to talk and then of course I’ll want to talk to her and you and I just think, can I do months and months of this where I am technically at work but constantly running into my own children and their delights and/or needs or both? That that piece for me feels huge.
REENA: So interesting to hear you be so real about how you’re really concerned about not being able to function fully, and I just I wonder all the time, you’ve said to me so many times this isn’t about being productive it’s not about learning a new language it’s a matter of survival. So when you’re looking at survival from that standpoint what should you be prioritizing because the truth is people have to earn a living. Our economy depends on it people have got to figure out a way to be productive, but I know it’s not the norm for children and what should you be most concerned about in their development?
LISA: Well it’s funny. I actually have been doing this online yoga class that I love and it’s actually a big part of what’s getting me through the pandemic and my yoga instructor in talking about something having to do with yoga said two words together that I was like, oh only those are really good watchwords for myself as a parent and for other parents, and he said it’s about being a steady presence. And I thought, oh that’s probably what kids need is the sense of a steady presence, you know whatever else goes down this year like that’s what we should be trying to provide as parents, and I think that’s true, okay so how did you study presence when you’re feel like you’re pulled in 40 directions, and what I have been remembering a lot lately is the point when my daughters were really little and I was in my career was growing and I was working really hard. I went through a period of a year where I woke up from four to six in the morning to work on a textbook that I was writing with a colleague and I needed two hours of uninterrupted time in order to meet my deadlines and so that was the only way I could do it. I was sick a lot that year, I was kind of a wreck, but then when my three year old was awake during the day I was able to actually I think intuitively as you’ve got myself to a place I could be a steady presence when she was awake because at least I’ve gotten some of what I needed to get done done. But it was not fun. I do not look back on that time fondly, and like Reena I now you’ve been through this is a mom, like didn’t you didn’t take a breast pump to Benghazi one time?
REENA: I often wonder if that’s where I went wrong as a parent, I took my breast pump to Benghazi, Lisa.
LISA: Explain explain.
REENA: I came back from maternity leave, I was a Middle East correspondent for Fox news at the time, and they were very generous with my maternity leave policy. I came back to D.C. to have my son, Jack, and and then I came back and it was about four months after giving birth to Jack and the head foreign editor said to me, they’re very close to catching Gaddafi. We’d really like you to be on the ground in Benghazi when this happens. And I’m thinking to myself, what? And he said, we understand you’re a new mom so instead of doing the eight-week rotation we would be okay if you just did six weeks in Benghazi. I will tell you that my husband he said to me look you’ve been a foreign correspondent. Just because you’re a mom doesn’t mean you give it up. My son was sleeping through the night, we had good child care during the day. He really encouraged me to go. And I will tell you, Lisa, we did not have life insurance at this time so there was no ulterior motive behind pushing me out the door at this point, and I you know took my breast pump and was pumping there in Benghazi as things are exploding and going off and finally a bureau chief from Al Jazeera said to me, like what are you doing? You’re pumping and dumping first off. It’s gonna be four weeks. They agreed to let me be there for like three and a half, four weeks and she’s like get over this. The power goes out at 4 a.m., you can’t even save your breast milk, what’s the point? But I look back and you wonder, just in general, you are constantly winging it as a parent and everything you do, and then you are constantly looking back saying was that the right thing to do? I often do look back and say is that where I went wrong, Lisa? Going to Benghazi with my breast pump.
LISA: Well first of all I don’t think you are wrong. What I love about that story, I mean, it’s a much much more dazzling version of like the crazy stuff we do as parents to try to juggle our priorities and really, you know, we care about our own lives and we care about even if it’s not you know trying to maintain one’s career as a Mideast correspondent, like we care about the things we’re invested in, and it’s important to be invested in more than just being a parent, and yet there are really high need times in our kids’ lives and one of the things I’m coming to terms with and not comfortably so, is that I’m back in it. I’m back in a high need time and I think there’s a part of me that gets a little bit like my stomach turns over when I think about it because one of the gorgeous things about having a 9 and 16 year old is they’re actually pretty self sufficient, and under our normal conditions I felt like that part of my life as a mother was a bit more in the rear view mirror, and I am reconciling myself to the idea of, you know what I have done it before, I didn’t think I’d have to do it again, but we’re going to go through a pretty taxing period where I may get less sleep. I may accomplish less than I want to. I may have that tension of feeling like I’m a bad mom the and a bad psychologist, like I’m not good at anything. I know there’s an end date. I do truly believe that sometime in 2021 things will reset. Maybe not to exactly where they were but I won’t be in this position again, and when I tell myself that, like I’ve done this. I’ve done this with little teeny kids, and I need to think in that mode again. I feel both worse because I really don’t want to be back in that part of parenting when I felt so tense all the time, and also better because I’m like you know what, I’ve been through the ringer before, you go through it once it is never as bad the second time you go through any ringer, so here we are.
REENA: You know you talk about there are just some calls you make as a parent, and I remember saying I’m gonna go to Benghazi, and the women in in the bureau in Jerusalem were shocked because in Israel you get easily a year paid to stay home, which I think is wonderful and I wish every country would do at least give women that option, they started saying she must really hate being a mom if she’s willing to go to Benghazi. But how do you, so many parents now are making decisions and then being judged based on their decisions, whether they allow their kids to go out, the parents who have completely kept their kids in isolation. There’s so much pressure as a parent right now and especially if your child is on social media, there’s even more pressure.
