How Do I Parent When I Feel Like I’m Drowning?
Parents are faced with new pressures under Covid-19, and many of us are barely holding it together. When does having personal struggles translate into bad parenting? While it's important to be honest with our kids, Lisa explains what’s not okay for your kids to see and experience as you are working through a difficult time. Adding to the pressure, many parents have lost their supportive networks. We no longer see other parents during school pick-up or on the sidelines of soccer games. It may be time to find our new “soccer sideline” groups. Reena also talks about her fear of winter coming in a brainstorming session about how we'll cope. Lisa explains the research on how having breaks to look forward to can help your mental health. For Children Everywhere: https://www.womensbeanproject.com/
October 13, 2020 | 31 min
Transcript | How Do I Parent When I Feel Like I’m Drowning?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 10: How Do I Parent When I Feel Like I’m Drowning?
REENA: Well you never know what to expect these days, Lisa.
LISA: No. It’s always one of those, I kind of brace myself when I open email or like when I grab my phone to like start scrolling on social media. There is the sense of like, okay what am I gonna find?
REENA: Yeah, you know, I always feel like all my life I’ve been swimming like against the current and now I’m just like riding the wave here and seeing where it takes me, but sometimes you just get tired of not knowing what’s coming, right?
LISA: Yeah, yeah, and also feeling like the need to supervise. I feel like I have to sort of supervise what’s going on in the news, and I guess I felt that way off and on, but a lot these days. I feel like I’m somehow responsible for monitoring what is happening.
REENA: Because you want to know, and you feel like minute by minute anything could change, but I also feel like I’ve got to set some boundaries because it just kind of takes over. You know this sense we talk about water and drowning, one of the letters we got and I want to get right to it actually talks about this. It says, ‘Dear Lisa, I feel like I’m drowning. My kids are home learning remotely. I’m unemployed trying to find work. Every time I hear the news it’s all about COVID rates going up, uncertainty about where our country is going, and no sign of school starting back up in person. The mommy network I once had is gone. I took for granted sitting on the sidelines at soccer games and chatting with parents. I even missed the annoying moms at the PTA planning meeting.
LISA: That’s actually funny.
REENA: It is funny. ‘I feel so alone I’m trying my best to hold it together for the kids. I feel so anxious about finding a job, anxious about who will win on election day, and when will our lives return to normal. How can I keep my head above water when I feel like I’m drowning. I don’t suffer from depression. Is this depression I’m feeling? Adding to my anxiety with fall in the air I worry about falling into a deep depression when winter comes. How do I make sure I don’t get to that place? How did I feel reassured and less anxious when all I can feel is the uncertainty.
LISA: Ooof. Where do you wanna start, Reena?
REENA: You know what stood out to me though that kind of actually surprised me, is how do you hold it together for your kids? Right? I hadn’t thought about that. You know is there a point, she’s just juggling a lot as a parent, the financial pressure on top of that, but when is it okay for your kids to see failing or to see you struggling? Is that is that a bad thing?
LISA: Not necessarily, and sometimes it may not even be avoidable. We’re all together, there’s so much happening, this mom is under so much strain, that it just may not be realistic to expect that we can always keep sort of a brave face as parents in this. That our kids may see us feeling worried or worn down by the pandemic, and I would actually, if I have to choose and I think I have to choose between a parent being able to fake it really well and a parent being honest about the ways in which it’s very very hard, I’d actually take the honest parent, because I know kids can tell when we’re faking it, and I think that may actually be more unsettling to children to sort of know that what they’re seeing isn’t real. But then we have the problem, or the challenge, of kids seeing us in pain, and seeing us worrying, and I guess my answer is it’s okay to a degree. It’s frightening to kids if they feel like their parents are falling apart. It can be okay to good for kids to see us be honest about having a hard time, and see us then cope effectively with our own distress about that hard time. You know, I feel really down, should we watch a show together?I feel really down, yeah I’ll take a hug? Things like that. Not making kids feel like they’re responsible for the parent’s distress or obliged to try to fix the parent’s distress, but I think we can and should show kids the truth about this being hard on grown ups also, but be careful not to leave them feeling like the parents don’t have their hands on the wheel anymore or the kid is responsible for helping the parent feel better.
