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As A Pediatrician, I’m Telling Parents To Take A Breath As The Pressure Grows

by Dr. Harvey Karp

There was a point in time when the old cliché “it takes a village” wasn’t a cliché at all — it was an essential way of life. Throughout all of human history, grandparents, neighbors, and siblings were crucial to family function (and sanity). Now, it’s all on two — and sometimes only one — parent to raise the kids. On top of that, there are more super-juggler, dual-working-parent households than before. Even under ordinary circumstances, today’s parents have incredible pressure to do more with less support than ever. The COVID-19 crisis has only cranked up the heat on this proverbial pressure cooker.

Previously, balancing home and work needs felt like a juggling act, but parenting during a pandemic is like being the whole three-ring circus… blindfolded… with one hand tied behind your back. And, on top of it, parents have all their regular work and parenting responsibilities, with less and less support, serving as the stand-in teacher, substitute playmate (which is far more demanding than it sounds), and combined mom-cousin-aunt-grandma… all rolled into one.

As if that wasn’t enough, they’re managing their own adult concerns, challenges and fears.

No wonder it can sometimes feel like there is pressure on all sides.

But while parents may feel the stress to keep stepping it up — to be better parents, better employees, better homeschool teachers, and better playmates — what parents really need right now is to step back and take a breath. Here are a few ways to turn the boil down to a simmer to survive this challenging time.

Stop “shoulding” on yourself. Many of us are living under a mountain of shoulds: “I should plan more creative activities for my kids” or “I should cook instead of ordering out,” or “I should have them do something educational, instead of watching TV.” Nope! Now’s not the time to “should” all over yourself. It’s time to cut yourself some slack.

While schedules can help retain a sense of normalcy, a down-to-the-minute project-packed daily program isn’t necessary. During the toddler years, play is more important to development than academics! So don’t feel guilty about mud play for hours and coloring for hours, instead of drilling your kids on their ABCs. And if you have come to rely on more screen time or a few more sweets than usual to get through the day, that’s okay too. These are not normal times, so normal rules do not apply. Flexibility is a hallmark of savvy parenting.

Drop “essential” duties in favor of self-care. As they say, put on your own oxygen mask first. With others to tend to, the last people parents may think to care for are themselves. But as stress and the list of to-dos mount, it’s crucial that parents make time for self-care (even if it’s a five-minute meditation). It’s okay if the laundry or dishes pile up right now. Leave some of your “essential” household duties unfinished and use that time instead to spend time with your child or partner… or just by yourself.

With others to tend to, the last people parents may think to care for are themselves.

And don’t forget that sleep counts as self-care! Not only does sleep reduce stress, but it also helps reduce tension, anxiety, irritability, and fighting in relationships. Plus, it keeps us mentally stronger and boosts our immune systems to help us fight off illness and infections. Keep the lights low after sundown, turn on some white noise, and go to bed early.

Seek support… in whatever form you can get it. Typically, when I talk to families about tackling parenting challenges, I’m all about encouraging people to ask for help. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done during a time when our in-person interactions have ground to a halt. But that doesn’t mean you have to fly solo.

You can maintain physical distance while still being social. Social support helps build resilience, and it can provide a buffer against the blues. Though in-person mom-dates are on hold, make a point to connect with the outside world for a few minutes each day. And if you find you need more support than your friends and family can provide, consider turning to an online support group or virtual therapy.

If you have a partner, take turns frequently. A common experience of new parents is that each one feels like they are doing 110% of the work, and their partner is doing 70%. So, it is important to divide the load equally to try to keep all parties happy and resilient. Give each other breaks — even as little as 10 or 20 minutes, several times a day — to take a much-deserved and absolutely necessary opportunity to recharge your batteries.

Harvey Karp is a pediatrician, creator of the SNOO Smart Bassinet, and CEO of Happiest Baby — which this week partnered with Cleo, The Mom Project, and PL+US to launch the Invest in Parents Pledge. It's a campaign calling on American companies to invest in working parents. Read their report here.