During the pandemic, it’s OK to be a “good enough” parent

The social media posts exhaust me.  I see parents with colorful schedules for children to abide by during this pandemic and others who have made a zillion fabric masks to donate. Meanwhile, I’m trying to test the technology to see patients from my new home “office” and train my children that they cannot join the visits (not successful so far). The constant barrage of emails notifying me how my children will now be learning, at home, led by myself and my husband while somehow simultaneously doing our regular work,  complete with zoom meetings and google hangouts that I’m sure will work seamlessly.  Yes, and my son wants to know if he can use my iPad for more game time (again). It is overwhelming.

When I start to glaze over, I am reminded of Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician, and psychoanalyst who was influential in the field of developmental psychology. Dr. Winnicott worked treating displaced children who were evacuated during the Second World War in England. He was on the front lines supporting children who faced a war while separated from their families. He also engaged in extensive research on infant-mother bonding and is known for the concept of the “good-enough” mother.

“Good-enough” sounds, well, not like a great goal, not exactly extraordinary every time.  But when you read about the concept, Winnicott felt that the parent would attend to the child’s every need as an infant. But gradually, as the child grew older, that became impossible. And he noted that when the parent fails the child in minor ways, it actually helps prepare the child for the real world. The real world does not respond to our every need, nor does it bend to our every desire — and it’s actually a good thing for kids to learn that. Sure, we know this. But it may be easy to start feeling the pressure to do the impossible at this unprecedented time. How can I become a homeschool teacher while also becoming a telehealth pro? How can professionals on the front lines every day contain the anxiety about bringing this virus home to a family member? Maybe you are not seeing patients, but your role has entirely changed, and you are worried about vulnerable family members or yourself becoming ill? How can we run that perfect “structure” at home to ensure our children get the quality education that they deserve? How many painful conversations have you had to explain why we must refrain from seeing friends? What is the right answer for the care of young infants and toddlers right now, and should your teen be left alone?

I am the first to tell you that I will not become a homeschool star — I knew that long before I met the common core. But I will be good enough for my kids. How to manage that anxiety with the virus? Sure we have meditation apps and deep breaths, but it will be too much some days, and we may raise our voices and have to apologize later — but it will be good enough. How about that schedule? Our homeschool will not start at 7:55 a.m. when the bell usually rings at school. So we have a structure, but we relax it a bit. It will be good enough. And yes, my son gets the iPad lately more than usual. Please don’t judge. It’s a pandemic, and my son is relentless, and at least he can talk to friends through that iPad.

Our kids are going to look to us to know how to respond to this crisis. And if you are like me, you have caught yourself more than once up late reading articles about this pandemic that make it impossible to sleep. Not helpful, of course, but we are human. So I had to put a limit on the night reading so I can take care of my own health, so I can be good enough. The “put your own oxygen mask on first” analogy feels too close to home right now, but we really do need to manage our own needs so we can support our loved ones. So when you can, get that exercise, protect time to sleep, eat a vegetable along with your favorite treats and take some deep breaths. Know that you will be good enough. And that is OK. Joint Commission is not coming to your house to inspect your huddle board — you have wiggle room for days where the structure goes out the window. Children tend to be very resilient, and having supportive adults to guide them through this period of distress is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Our kids are learning now more than ever that we cannot always have it our way, but we can survive, and we can be good enough to help them through this.

Shayla Sullivant is a psychiatrist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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