REENA: That’s a lot of pressure for a kid to feel if you’ve got a lift up mom and dad and be a kid.
LISA: Yeah. It’s not fair, it’s not fair. And I get it that we are isolated, and that’s actually something this mom mentions is the isolation that people are feeling in their parenting, and so I can see how even well-meaning parents could find themselves leaning on their kids in new ways, but I think we want to be really careful about that.
REENA: I want to get to the isolation in a moment, but I want to ask you, what if as a parent you feel like you’re just doing a bad job? Right? Because it’s a lot of extra pressure that has been added on us as parents that nobody talks about this. But there’s a lot more that we have to do and you’re around each other all the time, but what if you feel like you’re just not adequate enough in your parenting because you’ve got a ton of other stuff to have to sort out as well.
LISA: Yeah, I actually, I’m feeling that way fairly often these days, and mostly it’s just I’m super busy, and so even though I’m home with my daughters, because their school district isn’t open yet, I feel like I can be quite absent and then feel guilty about it because I think, oh my gosh I’ve got these two kids who are doing this incredible job of toughing out school at home, and I’m pretty MIA. Kike I’m sort of in the house but I don’t feel very present. But let’s talk really about what a bad job looks like. I often find as a psychologist, I can be like look, I can’t tell you how to get a right, but I can definitely tell you how to get it wrong. Okay so what would be a bad job? Here are the things I don’t want parents doing. I don’t want parents leaning on their kid for emotional support beyond, sure I’ll take a hug, you know I think that that seems fair. I don’t want parents being out of control in front of their kids. And by out of control I mean like sobbing, weeping or out of control angry, or having icky fights, you know, with anyone, spouse, partner, anyone. Obviously we don’t want parents mistreating kids or guilting them into good behavior. Shame is always off the table for me. So once those things are off the table, I might think of a few others but that’s my main list. The rest is the variety of family life. And this is a really hard time and we are so in the dirty middle of it, right? This has been going on forever and we do not yet know where or when the exit strategy is coming, so I do like to think we’ll actually look back on these particular months and weeks, as like in some ways the worst of it, that it was the most disruptive, least certain. We didn’t know when the end was coming, we didn’t know how it was going to come, we were worn down already. Like, let’s just give ourselves that. This is a rough phase of a rough time in broad scope. And so maybe we’re not at our best. If we can steer clear of the really, you know, for me the no gos, that list of no gos, I think the rest is doing our best, being present when we can be present, and then what I would say is not walking around feeling guilty all the time. That’s something I have observed as a psychologist is like pretty unhelpful stance in parenting. So there’s a place for guilt if you’ve like done something you shouldn’t have done, talked to your kid in a way you shouldn’t have spoken to them, or leaned on them in way that was inappropriate. Then I think there’s guilt to be had, where you feel bad and feeling bad keeps you from making the same mistake and you apologize, and then you don’t make the same mistake. So guilt when there’s a true misdeed, I think is a good thing, but you had this and I’ve had this as a mom too where it’s like our work has taken us away for periods of time and you know you could feel a lot of guilt about it you know what I mean we know like talk to me like how you negotiated that as a mom because you and I both had to do that and I think that’s actually right down the middle of what we want to talk about here.
