“I think I’m going to get a mullet,” said the 11-year-old at breakfast this morning. I groaned. “You know, it’s my hair and I get to cut it how I want,” he replied. “I know” was all I could sigh.
“It’s my body, and I just don’t like swimming,” he had said last month for probably the thousandth time. I’ve heard these words countless times over the past couple of months, mostly when reminding him that it was time to get ready for swim practice. But finally, I was ready to “listen” to them.
The fact that he was “good” at swimming. The fact that he was a winner at the swim meets and qualified for elite meets. The fact that he had a natural breaststroke. The fact that he always emerged from the high school doors at the end of swim practice laughing and joking with teammates. The fact that he could pop out of bed at 6:00 am on a Saturday morning. The fact that I was allowing him to only do two or three of the five days of practice per week. The fact that I myself had invested a lot of time in learning about the sport, money in fees and equipment, and relationship building energy.
The facts do not matter when there is no passion.
And passion can not be determined by the parent. Passion can not be forced by a coach. Passion can not be mandated. Passion cannot be required. Passion comes from within.
I packed up the little racing swimsuits. I folded the swim towels. I put away the googles and tucked in the team swim cap. I snapped the plastic bin shut and shelved it in the garage.
And then I grieved.
I miss the joy of cheering on his strokes. I miss the friends who would save me a seat in the hard hard high school bleachers far above the pool. I especially miss the schedule of the swim practices because I took that time for my exercise, walking laps around the high school parking lots. I miss the words, “This is Little Guy – he’s a competitive swimmer.” I miss the excitement. I miss the familiarity. I miss the patterning of our weeks. I miss the people.
That grief is my emotion as a parent. That is me tucking away my hopes and expectations and joy. My disappointment in “but, he could become….” Putting away my plan for him. Sorting through and wrestling with my own feelings. Letting go.
But The Little Guy? His heart soared. His burden was lifted. The burden of endless practices. The burden of cold water and early mornings. The burden of arguing with Mom. The burden of not wanting to disappoint a parent. The burden of doing something that did not bring him joy. The burden that he carried for as long as he could.
Oh yes, we’re doing rec basketball right now and there’s endless talk of how he’s going to tear up the field when he starts football next summer. He’s sure the NBA will be calling him. He knows no tackle will catch him. He’s going to soar no matter what he does.
And yes, I am going to be right there beside him, cheering and yelling (too much) and getting teary-eyed, and praying for no injuries, and slogging to and from practices, and washing sweaty uniforms, and sitting on hard, hard bleachers, and patching skid-burns, and managing the complicated puzzle of practices and game schedules, and walking alongside him as he figures out his next move and most importantly, being his number 1 fan.
For now, it won’t be in the water and the muggy, humid pool-side stands. But no matter what stage he chooses to compete on, I will be there. That’s what parents do.
For me as an adult, summer is flying by too quickly. But as a parent of three teen/tween boys….the school year can’t come fast enough. When they are occupied for six hours, that’s six fewer hours of chaos in my life. Fewer trips through the kitchen leaving a wreakage of empty cereal boxes, half-filled cups of milk, unidentifiable brown stains on the counter top and trash that’s clearly missed the can.
Photo Gallery Title: “Just Why?”
It’s six fewer hours of “I’m bored.” “What are we going to do today?” (well, I’m going to work again….kind of like I do every day in the summer). “There’s no food in the house – only ingredients” (see paragraph above which indicates the high probability of food in the house). “Can you take me to the….?” “Why can’t you take me to the ….?” “Now can you take me to the ….?” (stick an Uber sign on my van and load up that app!).
And it’s six fewer hours in which their brains can come up with things to do that they shouldn’t be doing. Let’s take this week as an example. I’m about to walk in to see the first patient of the morning when the phone rings. I figure I have a minute to answer. “Hey, Mom, can Auntie pick me up to go to the pool in a little bit….oh, and….I kind of put the handcuffs on backwards and now I can’t get them off.” (You didn’t want to lead with that statement?) “you have the keys?” “Nope.”
Auntie picks him up. He spends the next six hours hanging at our neighborhood pool waiting for his mom to finish work. I spend the next thirty minutes looking for a friend who might be able to cut them. One brings over bolt cutters and snips them apart. Whew – independent movement of arms! And then we head to the police station (now that he can put a shirt on).
After roll call finished, a SWAT team member….the sergeant…..another officer….two staff….approached to help out. Because, of course, this is not a regular occurrence at the police station. “So where did he get these cuffs?” they ask. “Amazon, of course.” You’d think I’d have been a smart mom and put one of the supplied keys in a safe place. And maybe I did sometime a long time ago….but I sure didn’t find a key in any of the searched “safe places” that day.
