The pandemic has allowed our family to spend countless hours together, which I will always be grateful for. But more than a year in, it’s also made my kids much more demanding of me, and life in general. They want all of my attention, all of the time and are disappointed (and in my daughter’s case downright difficult) when they don’t get it. Which makes me wonder whether the guilt that settles in the moment we become mothers is for naught. Because no matter how much of ourselves we give to our kids, it’s never enough.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I relaxed our rules considerably. Screen time was largely unlimited and later bedtimes abounded. If my son, now 9, wanted chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast every morning, I made them. If remote learning was more frustrating than functional for my then kindergartener, we logged off for the day. Anything to lessen my children’s uncertainty about the alternate reality we were living in.
But now that we’re slowly emerging from the constraints of coronavirus pandemic, I worry how seamlessly my kids are going to return to real life — and its responsibilities. Lately, if I ask them to do anything that’s even slightly taxing, tasks that would normally be expected of them — like cleaning up after themselves or completing all of the math problems the teacher assigns — they balk, if they’re even listening to me at all.
I was starting to think that it must be me, that I just wasn’t an effective communicator with my kids. But then I asked other moms in my orbit and I learned that I’m not the only one whose words disappear into the ether.
“We’ve been so close for so long, that my kids don’t even hear what I’m saying most of the time,” said Anne Zimmerman, a mother of three kids, ages 7, 4, and 17 months, in Portland, Ore. “I’m like the teacher in Charlie Brown. Wah, wah, wah.”
Tynesia Boyea-Robinson, an entrepreneur and mom to a 13-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter in Dallas, told me that when she asks her daughter to turn off the TV, she responds by telling her mom that she’s going to watch one more episode first. (It’s an exchange I often have with my own daughter.) “My daughter takes my requests as recommendations, as opposed to things she’s supposed to do,” said Boyea-Robinson, who admits that she’s sometimes too tired to do anything about this. “I give myself a little bit of grace on it, because our rules are looser now, which makes my kids feel like it’s party time.”
According to Patricia Saul, a psychotherapist in Wyckoff, N.J., when kids push back on our asks, or ignore them outright, it’s a result of all of the pent-up emotions — and lack of stimulation — they’re feeling right now. “We’ve all relaxed our standards, but adults can handle a lack of norms for a while, because, cognitively, we know that someday we’ll go back to doing the things we did before,” she said. “Kids don’t know that. And they’re angry at the shut-down. A school year in a kid’s life feels like 10 years.”
But while allowing them to express this anger is healthy, parents shouldn’t become the target, or diminish their role as the authority figure as a way to placate their child. “Use less words and more action,” Saul recommends. For example, instead of repeatedly asking your kid to turn off the TV, march into the room and do it yourself. Or if they’re supposed to be cleaning their room, but can’t put down their Nintendo Switch to do so, take the device away and let them know that they can earn it back, after they’ve completed their task.
“By reinforcing your authority in a way that means business, without yelling or screaming, you’re creating order and letting them know that you’re in charge,” Saul said. “Which kids desperately need right now.”
I’ve tried this tactic with my kids and it does work. When I’m the one who turns off the TV (or if I so much as threaten to do so mid-Fortnite battle), suddenly my kids see me again. It’s as if my physical presence is a reminder that coming to the dinner table isn’t optional.
But I still struggle with the guilt (there it is again) when I deny one of their demands on my time. Yes, I would love to watch them hit whiffle balls off a tee in our backyard, but not after we’ve also baked muffins, made “Play-Doh,” and gone for a walk in the neighborhood.
At a certain point, I need a break, too (and probably some time to figure out what we’re eating for dinner and when I’m going to cook it), and I am trying not to feel badly about taking one. One way to do so, according to Saul, is to create physical separation between parents and children, such as sending them outside to play without you for half-an-hour. They burn off excess energy and you get a few moments of blissful silence.
And on the days when I feel like I might run screaming into the woods if I hear “Hey, Mom” one more time, I remind myself that for the most part, this too shall pass. “Parenting is a long haul,” said Saul. “You have to pace yourself and know that sometimes it’s just about teaching kids the momentary lessons of life.”
And sometimes that lesson is simply coming to the dinner table — the first time your mother asks you to.
Michelle Hainer is a writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley. Parenting her two children provides endless inspiration.