The 40-year-old mother of two boys, ages 4 and 8, went on Facebook and shared these and other tough choices in a post that started: “'Decision fatigue’ will be how I remember this season of my life.”
The layers of pandemic-related dilemmas were compounded during a power outage in Texas. Her list went on: “Move the car under the tree or leave in the icy roadway? Move the perishable to coolers of snow or leave shut in the powered-down freezer? Shut off the water at the curb or drip the faucets? Drop the thermostat and run the space heater or reverse? Drain the water heater or wait and defrost? Wait for the plumber’s super-slow response or order the expensive replacement before they’re back-ordered? Warm-up with neighbors who have a fireplace or be cautious about Covid?”
In a later interview, she equated it to trying to solve four puzzles all mixed up in the same box: “My strategy brain tries to turn the pieces till they fit. … There’s no end in sight, and no goal.”
New York City psychotherapist Josh Jonas has been meeting with clients who, as exhausted parents in the pandemic, complain of the same stressors. “I have never seen such a pool of collective emotion being so big. Everybody is feeling the same thing at the same moment. The feeling [now] is ‘I’m done. … I don’t have the bandwidth to make any more of these decisions,'” he says. He blames the changing variables parents have to “solve for” at any given time, and the interconnectivity of each of the decisions. He also says physical safety and mental health are constantly at odds, causing people to have to pick over and over which they will prioritize this time.
“The suicide rate is up, the divorce rate is up, mental health [concerns] are up. … We are born biologically needing to connect,” he says.
Lydia Elle, 40, lives in Los Angeles with her 11-year-old daughter. “I was recently faced with the decision as to whether to send my daughter, an only child, back to school. Do I keep her home to reduce the threat of covid on her physical health or let her go to help strengthen her emotional and mental health?” she says. “It is hard making all these decisions alone, and the exponentially increased responsibility that the pandemic, isolation and quarantine has added has made me so tired.”
The decision fatigue for Elle is a direct consequence of the increased roles she, like other parents, has had to play in the pandemic. She says she’s the principal, the school cafeteria and the counselor to her child who has been isolated without siblings or friends, among other roles. As a single mom, she also faces these burdens without the “advantages of a partnership, such as being able to bounce ideas off of and come to a consensus about the next best step. … It’s always going in my head. It’s me, myself and I, hoping it’s the best [decision], and I don’t have anyone to help confirm that.”
The civil unrest of the past year and what she called a lack of leadership added to the emotional burden. “It was a magnifying glass for all the social and racial issues we have. Having to deal with that highlighted reality on top of ‘How do we survive the pandemic?’ … and ‘Do I go to a protest but it’s also a crowd in a pandemic?’ It was a lot. It was and has been and is difficult.” She worries about how much to tell her daughter, worries about what it means to survive. “Yes, I can stay home, but then I’m not helping to push that particular issue forward,” she says, adding that the police raid that ended in Breonna Taylor’s death in March last year, made her realize that, as an African American, “even staying in my home isn’t safe.”
Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a Ridgefield, Conn., psychologist, says it’s normal for each decision to feel harder when we are already overwhelmed.
“It’s analysis paralysis, so you don’t do anything. It can happen under any stressful circumstance. … People have just been hit repeatedly. They are afraid, and simple decisions feel very hard,” she says, referencing the “brain fog” or “pandemic fog” some feel they are in.
In an email, Hailee Mink, 29, in Cincinnati, rattled off several decisions that have made her time as a new parent exhausting: “I had to decide if I’d send my high-risk infant to the sitter, keep her with family, constantly change her routine; try to be a work-from-home mom, keep up with nursing, try and keep a supply with pumping, make sure I schedule meetings around my boobs, how to handle when I can’t work around my boob schedule; how to handle a sick baby; how to deal with friends and family wanting to still see the baby; coping with the fact that we’ve missed opportunities for first experiences we always thought we’d have by now; how to try and entertain or stimulate a growing mind that’s hardly left her own house, how we’ll handle a toddler that’s never even been to a restaurant before; how to explain why my kid barks at people because her only friend is our dog; how to explain to my employer that I don’t know if I can handle it mentally if they say I can’t work from home anymore; how to handle it if another sitter falls through or has to quarantine again; how to handle it if we have to quarantine from our child again; how to cope with the feeling of your child only recognizing people in masks and being fearful of uncovered faces, how to cope with the fact that 90 percent of our family and friends have never met my child and she’s already turned 1.” She says each decision affects all the others. “It just feels like I can never come up for air.”
If you too are struggling with decision fatigue, here are tips from experts to ease the burden:
Envision your life post-decision: Instead of living in a panic that you are permanently screwing up your kids, try visualizing yourself having made the decision and living successfully in your new reality. “Use positive instead of fear-based language,” Capanna-Hodge suggests.
Start with the smallest choice: “It’s a really terrible feeling to have things that are undone in your consciousness. You have to hold space for them,” Capanna-Hodge adds. Instead, take something off your plate by making a small decision now. For example, if you are spending lots of mental energy on what to have for dinner, decide that early in the day or make a meal plan on Sunday to free your mind up for more difficult choices.
Model healthy mental health practices: Both experts emphasize that it’s not your decision about day-care that will do long-term damage, no matter what you pick. It’s how you react to the stress you are under. Capanna-Hodge explains, “Show kids you are human and can problem-solve and get through stressors. We often think we [shouldn’t] show our stress, but we want to show we are stressed and we know how to manage it.”
For example, instead of hiding away from your kids when you are stressed, consider explaining your feelings to them — “Mommy has to make a big decision right now about XYZ and she’s feeling a bit worried about what the best choice is” or “Daddy’s going on a run because he has some things he is thinking about, and being outside and moving his body helps him think better.” Don’t be ashamed to show your kids tears or coping techniques. You can even explain to them what you are doing when you have a virtual therapy session.
Make the ‘calm’ decision: In a world in which everyone else’s opinions have become so loud, making decisions is “doubly hard,” Jonas says. “Everyone has become so sanctimonious and righteous in terms of the thing to do right now. … People feel free to sound off on every decision you are making from a moral place.” Instead of allowing this outside noise to affect your choice, pick the choice that would make you feel the calmest right now, he advises.
In the end, Magic is trying to frame the stress of the pandemic as a learning process, with one major takeaway lesson: Choose freedom and flexibility over all else when you have to make a tough choice. Now, she asks herself, “Which will be the more flexible option?” This allows for her family to adapt to any situation, whether a major blizzard or a devastating virus, more easily. “It makes everything else okay.”
Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist focusing on health and wellness, parenting, education and lifestyle topics. Visit her website or her social media on Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn.