In the age of quarantine, parenting on demand takes on a whole new level of dedication, time and patience. My partner, though, practices “parenting by appointment.” We are not co-parenting compatibly in this pandemic, and it’s a real problem. By no means is this the gravest of issues in a time of global crisis, but it begs for a solution.
My daughter Cecilia was making soufflé pancakes from scratch last Saturday morning, following YouTube directions as her generation does best. She is a budding gourmet cook, and we are sure to gain the COVID 15 (pounds) by the time this pandemic is over. The young YouTube chef was asking her to “draw peaks” out of the eggs, which was proving to be a challenge.
My husband was baking bread for his second time ever, so he was concentrating hard on the technique for folding the dough. He had our eldest enthralled, and they were in their own world – standing a proper 6-foot social distance away.
Cecilia was growing frustrated, muttering under her breath about her own lack of technique: “I can’t peak the eggs!” My husband checked in with his eyes still on his dough: “You OK?” She didn’t answer and began to spiral, making more noise with her cooking accouterments in combination with aggravated grunts and overly dramatized sighs. It was a cacophony of sounds and jarringly irregular, so that there was no hope for the rest of us in the kitchen to continue anything with fluidity, let alone read the paper.
We are in quarantine land with the rest of the world, a month in, on edge with cabin fever and pent-up energy. I put my coffee down. Eggs are precious in the pandemic, so I admonished, “Don’t waste them, Cecilia. C’mon, don’t go throwing them around.” But those eggs were now her nemesis, and she was launching a personal vendetta against them. I walk over to assess the situation and offer some guidance. We’d forgotten that our hand beater only had one functioning beater remaining, so forming peaks was practically impossible. It would have been frustrating for anyone. Then the stainless steal bowl flew out of her left hand, hitting the backsplash as she battled to control the beater in her right hand. She was beyond exasperated and mad.
“What happened?” I queried while surveying the scene. But instead of sounding sympathetic, as was my intention, my question made Cecilia feel interrogated and accused.
“I didn’t do anything!”
“Well I didn’t say you did anything, but how can I help?”
“Yeah, right. Can you peak eggs?”
The quick answer is no, but instead I said, “Cecilia, don’t talk to me that way.”
Did I mention that she is 12½ years old? My intention was to help her, but as she channeled her quarantined frustration with the sting of a tween, I understood that she was simultaneously venting and establishing the boundaries of her independence. OK, I didn’t realize that then. I only realized it afterward. In the meantime, I loomed over her yelling, “Calm down!” The irony.
She shouted back, “Get out of my space!”
World War III erupted at not quite 9:30 a.m. In the kitchen. With the beater. On Saturday morning.
We’d have been better off playing Clue. The situation was stacked against me.
“What happened?” my husband implored later, stunned that something so trivial could escalate so greatly. He is the calm and cool one in our family, forever level headed. He was merely 6 feet away when the show went down, so how he missed our verbal exchanges escapes me. He had been concentrating on his task at hand, uninterrupted.
He is an expert “compartmentalizer,” a genetic blessing and curse. It is fantastic when you navigate planes, conduct interviews for documentaries or generally need to put personal things aside during professional moments. It is an optimal trait for first responders, and he is the guy you want by your side in an emergency. However, this trait can be a real pain in the butt whenever multitasking is required or lines are blurred between public and private moments. It’s also a pain when I need help spontaneously, and he doesn’t know it because he is on task and we haven’t discussed the situation in advance.
Instead of tracking our quid pro quo and inserting a calm third perspective to ameliorate the situation, he had literally blocked us out. He parents by appointment, I argue, and that doesn’t always satisfy the requirements of the job in this new world. It might make him more productive (truly, he’s getting a lot done even while working from home!), but quarantine or not, parenting our kids has to happen when they need it, not when you are ready for it or have “parenting time” scheduled. It generally happens, in fact, when I am in the middle of a Zoom conference or concentrating on a project with a deadline. Parenting on demand is not convenient.
But, I argue, if the point of parenting is to help our kids navigate life, to teach them how to manage in common and unanticipated situations, then parenting and life, just like the quarantine right now, is 24/7.
