Parenting in 2021? ‘Not Great, Bob!’

I was joking with my editor that I should just make this newsletter — which is meant to be a wrap-up of the year in parenting — a two-second clip from “Mad Men.” How are we feeling? “Not great, Bob!”

In the past month, we’ve seen a resurgence of a lot of anxieties for parents: There’s an Omicron wave crashing over New York City as I type this. News that Pfizer-BioNTech’s low-dose Covid shot did not produce a strong enough immune response in 2-to-5-year-olds means that parents of preschoolers will have to wait longer for their children to get vaccinated. On the heels of a horrific school shooting in Michigan, a viral social media threat sent schools across the country into panic mode, despite several law enforcement agencies reportedly deeming the threats as not credible.

Back in September, I wrote about the way the pandemic has broken my sense of risk; after nearly two years of Covid calculations for me and my kids, I can describe myself only as dead inside (a feeling akin to what is described in one 2020 entry on the American Psychological Association website as “‘psychic numbing,’ indifference that sets in when we are confronted with overwhelming calamity”).

Even though my children are finally fully vaccinated, that anesthetized feeling persists. I thought everyday decision making for my family might get easier once we were all vaxxed, but we’re still trapped in the same cycle of trying to evaluate every minor event for individual and community risks and benefits and not always feeling equipped for that task.

I wish I had some clear-cut advice here about #selfcare or some straightforward philosophy to impart that might make this period a little more bearable. But I don’t. What I can offer you is an idea that I have been thinking about since the first terrifying days of the pandemic that I believe even more strongly now.

A lot of modern parenting advice, aimed at mostly middle- and upper-middle-class mothers, is fashioned around the idea that you can control all outcomes for your children if you just try hard enough. If you just feed them all of the approved food, snowplow barriers out of their way and listen to the “right” experts, whoever they might be, your kids will be happy and successful.

This fantasy of control has always been that — a fantasy. It’s a comforting fantasy, because it’s painful and scary to have your heart walking around outside your body every day, as the cliché goes.

I’m not trying to say that parenting doesn’t matter, because I think it does, up to a point. But it’s more about imbuing your kids with the values that you care about rather than cosplaying someone else’s notion of ideal parenting or, for that matter, presenting a family image that looks good on a Christmas card or in an Instagram story.

The values I’m thinking about at the end of this (second consecutive) weird year are influenced by a book that I recommend, “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home,” by my friends Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen. While the book is about how we work now, it’s really about our identities and how we choose to structure our days and lives. There’s a passage that I keep going over in my head, a slightly tweaked version of which was excerpted in The Atlantic, that applies to parenting as well as work:

When I first read this paragraph, I had trouble answering the question for myself. I am so wrapped up with feeling as if each day is maximally productive with writing and reading and keeping the pulse of what other parents are thinking and then also doing all the domestic tasks and finding moments for quality family time. If I’m watching my trash TV, it’s sometimes done while exercising or folding laundry, so that even my sloth is purposeful. About once a month, I even ponder taking up knitting so that no moment of leisure is completely without some kind of output.

With parenting specifically, I think many of us spend too much time worrying about what our kids should be doing and not enough time thinking about what they like to do or what brings them joy. I include myself in this: I’m pretty competitive and care a lot about education. I have to fight the intermittent impulse to push sight word flashcards or coding classes on my children, before reminding myself that they need the time and space to just be. Fetishizing productivity doesn’t make me particularly happy, and I hope for them to find another way.

I can tell you that the most collective joy I experienced in the past month was lying in bed, watching cat videos on TikTok with my kids. We were all cackling watching a cat wearing a tie like a distinguished gentleman, and I wished that I could bottle up that feeling and distribute it to myself later when I was feeling glum.

I hope that you can all find that feeling in these last dreary days of 2021, no matter how uncertain they get.

Want More on Dealing With Uncertainty?

  • Dodai Stewart sums up 2021 as a year in limbo, represented by “Noodle the pug, a dog in a perpetual state of melting.”

  • In The Washington Post, Rachael Bedard, a geriatrician and palliative care physician, offers suggestions for how to deal with the current feelings of Covid uncertainty with tools she has learned through her work. Risk assessment is a key step: “Useful risk assessments take into account what we know, what we don’t know, a personal evaluation of our values and priorities and an honest accounting of how our choices might impact others. Part of the way we will survive this without losing our minds is by recognizing that we generally make the choices that make sense for us, not choices that are universally correct,” Dr. Bedard writes.

  • Can you burn out on worry? Apparently, you sure can! Dani Blum investigates.

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