Parenting in a pandemic and navigating a polarised society

If you, like me, have been struggling with some of the many decisions and opinions that coronavirus is throwing at us, then this post is for you.

As parents, we are having to make all sorts of decisions. And there are so many deeply polarised opinions, many of which can trigger quite strong reactions in all of us.

The school question in itself has created a lot of turmoil for me, not least because there are so many different viewpoints amongst my circles. And frankly, some of these viewpoints are expressed strongly and in absolutes. There is literally no opinion I can have, it seems, that won’t rub someone the wrong way.

This in itself is not new. As parents, we can easily feel judged about everything. It feels a long time ago when I learned I needed to just connect to my gut, listen to the evidence and ultimately decide for myself and my kid. It’s simple, but not always easy.

But the pandemic has forced us to appreciate how much our individual choice impacts the wider community. My choice to wear a mask (or not) impacts you, either directly (I could get you sick) or indirectly (the more people refusing to wear masks could increase the spread of the virus and prolong the situation).

This struggle between personal choice and collective responsibility is also happening amid a widening awareness about privilege.

My view on reopening schools or easing lockdown is of course influenced by my own privilege. That I have a job I can do from home makes me lean more towards slower easing of lockdowns. That I have found a way to work effectively whilst keeping my kids at home will allow me the privilege to feel differently about schools reopening than perhaps a parent who is finding that more difficult for any number of entirely valid reasons.

Conversely, another white middle-class person’s insistence that schools reopen because they are struggling to work from home with their kids at home is speaking from the privilege of having healthcare and being lower risk, whereas someone from the Global Black Majority may feel differently after seeing the higher rates of mortality amongst her ethnic group.

Each of these people could very easily label the other as selfish. In a way, they’d be right. One person’s opinion to keep schools closed and lockdown measures in place could seriously harm a person unable to earn money if my views were enacted. Another person could harm someone at risk if their choice of reopening the local school led to illness or death.

How do we reconcile the challenges and different forms of privilege we’re seeing to the very real need to come together as a global community to get through this pandemic with as little heartache and harm as possible?

Step 1: Own our challenges honestly and without shame

Just like with parenting in normal time, people will have different specific challenges. It’s like when one of the mums in the mum-and-baby group had her baby sleeping through the night and another is running on caffeine and fumes after being up all night, every night, for months. But that exhausted mother has been able to breastfeed without issue whereas another mother battled tongue tie and poor latch until deciding to bottlefeed formula (which she still feels sensitive about).

And that’s okay. They are all okay. It doesn’t mean any of them are doing anything wrong because they’re struggling where another one wasn’t.

We will each have different struggles through this, and it helps to be able to understand our own challenges without feeling ashamed. If I don’t admit my struggles to myself, and can’t see them as valid struggles without internalising them as a personal failing, then I cannot see how they are shaping my world view.

Step 2: Own your own privilege

Just as we can own our challenges, we can reflect upon and name our privileges.

And as with our challenges, owning our privilege or helpful circumstances isn’t about shame or apologising. It’s just seeing it for what it is.

And just as our challenges can shape our worldview and political opinions, so can our privilege, especially when left unexamined. I could favour policy decisions that could really harm someone else in another situation, but not see it.

Step 3: Listen and appreciate others’ struggles

This is only possible when we can understand and own our own struggles and privileges without defensiveness.

As we understand the challenges that others are having, even if they do not resonate with our own lived experiences, we can start to understand why there are so many different views on contentious issues.

Step 4: Reflect, discern, decide, and act

Ultimately, we will not all agree on any course of action. Of course we won’t. This doesn’t mean we cannot and should not act on our convictions. But by going through steps 1-3 above, we do so without blindly being swayed by our own personal circumstances. We do so with eyes open to the challenges we are all facing.

This also means we can try to find holistic solutions. If there’s a negative externality to what I have decided is the best way forward on an issue, then we can start to talk about how to address that. Yes, it’s a bit like finding a medicine to treat the side effect of the cure, but we need to be able to talk about solutions without believing in a magic cure that has no downsides for anyone. But if we can honestly strive to understand the full lay of the land, we’re in a much better position to be able to problem solve creatively and innovatively.