The fun (embarrassing, sobering, nerve-wracking) trip to the police station, though, did give us information that it was National Night Out and so we returned three hours later to visit the officers and firefighters and SWAT team in more relaxed and playful scenario.
“Want me to throw those cuffs away for you?” asked the officer once he unlocked them. “No thanks,” I replied, swinging them in circles as we departed and my mind started planning of oh the many ways these might be used for say….high school graduation party ….wedding gag….major birthday mementos.
As a parent of three teen/tween boys, there just have not been many dull moments this summer. I’m constantly in reactive mode, dealing with the random, sporadic, pervasive craziness that comes my way. Yes, the school year brings a different type of reactive demands, but maybe I’ll be able to use focused brain power for more than 17 minutes at a time.
And maybe, just maybe…..one lessened was learned this summer…have your escape plan ready before getting into sticky situations!
You know, when you decide to attend choir practice even though you have a cold, but find out the next day that it was actually COVID, now the 65-year-old choir member who sat beside you has to reschedule his eye surgery because he was a close contact. And since the healthcare systems are so backed up dealing with people with COVID, his surgery is pushed further and further out as his eyesight deteriorates.
Or when you know you have COVID, but you still let your elementary school son go to a friend’s house for a playdate, saying, “Oh, just wear a mask.” And three days later your son has COVID, but so does the friend. And now the friend can’t attend his upcoming competition even though he’s been doing really well in the sport and was very much looking forward to the competition.
But, if you’re one of these people who don’t even “believe” in getting tested for COVID, so while sick with cold symptoms, you attend a sport competition with your child, now your child has COVID and so does a best friend on the team. Now the friend is too sick to attend school and can’t get into remote learning for a couple days and is falling further behind academically at the end of the grading period, thus shifting his academic trajectory. Furthermore, every other kid and family member who was exposed has to spend the next week in the worry of checking for symptoms and getting tested, if they can even find a testing site given the current surge of cases.
When people use the phrase, “We’re in the together,” it’s not just that we need to bond together against this “virus,” it’s that we need to realize how interconnected we really are as human beings. We need to understand that the very decisions we make for ourselves or our family members have a ripple effect that affects the health and the well-being of others. That our decisions have altered another person’s ability to access health care, access learning, or access fun and joyous experiences.
So whether we like it or not; whether we believe in it or not; whether we want to do it or not; none of that matters. What matters is that we need to see each other as precious human beings whose very lives veer onto a new course based on the interaction they have with us. And if we’re passing COVID along, that new course might be a short-lived bout of feeling miserable and missing out or it could be a debilitating shift in the trajectory of life or even the end of life itself.
So what burden do you want to shoulder today?
The burden of being kind and considerate or the burden of hurting another human being?
It seemed like we were in a pretty good space. Healthy and active kids. Busy but joyful Christmas. Ice skating daily outside during the break. All seemed like a nice little time away from school and a break from work. The random deep cough of the Little Guy, especially right after physical activity, nagged at me for a couple days. And so I did a home COVID test (negative) and a second one 24 hours later as recommended (negative) and thus felt pretty comfortable hosting the grandparents and sister and nephews for New Year’s Eve. Felt pretty comfortable taking the younger boys to see SpiderMan No Way Home on the first day of the New Year. Felt pretty comfortable until about 11:00 pm when Super Tall Guy called me from his room with the words, “I don’t feel good.”
Thus began the mental gymnastics of COVID which are so incredibly draining. Thoughts of what testing to do? Where to go to get testing? When can we get appointments? What’s the best timing of when to do testing? Who have the boys been around? Who do we need to notify as contacts? What upcoming events and plans need to be cancelled?
At 11:41 that Saturday night, I got an appointment for COVID testing for Super Tall Guy and The Little Guy and off we went to join hundreds of others in the parking lot of a vacant mall the next day. And then we started the waiting game for the results. Normally, this service kicked back results in 12 hours. This time, we waited through Monday, what should have been the boys’ first day back to school. We waited through Tuesday, through Mr. Ornery and I getting tested since he had started with symptoms and I figured I was DEFINITELY exposed to plenty of snot. And then the dreaded, but somehow expected, red bar showed up when the phone pinged me that the results were ready.
Thankfully, I had been to the store to stock up. Thankfully I have lots of friends around texting to see if I needed anything. Thankfully, a friend dropped off chicken noodle soup that first day, which not only tasted great but felt like love. Thankfully, other friends and neighbors have made dinners and dropped off treats that have brought joy. Thankfully, I also have many friends that I can text and ask questions of and bounce thoughts off to help me think through all the scenarios. Thankfully, I have everything we need….except the peace and quiet I was expecting of boys returning to school at the end of break!
It took another three days for results of the middle child to return positive as well. Three boys, fully vaccinated, with COVID. Thankfully, their symptoms ranged from bad cold and exhaustion to barely a cough in the youngest. Thankfully my test came back negative so I could leave the house to restock bread and milk. But being surrounded by illness, and experiencing some slightly stuffy nose (Am I stuffy? Am I imagining this?), I just keep wondering when I will get it.
So the mental gymnastics continue. How are the boys doing? Are their symptoms resolving? When do they go back to school? Literally every night I lay in bed counting on my fingers: “Okay, so symptoms started Thursday, so Friday is day 1, Saturday is 2, Sunday is 3…..” and then next boy, “Sunday is day 1, Monday is 2, Tuesday is….” Will I get it as well? When will I get it? Might be nice for me to have it and be done with it. How will the boys get caught up on school work since they haven’t had the energy to do the remote learning that they could have done? So much time spent in numerous calls and emails with teachers and school nurses.
And then there’s the emotional struggle over and over of keeping kids home and isolating as they start to feel better. No, you can not hang out with friends. No, we won’t be going ice skating or to the swim meet or to the store or anywhere else. No….No….No…..slamming against But, Mom….But Mom….But Mom…No….No….No….(repeat).
COVID brings not only physical illness but mental strain to the whole family. Even if this Omicron variant is said to be “mild,” it has caused quite a bit of disruption. It has required an exorbitant amount of time and energy in this family. It has occupied my thoughts and my heart.
So yes, I can be thankful that we are all vaccinated and have weathered this storm pretty well. I am tremendously thankful for the support of family and friends. But I also have to acknowledge that my experience this past week is being played out in thousands and thousands households across the country every single day. And for some of those families, the physical and emotional strain is much much worse. And the physical and emotional strain on our health care providers and health systems is currently much much worse than previously.
And my heartfelt plea is that we all continue to try to do the best that we can to protect one another through vaccinating ourselves, masking up when out of our homes, keeping kids masked in schools during the surge, putting in the mental energy to make wise decisions, and continuing to be kind and gentle with one another.
It’s just that 2021 didn’t feel very different than 2020. It’s just that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. It’s just that time stood still and flew by at the same time (which could explain my lack of writing for 6 months….sigh….). It’s just that the world feels a bit more nutty than it did a few years ago and I lost my ability to process through writing for a bit.
So when the world argues about how best to handle a pandemic, I find my voice as an advocate for the health of children. I find myself speaking up at local school board meetings (even if they won’t listen to physicians) and speaking out on local news (even if it just matters to my patients – “hey, doc, can I have your autograph?”). It’s been a tough year wading through the constant streams of COVID close contacts, testing, information, misinformation, selfishness and politics. There are ways to make our kids feel safer and prevention is key if we’re ready for it.
So when the world seems scary due to repeated threats on schools, I patiently explain to school staff what a “trauma brain” is and how even if the threat is not deemed to be “real,” it sure is real to children who are hyperreactive to threats based on brain wiring. Thirty years ago, we would never have worried about a school shooting or written an excuse note that reads, “X is staying home from school today because he is super worried about a potential school shooting.” It’s been a rough spring and fall of school juggling the boys, but they are hanging in there. There are ways to make our kids feel safer and prevention is key.
So when the world seems hectic and confusing, I take the boys on a mini-break to the middle of the state and allow life to slow down a bit. We play mini-golf and enjoy ice cream. We splash in the river and get sore muscles from skipping rocks for hours. We make s’mores and talk about the farms and vast land around us compared with the tightly packed neighborhoods we live in. There are ways to make our kids feel safer and prevention by understanding ways in which we are all the same and all different is one of the keys.
So when the world struggles with reconciling the racism and discrimination that is ever present, I seek to find ways to be conscious of my actions and those of my children. I facilitated small groups of medical students learning about racism in medicine and reflecting on the book “Medical Apartheid.” And when a swimmer calls out to my son, “Hey, there’s a black kid in the lane next to me; someone hand me my phone to call the cops before he shoots me,” I don’t sit idly by and say, “Knock it off.” I take the situation as high as I can to educate others about how powerful those words are. There are ways to make our kids safe and prevention through anti-racism can go a long way toward helping kids feel loved and valued.
