A: Thank you for writing in; there are many people who are in the same boat as you are. Three busy children and a spouse who is at the end of their rope with the new routine sounds like my house. I don’t know how old your children are, which is an important data point, and I don’t know your work hours, but let’s zoom out to find some solutions for this problem.
Let’s review a couple of things you are never going to control. First, you will not control the coronavirus. The only thing you can do is what you are doing: Stay home and away from others. Second, you will not control your children’s cabin fever or how they miss their friends and teachers, and you won’t get them to “be calm and focus on their schoolwork.” Even without this pandemic, this is a tall order for most children, and given that you and your spouse aren’t teachers, this is an even taller order. Lastly, you are not going to control your husband’s reaction and anger to this rapid and unwelcome change to his schedule. Clearly identifying what you cannot control as a parent and a spouse can bring into focus who you are in charge of here: yourself. That’s it. Although it’s panic-inducing for some, I find great relief in knowing that I cannot control others, especially my children. I can instead use my time, energy and resources to find what else may work.
To begin, your husband’s anger is actually, right below the surface, frustration. Frustration is the emotion humans have when we cannot change what isn’t working for us, and boy, we are all frustrated right now. Although humans are endlessly adaptable, this comes with a good deal of friction. The noise, busyness and lack of cooperation from three boys, as well as the disruption of a routine, is a huge change for your spouse, and he needs support.
The simplest and hardest way to support a frustrated human is to listen. Don’t ask him how he is so that you can offer advice, don’t point out what he is doing wrong, and don’t lecture him on how everyone is in the same boat (and how others’ boats are far worse). Just compassionately listen to how frustrating parenting is right now. My hope is, after some time, your spouse will just feel sad. Plain old sad, because that is how most of us feel right now. Sad to be distanced from people we like and love, and sad to lose the way of life we thought we had.
After some listening, you can ask your spouse if he would like some support. You can offer having a family meeting and setting up a different routine, you can offer doing the bedtime or taking the boys outside during lunch so he can have a break to exercise or watch a show, or you can offer some different forms of play with the boys. (I really like what Tinkergarten is doing — tinkergarten.com.) You can offer working with the boys on some academic things. (Common Sense Media released a free site called Wide Open School, wideopenschool.org, full of games, apps and lessons.) Only make offers of help that feel doable and authentic for you, otherwise you will resent your children and your spouse.
If your spouse is too overwhelmed or exhausted to work with you, decide what you can do on your own. In a perfect world, every adult would take full responsibility for their frustrations and how they react to them, but that is not the world we live in. So, find your husband’s pain points and step in when you can. Maybe he isn’t handling the evening well, so you decide to do it. Maybe he is frustrated by distance learning, so you offer to sit with the kids a couple of days a week. Whatever it is, just decide and try it.
Finally, make a practice of finding what works within the family. At any shared meal, notice when the boys are kind to each other, notice when your husband’s tone is even and patient, and notice when the dog sits when he is told. Really, notice any good thing in a quiet and easy way. With three rowdy boys and a frustrated husband, any good vibes are needed, and my hope is that your equanimity will bring some relaxation to the family. And when your frustrations reach a boiling point and you yell or blame or explode, say you’re sorry and move on. It is good to show that getting through this is not about perfection or constant positivity; it is about rupture and repair, rupture and repair. Good luck.
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