Yeah, most working parents aren’t feeling that this year. At all.
As writer and parent Dan Sinker put on behalf of all of us in The Atlantic a few weeks back, “We’re not even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken.”
“Suddenly now it’s back to school while cases are rising, back to school while masks are a battleground, back to school while everyone under 12 is still unvaccinated. Parents are living a repeat of the worst year of their lives–except this time, no matter what, kids are going back,” he writes. “This is not okay. Nothing is okay. No parent is okay.”
Clearly, what’s needed to truly fix this is for everyone eligible to get vaccinated (with over five billion doses given worldwide now, the vaccines are safe, so please holdouts, do your fellow citizens a solid and let us return to something approaching normal). But given that other people’s behavior is largely beyond your control, is there a plan B to help working parents meet the new school year with less dread and more energy?
Close out the old, ring in the new.
On HBR recently, Daisy Dowling, a coach who specializes in helping working parents, offered a lengthy list of thoughtful suggestions on how to shift your mindset, even if you can’t shift your circumstances nearly as much as you’d like to. The whole thing is a useful read if you’re a parent in need of a psychological boost, but one dead simple idea struck me as particularly worth a try.
It hinges on the power of language, and the human propensity to divide time into discrete chunks. “The human mind craves completion. We need to finish off A before we can fully focus on and do our best at B. For example, when work is divided into quarterly reporting periods, we can tell ourselves, ‘What’s done is done, and over with. Now, onto the next,'” Dowling writes.
Mentally dividing the pandemic into periods, however artificial, can work the same magic, she insists before explaining how exactly to accomplish this:
Think about your pandemic experience in phases, and assign each one a label. Your labels can be serious or flippant, basic or unique. Maybe there was the I Can’t-Believe-This-Is-Happening Period, the Uneasy Summer of 2020, the Endless Zoom-School Winter of 2020-21, and so forth. When you’ve got them in mind, or on a piece of paper, then draw a big, thick, line between them and the phase you’re entering now. Maybe you’re starting Job Search Process Autumn, or you’re thinking of these next few months as “get used to being a new dad, while back in the office” period. For better or worse, those past months of the pandemic are done and dusted — and you’re not going to carry their weight around anymore.
If you’re feeling particularly burdened by the past, you could even consider adding a little drama to the process. Write down the phases on a piece of paper and satisfyingly tear it up or burn it. This kind of gesture might strike some as a little theatrical, but a ton of respected psychology shows even simple, made-up rituals can actually have a big impact on your mindset.
A naming exercise won’t change the situation on the ground — it can’t improve the tenor of the national conversation or stop new variants from emerging — but it can help you reframe the current period and focus your energy on the best possible way to approach the months ahead. Given how tired so many parents are after the past 18 months, I think we can use any mental boost we can get.
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