And as we approach a new year, I sit with The Little Guy beside me (coughing up a storm, but COVID negative times two, repeated at home more than 24 hours apart), Mr. Ornery is in bed upstairs resting from the mild concussion he gave himself yesterday ice skating backwards super fast, and Super Tall Guy is hanging with friends (as all teens should) for New Year’s Eve!
In the midst of the craziness….we plant flowers….because that is the way we make the world a more beautiful lovely place.
My focus: Power. Strength. Love. Connection.
One day at a time…being aware of the power and strength within myself to love others and build new connections.
May your 2022 be filled with much Peace and Joy as you plant flowers.
I don’t understand what you don’t understand about mental health, but I do really think you need a little more education and training apparently. You see, a mental health crisis is just like a physical health crisis. Being sick impacts all of life and every single decision we make. When you are informed that one of your students is experiencing a mental health crisis, it sure would be nice if you took that seriously and actually helped the student, rather than adding to their stress and traumatizing the whole family by your actions.
It’s been two months since my son experienced a mental health crisis and while I’ve been busy on several fronts – finding him help, getting evaluations, starting treatment, fighting the school to understand mental health, demanding emergent IEP meetings, finding an advocate, demanding better IEPs – it has taken me awhile to process everything that happened and to share it.
The reason that I do share this personal story is to encourage other parents who may be going through similar situations and to offer support for those facing scary times, heart-wrenching times, frustrating times, and to provide hope. I thank those who offered me hugs and advice and hope over the past two months.
Laying beside one’s sweet growing boy in bed at night listening to him ask if kids his age (newly 12) commit suicide is agonizing. “Yes. They do,” I respond. It’s been a few hours since he talked about jumping out of the window to end his life. We’ve driven down to the psychiatric hospital but were not ready to go in. We’ve talked to someone on the crisis line. We talked about his big sadness. We’ve talked about hurting.
And, we’ve talked about the fact that he can get some help and that he will feel better. But right now it feels pretty awful and it feels pretty overwhelming. And it feels pretty surreal, like something that happens to other people but I wasn’t expecting within the walls of my house. And it feels pretty scary because I know it’s up to me to chart the path forward and figure out what to do next.
But after lying there and waiting for sleep to come to him, I got up and paced the house. Then I moved the big bean bag chair under his window and gathered up my pillow and blankets and eventually dozed off. I was a mess. We had driven thirty minutes into the city to the hospital, all the while I had thought he would ask to go home as I explained what might happen, including being admitted and me having to leave him there alone. All the while, I thought he would change his mind, but he didn’t. It was me who decided after the security checkpoint viscerally scared me that we needed to go home. And it was me who lay panicked wondering if I was doing the right thing.
The next morning, I reached out to family members and changed plans for the day so I could keep an eye on Mr. Ornery. I thought through what safety measures I needed to do and finally got the power screwdriver and put screws into the window frames so the windows in his bedroom could only open six inches. And I reached out to the counselor at his middle school so that she could touch base with him first thing in the morning. I let them know of this depression and suicidality and the fact that he wasn’t on any medications for his ADHD disability. I emailed his learning support teacher as well since we’d been communicating about medication changes over the past few weeks. I was assured they would take care of him.
I spent the day Monday in a state of stress and worry and researching and making phone calls. I called his pediatrician, his insurance company, the special program for teens with depression and suicidality (they didn’t think he was “bad” enough to warrant their services). I sent him to school to try to keep his life stable and hopeful, but I worried. Finally, I hit bottom and texted a friend mid-afternoon who I knew had similar experiences and said, “I need a hug.” Thankfully, she has great hugs. I got him an appointment at the pediatrician office on Thursday, but first available for evaluation was two months away. I kept talking with as many people as I could to get recommendations and to get help sooner.
Meanwhile, by Wednesday, Mr. Ornery’s apparently now heightened limbic emotional system decided it would be quite fun to create a boxing match with one of his best friends in the middle school bathroom. His underdeveloped and currently untreated executive functioning skills (ADHD) had no chance of stopping an apparently very appealing idea. The incident had gathered a crowd of boys in the bathroom and one of them recorded it. It wasn’t long before a teacher found them.
So he jumped in the car late after school in a state of panic. He had gotten into trouble at school and he was stressed because he didn’t even know what “suspension” meant. And in a typical “normal” mom fashion, I immediately began yelling at him for making a dumb decision. “What do you mean you got a suspension?” “How could you?” “Why would you do that?!?!?” Suddenly it hit me; in his current stressed state of mind, why would I even have expected him to make any good decisions at all. We sat in the car and cried together.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, school personnel have a responsibility to responds to suicidal thinking and to never ignore warning signs, which include direct and indirect suicidal threats as well as changes in behavior. In addition, they note “severe disciplinary action” to be one of the “situations” that may increase suicide risk.