REENA: Yeah. I don’t wallow in guilt and I’m more aware of it now because I have incredible amounts of time with my kids that I am loving. I often talk about the podcast, I used to be on the 7:30 a.m. train heading out and then coming back at about 8 p.m. from the city, and this window of all this opportunity of being with my kids. My mom often jokes, she’s like the next job you get, make sure you’re able to be home for dinner with kids, and you know I’m really understanding, of course I know that’s important, but having this time with them, you know, being able to lay down with my son at the end of the night and just go over his day and talk to him or you know it’s made a difference but I, during the course of my career and I’ve traveled to war zones and with presidents, what I have always made sure to do is do not pack guilt. And I tell myself as a working mom that you know what, this is allowing them a certain lifestyle, you know they’re they’re able to let their mom also know that she feels fulfilled, and I refused to pack guilt and when I do something like parenting-wise that I realize, oh my gosh it wasn’t there I should have, acknowledge it and I learn to drop it and move on, and I really feel like that’s been a coping mechanism for me, I don’t wallow in guilt.
LISA: I think that’s right and and I arrived at the same conclusion around my travel, where I was like, oh man I could feel really guilty about not being available in certain ways, and then I got to the place where I was like first of all I’m raising two daughters and I have a career that’s going well and they should watch me lean into that. They should watch me have a career and go where my career is taking me on and I also over time have watched families were guilt was a really major factor in parenting and the example I think of that’s most ready for me is the idea of like divorces where parents feel really guilty about the divorce, and so then they try to cancel it out with indulgence. And so that for me in my clinical work, I always have kept a hawkish eye because it I’ve never liked that dynamic of, we feel so bad about the divorce so you can have you know triple birthday, that to me doesn’t feel, and it’s funny it’s hard for me to put into words why that doesn’t feel like a great place to operate from as a parent other than that I think it lets, it means you’re indulging your kids and also sometimes the other way they don’t show up is the parents would let kids get away with stuff they should totally not be getting away with.
REENA: What’s a better mechanism then because I think it’s so easy when you feel guilt to be like, oh let’s go to the ice cream place or let’s go here, you know, some fo that is good right, but how do you, instead of being over indulgent and you feel the guilt, what’s a better way to deal with that.
LISA: So here’s what I tried to do. It’s funny like I always try to be really honest when I’m toggling between like here’s the received wisdom of my field and like here’s me trying to make it as a mom, okay so this is just me trying to make it as a mom. What I would try to do when I was traveling is to get as much sleep as I could while traveling and to come home in good shape. And so that when I was home, I was on point. I was available to hang out. I was available to do fun stuff. I wasn’t napping, you know, that was the part I worried about is that I’d be gone for a couple of days and I didn’t want to come home and then be out of commission for another two days trying to pull myself together. So the way that I would try to negotiate that, and I’m actually now in a new way I’m home all the time, but I also can feel quite absent at times but I try to negotiate that is to think, okay this is my job, I care about my job, I want to do my job, I want my girls to see me doing my job and doing it in a way that’s really a joy for me, and meaningful, and then when I’m off the clock, I am off the clock. I am there, I’m available, I’m present and I am parenting in earnest right? Calling kids on stuff they shouldn’t be doing, making myself available for fun stuff that spontaneous. That for me is how I’ve negotiated that I’m realizing as we talk it through, that’s also how I’m negotiating it right now. I am doing really nice breakfasts because that’s when I can be available and then I’m often checked out for a lot of the day, but I feel like you know in the morning I’ve got this time, it is defined, it is clear and I am not going back and forth between my computer and my kid, I am like really there and then I’m really not there.
REENA: I’m curious what this really nice breakfast looks like?
LISA: Well I make them to order, and it’s mostly my nine year old, so this morning she had a soft boiled egg and half an English muffin and some tea. You know I love doing it. Well and the funny thing is we have this kitchen island, and I’m on the small side in my daughter’s on the small side, so my nine year old still likes to eat breakfast sitting up on the kitchen island, so we’re eye to eye, and it’s actually one of my favorite parts of the day. It is really nice.
REENA: It’s cold cereal at my home so I might have to rethink the start of the day. You know the other point to this letter that is really striking that I feel like no one’s talking about is losing your mommy or your parenting network. You know? And of isolation. It’s funny we laughed about the PTA, everyone knows the stories PTA and working together with some of the crazy moms out there and dads, but how do you, like it is a loss, you can’t and especially when we hunker down, which many people are expecting will happen this winter, some people have formed pods. It’s been my reason I’ve been able to survive is my pod, but for folks that don’t have that, how do you make up for that loss of the mommy network? It’s such a great point.