Before I go…

I admit that the reason for writing this post is that I needed to read it. I have not always been doing the above. Far from it. We will still feel angry and triggered by people for refusing to wear a face mask in Costco or for someone saying your selfish or politicising an issue for having a different opinion to them.

But it’s also so freeing to be able to name and own our own challenges and privileges.

The other part of the above steps where I know I’ve personally not followed my own advice recently is the step of reflection and discernment. Partly it’s because there has been very little time and headspace.

A large part of this though has been that a lot of the conversations on this topic I’ve been having have been on social media, which is not built for discernment. I read a post or comment, I feel an emotional response (often anger or vindication), and I reply immediately before scrolling on. And repeat. Many times over.

So I personally will be going back to limiting my social media usage and making sure to have more time to reflect and discern, to read without replying. Only through following these steps do I feel I can act with conviction – whether that’s to campaign for schools to remain closed, or to decide whether it’s safe/responsible for me to take my family on a staycation, or to find my way forward to promote racial equity.

Journal prompts

Here are some prompts to journal or reflect upon that I’ve found helpful to explore my own challenges and privileges.

What has been hard for me lately includes…

I’ve surprised myself in finding ways to cope / finding some things easier, such as….

What circumstances in my life have helped me?

In what ways do I feel ‘lucky’?

In what ways do I feel ‘unlucky’?

A vector of peace

We hear the word vector now in the context of disease. A vector for the virus. Today, I found myself thinking of peace and progress, and questioning what I am choosing to spread.

The questions were sparked by a thought as I was out running. In the bright sunshine at my local park, I was trying hard to maintain adequate social distancing – a minimum of 2 metres, and aiming for more like 4 metres given I was running and breathing more heavily. Most people were very consciously distancing themselves, though a handful of people were walking in groups on the broad paths that usually can be shared whilst maintaining minimum distancing.

As I ran through thick un-mowed grass to avoid one of these groups, I mentally remarked that wearing a denim skirt and flip flops mean you probably weren’t really exercising.

But then I examined the thought. How judgemental it was. How it exposed the very sense of entitlement that has been frustrating me when noticed in others. What right did I have to decide what constitutes exercise? Or indeed, to swallow while the idea that physical exercise was legitimate and simply being in sunshine and nature somehow less so? I’m a huge proponent of mental health, and readily acknowledge my own physical exercise is primarily a mental health preserve as a physical one.

Of course, I had not acted yet upon this thought. I cast no dirty looks and posted no moans about “some people” on Facebook. But I had judged. And in doing so, I was at risk of becoming another vector, not of disease, but of judgement, ill will, and self-importance.

I say all of this not condemning myself. If you’ve had these feelings and thoughts, I do not condemn you, either, and would urge gentle acceptance and acknowledgement for both of us. We cannot control what thoughts occur in our brains, so the flicker of a thought is not in itself the issue. I feel frustrated and angry at a lot that is happening right now, from people endangering others by not following social distancing, to wider forces at play that are prioritising self-interested individualism over collective cooperation, and those are fair to feel. Judging myself harshly is yet another judgement.

No, instead I am now moving beyond that thought to ask myself, how can I be a vector of peace?

I feel outrage right now, which does not feel very peaceful. I do not feel peaceful when looking at white men armed to the teeth protesting against public health measures designed to protect the most vulnerable from a painful and lonely death. I do not feel peaceful watching world leaders gambling with people’s lives, purporting to protect notions like “economy” or “industry” with decisions that endanger people or take away their rights to protect themselves against the virus. I do not feel peaceful sniggering to myself as a see a meme about Karens. I do not feel peaceful as I mutter under my breath when the neighbours yet again have people not from their household visiting and laughing in the garden.

I also do not feel like a vector of peace when I see a black man killed in the street because, in the best case scenario, someone made a mistake and poor judgement and got carried away trying to be a vigilante. To be a vector of peace means to be promoting peace and goodness in the world, not shrugging at the injustices we see.

