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’?

Know your motivation

When faced with a decision between one course of action and another, the motivation can make as much difference as the actual choice you make.

Leaving a job, confronting a loved one, telling someone how their actions have affected you – these are not always easy, and can sometimes lead to pain.

But each of these can be done out of spite or out of love.

Leaving a job can mean thumbing your nose at your employer and saying good riddance to the aspects of the job that led to finding another role elsewhere.

Or it can mean acknowledging your needs, how these aren’t being met in your current role, and being grateful for everything your current role has taught you, as well as leaving the place better than you found it.

Staying in a job where you’re unhappy could create discontent, building tension and dissatisfaction for you and your colleagues, or a nasty competitive environment where you spend most of your energy proving why others are wrong, rather than .

Or it could mean appreciating what is good about where you are, seeking to bridge differences and make the workplace better for colleagues and customers alike.

The decision – should I stay or should I go? should I try to talk to them about it or pull away? – isn’t always the most important factor. The motivation behind a decision is both the ‘why’ you do something, and dictates the ‘how’.

And that makes all the difference.