Dear Parents and Caregivers,
Just today, even after being on lockdown for close to two months I said to my family all of whom were working away on their Zoom calls and virtual school in the same room as I, “this is so strange”. You think I would have accepted it by now. For the most part I have, but still the fact that we wear masks and gloves into the grocery store, maintain distance from those we encounter, and actually try not to even encounter others is never something I would have imagined. Nor would I have imagined a global closure, massive loss of life and social and economic devastation. While I wouldn’t have imagined the necessity, I would have imagined the way neighbors, communities, scientists and global leaders have come together to do the best they can to support the vulnerable, the sick, the dying, and those who are taking care of them.
It all can feel very surreal. We are living in a new world, and as such we are being forced to look at who we are in a different way. And this can be unnerving.
As Julio Vincent Gambuto writes in his essay “The Gaslighting of America Has Begun,” “And now, here we are, alone in our houses, surrounded by loss, many in great despair, being asked to look inward. There is no brand, no leader, no voice that can help us now. We have to help ourselves. This is the moment in the movie that the truth comes out — the truth of who we are and who we most want to be. Armed with that truth, [we] head into the next act with a better understanding of [ourselves] and a revived purpose in the world.”
This idea is what this week’s column in Jackson Hole News & Guide is about (scroll down to see the uncut version) — as it applies to being a parent. My message to parents is always, who do you want to be? As we are forced inside our homes, can we focus more on the internal, and use that as a guidepost as we approach any interaction we have with our children and teens?
Armed with the truth of who we want to be and who we hope our kids become — kind, compassionate, generous, responsible, aware (insert your words here) — we can use this as an anchor to remind us that we have the power to respond to our children in ways that help us uphold those truths.
Be well, take good care of yourselves, go hug your kids, and continue to ask, “who do I want to be as a parent?”
With love and faith in you,
Many of the ideas for this column were generated from conversations with Vicki Hoefle — thank you Vicki!
Lockdown asks us to focus on the internal
(The longer, uncut version. You can find the edited version at Jackson Hole News & Guide)
Be. Do. Have. This is something parent educator Vicki Hoefle said recently.
Who do you want to be? What do you need to do in order to be that person? After the being and the doing, you will end up with a result - something you have. It is not the other way. It is always who do you need to be and what do you need to do in order to get what you want to have.
Whether we are working from home, still working outside the home, or have tragically lost our jobs, many people have been experiencing a bit of an identity crisis during the quarantining-home with the kids 24/7- social distancing part of the COVID-19 pandemic. Who are we now that our world has been turned upside down?
Our identity, who we are, is often formed through internalizing the values of one’s parents or culture. It develops indirectly from how the world around us — parents, peers, employers, society in general — responds to us. It is a complicated topic and by no means am I an expert. While I only focus on one aspect of identity here, it is important to recognize that there are also cultural, racial and gender identities. While these have significant impact, especially for those that are marginalized, a larger discussion on identity is outside the scope of this column.
For some of us our identities are crumbling because they were built on a certain sense of security, predictability and dependability that have given us a feeling of safety. Right now the world doesn't feel super safe and the future is uncertain, and the fear this brings up can change our identity, for example, from that of a competent person in the work world to what New York Times columnist Emily Flake describes as a “panicked bird”. Adding to that, our identities are formed in relation to others, which we now have very little of, leaving us at a loss for who we are.
The identities for many are also changing because they have lost jobs and loved ones. Who am I if I am not the one who provides for my family? Who am I if not the one who provides for my family? Who am I if not a spouse, daughter, dear friend? Who am I or if I cannot save the lives of so many around me?
As adults we may define ourselves in several ways: parent, friend, athlete, or by our jobs. Often our self worth is tied into how well we do the roles with which we identify. Our society places a great deal of value on being productive. We go to work, we do a good job, and we get rewarded in the form of a paycheck and sometimes acknowledgement. This becomes part of our identity.
Valuing productivity and achievement has been programmed into us by a consumerist society. The thought that “I’m not anything if I'm not productive” is prevalent. Our value, sense of self worth, and often our identity comes from this. We both brag and lament about being busy.
We know how to get through a work day. It’s often rational, logical and orderly. We know what we have to do to get the job done. We either are given instructions or we give them, and for the most part everyone does what they are told.
Yet often we don't know how to translate our identity as a worker into that of being a parent.
