“Honestly, I’m having trouble focusing on schoolwork,” one replied. “I just can’t get motivated.” The other 18 heads on my screen, all in their individual Zoom windows, nodded in agreement.
I had pivoted quickly when our university decided to shift to remote teaching for the remainder of the semester. As chair of my department, I assumed the role of good soldier, coaching the faculty to do everything possible to give students the education they came to our school to get. I reassured anxious students, reminding them that their training in housing, transportation and economic development gave them tools for solving the big issues the covid-19 crisis has revealed. I tried to normalize a situation that is anything but normal.
And then a student emailed and told me she cried multiple times a day. “I’m worried about myself and my friends who I know are in a similar place,” she wrote. “Many of us are struggling to keep track of emails with floods of updates coming. Deadlines and dates are tough when we’ve all lost track of the days. All of the structure we normally operate in is shattered.” A faculty member reported that a student had Zoomed into class from his bed and fell asleep partway through. We learned that one student, then another, had contracted the virus.
I soon realized that normalizing was the wrong approach.
In any other semester, I would be encouraging my students to challenge themselves, to work their creative and intellectual edges. Not now. On this morning, I put aside the notes I had prepared for class and spoke from my heart instead of my head. I told my students the rule of thumb I’m now using to measure the success of each day: Good enough. My teenage children are eating too much sugar and spending endless hours playing video games, and I’m doing little to supervise their schoolwork. My house is a mess, I’m not getting as much writing done as I’d like, and I’ve been living in the same pair of black leggings for going on three weeks. But when the anxiety about all I’m not doing begins to creep in, I remind myself that whatever I’m doing is good enough.
“It’s ‘good enough’ time,” I told my students. “If you decide to take your classes Pass/Fail, if you don’t have it in you to go the extra mile on a research paper, if the problem set you’re working on doesn’t meet your usual standards, don’t beat yourselves up. You are not taking the easy way out; you’re making wise choices. Good enough is the best decision right now.”
Pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott coined the phrase “good enough mother” in 1953, and the concept continues to resonate in parenting forums. Winnicott theorized that trying to be the perfect mother could cause problems for both the mother and the child. Sometimes mothers need to put themselves first and practice self-care. And children will develop resilience and tolerance as long as they feel safe and loved. At this moment, the “good enough” theory has broad applicability beyond parenting.
As a Type A overachiever by nature, it took me two major depressions and a decades-long struggle with anxiety to learn that striving for perfection does not bring me happiness. My past suffering has helped me make space for the things I know will keep me balanced now: sleep, exercise, connecting with friends and family.
What’s needed is a massive reframing. Straining to cram a “before covid-19” day into the same amount of time now is a losing proposition. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have jobs that allow us to isolate ourselves and still get paid are not “working from home.” We are at home during a crisis, trying valiantly to get some work done while also keeping our families safe and disinfecting every light switch and doorknob on a daily basis. We need to give ourselves a break. According to the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of Americans say the virus has changed their lives in a major way. There is no “business as usual.”
Winnicott argued that “good enough” parenting is better for children than aiming for perfection. I agree. Not only in parenting but also in life. I looked at my students on the screen and gave them permission to be good enough. If there’s one thing I hope they’ll take away from this pandemic, it’s that they learn to give themselves that permission, too.