What should I do?
Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My anxiety about COVID-19 is through the roof. I have two children, ages 1 and 3, who are now home indefinitely in my family’s attempt to socially distance. My problem is that now with every cough that any of us have (my husband and I are recovering from colds and now it seems the kids have caught it), I find myself online Googling symptoms. I have a virtual appointment with my therapist scheduled for next week, but I feel like this is going to be how I react to any cough or sore throat for the next several months, and I’m exhausted thinking about it. I don’t know how to navigate this pandemic—specifically, how to do it so that my kids don’t get scared. I’ve typically been able to leave my chronic anxiety in a box when parenting, but it seems like this is going to be particularly hard to do now.
—A Long Road Ahead
I want to begin by saying this: Anyone who is not anxious right now is in denial. That’s fine: If denial helps them to cope, I’m not criticizing them—as long as they are also following the guidelines for social distancing, hand-washing, and other sensible precautions. My husband, for instance, who is customarily very anxious, insists he’s not anxious at all about this. Cool, I say, but you’re not going anywhere. And he’s OK with that. There’s nothing neurotic about being fearful of something that’s truly scary. So go easy on yourself.
But quit Googling symptoms. There’s nothing to be gained from it. You now know what the symptoms of this virus are (they haven’t changed since the last time you looked). If you are already hunkering down with your family at home—and, when you do have to go out, using the greatest of care (the American Red Cross offers safety tips, and a number of commonly asked questions are answered here and here)—the best thing you can do is take some deep breaths and think about what to do to manage your anxiety. Because while it’s only natural to feel it, that doesn’t mean you have to let it overtake your life.
I try to do something hopeful every day, because in this singular time, it’s hard not to focus on fear, anxiety, dread, and hopelessness.
We are all different creatures with different needs, but in case it helps, here is how I’ve been coping with my anxiety:
1) I have a daily schedule. I fiddle with it first thing every morning because while I want a road map for the day; I don’t want to be rigid about it. Still, my schedule always includes blocks of time for going outside, taking walks, puttering in my garden if the weather allows it, or even standing—or sitting, on the rare days that it’s warm enough here in Ohio—on my front porch; phone calls or FaceTime dates with friends at appointed hours; and online dance classes, which not only get me moving but also give me a chance to see the faces/hear the voices of my regular dance teachers, whom I miss terribly, and communicate with the people I normally take class with via comments while the classes livestream. I block out time for work, too, since I’m writing, of course, as well as teaching my classes virtually, but I don’t want work to consume whole days. I block out time for cooking and for reading and even for Netflixing, which I also don’t want to consume too much time. For me, having a sense of what the day is going to be like is calming, and planning for approximately how much time I will spend doing any given thing gives me a sense of control, which right now feels crucial to me.
2) As part of my daily phone or FaceTime plan, I’ve been making a point of contacting people I care about whom I don’t ordinarily talk to very often, because they’re not right in front of me and until now we’ve all been busy with our lives.
3) I keep my news consumption down to a thorough reading of the New York Times every morning, and after that I stay away from it. No cable news, no going down the rabbit hole of news (or “news”) posted on social media. I am making active use of social media—but only to stay in touch with friends and family. (I have been very grateful for how easy social media makes this—but I refuse to live in the echo chamber of alarm, anger, and general freakout that it fosters, and therefore strictly limit the amount of time I spend on it).
4) And this last item is the most important one, I think, for me, in terms of my efforts to maintain my emotional and mental health. I try to do something hopeful every day, because in this singular time, it’s hard not to focus on fear, anxiety, dread, and hopelessness. I know the usual advice for a happy life is to always “live in the moment,” but I believe we have to hang on to the thought that there is something on the other side of this strange, hard moment, however long that moment may last. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t live in the present, too, and be present for those we love. But dream a little, privately as well as out loud.
I’m hoping some of this will help you, and that my plan might spark ideas you can employ that are specific to your needs. Scheduling activities for your children throughout the day, and having a plan for what you will do while they’re napping and after they are in bed for the night may help you feel that your days are more manageable. I’m glad you have an appointment to talk to your therapist, too. Anything you can do to quell your own anxiety will help enormously in keeping your children from being frightened.
Last, I want to say something about getting children through the worst of times. Those as young as yours don’t understand what’s happening, of course, but I would make an effort to shield your older child from news sources and conversation that will stir up alarm (it’s amazing how much a 3-year-old can pick up). There are age-appropriate conversations to be had with children older than yours; all yours need to know is that you love them and that you are all right. So let’s try to get you to be all right.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My first child was born just as winter was beginning and for some time we were largely housebound for newborn reasons—his crazy sleep schedule, his brand new immune system—and also because it was cold and dark outside, and I didn’t want to be out and about anyway. But by the middle of February I was looking forward to the spring and getting out for easy activities: people-watching at a coffee shop, baby story times at the library, etc.—stuff that was free or cheap and would allow me to chat casually with other adults and was easy to attend without worrying about an infant’s ever-changing schedule. I’m at home with him full time, at least for now, and I was just ready to be out in the world again and feel like a functioning member of society. Then the coronavirus hit.
