Being a mom is challenging, even under the best circumstances—managing everyone's schedules, trying to anticipate needs and helping new souls learn to regulate their emotions while making sure some fun is mixed in too. Mothering in a time of unprecedented uncertainty and fear is even more challenging. And yet, here we are.
Right now, there are endless self-help articles and social media posts framing this time as an opportunity to relax, unplug, read a backlog of books, find new shows to binge and closets to clean out. And this is fantastic advice for anyone who has the time to do those things.
But that's not the reality for many moms, particularly not those with very small children who need near-constant supervision and engagement. So what do we do? How do we manage our time, support our kids, and keep our houses running all while confronted with anxiety that can at times feel crippling?
As a mom of three small kids—currently 6, 4 and 2—and a psychotherapist specializing in maternal mental health, mothering through uncertainty and anxiety is front and center in my personal and professional life right now.
Here's what I've been sharing and suggesting.
1. Throw out ALL the "shoulds"
Screen time. Schoolwork. Dietary habits. As moms, we are inundated with what we "should" be doing in all of these areas (and more). But here's the thing about our current life circumstances: no one has ever done this before and therefore, all of the normal shoulds do not apply.
Each child, parent and family have a unique set of circumstances and needs. What works for one family would be absolutely disastrous for another.
So what if your neighbor's kids seem to spend their whole days playing out in the yard? That may work well for them. It doesn't work when parents are working remotely and need to be inside for conference calls and emails all day.
So what if your child's classmates submit their daily e-learning activity by 10 am each day? That's hard to accomplish when you're on your own until your partner comes home at 5 pm.
So what if you blow through your usual 60 minutes of screen time before breakfast? This isn't a new forever rule. It's what you're doing to make it through right now.
Now is the time to temporarily put the rule books aside. Experiment with mixing things up until you find what works best for you and your family today. And be willing to change it tomorrow if it no longer works.
2. Embrace a mom-first mentality
Our kids need us more than ever right now, so it seems counterintuitive to say you need to put yourself first. But it's absolutely essential.
Whatever it takes to protect your mental health is the top priority. Why? Because if you're frazzled or overwhelmed by anxiety, you cannot co-regulate with your child.
Co-regulation is the psychological process that occurs when we join with someone who is upset and dysregulated and use our calm state to help them return to a calm state. This is what you do when you see your child get a minor boo-boo and sit down next to them on the floor, holding them while breathing deeply and slowly, stroking their head and speaking in a soothing tone.
It's not just mom's hug that cures most childhood ailments, it's mom's ability to co-regulate.
In order to keep my kids calm and feeling safe, I need to be able to stay calm and safe myself. So if that means some extra screen time, or mac and cheese for dinner yet again, in order to lessen your mental load, do it. If that means taking a bath after bedtime instead of tackling the dishes, do it. If that means family TV time in your bed in the morning so you can get an extra 20 minutes of rest, do it.
It's easy to feel like you're being selfish when you start implementing this mindset, but here's the key thing to keep in mind: doing this is a necessary part of meeting your child's emotional needs during an extremely difficult time.
3. Make a list of what you can do
Right now we are acutely aware of the things that have been taken from us. The things we can't do. The things we are being forced into. It's easy to fall into an "I have no control over anything" mentality. And yes, there are certainly plenty of things we have no control over—that's always the case. But there are still plenty of things we can do and plenty of things we can control.
Sit down by yourself or with your family to brainstorm a list of things you can do:
- How can we move our bodies, even if the gym and playgrounds are closed?
- What can we do for fun, even if the movie theaters and trampoline parks are closed?
- How can we keep in touch with our friends and family even if we can't have playdates or birthday parties?
- What does a date night look like even if we can't leave the house?
Now that you have a list of what you can do, it's time to start figuring out what you can still control. Find a quiet time, perhaps after bedtime, and get to work. What can I control in the midst of the outside chaos? I can set a daily schedule for my family. I can do some meal planning so I know what we will be eating each day. I can determine how much social media and news I consume each day.
If I focus solely on what I don't have, my emotional state will follow and become more negative. If I can also acknowledge the things I do still have, my emotional state will stay more in balance.
The bottom line: Uncertainty is stressful, but it can become less so when we lean into change for a short stretch of time.
None of these changes are forever—you're not signing up for a lifetime of relaxed rules and unlimited screen time and chaos. Sooner or later (and hopefully sooner), we'll all find out when the kids are going back to school, when we're allowed to commute to work again, when life will return to something closer to normal. Until then, you're just taking it day by day. Take control of what you can, and release the rest.