I speculate we have both internal and external identities. The external is what we do, what is visible to others, or a role we play: father, dancer, engineer. The internal is who we are: kind, responsible, generous. It often seems that the do (the external) comes before the be (the internal). In other words, we often focus primarily on our external identities. And this may be because those identities are what our culture and society prime us to prioritize through monetary reward, notoriety or media and marketing schemes that manipulate us into feeling that we have to look, act, behave and feel a certain way.
And sometimes we see this in how we raise our kids. Often parents focus on the external: what sports or musical instruments will our kids play, what grades will they get, will they go to college, and if so where, or what jobs will they have? The pressure we feel for our kids to achieve originates from, is often driven by, and exemplifies the external.
So how does this apply to parenting during the lockdown necessitated by COVID -19?
During this time of social isolation, being at home with our kids 24/7, changing how we typically show up for work (if we still have a job), managing our feelings of uncertainty, losing loved ones and caring for the sick has pushed us beyond our comfort zones and challenged the ways we think about ourselves. It has exposed our vulnerabilities and forced us to learn new skills. As Emily Flake writes in her article “Big Pandemic Feelings”, “this quarantine feels like a time of reckoning, forcing us to look at ourselves as we really are.”
Exactly. It’s time we focus on the internal.
Now that many find themselves newly at home full time with their children due to unemployment or working from home, some families are having a hard time functioning well. Parents are overwhelmed, anxious, and have no idea how to manage this new world where we suddenly are faced with finding a new identity. The order and predictability of our work worlds where people know what to do and do what they are told doesn’t translate into being a parent with unpredictable children and teens who have a will of their own and an intense and innate -- and completely normal — drive to be their own independent people. (Remember they are in the stage where they are forming their own identities themselves).
To some extent we are trying to fit the same productivity equation that works in our jobs into raising our children. Yet our kids don’t comply. They don’t know the rules, and even if they did there’s a good chance they won’t willingly follow them. Suddenly we find ourselves in a new world with new rules where no one has given us the instruction manual.
Our prowess at work does not translate to prowess in the messy world of raising children. The confidence we find in doing our neat and tidy jobs is not something we feel at home with a tantruming toddler, defiant middle-aged child, or a teen engaging in risky behaviors. We become undone. Our identities which have been so tied up in the external are suddenly coming crashing down now that we are being forced to focus more on the internal.
So while our external identities are crumbling for a myriad of reasons, I invite us all to consider spending more time focusing on the internal. Who do I want to be?
Our priorities may be shifting. What is the most important?
All we can do is let go. Allow ourselves to temporarily crumble and quickly reconstruct ourselves into something new. Our identity doesn't have to come from the kudos of the outside world. It can come from the internal.
As I always say, it all goes back to our values. What is most important to us in this life? Who do we want to be? How do we want our kids to describe us when they are 30 years old? And who do we hope our kids become? Note — not the what, the who — the character.
If we can start from knowing who we want to be as parents and have a good idea of who we hope our kids become as adults, most often we can see our way through to the other side of every interaction with them. If we can step back and find neutral before running in hot to a challenging situation and remember that the relationship with our children is most important (and teaching skills is a close second), then perhaps we can scale back our reactivity and preempt an eminent power struggle. If we approach our children with calm we are more often than not going to get better results. And if we don't get the results we hope for, we have to check that our expectations are realistic, work with our children toward a compromise, or realize that our children need time and practice in learning a new skill.
Some are saying this time is only about survival. Yet how long can we withstand that mentality and what will be the aftermath? For much of the nation, and perhaps soon for all, schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year — that’s until mid June for some. Living on a survival mentality for that long is not sustainable.
If this seems confusing or hard, that’s OK. I know that living at home with children and trying to work with no outside support — made even more difficult in situations of poverty, single-parenting, and other struggles — is an extremely challenging situation. In no way am I trying to minimize that. Just as our kids need support in learning new skills, sometimes so do we. I know I do.
During this pandemic we are realizing all sorts of capabilities we didn't know we had. We are capable of holding the space while we and our children move through disappointment, hardship, boredom, isolation, confusion and overwhelm. We are capable of resilience, flexibility and compassion. We are capable of sacrifice in order to protect the health of the greater community. We are capable.
And here’s the thing. Believing in one's abilities makes most things easier, including parenting during a pandemic. I believe that you have the strength and the courage to be the parents you wanted to be when you held your newborn in your arms and looked into her eyes. Our identities may be changing in ways that are unnerving to us right now. But who we want to be as parents can remain constant.
Be. Do. Have. Believe in who you can be.
Many of the ideas for this column were generated from conversations with Vicki Hoefle — thank you Vicki!
Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!