There is something radical in being a vector of peace. It is active, not passive. Forceful, but not coercive. Powerful but not overpowering. Peace, but not appeasement.

So I know what it isn’t, but what does being a vector of peace look like?

To help me work through this and bring more peace into my life, my actions, and the world, I’ve started using this acronym:

P Protect. Protect people who are in danger, who are vulnerable, at risk, dis-privileged, and/or otherwise unable to stand up for themselves.

E Empower. Work to provide a voice for the disenfranchised rather than speaking for them wherever possible. Take actions in the areas you can control.

A Act. Take simple, concrete steps to do something.  Sign a petition, write a letter to your MP, donate, volunteer, fundraise, vote.

C Calm / Care. Remain calm and take care of yourself. If you’re not calm, it’s easy to let anger or even hate influence action. Self care is important in peacemaking, so taking a moment to understand – without being driven by and without judging – emotions at play can help maintain peace as the goal.

Educate. Keep informed, check sources, look at the issues from all angles. Particularly understand the root causes behind the other side’s actions; understanding their unmet needs can help find sustainable solutions for the future. Note: understanding does not mean endorsing or accepting.

P E A C E

I’m learning to apply these principles in my own life with my family and friends, and on a wider scale in helping others and the world of politics. It is on a variety of scales that we can be vectors of peace.

What ways are you working for peace in this time of upheaval and stress?

Fullness, not busyness

Recently, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how I can do more: I want to help others and the planet. I want to be present for my kids. I want to work at and enjoy my marriage. I want to invest and find comfort in my friendships. I want my work to be meaningful and impactful. But how to do it all?

Some people choose a word or a motto as their theme for the year, a sound bite rallying cry instead of self-punishing resolution. Early in January, as I ran laps around my local park listening to a podcast on the subject, I tapped into this desire to do and live more, but found it tricky to find the right work to encapsulate it. “More” was a contender, except that it implied too much plate-spinning, cramming my days with even more. I also considered “nourishing,” but it suggested holing up in a spa, not getting out there and doing more.

I settled on the word “fuller” as a mantra. I wanted to live a fuller life. Fuller doesn’t necessarily mean more. Eating a healthy, appropriately sized meal can be more fulfilling than consuming a load of empty calories. “Fuller” brings with it the challenge of considering something before declining, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and being willing to dream bigger.

In practice, it has spurred me to sign up for a half marathon for the charity Terrence Higgins Trust, nearly eight years and two kids since I ran my first and only half marathon to date. It has led me to reading different books than I usually read, making more efforts to see my friends, and taking chances at work, throwing myself into the charity I work for with less caution around preserving work-life balance and more permission (from myself, to myself) to feel ambitious and passionate.

Which leads me to last week, sitting in silence at my local Quaker meeting as the question of how I can do more good in this world sat before me. And the phrase from Advices & Queries that came up again and again for me was, “Attend to what love requires of you – which may not be great busyness.”

I’ve loved this line since I first came across it. As a mother of young kids, I appreciated that it seemed to take into account the limited bandwidth at this season in my life, often interpreting that what love required of me was very often that I focus first on my kids’ needs and wants.

But more recently, as I reflected on it, I’ve thought again about the distinction between “busyness” and “fullness”. Busyness might be the empty calories of pointless meetings, scrolling through social media, and getting sucked into the tribalism and pageantry of politics. Fullness is making an impact at work, for the cause and those around me, whilst connecting with friends and family outside of work and getting involved in grassroots political actions and informing myself for upcoming vote.

In short, busyness is draining; fullness is empowering.

What would fullness look like for you?

How is fullness for you different from busyness?

When the world is getting you down

I have seen a lot of people suffering lately.

The rise in ultra-conservative politics. Deep division in our societies over what feel like key issues. Hurtful actions and language towards women. People rising to positions of power that fill some people with a sense of fear, injustice, or powerlessness.

We consume the news like an addict, looking for relief from the very thing that troubles us.

So I wanted to write a post in the hopes it provides some balm, some inspiration, for responsible self-care. Continue reading “When the world is getting you down”