This week we get stuck into parenting, family pressures, and coping with stress while restricted by the Covid 19 pandemic. Clare Pooley is the New York Times best selling author of The Authenticity Project, her debut novel (buy it on Amazon UK // Amazon US // Amazon CAN // Amazon AUS). She also wrote The Sober Diaries (buy it on Amazon UK // Amazon US // Amazon CAN // Amazon AUS), and she started sharing her experiences of changing her drinking back in 2015 on her blog, mommy was a secret drinker. Marvyn Harrison (Marv) is the founder of Dope Black Dads, which grew out of a whatsapp group that he started in 2018. The group brings together a global community to have positive and constructive conversations about Black fathers in the male parenting experience.
Juggling parenting, working, and pandemic life
One of the biggest pressure points in the current global pandemic is the strain on family life. Parenting is always a juggling act, but right now it feels like we’re juggling with bombs that could go off at any moment. We’re dealing with work or furlough or being out of a job. We’re homeschooling, we’re confined with kids that need to be kept happy. There are financial worries, relationship issues, not having enough space, the ever present anxiety about someone we love getting sick. All of those things pile up, and they are so difficult to deal with. We know that there are parents in the Club Soda community and beyond who are struggling right now. And some folk are using alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with stress, anxiety and the pressures of family life. So in this podcast, we wanted to bring together a couple of parents from different backgrounds, to talk about what life’s like right now, and importantly, how you can keep yourself and your family healthy and happy in the strange and unpredictable times.
Marv just got back from a work trip in South Africa. He and his wife have been parenting at quite a large distance, he’s been a video dad! They’ve both gone through highs and lows. There have been times when they’ve struggled to be motivated to parent in a powerful way.
We realised that the kids were not using the level of energy that they historically had. Their propensity to stay awake until 10pm or 11pm was reducing our sanity and time for recovery. S we got into a rigid approach, which they helped curate. By seven o’clock we’re reading a book and they were out by 7:30. We tag team going to the shop. I’ve never gone to the shop with such enthusiasm! It’s a fantastic way of burning a little time. We go to an open field and just let them run. The second that they’re free and they see open space, they just use all their energy to run in a random direction. That’s been really useful. But I think we’re both just fed up, because this was never the design. Normally you do mornings, evenings, and weekends. You get used to that pattern. So to do basically all day every day is a real adjustment for the senses because you’ve got to stay in children mode for a long time.Marv Harrison
Clare’s kids are a bit older, twelve, fourteen, and seventeen.
The advantage of that is that they’re more self sufficient when it comes to homeschooling. But I’ve got three kids trying to do their lessons, and my husband and myself both working at home. That’s five of us in a relatively small space, fighting for Wi Fi bandwidth. I work in the kitchen because all the other rooms are taken. I’m constantly disturbed by deliveries, kids wanting cups of tea or food. When you’re preparing food for five, three of them with big appetites, you feel like you’re running a restaurant! I get up at five in the morning to do my own work because that’s the only the only way I can do it. It’s manageable, but we’re tired of it as well. We’re on top of each other, we get fed up with each other. The kids have been really great, but they’ve missed so much. My eldest normally plays about 15 hours of sport a week. Now he’s sitting on a computer the whole time, mainlining chocolate and getting chubby! We’re all missing the things that we used to love doing. But we’re lucky, it could’ve been a lot worse.Clare
In normal times you can reach out to somebody, you know, who’s in a good place. They can tell you stories about ordinary stuff and it can be such a relief to connect with somebody who isn’t going through the same experience as you. At the moment, everyone is going through something simultaneously which creates an additional pressure. It can seem like there is nobody to talk to about about the challenges of parenting, because everyone’s in it.
I struggle with feeling guilty for finding it hard. Whenever I feel sad about how things are I remember how many people have died and how many people have it’s so much worse than we do. I think one thing we have to try and learn to do is to not feel that guilt. There are people much worse off than us. But it doesn’t mean it’s not hard for us.Clare
This is probably the most reflective I’ve ever known people to be in Britain, I’ve never seen this many people using psychotherapeutic understandings. When we are young we’re taught not be selfish, not to centre yourself. You’re taught to think about others. At the moment I’m allowing myself to acknowledge that I don’t really want to be present to everybody else’s challenges. I want to think about how am I going to get through this and create a new reality for myself. It’s probably one of the healthiest conversations I’ve had en mass. Everyone seems to be slightly reflective, which is amazing. I think we need a bit of that.Marv
Some people respond to parenting stress by drinking, whether that’s as a way to switch off, or to unwind or to cope with big feelings. But there are also the downsides of using alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with stress.
Whenever I felt a negative emotion, or positive emotion, actually, I would reach for a drink, particularly with stress. Alcohol makes anxiety worse, it makes depression worse, it makes your sleep much harder. Dealing with anything hungover is obviously worse than dealing with anything without a hangover. And it creates anxiety. We feel anxious, we have a drink, but the withdrawal symptoms you feel after that drinking session, make you feel anxious. It turns into this cycle of drinking and anxiety. Alcohol can be like rocket fuel for stress and anxiety.Clare
More people have started thinking about their drinking habits. Some people have started Dry January with the intention to stop completely. For many there has been big stuff which may have derailed their intentions about change. It’s important to encourage people, especially if they’re finding this challenging and are struggling to stick to those plans.
I would say if you find yourself slipping up, don’t see that as a failure, see it as practice. Jump back on and give it another go. The real trick is mindset. Instead of framing change in terms of what you’re giving up, think of it in terms of what you’re gaining. Picture your life as it would be without alcohol in it, all the things that you hope to get out of it and just focus on that, not on the things you’re giving up. This might be the hardest time to quit drinking, because of all the stress. But in many ways it’s a good time to quit drinking, because the challenging of socialising has been removed due to lockdown.Clare
Building routine and making time for yourself
I’m not particularly a routine person, I’m a frustrated creative, freedom of movement and choice is important to my happiness. If my routine is too rigid, I usually start to feel overwhelmed. But in this context, having some kind of routine is really helpful. Even if it’s just planning the shopping trips and planning to go to different supermarkets and find ways to bring variety within my routine. Little tiny things really help me. My son and I do ‘superhero’ training. We run up and down in the garage and do pretend Hulk smash for 20 minutes every morning. And then we run to our local minimart and we buy one healthful thing as reward for the fitness. Then it’s breakfast, an hour of work, go out to the field to play. For people living alone that can be a massive issue.
Building or joining a community is fundamentally important. When the pandemic first hit, it was mixed with Black Lives Matter pretty much at the same time. So both parenting and coping with the feelings we all had around George Floyd were in our minds, and having Dope Black Dads became an even more important space for us to talk and share.
I think I’m more present to the parent child divide more than ever now. No matter their age, children present themselves to you as if you should have an answer. We’re not used to telling children that we can’t or don’t. It’s a new muscle, being authentic in front of them and saying, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m not feeling great’. You’ve got to set the boundaries for yourself and make sure that when you are with them you can be really intentional and clear and powerful. And then when you’re not, you have to really pull away and recharge yourself.
I’m not getting a huge amount of ‘me time’ right now. There’s that old saying about the about the oxygen mask, when the plane is going down, fit your own oxygen mask before you you try and fit your kids. That’s very true of life. YIf you don’t charge up your own batteries, you don’t have the energy to help anyone else. It’s easy to forget to do that because there are so many demands on our time. I started going to bed earlier so I could get up earlier and have time at the beginning of the day when no one else is awake. A couple of quiet hours really helps. And I find walking really therapeutic. I try to get out just by myself and go for walk in the fresh air and listen to an audio book. And I swear by a hot both!
So how could we help people who are struggling with balancing parenting with work and the restrictions of pandemic life? Maybe send a thoughtful gift, a book or a voucher for a streaming service. Something that prompts someone to take a moment for their own leisure. Cooking is a big stress, so sending someone ready meals, or making them a casserole is so helpful right now. If you’re not able to physically help with the childcare because of Covid, you could find a way to do it virtually. Maybe you could read a bedtime story via zoom or distract the kids with a game online to give parents a moment to step back.
I think the main thing to know is that you’re not alone. You’re certainly not the only person struggling with parenting. Now more than ever, when we can’t find those connections in real life, finding them virtually is crucial. Stick your hand up and say ‘I’m finding this really tough’. I bet whoever you’re talking to will feel the same.Clare