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By Alice Lesch Kelly
As COVID-19 vaccine rates go up and infections go down, you’re probably looking forward to resuming your normal life. But you might also be looking back, reflecting on lessons learned during the past 15 months — especially if you’re a parent.
“Parents have had so many losses this year as life halted around them,” says Rachel Armstrong, Psy.D., a psychologist in Portsmouth, N.H. “But many parents have said that acknowledging what they lost has helped them discover what they really want for their family as the pandemic retreats.”
We asked parents about the lessons that will stick with them far beyond COVID-19.
Change can be positive
For many parents, the pandemic provided an important reminder to be flexible in new circumstances. Kristin F. Quinn is a South Shore parent of three children, ages 4, 7, and 10. She admits to being something of a perfectionist, but the pandemic helped her reconsider her standards. Quinn, the author of the popular Misadventures in Mommyhood parenting blog, says the pandemic has shown her that trying to be the perfect parent — giving 100% of herself 100% of the time — was not only exhausting for her, but often unnecessary for her children.
“If I carved out 10 minutes to start a project with them, they would often take it on as their own, making it an even better project independently,” Quinn says. “They don’t need everything; they just need something.”
Another parent, Anna Goldsmith of Portsmouth, N.H., put a positive spin on change by making an update to her home. “We decided to ditch our guest room and turn it into an art studio,” says Goldsmith, the mother of two boys, ages 9 and 11. “The boys and I are in there all the time — it’s a great creative outlet and, since we had no guests, why not?” Goldsmith’s visitors may have to sleep on the sofa after the pandemic, because the studio is staying in place.
Embrace less structure, more space
Matthew Dicks of Newington, Conn., learned that the everyday rituals of his children’s lives — dance recitals, team sports, swim lessons, summer camp — were less critical than he thought. “Each of these activities felt so important to the development and joy of our children’s lives,” says Dicks, the father of a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. “But as each was lost, we simply filled our time with less structured play and increased family time.”
Dicks’ children did just fine without all their extracurriculars. “All of the structured, instructional activities that I thought were critical to my kids’ happiness turned out to be a lot less important as our family drew closer, our days grew longer, and our kids remained happy and active despite the changes around them,” says Dicks, author of “The Other Mother.”
For Douglas Haddad of Bristol, Conn., the pandemic taught him that his 2-year-old daughter’s needs were really quite simple. “It is often the simplest things like reading books together, dancing to music, playing around the house, and taking neighborhood walks that satisfy an inner state of peace and joy through tumultuous and uncertain times,” says Haddad, author of “The Ultimate Guide to Raising Teens and Tweens.”
Discovering the value of slowing down is the most common pandemic lesson that Armstrong’s patients mention to her. And as a parent of three daughters, ages 3, 6, and 8, she has felt this in her own life, too. “I enjoyed that the calendar was empty, and more activities happened organically,” she says.
Make peace with technology
At the start of the pandemic, many parents worried about the impact of technology and remote learning on their children. However, there is little evidence linking screen time to harm in kids’ development, and some parents learned that technology even has a positive effect on their kids when it’s used wisely. Boston Children’s Hospital created a Family Digital Wellness Guide for parents looking to use media in ways that promote wellness.
Cyndi Reitmeyer of Belmont, Mass., is the parent of two children, ages 15 and 19. She is also the editor of BostonTechMom, a website that connects parents with STEM programs for their children. Reitmeyer says she was impressed by the resourcefulness that her 10th-grade daughter showed as she adapted to technologies used to learn, communicate, and collaborate in school — a resourcefulness that will likely help her daughter in the future.
Mia Wenjen of Newton, Mass., a parent of three children, ages 16, 19, 21, worried especially about how remote learning would affect her son, a sophomore in high school. But it went far better than she expected. He socialized and played games with friends on Zoom, and as a night owl, he liked the hours he could keep as a remote learner.
“I’m not sure if he is learning as much as his older sisters did when they were in 10th grade, but I don’t think that matters,” says Wenjen, who writes about education and children’s literature in the Pragmatic Mom Blog. “I feel like he learned other things, such as cooking and art. I think having extra time allowed him to pursue independent projects.”
Andrew Griswold, father of two boys, ages 8 and 10, in Yarmouth, Maine, tells a similar story. He was surprised to see how resilient his kids were in response to the constant changes in their school schedule, and how quickly they adapted to the online platforms they were asked to use.
“We had one son opt into a full-time online school option offered by our district, and he thrived,” Griswold says. “While I still don’t believe that online school ever should, or could, replace in-person learning, our kids saw the changes to their school experience this past year as a new adventure instead of an obstacle.”
Perhaps the most important lesson the COVID-19 experience has taught parents is that they now have an unprecedented opportunity to make mindful choices about post-pandemic family life.
“This pandemic has helped parents see what they were doing previously that did not serve them,” Armstrong says. “Now they can step back and be intentional. I hope they can continue with that post-pandemic.”
Put your mask on first
Of course, not all parts of parents’ experiences have been positive. Many have struggled while trying to stay healthy, keep a steady income flow, and balance increased responsibilities at work and at home. “While I see so many people enjoying the silver linings of the pandemic, it is important to remember that it is not everyone’s experience,” Armstrong says.
Fortunately, many parents learned that it is okay, and even necessary, to carve out time for self care before they can effectively care for others.
Others learned the importance of asking for help and support, both from loved ones and from mental health professionals. “Many people don’t reach out for treatment because they are ashamed, but more open dialogue about mental health during the pandemic helped alleviate some of that shame,” Armstrong notes.
Although restrictions are lifting, pandemic-related stressors may linger well into the future. If you are feeling burned out, anxious, or depressed, make sure to continue prioritizing your well-being, even as your calendar refills. For support, check out resources like Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s Living Well virtual classes, which include free mindfulness sessions, barre classes, and much more.
If self care doesn’t feel like enough, reaching out for help can also provide significant relief. Harvard Pilgrim’s behavioral health offerings include a wide range of support for emotional well-being, including behavioral health tools, lifestyle management coaching, assistance finding a behavioral health care provider, and other resources.
Sponsored by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care
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