I made the school aware of my son’s suicide warning sign. I let them know that he was struggling and in a fragile state. Instead of keeping him safe, they provided a “suicide risk factor” on his third day in their presence and within five days of an active suicide threat. I kept him home for three days so that we could both calm down.
Every single night, I asked my son three questions:
Do you still feel like hurting yourself? Yes.
Do you feel safe at home? Yes.
Do you want me to sleep in your room tonight? Yes.
I slept on the floor in his room for twelve days before he said, “I guess you could sleep in your own bed tonight.” I had made numerous phone calls to try to find treatment for my son. I had consulted with physician colleagues. I had spoken with parents who have had children with mental health crises. I got him an appointment with his pediatrician to go back to his original ADHD medication to help bring some focus to his thinking skills before we could find a child psychiatry appointment. I really did think that the school would be supportive and helpful. I was shocked to find them instead exacerbating the crisis.
I asked for an urgent IEP team meeting to review the situation. I came prepared to show how my son’s brain was sick and unable to make good choices. The principal was unwavering. He was involved in a “fight” (whether or not it was just boys pretending) and would therefore be suspended as soon as he returned to school (thankfully a “quarantine exposure” gave him another week to stay home). He was not, in her mind, acting on “impulse” since it took several hours to complete this goal. She had absolutely nothing to say about his mental health. From the schools’ perspective, he was “fine.” He told his teachers he was fine. He told the counselor he was fine. He seemed to be “fine”….as if a 12-year-old boy would share big, scary feelings with teachers.
And as I still wrestled with how adamant this principal was that he should be punished, I was floored by her words: “It’s better for you to hear from the school that he is being suspended for fighting, than to be called by the police when he is caught shoplifting.” There it was. He had been tagged as a trouble-maker, a problem child, a bad kid …. on the path to criminality and “thankfully” the school is just trying to nip that in the bud for me. What is it about him? Is it his slightly brown skin of being a multi-racial child? Is it his ADHD struggles? Is it his energy and creativity and playfulness? What is it about my good-natured, soft-hearted and loving son that has screamed out – this kid is destined for trouble? What is it that makes a principal completely discount an emotional and mental health crisis and focus only on “bad behavior,” despite the clear relation between the two?
A week after our school district held a community event to sing the praises of how much they help children struggling with mental health, they punished a kid’s disability in the midst of a mental health crisis. When I was stressed and floundering and scared and most in need of help, my son’s school hurt him more.
Now that we’ve had evaluations and started treatment and my beautiful boy is feeling better, I am driven to change this system that refuses to acknowledge the role of disability on behavior and completely ignores the impact of a mental health crisis. I will work to change a system that will not consider how the stress of a world-altering pandemic, ugly politics, and visible racism happening concurrently has affected the children in their care. A system that pretends we can all just keep going, expecting children to show up for school and do their academics as if the world around them didn’t just crash on its axis. There is a better way.
Recently Dr. Abby Schlesinger (Children’s Hospital child psychiatrist) was interviewed about the marked increase in the number of children and teens needing mental health care which has overwhelmed the capacity of the system to provide that care. One of her colleagues, Dr. Justin Schreiber, also provided an update to the pediatric community in May 2021 about the impact of COVID on the mental health of children. He noted that children are expressing overwhelmingly more depression and anxiety symptoms based on activation of their fight-or-flight system of stress. While the mental health services are struggling to meet the demand, Dr. Schreiber encouraged the pediatric community and the school communities to acknowledge the toll of stress from the pandemic on children and to support children’s mental health. I sat and listened to his webinar, taking notes, and immediately emailed him to say, “What can I do to help the schools understand this?”
I had been so focused on the older son’s clear expression of stress through numerous physical issues (stomach pain, diarrhea, headache, etc) that would make him stay home for 1-2 days every 2-3 weeks, that I didn’t realize how difficult the year was for the middle one.
Life is stressful in any given year. But on top of all our normal stresses, we all have been coping with a new and foreign stress. Where I thought my boys seemed resilient and coping well, I learned that’s not always the case. It seems to me that we need to offer to those around us (and particularly our children) just a little more grace and a little more understanding, a good serving of true empathy and some actual concrete help for those who are struggling.
Know that there is help and that healing is possible. That’s what I cling to.