I am going stir crazy. I already WAS going stir crazy and the thought of spending another three months—or more?—staring at my own walls is such a flipping drag. For more context: My husband and I are new to this town and know only a handful of neighbors by sight; the closest family and friends are 1,000 miles away. I take a walk in the neighborhood every day to get out of the house, and it helps to get fresh air and sunlight on my face, but it isn’t a substitute for adult human contact. My husband is great all around, but he works full time and given all the social distancing now it feels reckless to take my son even to the grocery store, so I’m not really going anywhere until Dad is home. This also makes me count the minutes until he gets home, which makes the day drag even more. I read six books last month to get some fresh ideas in my head. At this point the endless stretch of isolation is really getting to me. If I knew it would be over by X date, it would be easier (as it was until February), but of course that isn’t possible now. Any ideas for getting through these next weeks or months with my mental health intact? I hope to be looking back at this period from the community pool this summer and thanking our lucky stars to have this crisis over. But if June rolls around and the pools stay closed, I’m going to lose my shit.
Also, not for nothing: What about my son? I find myself wondering, in all those moments where I have nothing but my own whirling brain (and the terror on the internet) to keep me company: What will such isolation for the first five to eight months of life do to a kid, developmentally? He has never really interacted with any other children and even adults are few and far between now. What will this mean for him?
—Climbing the Walls
Let’s start at the end and work our way back: You and your husband can provide all the interaction your baby needs for his development, so take this worry out of the equation. Talk to him, sing to him, read to him, narrate what you’re doing. If it helps to think of this as basically talking to yourself, out loud, that’s fine (in fact, it’s a great excuse to talk to yourself, especially at times when there’s no one else to talk to). What he needs right now is not other children, or even other adults. He just needs to be loved, fed, stimulated (and it is very easy to stimulate a baby! Everything is exciting to them because everything is new). Hearing lots of words will be a boon to him.
But none of this matters, as you know, unless he is kept alive and healthy. So leaving him at home while you shop for groceries—which you should do as infrequently as possible now—is indeed the right thing to do. And I’m afraid you’re going to have to let go of your daydream about the community pool and promise me you will not lose your shit (because the other thing you baby needs is you holding your shit together). In the short time since you wrote this letter, many places have moved from “social distancing” to “sheltering in place”; things are changing rapidly. (For all I know, by now your husband is working from home—or not working at all.) From where I sit, the likelihood that life will go completely back to normal by summer is small. So let’s focus on the central questions your letter raises: how to deal with going stir crazy, the difficulty of not knowing when this period of isolation will end, and how to get through it with your mental health intact. Because these are among the questions we are all grappling with right now.
As I mentioned to Long Road Ahead, one of the things that’s helped keep me sane has been a daily schedule, which I am constantly adjusting (and with an infant’s ever-changing needs, you would certainly be constantly adjusting yours too). I think your schedule should include multiple daily FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom conversations with people you love who are far away. I would plan them in advance, knowing that you might have to reschedule because of baby-specific matters. Loved ones can even entertain your baby by reading him a story or singing to him. Technology, which has itself been the cause of so much IRL social distancing in the recent past, seems like a godsend to me now. Facebook, which lord knows is no beneficent entity, is chockful of helpfulness at this juncture if you use it wisely. If you don’t have an account, I’d get one—at least for now, temporarily—and join the Slate Parenting group as well as other groups (for new and first-time mothers, for mothers having a hard time, for all mothers, etc.) that will introduce you to others in the same boat from all over the world. But you don’t have to limit yourself to parenting groups. If you’re reading a lot (and this is an excellent idea! You’ve read six books? Read a bunch more!), you might consider joining an online book group or two. Other interests? You can find people who share them. The truth is, the kind of casual, low-stakes mixing with adults you were counting on getting at coffee shops and the library can be pretty well replicated online.
But the virtual life is not enough, even now. One of the items on my own schedule—and one I stick to no matter what else I adjust—is getting outdoors every day. I know you’ve been walking, but I would do it more than once a day. As long as we can still take walks (and even as things keep changing, walks by ourselves, even with a baby strapped to your chest or in a stroller, to get fresh air and exercise seem to be among the few we can count on keeping), I would take a lot of them, making sure to keep a safe distance from others who are out walking too. Frequent, scheduled walks will help with the stir craziness, but I also wouldn’t discount the benefits of fresh air and sun on your face—or the bonus of giving the baby something different to look at and something different to talk to him about: See those green shoots? Before long there’ll be flowers here! See this tree? It’s called an oak tree. Wait’ll you see it in late spring! It’s going to be so beautiful. (It wouldn’t be so bad to remind yourself of these small hopeful facts either.) Don’t feel like you need to limit these walks to walking out your front door. If you have a car, drive to a nearby neighborhood and hit a new one to change things up.
Something else that has been helping me: When I venture outside, either to walk or stand on my porch and look out at the world and remind myself that it’s still there, anytime I see anyone I make a point of saying hello and exchanging at least a few words. I don’t know most of my neighbors well either, and there are plenty of them I’ve never spoken to before, even though I’ve lived in the same house for many years. But in the last week I’ve talked a little bit with almost all of them. If they don’t look up as they walk by, I call out a hello, I ask how they’re holding up, I offer a few words of admiration for the dogs they’re walking or laugh with them about the coffee mug they’re carrying (yesterday as I stood on my porch a neighbor walked by still in his pajamas, carrying his coffee; he allowed that he was going to take his coffee for a walk around the block to keep from going mad). Even the briefest of conversations makes me feel less alone. It cheers me up.
Listen, I don’t mean to minimize how hard this is, or how much harder it may get as time passes. But we are all going to have to find ways to cope with it, come hell or high water. Your letter reminded me of how isolated I felt in the first months after my daughter was born, and how much it helped me to put her in a sling and walk through the art museum or even the mall (which I otherwise despise), as well as the relief I felt when I found a mother-and-baby group I could bring her to once a week, to be around other adults for a couple of hours. So I can easily imagine how rough it would have been without those options. But you can find substitutes for them! I know you can. I know that somehow we will all figure out how to get through this.
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