I blame our morning on the coronavirus. We are all a bit on edge, fed up, anxious, nervous – all of that. I’ve read that domestic violence is increasing with “safer at home” measures in place. The amount of marital discord might even spike during the pandemic, leading to a higher divorce rate.
That all sounds extreme to mention while you are making Saturday morning pancakes with the family, but how do we stop the escalation in a chronically tense environment, whether it is between parents or partners? How do we co-parent better despite our different styles? How do we avoid World War III in our kitchens? For the first time in our lives, we are not living in a world with great delineation between the personal and the public, since we are all “safer at home” all of the time.
“We should all cut ourselves a whole crap load of slack because we’ve never done this before,” says my long-term bestie, Dr. Kathleen Hipke, who doubles as a child and family psychologist when she’s not fielding my calls. Everything happens in one place right now, which allows ambiguity to sneak in, so our boundaries need to be redefined. As we struggle to find balance between work and rest with spaces in our home that have multiple purposes, it can be hard to mentally switch. “We have to practice compassion for ourselves and each other like never before,” says Kathleen. (See why she’s a keeper?) Likewise, it’s normal to feel isolated right now, but my pal reminded me that it’s also important to make connections outside of your home. “Call me,” she advises. I do.
Two things from our conversation stuck with me. One, she advises parents in any transition (and we are in one) to front-load their conversations about expectations and roles. “This is new and how do we want to do it? Do you want to lean into the ways you’ve been doing it until now, or do you want to revise the roles given the new parameters?” she asks. Everything might need to be renegotiated at this time, many times for that matter, and that is normal. “Talk through your family contracts, relying on what worked before the pandemic but acknowledging what needs to change now,” Kathleen says.
Secondly, she says parents need to build in time away they can count on, time alone. That seems almost impossible at this moment, but that is exactly what I need. If I am choosing to parent on demand, and my demand has just increased due to the quarantine, I am now parenting 24 hours a day. It’s too heavy a load for days on end. I need time where I get to make all of the decisions and I do not have to be reactive to anyone. What a relief. I drove straight to the ocean.
The best thing Kathleen said was right before we hung up. She had finished a day of patient care, talking with new parents where she lives, in the Midwest. “I think it’s a trend,” she said. “These are really the same issues that I talked about with my clients today. It’s about transitions and how we can adjust most successfully.” So I’m not the worst parent on the planet. Other people are struggling to figure this out as well.
Kathleen gives great advice, but I also call her regularly because our kids are the same age, so I know that she’ll understand our developmental stage. “And for the record,” she assures me, “I’m not having an easy time of it either. We just made a lot of movement for me to work from home, and it turns out that it’s too much!” Yep, that’s why she’s a keeper. She keeps it real even when she’s the expert.
Quarantining amplifies everything.
Four Top Tips for Pandemic Parenting from my lifelong friend, Dr. Kathleen Hipke, child and family psychologist
1. Are you making connections outside of your home? Use what you have, whether it’s the computer or a regular old telephone. You’re not alone.
2. Can you build in conversations on the front end about roles with your family or household? How do you go into a weekend versus weekdays? Who will do what and when do members get breaks? How will you all work? Who will take care of the community needs? Front-load the conversations to have a working plan about how to best maneuver.
3. Be ready and willing to revise the above, over and over again, as needed.
4. Build in anticipatory time alone/time away, where you get to make all the decisions based on what you want, so that you have your own autonomy. Doesn’t have to be fancy: Take a walk (alone) to decide which direction to travel without input from others.
Amy Rush Conroy is an anthropologist, wife and less-than-perfect parent to three awesome and occasionally feral kids. They live in Los Angeles with their dog from Mexico, named ‘Hola Ricky Fuente’. Amy founded Habla Blah Blah in 2006 to teach children a second language through music and song, though she rarely remembers the lyrics to popular songs on the radio. She is an informal educator, bilingual thought leader, lifelong learner and lover of life. Her work has appeared in blogs, magazines and aggregate works; she is working on her first nonfiction book.