A couple years ago, Mr. Ornery (now 12) was visiting a friend’s house when I received what I would describe as a panicked text from the father asking me to come pick up my son. Apparently, in the father’s brief absence (a different problem), the friend had decided to discharge the fire extinguisher all over the kitchen. The house was a mess. The boys were coughing and spluttering. Mr. Ornery had run outside with the dog for fresh air. After safely home, we discussed the dangerous situation, the sheer stupidity, the father’s anger, my disbelief and frustration, and the mandatory contribution of $50 toward cleaning the house along with an apology note. That seemed to me like the time to end this particular friendship.
But then comes along middle school and the boys are now in the same school and see each other again. It’s a Friday night and I get an unknown call on my phone. Usually one to ignore these, for some reason I answer. It’s silent as I say, “Hello, hello,” until a young voice asks, “Do you want to f*** in the backyard?” “Really?!?” I reply, heading to my laptop to try to look up the number when a text comes in from that number reading, “Sorry, my son just came inside and said his friend was making prank calls.” I called back multiple times and finally left a message asking this boy to have his father call me immediately. Eventually his mother called, was quite apologetic and upset and shared how much they’ve been trying to work with their son.
As I talk with the mother, I realized and explained to her that what was most upsetting to me is that in this action, the boys were practicing sexual harassment. They were making prank calls and when reaching a woman, they were verballing abusing the woman. I explained that I just wanted to be part of the solution with other parents in raising a new group of boys into men who will treat women with respect and dignity.
I told Mr. Ornery that he needed to steer clear of this friend. Then I put myself in the place of this mom, realizing that it’s so much easier for us to take one look at a kid in one point in time and make a quick decision. “Bad apple.” “Awful kid.” “I’ll never let him/her play with my child and be a bad influence.” It’s easy to judge without knowing the full story.
What would it be like to think about the kid in terms of his story? What are his struggles and challenges. Where is he in his life and growth curve?
My kids are not angels. They sometimes do really awful things. They can be destructive. They can be rude and obnoxious. They can swear worse than a sailor. And recently, they decided that while walking around the neighborhood at night with friends, they might try out some ding-dong-ditch excitement. (The fact that today’s doorbells and porches are now equipped with video cameras is something they were not bargaining for! You don’t have to worry about friends snitching on you – the video is there!)
But I hold their story. I know where they’ve been and how much progress they are making. I know that what might be judged as atrocious language is actually a huge accomplishment in now using words to express big emotions, instead of hands lashing out. I know that they are making rash decisions based on a lag in the development of executive function skills due to ADHD. I know that 99% of the time they are sweet and loving and cuddly. I know them and I hold their story.
As I hold their story, I try to remember that other mothers and fathers and caregivers are holding other stories. So I thank my neighbors and friends for joining with me in the life and growth curve of my boys. And I try to remind myself to extend grace to my boys and to the others who are still working on their story.
I feel like we are all just supposed to be “back to normal” now. Like there’s some unspoken edict that says “Move on” and “get back to life.” We are coming up on a year since the first shut-down, and I feel like there’s pressure for life, businesses, schools, relationships….everything to be back to normal with a sprinkling of masks and a bit of physical distancing.
While I am so very thankful to have a flexible job, I still have this sense of guilt that “work” expects us all to be functioning at 110% like we used to. That the only real change is that most of the work is virtual now and therefore, “just get it work done.” The thing is, there are no breaks at work like there used to be. There are no lunch breaks – I just heat up some food between meetings and eat during the next meeting. There are no commute breaks any more that would allow my brain to rest as I drove to and from home or to a meeting. And sometimes I would be so very lucky and would get to a meeting early and the sun would be shining and I would have a glorious 10 minutes to walk around the block and breathe in the warm spring or summer before settling in. Or I’d get in early to the meeting and chat with the couple other early birds, making small talk or connecting about a new project or idea. These days, I wake up, get kids to school, and sit….and sit….and sit…..alone at my computer (except when I’m yelling at the dogs to stop barking at everyone walking by!). My to-do list is endless and four or five things are added for every one scratched off. My email responses are days late or forgotten all together. Despite all the virtual interaction, I miss people. I miss travel. I miss the energy that comes from brainstorming and working together. And I’m certainly not back to normal.