LISA: It’s such a huge point. It’s one of those things like you don’t miss until it’s gone, and I think that this is one of those things where you start to unpack in retrospect, how much useful data you pick up if you happen to be able to go get your kid from school. You know that in my neighborhood the elementary schools are, you know, is walkable and it’s not unusual for parents to be able to wait outside on the front lawn for their kids to come out of the elementary school. And so not only do you see your kid coming out of the elementary school you see all the other kids coming out of the elementary school and so you’re getting data just about like how do kids come out of the school, you know, like what’s the look on their faces, and then of course there’s a lot of standing around talking while you wait for kids to come out, and there’s so much information and so much trading of information like, are you guys do in soccer, or is your kid doing this or what’s going on? And what I realize, of course, is you only see this when you no longer have these kind of causal interactions, you only see their value when they’re absent, is there’s so much useful yard sticking going on. You know there can be really un-useful yardsticking, but really useful yard sticking of like, you know moms who maybe have lots of kids are like, oh yeah I know my kid did that in the fourth grade. You know like those kinds of conversations, and I actually, it’s interesting I just heard something like this from a mom of a ninth grader saying she couldn’t get a read on whether the challenge for ninth grade daughter was having was typical and expectable or grounds for concern, and she actually said to me, yeah no like I used to just see moms a lot more. There just used to be a lot more time to ask if their kid was struggling with the same thing my kid was struggling with, and the loss of that is significant. Really significant.
REENA: I hadn’t thought of that until I read it, and you think about all these other opportunities, you know sports is way down, the activities we do are way down, you know carpooling with other parents, you get a chance to sort of talk and connect and even playdates. I mean people are just so cautious about interacting and that’s been cut off. And the feeling alone, you can be in a house of like eight people and still feel so alone.
LISA: The isolation is striking. The how isolated we feel and it’s interesting, Reena, when I think about our email box. You know so often the messages are like, thank you so much I thought I was the only one, or thank you so much I didn’t realize other families were going through this, and it’s interesting because so much of my long form work has been on teenagers, and that’s the time of life where I think parents often feel quite isolated because you don’t talk with other people about your teenager the way you do with your young kid. You know often just out of respect for your teenager’s privacy, and it’s actually one of the really challenging and painful aspects of parenting a teenager is you’re like, uh is this going on and everybody else’s house too? And now we have this really incredible situation where that extends to all ages because people really aren’t seeing each other and the challenges are bigger than they’ve ever been. Everybody has kids who don’t want to do the work. Everybody has kids who are either missing their friends or pushing for social stuff that feels uncomfortable for the parent or feeling sorely left out. I mean the the range of challenges that are now common is huge. I mean kids are feeling it, parents are feeling it, but the networks that hold us together are absent.
REENA: Based on your work, I mean I know this is uncharted territory and I’m sure they’ll be tons of research, but in this moment trying to project ahead, know we talk about it often, like what do you think you really have to worry about the most. The mom’s got so much going on here right? What really matters right now? And especially when we’re feeling the uncertainty on so many levels it’s hard not to be projecting that, or you know have that around you all the time, right?
LISA: Yeah, so what really matters I would say is feeling that you’ve got your head above water, and comfortably so, like I don’t want parents to feel like they’re drowning, okay so then what really matters is figuring out what it takes to make that happen, and when we lose our networks, when we lose the support, when we lose the things that were helping us feel that way before we just didn’t pay attention to them, we have to then compensate for those losses, so one thing this is self-serving to us, but one thing somebody sent me a message saying that she and her mommy friends had started a podcast talks where they were getting together in their backyard to talk about our podcast.
REENA: I love that.
