Atlases No More: Parenting During the COVID-19 Crucible | The Exchange | #parenting

Transitions in family life are inherently difficult. They require us as parents to be open to change while also maintaining a sense of family cohesion. When we are able to anticipate, communicate about, and plan for major family transitions, we adapt better. When we avoid acknowledging or are taken unawares by a necessary transition, we can struggle to preserve a sense of balance as a family and stressors can begin to pile up quickly. And, when under the burden of such a pile up of stressors, we can so easily buckle under the weight, failing to live up to our usual standards for loving our spouses and our children well.

We haven’t been able to plan for all of the changes COVID-19 has produced in our lives. It has stripped away many of the supports we have relied upon to uphold our family structures (e.g., school, sports, friends, extended family, church). It has upended our routines. Such changes have left many of us as parents feeling the need to, like the Greek mythological figure Atlas, support the weight of the world all by ourselves to keep it from crushing us and our families.

Guercino, Atlas holding up the celestial globe, 1646

Unfortunately, no one knows for certain if and when we will be able to resume our “normal” lives and make use of our old family supports and routines once more. Thus, we must ask how we can transition our families to adapt to life in a world of social distancing, quarantine, and self-isolation. I believe that one of the founders of the field of family therapy, Dr. Salvador (“Sal”) Minuchin, can assist us in this endeavor.

During his lifetime, Sal helped families to make sense of the way they organized themselves as a unit. He paid particular attention to the structure of the family (e.g., the roles played by each member of the family, who had power and authority in the family and who didn’t, which family members tended to side with or against one another) as well as its boundaries (e.g., how open or closed the family was to “outsiders”, the degree to which family members felt connected to or disconnected from each other).

Sal believed that families could become stuck in their ways and struggle to adapt to changing circumstances. Frequently, he found that families would get stuck in a way of doing life together that no longer worked for them as it once did. As such, he actively sought to shake up the family, “unbalancing” as he called it, in order to help families find a new and healthier structure which was more in step with that family’s present situation and needs. Minuchin’s unbalancing tactics often involved helping family members find ways to play new and different roles, access new and different supports, and open up to new and different ways of relating to one another and the world around them.

As we consider the various ways in which COVID-19 has unbalanced our families and placed unprecedented pressures on us as parents, Sal’s theories offer us possibilities for finding a new sense of equilibrium. In hopes of freeing us from feeling the need to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders during these trying times, below I offer some Sal-inspired suggestions for reestablishing rhythms of work, play, and rest into our family lives.

Work

These days many of us are struggling to work from home without being constantly interrupted by children who need their bums wiped, their homework checked, or their bellies filled. Here are a few ideas for finding a new sense of balance regarding work time:

  • Establish clear boundaries. It may be helpful to be very clear with your children when you are working and when you are available. For older kids, you could create a shared Google calendar so they can know your work schedule each day. For younger kids, you might consider making a construction paper “traffic light” for your home office space—green means you are free, yellow means kids should knock before entering, and red means you are not to be disturbed.
  • Have older kids help younger kids. If you are a parent to more than one child, ask your older children assist the younger ones when you are unavailable due to work commitments. For example, when I have had important meetings to attend from home, I have asked my older boys to keep an eye on their younger brothers and not disturb my work unless an incident involving large quantities of blood, vomit, or poo has taken place.
  • Put your kids to work. When you are working, your kids can be working, too. Not only can they be doing schoolwork, but housework as well. With a little bit of training, a 4-year-old can dust, a 6-year-old can vacuum, and a teenager can certainly clean the bathroom!

Play

Whether you are young or old, play is a great way to relieve stress and connect with others. For children, play is also the primary way they express themselves. Given that our immediate family members are the only people we can truly have as “playmates” during this time of social distancing, here are a couple of ways to bring play into our families:

  • Schedule play dates with your kids. You don’t need to spend hours engaging with your children for them to feel seen by you. Rather, you can set aside a specific time to spend with your kids. The anticipation of this time can make your younger kids feel special even before you spend time playing with them. For older kids, this time can be a way to check in on how they are faring in the midst of the pandemic as well as to hear from them what they need from you.
  • Invite your kids to enjoy what you enjoy. Don’t let a lack of interest in your kids’ preferred forms of play detract you from playing with them at all. Rather, share your own play interests with your kids. For instance, if you like a particular board game, try teaching it to your kids. If you are artistic, create a shared art project with your children. Or, if you like taking bike rides, ask your family to join you.

Rest

It can be exhausting to keep up with all of the changes in our lives that have taken place due to COVID-19. More than ever we are in need of respite and space for recuperation. Here are a couple of ideas for finding rest in the midst of such trying times:

  • Initiate daily siestas. Make “rest time” part of the daily routine by having your kids go offline for an hour after lunch. During this time, the kids can find quiet spaces in the house to read, sleep, think, or pray. The grown-ups can also rest or, at least, have an hour of undisturbed work.
  • Practice sabbath. Be intentional about carving out a day a week to slow down enough to experience God’s embrace of you and your family. Set aside outside responsibilities, rest from your domestic labors, and take stock of how well your family is finding a sense of balance amid the pandemic. Be on the lookout for how God’s love is at work in your home as well as the places and spaces where COVID-19-related adjustments may need to be made.

I hope that some of these suggestions may help to bring more organization and balance to your family during this unique season in history. As you implement them, please keep in mind that shifts in family life take time to solidify. It is okay if your first few attempts at change do not take. Don’t give up and resort to being an Atlas! Most importantly, keep in mind Jesus’ words to those following him on his travels in Galilee, which are as true today as they were two millennia ago:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11:28)

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