I feel like my boys’ school expects us to all be normal again now too. Literally my eighth grader has not gone into the school building all five days of a week for a month. I don’t think he’s mentally ready to do that. He got so out of that schedule that it elicits fear and anxiety in him to actually do it. Last April when I complained that the boys just weren’t able to do “remote learning” on a two-dimensional device given their attention deficit, the teachers reassured me, “Don’t worry, we’ll get them caught up next year.” That was before we knew that a two-week shut-down was a fanciful dream. Now it’s full steam ahead, as if they didn’t miss 25% of last year and had a very slow start for the first half of this year. There’s still an expectation to work at “grade level,” complete assignments, be present and engaged whether at home or at school. There’s an assumption that the kids will be flexible and resilient and go with the flow, even if they do find out at 6:00pm that they are in quarantine and have to remote learn tomorrow morning. We pretend that this constant change, this fear of being around people that’s been instilled, this interacting through a mask, this learning from an iPad, this watching teachers on a screen doesn’t faze them at all. We “speak” of mental health in our kids but we don’t make any changes. We talk about the achievement lag that is hitting all students across the nation, but what are we doing to actively address this? There’s no way this is a “normal” school year for students or teachers!
I feel like relationships are struggling with the “are we back to normal” yet question. When we greet each other, we now ask, “are you okay with a hug?” instead of just rushing into each other’s arms. We are wary of people that we don’t think are using the same safety protocols that we’ve adapted to for our households. We limit our time together and question every move – were we together too long? Did we site too close? It’s been so long that we’ve welcomed people into our homes that we don’t know how to do it any more. We don’t know if we’re comfortable with people over. And we certainly haven’t kept (I mean, I haven’t kept) the house to the same standards of cleanliness as we’d like in case people do “pop over.” Hearing others’ stories or seeing social media posts, I see that others are hanging out together much more than I have, but I just don’t feel back to normal yet.
All of the usual stresses and challenges of life are happening in the context of greater stress and more worry. And while there’s so much pressure to be “healthy” and “coping” and handling the new situation, I must allow myself to acknowledge that it’s not normal yet and that’s okay. That I’m not managing everything as well as I thought I used to, and that’s okay. That I’m more tired and more irritable sometimes, and that’s okay.
What’s okay is that I am doing my best in the face of the greatest challenge of this lifetime and that I’m leaning on as well as supporting friends and family and relationships in the midst of this, including the three growing boys in this messy house who are also trying to figure out what’s normal now.
A friend reminded me this week of some words I had spoken six years ago…..
She gifted me with a reminder as well. We may not be ready to function as “normal” as much as we’d like things to “just get back to normal,” but we will persist.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Line (1-800-273-8255) or visit the website for resources. According to an NPR blurb this week, the increased stress from the pandemic will likely soon relate to physical health changes for many.
Let’s continue to uplift and encourage one another.
So far, I think the three to six months stage of childhood is still my favorite. The boys slept through the night by then and smiled by day. That’s it. Pee, poop, eat, snuggle, sleep….repeat. Then they grow taller and bigger and much bigger until they tower over you at 6 feet and laugh that you “look old” when you sit on the love seat to read a book.
Now the eldest is fourteen and the world has changed significantly. The “development” books tell you that kids this age look to their peers more than their parents, but none of the books I read have any section on “kids become completely immersed in their digital connection with other kids until their parents become irrelevant and nonexistent.”
And none of the books addressed how to help kids understand that they are woefully lacking in their medical knowledge. That the other teens with whom they communicate regularly are also lacking in medical knowledge. And that answering “It’s fine” every time your mother asks, “How’s your foot?” is just not adequate when she finally sees that the foot does not in fact look FINE to her (you know, the pediatrician!).
Super Tall Guy got a splinter in his right foot at least 2 weeks ago. He’s been “fine.” He does not, in fact, want to go to the doctor, much less leave the house. He does not need anything for it. He does not have a problem walking. And, he definitely does not want to go get the splinter out the evening that I was entirely free of meetings or boys’ sports. But when I woke him up for school the next morning and he rolled over and said, “Can you take me to the doctor?” I immediately in my mind rearranged what I thought the day would hold….and off we went. Because if his brain has finally opened up a little mental space to push himself out of his comfort zone, that’s the window I need to grab.
Four hours later, a one-centimeter sliver of wood literally sprang out of his foot with some pressure. Too embarrassed for crutches, Super Tall Guy hobbled out of the emergency room and proclaimed himself unable to walk for two days.