LISA: I know, of course I was really delighted to hear that, but that’s rather than like the burden of a book club, you know they would listen to an episode and then get together in their backyard, and have a conversation about that. I’m like, okay there’s the front lawn of the school, there is a structured way of getting together with other parents and having you know 25-minute book club where you had a book you had to read, not book, podcast episode, and then getting that support and getting that camaraderie. So I think that is one example of a compensating I think it may be being much more deliberate about building people back into our lives. I’ve talked about walking for exercise with a friend a couple times a week.
REENA: Yes, it’s great.
LISA: It’s the glue that is holding me together. I will say that I mean I just look forward to it and I save up topics for that. But it wasn’t something I was doing so systematically before. So to put a punchline on it, Reena, it’s when stresses go up, supports have to go up. That is just how it works. If stresses go up, and they cannot be brought down, and right now the stresses cannot be brought down, then supports have to increase and I know it’s really hard to feel creative and inventive when you already feel like roadkill, but I think that’s what is in order here, so those are the ideas I have about supports, like what else, like let’s give people more than you know, suggest that they make a podcast party. What else would you what else would work for you or what else is working for you?
REENA: It’s interesting for me, that has been transformative and is the reason I am intact, in our neighborhood we started a little workout gym which is like everything. It’s outdoors, its outdoors, we invested in some kettlebells and we find workouts online, and it’s essentially a pod that our kids are sort of the same age, and we’re working out, and it is a chance for us to see each other, to talk. But we feel really good because we’ve all canceled our gym memberships, and we’re able to work out, and I’ve also identified, like I’m hunkering down the spot. We’re just kind of in isolation with us and if it gets down to this, like I feel comfortable with these people because they take quarantining very seriously, but exercise is important to me and I will tell you, all my life I was not like some athlete. It’s something I found later in life, and I do it because it helps me mentally and they are my rock. They help me through everything, and finding that exercise was important to me, but hearing you say this, like I never thought about it, you’ve got to find your soccer sideline.
REENA: The parents that sat on the sideline, that you saw at school pick-up and at sporting events with your kid. You’ve got to recreate that, and find a way to connect, even if it’s once every two weeks outdoor somewhere. Find your soccer sideline.
LISA: What it reminds me of in the literature is the research on vacations, which is the vacation itself, you know most people will be like, it was fine, looking forward to the vacation is actually a huge psychological bump. So you know it sounds like your workout group is working really well for you but even knowing it’s on the calendar yeah is actually psychologically supportive. So you get sort of a double bump from it, one is like okay I have this to look forward to this topic that’s on my mind to have a place where I know I’m going to talk about it, so just because I don’t have the meeting right today it doesn’t matter, I don’t feel alone and then there’s the second bump of actually having the conversation. Okay, but Reena, what are you gonna do in the winter? Right? And this mom asks about the winter because what you’re describing sounds very outdoors.
REENA: It is, and that’s why it’s such a safe space. We all feel good working out, we disinfected and have purchased tons of disinfectant spray for all the equipment, and we have our own yoga mats, and it’s really been wonderful. But we’re all worried about winter and we’re thinking we’re gonna clean out a garage and do it there then it’ll make you work even harder because you don’t wanna be cold. But this mom talks about how do you get past the fear of winter, and you know I’m Florida girl, I want to move in with my parents come winter but that’s not really an option right? How do you cope with that because I feel paralyzed.
LISA: I’m feeling anxious about because I live in Cleveland. I think we’re going to have a winter. So for starters I bought on Amazon for $180, I bought a fire pit and I haven’t put it together yet and I’m keeping my eye out for firewood, but I thought, well that’s a start and I’m gonna okay we always talk about Costco. I think we talk about food almost every time.
REENA: We do.
LISA: I plan to go pretty hard at their s’mores supplies and I have this sort of scheme of this is how my teenager’s to be able to stay connected to her friends and my nine year old’s gonna stay connected to her friends, and how I’m gonna stay connected to my friends. I’m worried about walking and what about the weather. I’m not quite sure how I’m gonna compensate, but I mean I need to think it through. I actually have snowshoes so maybe I’ll make sure my friend has snow shoes, we may just had it that way if the weather’s bad.
