Jennifer Gomez, MSS, LCSW
It's okay if you're not okay: Coping during COVID
Here I am finishing up Week 4 of quarantine. Like so many of you, I’m working from home in my “full time” job while I have my two young children with me. Both of my wild, energetic, amazing children are under 4. My husband is essential personnel so he still works 40 hours a week away from home. I recognize that as a married woman with a full time job allowing me to work from home I am privileged and that my circumstances could be much worse. Knowing I have these benefits, I felt motivated to be Superwoman/Supermom. Even though I was scared about managing my job, my practice, and having my two babies at home I thought, “I got this.” I’m juggling the responsibilities of being a therapist at a middle school in addition to running my private practice and making sure my kids survive and thrive while I worry that my husband is going to contract this possibly fatal disease on a daily basis. It is not easy for me. I believe that whatever situation you’re in, however close or different it is from mine, is not easy. In fact, it’s probably pretty damn hard.
I was cautiously optimistic and probably naive four weeks ago. I made a plan to get my kids through the day. I requested weeks of curriculum for my preschooler from daycare. I copied their snack menu and their daily routine. I know consistency and routine are important so I planned to recreate my kids’ school day. I knew I wouldn't be as structured as the teachers, but I also was focused on making sure my kids were learning the curriculum they had in school. I coordinated my work schedule to coincide with naps and snack time when I would allow “forbidden” screen time. To be clear, screen time has never been forbidden in my house. I’m not that strict because I’ve learned screen time works for my family and helps me to get things done around my house. I planned to have breakfast and lunch at our dining room table, get outside for fresh air daily, read books, take virtual field trips, and I would be solely responsible for maintaining my kids’ educational progress. Oh and I also planned to get laundry done and my house cleaned… There should be a punchline here because this expectation is the greatest joke I’ve ever told…
Honestly, I knew my full time job would suffer. I knew I wouldn’t be as focused during meetings because my kids are home and rather than full sessions with my students, my company approved check ins instead. I didn't think I would be fantastic at working from home but wow… my “work time” has been a disaster. Not only do my adorable children make cameos in EVERY video conference, they also scream on phone calls (either because of tantrums or wanting attention, but ALWAYS screaming). Even Frozen 2 can’t distract my kids when they know I have an important call. It’s nice being loved, right? Did I mention my direwolf sized german shepherd who barks at everything? My calls and videos are always on mute, except for when I absolutely have to contribute to the meetings and even then I wait for the cacophony to die down before I speak. I stay up late every night to check emails and do the paperwork I can't during the day. I've felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and inadequate.
While my social media has been full of activities to do with young kids and my parent friends post all the artistic or educational activities they do, my day starts and ends with Team Umizoomi or Disney Plus with a few activities sprinkled here or there when I can. I'm trying to make sure I do my job, but that I'm also present for my kids who need me as their world is flipped upside down. My kids have been running the show and I’ve felt terrible about myself as a therapist, a mother, and as a functioning person. When I see pictures of the fun, creative learning activities other parents do with their kids, I've had the thoughts, “What am I doing wrong,” “Why is this so hard,” “Why can’t I do this?” Do any of these questions sound familiar to you???
When I've talked to these same parents who look like they're winning, they've echoed my own thoughts and emotions. Maybe it looks awesome from the outside, but overall people with kids and without aren't okay.
We all need to recognize this whole situation is not okay. The expectation for any of us to actually be okay is ludicrous. We’re in an unprecedented situation that none of us have ever experienced before. We’ve never had a disease that impacted literally the entire world, or been told we all have to stay inside and we can’t even visit our loved ones for fear of our very lives. This is the first time businesses, schools, or parks have been closed without any idea when we’ll be able to enter them again. We’ve never had to wear face masks and gloves to protect ourselves just to go shopping, or had to worry we wouldn’t be able to find basic necessities on the store shelves. In our lifetime, we haven’t had to wait out a deadly disease, hoping that warmer weather will make it go away because we don’t have the cure or vaccine for it. This is a scary time and you are allowed to be scared.
Recognize that this is an unprecedented situation that many of us didn't prepare for. Give yourself a break when you feel like you're not handling this the way you expected to. You've never had to home school your children through a pandemic or work from home during a pandemic before. If you're expecting to do everything well, you may be setting yourself up for failure and the emotional turmoil that comes with it. Notice the things you are doing and acknowledge those are successes. Are you waking up and trying every day? Are you following the quarantine rules and social distancing to keep yourself and others safe? Set reasonable expectations for yourself and remember: this is a new situation that you've never experienced before. Have you ever done something exactly the way you wanted the first time you tried? Keep perspective for yourself and the crisis we are facing.
As a therapist I teach my clients mindfulness, relaxation techniques, how to cope with stress and anxiety; I empower my clients to recognize the strengths I see in them even when they can’t. It’s as if this crisis hit and all my knowledge and skills evaporated into thin air. The very things I'm able to do in sessions with my clients I struggled to do for myself in these difficult weeks. If you feel like you’ve got this all handled, I applaud you! It takes so much to feel in control when so many things around you are changing. If you're doing well through this crisis, I have the utmost respect for you and the work you’re doing to maintain your mental health. For those who don’t feel okay, who feel out of control, overwhelmed, or inadequate: I am here with you. I’m feeling it too and I’m trying my best everyday to get through it too.
There is no handbook for this crisis. However you feel, that’s okay. Don’t let social media or influencers or anyone else tell you how to feel. If you’re taking this quarantine as a gift to learn something new or get your summer body, I’m cheering you on because I always applaud bettering yourself. If you’re binging everything on Netflix, do it! Please send me recommendations! If you have kids, let them watch all the TV or don’t. As a parent navigating schooling-in-a-pandemic, do what works best for you and your family. If you’re eating through that quarantine food so fast you need to order another delivery soon, you should probably slow down because the food shoppers, the store employees, and the delivery people all deserve a much needed break! As long as you aren’t harming yourself or someone else, what you’re doing is helping you to get through this. No matter what you’re doing, this is how you’re coping. We all need to cope with this crisis because that is exactly what it is.
If you need help identifying coping skills to use to get through this crisis, please feel free to reach out to me. My top go to's during this time have been:
1. Go outside and take at least 5 deep breaths. Listen to the world around you, notice the sensations of your body breathing, feel the wind or the sun on your skin. *Still practice social distancing, of course
2. Get a drink of water. Just getting up and moving around helps you mentally and physically. Drinking water helps to replenish your body. Again, pay attention to the sensations of drinking and noticing how the water feels as you do so.
3. Do something that makes you smile. Give yourself a 3 minute break (even if you think you don't have a spare 3 minutes in your day, find the time to prioritize yourself and your mental health) to do something you enjoy. It could be looking up memes, dancing or singing to a certain song, watching a funny video, whatever you need to do.
Stay safe and stay healthy, mentally and physically.
If you or someone you know is feeling depressed, hopeless or suicidal, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255