LISA: Yeah this is a tough one, I know that where I want us to land on this one is like, if you can just reserve judgment, if you can just reserve judgment about what goes on in other people’s homes, like try to, though I know it’s really hard. I have two thoughts about this, one is I don’t remember this but like before you had kids you would hear stories about stuff that went down in houses with kids of like somehow the 3-year-old got in the car and like was able to take it back down the driveway, and you hear the stories before you’re a parent and you’re like, oh my gosh look what is wrong with his parents, like how could that possibly happen and then you become a parent you’re like, I can’t believe that hasn’t happened yet. So I think there’s that part of like you know parenting is so messy complex and it’s just really hard. We all have stuff that goes down that we never thought would go down. But then the other thought I have is it is such a privilege to be a psychologist and such a privilege to have people share the intimate truths of their lives with me. And what it’s helped me really appreciate is that you have no idea what goes on in other people’s homes and you can think you know what someone else’s life is like or what someone else’s pressures are or what someone else’s resources and advantages are, and I have to tell you the longer I’ve practiced the more humble I have become about knowing nothing about the configuration of any family where their demands or stresses unless they have sat down and told it to me themselves, and so it helps me when I feel judgy, and it’s not that I don’t feel judgy, but it helps me to just think, every family is its own universe. I don’t know any universe but mine. I’m gonna operate in my universe. I will trust that their universes theirs and just try to let it go. It’s hard but I will say the longer I practiced, the better I’ve gotten at that.
REENA: How are you able to let go so easily?
LISA: I wouldn’t say easily.
REENA: I ask because you know I read some of the moms listserves around town and I think people are so worried, and look it’s a pandemic, this is life or death, but I just see so much judgment being placed and the pressure and the public shaming and and I think when you’re in one stage, for instance my kids are in elementary school. I really don’t know what it’s like to have a teenage, high school or college age child and what that entails emotionally and mentally.
LISA: Yeah no and especially when you may or may not feel like you’ve got choices about keeping your own kid safe, right I mean I think that that’s one of the big divides here is you know what if the families like well we don’t like what they’re doing but we can make our own choices and keep our kids safe versus families that may not feel they have those options. In terms of trying to just like restrain judgment or trying to let it go. One place I can get to that helps me a little bit is to think, okay the bad guy here is actually the virus and the bad guy of the virus has put everyone in positions in which we should never have been put. Like no one should ever have been put in the position of having to tell a 16-year-old they cannot see their friends for months on end. That is awful and and so then I can get kinder when I think about it’s not that that parent is screwing this up, it’s that everyone’s been put in a horrendous position and as an operating then within that position with the choices and the resources that they themselves happen to be making and then I go to what can I do to keep my own kid safe? Can I live with those choices and try to leave it at that? When you look back and a lot of people go back to their childhood and point to issues that they’re dealing with an adulthood, I often think, what is it that really matters? What do I need to set my child up for success and for coping through this pandemic? What’s what’s really most important? This summer and into the you know what’s now going to feel like early fall faster than we realize. Reena, I have laid awake in bed so many nights just trying to wrap my head around this is a as a parent and then as a psychologist, and I would say in the last week or so I felt like I say I got a little peace around some simplicity in this, and what I was thinking about is that of all the findings in psychology about what kids need and what’s good for kids, if you could throw them all into like a giant machine, if you could trip through thousands and thousands of research papers into a giant machine what would drop out is actually one very clear finding that we get repeatedly, that what kids need is warmth and structure. It’s it’s those two things together that actually really really brings about thriving. And so then as I’ve thought about what is definitely going to be the giant mess of the fall, like let’s just say it, like it’s going to be a mess no matter what else happens, what I thought is okay can we just keep our eye on those two balls: warmth and structure. Warmth, okay whatever goes down kids are gonna need incredible kindness. This is where I think the steady presence thing really caught my attention. They’re gonna peers that are good to them and then make them happy to connect with however they do they’re gonna need warmth from grown ups were not their parents and then they’re gonna need structure. So it may be, Reena, like I’m crossing my fingers for you that your kids go back to school and they have the routines of the day and the structure of the school day because school gives us a ton of structure. For my kids I’m gonna have to make the structure. I’m going to have to invent it. We’re not going to have the you know you leave now, you come back now, you pack your lunch because you’re taking it, I’m gonna have to make a structure about when we get going and how lunch really happens and when we decide we’re together and when we decide we’re apart. And then I am imagining that many of us are gonna have to make multiple structures over the course of the year as the routines are shifting on us. But that some home centered me a little bit in this, okay that in on any given day, if I can wake up and think what’s the warmth my kids are getting? What’s the structure they’re getting? Can we average a pretty high number over the week on this? It doesn’t have to be all warmth and all structure every day. That, to me, felt somehow like a place where I could land.
REENA: So what you’re saying really is having some sort of routine and making the house feel warm, that these kids are loved and that there’s a presence there is really what matters in the end.
LISA: Yeah. I think routines and steady presence. I think that’s what we’re going for this fall what ever else happens. For me, I can feel calmer, when I think to myself my goal is to try each day to make sure there’s a decent amount of warmth and a decent amount of structure and to keep those averages high. You know keep that average high over the course of a week. So warmth and structure and tacos and cosco street that’s my prescription so what you have personally structure.
REENA: And tacos.
LISA: Yes, and Costco street tacos.
REENA: So what do you have for us for parenting to go today?
LISA: So when we think about what back to school looks like this year, I think for both parents and kids it feels pretty out of control, which is no way that we want to be feeling. When you’re feeling that way, and especially when your child is feeling that way, one thing that you can say that is true to your child is that whatever else happens they can still learn and grow even in a pandemic. And they can be in charge of that, and they can feel proud of that. I think it’s really important for us to remind kids of what in fact is in their control, and what they can make happen.