For a teen with social anxiety, this pandemic ever-shifting landscape has been the complete opposite of his craving for consistency. The ever-shifting in-person learning versus remote learning has thrown off his ability to focus. I track the school attendance on a separate calendar and have noticed that this 8th grader has not been in school for five days in a row for the past month. And some of that is him either texting me in the middle of the night (my phone on “do not disturb” and I find texts in the morning) or waking up with “I don’t feel good” complaints that prohibit school. Vague symptoms. Odd symptoms. Could it be COVID symptoms? Could it be, as I told him one day, “You know, when you are stressed sometimes your body can feel sick or not right.” “Well, I don’t want to be stressed,” was his reply. Clearly you are, though, buddy.
Clearly the household has been under quite a bit of stress. We are all dealing with the stress in very different ways. I have writing out my irritations and my jigsaw puzzles. The younger boys run around outside with the neighbor boys and consume too much screen time and food! The teen seems to be centering it in his body. The six-year old dog sleeps all day.
The puppy? Well, the puppy accidentally locks herself into the teen’s room after apparently following sweet-to-dog smells….panics that she can’t get out and proceeds to destroy the door!!!
And you would have thought she learned after she probably spent four hours freaked out in the room….but no, two days later as I took the boys to school, she went in there again! This time, the carpet was her nemesis. On the other hand, perhaps it is I who should have learned about puppies and stress….
Guess I have new plans for the weekend – let’s see how that hard wood floor looks under that teen-stained, dog-destroyed carpet!!
PS, the photo is so blue because apparently teens can only sleep, breathe, exist in LED lighting. Who knew?
Do you not understand how thoroughly exhausting this is? How every single day of my life is now shaped by your decisions to constantly alter the course of my children’s schooling?
The phone rings. A recorded message informs me that my two middle-school sons will now be “remote learning” for the next two days. My brain begins its mental gymnastics (again). I begin to process what the new morning routine will look like, adjusting timings to get one kid to school and two kids logging in. My brain strums through what meetings I have to coordinate for the day and what changes we will make for the next couple days.
My brain is constantly reading, processing and filtering emails from the school. This building is now closed. A case was reported in your son’s school, but your child does not have to quarantine. A case was reported in your son’s class but your son is not deemed a close contact so you can choose whether or not you want to keep your kid home in quarantine to do remote learning or to send them to school. Because this building is now closed, your son’s basketball practice has now moved to tomorrow at 8:30 instead of today at 7:30, but the other boy’s swim practice is now shifted to Saturday to allow for….
I take a sip of wine….
Because I don’t know how else to cope with the relentless stress. The constantly changing schedules. The pervasive uncertainty. The steady level of worry of exposure to COVID or the chance of one of us getting sick. The struggle to maintain some semblance of education and growth for the boys while balancing limited social contacts and the boys’ mental health.
Is it a “he’s tired” headache or a COVID headache? Does his belly hurt because he’s hungry or he’s sick? Is there a fever? Was that a cough? Do I send him to school or keep him home? Test him or wait it out? Do I call the school nurse or fill out an absence form or ask to make him remote…..or just say to hell with it?!?!
Do you not understand how tired and stressed we parents are as we try to understand the ever-shifting “guidelines” and “procedures” in this school district? As we try to figure out whether your guidance even makes sense based on data and science? As we struggle with the basic knowledge that we can not and have not been able to trust our community leaders to make the right decision?
I take a sip of wine….
I have spent the last couple weeks starting every email with “I apologize for my delay in responding.” Sometimes I attempt humor (“my kid left the garage door open and the pipes froze; I’ve been a bit distracted”). Sometimes I am honest and confess that I’m stressed and I’ve lost track of…well, of life. Sometimes I just move right along and answer the question I should have answered last week as if there weren’t seven days missing in there.
I’ve nicknamed myself “Last-minute Lynne.” My work is done the night before or it’s late. There’s no in-between. There is no staying on top of things. There is no managing anymore. Balls have dropped. Back-burner heat went out long ago. The to-do list got so long I’ve lost the first couple pages….
There is no relief in sight. Just constant worry. New COVID variants. New guidelines on masking. New impeachment trials and messy politics. New weather patterns and slippery roads. New research and new opinions. New vaccine roll-outs and new stimulus ideas. New evidence of health inequity and disparity. New, more, different, sudden, changing, insidious, good-luck-coping-with-this-curve-ball stress.
I take a sip of wine….
I’m a physician. I trained under a great deal of stress and experience stress at work which I can manage. But this stress is different and sneaks through my coping tactics. And, as a physician, I know that this chronic, ever-shifting stress is taking a toll on me. It’s taking a toll on my family as I waffle between fatigue and irritability. It’s taking a toll on health and on productivity. It’s taking a toll on my community and my city. It’s taking a toll on our country and across the world.
Dear school board and administrators, please decrease our stress.