REENA: I don’t like winter. I don’t like being outside in winter. The only thing I like is, you know my husband’s really great at building a fire with kids. We do a lot of fires and literally I said practically inside the fire. But how do you cope? I wonder if the reverse is true you talk about the psychology of knowing your vacation is coming, getting excited or knowing you’re going to see your group of friends and getting excited. I feel like the reverse is true, like I’m depressed thinking about the coming months.
LISA: No it’s hard not to feel down about it. Well okay so this is I’m sure probably a little bit too polyannaish, but okay you’re from Florida, I’m from Colorado. I grew up playing in the snow. For us winter was playtime and so actually we’re pretty well equipped around here with snowshoes and then cross country skis that we take to a nearby golf course that’s pretty cool about letting us cross country ski there. And we have sleds, and I come from the philosophy is there’s no bad weather there’s just bad gear, and the more you have the happier you are. There are some days in February in Cleveland that defy even that, but I guess that’s what I would say, like alright guys gear. But your gear like we’re just gonna you know find a way to make this work because we have to be outside and we have to see humans, and there are some days that are probably not possible, but let’s just say for now that with the right gear we may be able to get through winter.
REENA: I have to say with our workout group, we’ve had friends from Texas and California Zoom and it’s also a way to connect with other people where he can do that you know and and hold each other accountable and get to see each other and have something on your calendar I love that
LISA: Ao we started talking about charities each week, and I think we should call this For Children Everywhere as we think about,
REENA: I love it.
LISA: And so the charity I want us to focus on this week actually has to do with my hometown. It’s called the Women’s Bean Project, and it’s centered in Denver where I grew up, and it’s a program that helps women who have been unemployed gain employment through actually working for a group that puts together a whole variety of food gifts, so it’s bean-based things. Some of them like chillis and stuff like that but actually a really amazing array of food options that are beautifully packaged. The group is actually very comprehensive in terms of doing everything that needs to be done to help women back into the workplace, and feel comfortable moving back into the workplace, and really support them, and even though it’s actually not about children directly, one thing we know is that when a mom is struggling kids are struggling. So for this week in particular and maybe even thinking about winter and thinking about chili and thinking about how we take care of kids, and also this episode we talk so much about taking care of moms, and so Women’s Bean Project feels especially appropriate.
REENA: I love this.
LISA: It’s good. It’s good and I will say it’s often what I do for gifts for the holidays. So we’ll start thinking about the holidays, but it’s actually giving gifts from the Women’s Bean Project has always been my favorite thing to do. So we will have the link to that in the show notes, and I love them and I love their products.
REENA: I love your your personal connection to them as well, I think that’s really great, and I love that we’re doing this, and as you mentioned in the show description in the podcast every week you can find the charity that we mention it’s right there, and be sure to check us out on Instagram I think we’re gonna start putting up on Instagram and our Twitter accounts as well, which is @asklisapodcast for both accounts so if you want more we’ll have it up there as well. I love this. You know it’s hard when you’re in a dark place, but giving back always makes you feel good.
REENA: So what’s your parenting to-go this week?
LISA: So here’s my parenting to-go: when we talk about stress in psychology, what we’ve always recognized is that it’s dynamic, meaning you can’t really articulate how stressful something is unless you’re also looking at the supports that are available. So people can handle pretty big stresses if they have adequate support. And people actually become overwhelmed by even smaller moderate stresses. If they’re not able to access the support they deserve. So if you’re feeling or your kid’s feeling like your stresses are pretty big, pivot your attention to your supports. How can you add to them? How can you shore them up? What can you do to increase the level of support to have in your life in order to compensate for the increased levels of stress?
REENA: Find your soccer sideline, even if it has to move to your backyard.
REENA: Thanks so much, Lisa, I’ll see you next week.
LISA: See you next week.