The Pandemic Parenting Dance: Why Parents Are So Exhausted
By Dr. Amanda Zelechoski, co-founder of Pandemic Parenting
Recently, I had a chance to catch up with a group of long-time friends over Zoom. It had been about four months since the last time we were able to connect. We are working moms and stay-at-home moms, married moms and single moms, and we have kids spanning in age from toddlers to teens. Our pandemic parenting highs and lows have varied considerably, but one theme was consistent: We. Are. Exhausted.
The Never-Ending Dance: Why Pandemic Parents Are So Exhausted
This feels a bit backward because we’re now nine months into the pandemic — shouldn’t we have it at least somewhat figured out by now? The new normal, the quarantine routine, remote learning, the daily decision-making. So, why do we feel so worn down?
I think it’s because we’ve been dancing nonstop for nearly a year.
Dancing? Yes, dancing. We’ve been performing an intricate and often unpredictable dance on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis, otherwise known in psychology as emotional co-regulation.
Emotion regulation is a person’s ability to manage their emotions well enough to concentrate, complete tasks, solve problems, and manage behavior. Co-regulation is when we pay attention to the cues our children are sending and respond in ways that provide support and allow them to express and then modify their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Co-regulation is a constant and complicated dance. You’re trying to track the other person’s steps, stay attuned to their emotional and physical fluctuation, and either remain in sync or use yourself to help modulate them up or down to a state of calm and focused steadiness.
Let me paint the picture for you (or at least give you a glimpse of what it looks like backstage in my house).
- I get up early to try and sneak in some work before the kids wake up, but one of them apparently heard my knuckle crack while I tiptoed to the computer two rooms away and now everyone is up.
- We get through all the usual getting dressed/brushing teeth/eating breakfast battles and, somehow, I’m already sweating and exhausted by 8:30 a.m. They are confused and frustrated that they can’t go to school and see their friends and teachers. I try to emulate enthusiasm about what a great day we’re going to have.
- I plop the toddler in front of an “educational show” so I can help the older two log into devices to start their remote learning tasks for the day. They each have Zoom sessions to join at various times throughout the day and assignments to complete in between.
- One hour in and I’m helping one work through his anxiety about giving the right answer and whether he’ll remember how to unmute himself when it’s his turn.
- The other one is yelling to me from a different room, in tears that he missed half the questions in his online assignment because he left his book at school yesterday, not knowing we’d be quarantined again due to possible COVID-19 exposure.
- I look up from consoling him to see the toddler making a beautiful Sharpie mural ON THE WALL.
- And, so it goes, all day long, bouncing back and forth from one kid to the next, to try and help them navigate the constant changes, lack of control, and big feelings they are having throughout the day.
- I try to squeeze in work emails and urgent tasks where I can, struggling to accept that I won’t really get to my work until after the kids are in bed tonight, since my husband and I agreed that his meetings today had to take precedence over mine.
This is the pandemic parenting dance we have been doing all day, every day, for months on end, with no water breaks. Except we have no choreography. There isn’t an instructional YouTube video for this dance. There isn’t even a consistent beat or cadence to the steps. The dance changes constantly, and we’re typically one or two beats behind. Why? Because every member of our family is doing a different dance, and we’re trying to simultaneously keep up with each of them. Do you know how hard it is to be perfectly in sync with multiple dance partners doing different styles at the same time? As a former dancer, I can tell you that it’s not possible.
We have been trying to do the impossible for almost a year now.
We are using ourselves and our emotional reserves to stay attuned and help regulate the emotions of not only our kids, but so many others — spouses, partners, extended family members, and friends. This is why, after a long day of feeling like I’ve done everything from a high-speed tap dance to an intense tango with each child, I have nothing left to give to my husband who needs to talk through his grief over a recent loss or to my work when I can finally sit down to do it. As dancers tend to say, I left it all on the stage earlier that day.
What I wanted my friends to know, and what I want you to know, is that we weren’t built for this erratic medley or intensity of performances. We have been emotionally co-regulating each of our loved ones in different and nuanced ways, day in and day out, to help them cope with the stress and upheaval of this pandemic…and it is not sustainable. That’s why you’re so exhausted. Not because you’re doing the wrong steps or you’re a bad dance partner. But because the dance is long, it’s tough, and it feels endless.
And, some days, it’s ok to take a bow and exit stage left (or hide in the closet) for a minute to catch your breath. The show must go on, you’ll try again tomorrow, and your friends and fellow pandemic parents will be cheering you on in the wings.