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Bailing Out a Sinking Ship with a Sippy Cup

By Jessie Whitish

Informal poll: How would you rank your COVID-related stress level on a scale from 1 to 5?

As we approach the five-month-mark of our family retreating home due to COVID-19, I’m at about 7.5

Case numbers are higher now than they were five months ago. Any novelty of working from home has worn off. My son has been missing preschool, and it shows in how he has made no progress in writing letters or numbers. I need a hug from my mom but am terrified that hug will lead to her dying from COVID.

My son was supposed to return to preschool this week. And then the positivity rate skyrocketed and the number of cases in young kids began to increase. Suddenly we didn’t feel safe sending him to school, and we pushed his start date back another month. Then we made the tough decision to quit tee ball—which my son had been looking forward to for months—because parents weren’t maintaining enough social distance at practice.

I feel like a bad mom. I’m an even worse preschool teacher. I’m a decent employee, though. But wait—does that mean my priorities are out of order? That means I’m a REALLY BAD mom.

And as I sit with my feelings of being a bad mom, I can’t help but think of all the caregivers who are grappling with similar feelings.

We face many, many choices—all of them seemingly bad right now. I feel like I’m on a sinking ship, trying to bail myself out with a sippy cup, and I bet a lot of other parents feel like they’re on their own sinking ships.

Every parenting blog tells you how important “self-care” is. Like if I take enough deep breaths or enjoy a hobby or take a walk or drink a special tea, I will feel like I’m making the right decisions for my family. My stress and anxiety will dissolve.

All of those are great ideas, but if I’m being honest, they’re easy suggestions that won’t cut it for some of us. I have a stash of tea, binge reality TV while knitting, and take a walk every day, but it wasn’t enough.

So I also dug up my therapist’s phone number. I took a hard look at my social media habits and deleted apps from my phone. I set up a Zoom meeting with my friend even though I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I stopped buying Pop-Tarts (and other snacks) because the junk food in our house was out of control. I cried instead of trying to hide my feelings.

And even though I still struggle, I make a daily effort to care for my overall health and happiness. That effort is self-care. When I need the strength to tell myself I’m a good mom when I feel like a terrible one, I am relying on good mental health practices. When I need energy to make it through the day, I am relying on reserves that haven’t been sucked dry by sugar or screen time. When I need to make tough choices between work and family, I am relying on honesty in communicating with people I care about.

Parents, we are bailing ourselves out day by day, hour by hour. Fortunately, we all have on a life vest, and self-care keeps that life vest inflated. If your self-care is exercising, do it. If your self-care is getting enough sleep, do it. If your self-care is seeing a therapist, do it. If your self-care is asking a friend to help you prioritize your household tasks, do it.

Do what you need to do to stay afloat for now because soon the water will get easier. Eventually we will not be living in the middle of a public health crisis, and your family’s ship will stop sinking.

Take care of yourself so you’ll be ready to steer it back on course.