Embracing Our New Identities... and Our New "normal"
I think it is safe to say that none of us knew that 2020 was going to bring such a shock to our daily lives. For a majority of us, we have no frame of reference for living through a pandemic of this magnitude. The COVID-19 outbreak is unparalleled to the other major events in my lifetime including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the wars in the Middle East and even 9/11. This is due to the devastating symptoms, combined with the lightning fast transmission rate and the isolative orders to help eliminate further spread and illness. For many of us, the initial isolation and changes to daily routines and schedules has been compounded by the addition of our children being home due to the sudden closures of schools and daycare centers. The temporary closure was swiftly altered to location closures and distance “everything.” Parents are now managing the merging of home, school, work and socialization along with the increased feelings of isolation and fear. While we may be isolated and socially distant, parents are not alone. Parents everywhere are experiencing increased feelings of frustration, loss of connection and identity, and failure as we adapt to this change in our daily routines. Having to juggle and manage the merging of work, home, school, and childcare, all day, every day way is exhausting and overwhelming. Parents, especially those who generally work out of the home, depend on structure, routine, and boundaries to better manage the constant demand of attention and focus on the varying areas of their lives. Some have a commute to help put both a physical and an emotional distance between their job and their family. Some rely on a structured schedule to ensure that all the needs – everywhere – are being met. A little over a month ago, this was swiftly yanked from underneath parents everywhere. Let’s look at what has happened and how we can continue to adapt to these changes. When the schools announced remote learning, many parents felt that the remainder of the school year fell squarely on their shoulders for their children. Feeling out of touch with the education requirements and teaching modalities, parents attempted to maintain a structure of learning to avoid their child struggling when advancing to the next grade. This almost immediately resulted in feelings of frustration, bewilderment, and inadequacy. Parents rushed to try to learn and then teach things such as Common Core math, Chemistry and AP Literature. Not to mention learning and perfecting the use of video streaming technology! This frustration was blended with an incredible, drawn out feeling of loss and isolation as we self-quarantined, sheltered-in-place, and remained home for weeks and weeks. Perhaps more so in our community and culture, the loss was felt deep when families no longer gathered for weekly shared meals, spiritual and religious gatherings were moved online, and graduations, birthday celebrations and vacations were all canceled. When we feel restricted and confined, feelings of isolation and loneliness can easily amplify feelings of frustration, often resulting in increased outbursts, hurt feelings and tension. As if that is not enough stress on any given parent, working parents also lost an aspect of their personal identity that derived from their job, career, and profession. This has, for many of us, resulted in identity confusion. Most of us align our roles and responsibilities with our identity and our identities are often “location based.” For example, what you wear and how you talk to your friends when socializing is very often different than your work attire and vocabulary. When the location for the roles of parent, teacher, employee, spouse/partner, friend, etc. are now one in the same, task overload and identity confusion can occur. Many parents are multitasking maintaining a household, constantly caring for and teaching their children, and remotely working enough hours to make ends meet – all while experiencing the same fears, anxieties and uncertainties that their children and communities were. Our children experienced a few months unlike they ever had before. In a very short period of time, they went from elated of having a few extra weeks off from school, to confusion of what remote learning would entail, to grief and loss as school functions, sport and art events, class trips, proms and graduations were all canceled. Much like their parents, our children had no frame of reference for the sudden and dramatic turn life took. Frustration from having parents who couldn’t help with Common Core math, grief due to the loss of big school and social moments, fear due to the uncertainty and severity of the virus, as well as the restlessness from having to remain home for weeks on end. When we combined the feelings and stress of our children with the feelings and stress of their parents, we saw an uptick in arguments, feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness all which resulted in increased family system stress and strain. So now that we are further along in the year and have adapted to most of the initial stressors, let’s explore how to reset our family dynamics into more positive and healthy relationships. First, I think that it’s important to honestly acknowledge the feelings and struggles of each family member. When we can name it, we can truly look at it and change the way it is impacting us. There is no competition, no prize for who is struggling the most – but there can be healing in vulnerability with our family members. Second, acknowledging the grief and loss for the various aspects we talked about above. If we can look at some of the negative behaviors and interactions from the lens of grief and loss, we can have more compassion and understanding for our family members. Third, give yourself permission to say no. Only you can decide which stressor, obstacle, request you can say no to, but establishing and maintaining boundaries is a healthy and necessary piece of every family system. Boundaries help you maintain control in many ways – this is often seen in everyday life through the use of schedules, separating work from home, and even as small as bedtime routines. It is unrealistic for you to hold yourself to “do it all” especially during such a life altering crisis. Fourth, focus on your relationships. This may seem counterintuitive as you are feeling annoyed by the people you cannot get space from and distance from the people you are unable to see at this time, but honestly returning to normalcy is gently done through focusing on these relationships. Find ways to foster the feeling of connection – this is often done in the initial stages of a relationship, but the demands of everyday life result in this being lost for many. Think back to your “honeymoon” stage of your relationships (romantic, familial, friendships) – this stage is filled with learning about each other’s passions and interests and marveling in the ways that we are similar and different. Take time to practice new ways to communicate and listen to your children, your partner, your spouse or your parents and to practice ways of communicating your needs and boundaries to them. Find the fun – seek out moments to embrace fun and silliness during this uncertain time. Dance around the living room, play games together, snuggle up and create new constellations in our bright desert sky, and any other activity that helps lighten the weight that everyone is feeling. And finally, when life moves ever closer to “normal” – release your old definition of everyday and maintain this increased connection with your loved ones, healthy boundaries to maintain a better balance of your roles and responsibilities, and maintain your found silliness – because life is just better with a little silliness and connection. Maria Laquerre is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who specializes in addressing trauma with clients of all ages. Maria has practiced therapy in New Mexico since her return in 2008. Maria's current passion is supporting therapists in doing their best clinical work, which she pursues through offering supervision, consultation and trainings. Maria enjoys spending time with her family, watching Star Wars and Marvel movies, discussing the psychology of pop culture and loves a good book!