3 Tight-ropes Your Family Needs During Covid-19
3 Tight-ropes Your Family Needs During Covid-19.
Whether Level-4 or Level-3, family life is something different to anything we have known. In my last post, I described the 6 struggles so many families are facing during Covid-quarantine. Today, I get on the solution-side of the conversation.
As I surveyed 30 other mainly suburban families and reflected on Julie and my experience of leading our family in this time, I realized that there are three tight-ropes we’re trying to walk.
By tightrope I mean a pair of principles or priorities that balance each other out – like a rope tied to two points not just one. If we only have one of them, and not the other, then we are danger of falling:
Tight-rope one: Co-functioning balanced by Connection.
When your home is now also the place where you work and where your kids go to school, and where organization is required, there’s a great need for co-functioning. Together you have to get things done. You’re a system, in which each one must know and do their part, or else there’s chaos. Think bees and ants. In fact, next week we are planning to have our first ever ‘family council’ in which I have asked everyone to come ready to answer three questions:
- What’s working as we go as a family through this time?
- What is not working and how might we do it better?
- Anything else you want to say that can help us all, or help us help you?
So, yes, co-functioning is important – more now than ever before, we need to be organized and co-operative.
Except there’s one danger if we don’t counterbalance that. Long before and long after we are a co-functioning team, we are a connecting family.
In school life and work life, co-functioning is the name of the game with some connecting thrown in. But in a home, connecting is primary and co-functioning is secondary. We’re not bees and ants. We’re not output-machines. We’re a family. We need each other in relationship more than we need to team with each other in collaboration. With that in mind, here’s some practices…
1. Guard meal times.
There’s no better way for people to feel consistently close to each other than face-to-face times over a meal. You have up to three chances a day to make that happen. In my house breakfasts are haphazard, but lunch times and dinner times, we do our best to get everyone sitting down around a table and eating together. My little guys often start to drift away from the table, but I tell them that time out is the consequence for leaving without permission. Eating together is the serious business of family life in my home. People who eat together stay together.
By the way, if you have run out of stuff to talk about, use these 250 questions.
2. Have daily chats with your spouse.
There have been some weeks lately where, despite being in Julie’s presence the entire time, the fact that we’re parenting and working all the time means we have totally lived past each other.
Gone are our weekly dates!
To be honest, when I am in survival mode, I forget my need for relationship, but thankfully Julie doesn’t. She’s learnt to sit me down and remind me that she needs me, and that I need her.
So we have been trying to find little gaps in the day to answer two questions:
- What have you been thinking about today?
- How are you feeling today?’
I am better at answering the first question, and Julie the second. But both are important if our hearts and minds are to stay knitted together.
3. Be extra patient, kind and encouraging.
The golden rule works best: treat others like you would hope they would treat you in you were in the same situation.
I tend to be compassionate to people I don’t know well, and harder on those closest to me. But I’m working on that.
When we’re bewildered, scared or exhausted – which we all are now – we’re far more sensitive. Julie and I try remember this, although we have definitely failed to empathize with each other at times. If we are be strong for the family, we need to support not criticize each other. One day Julie is struggling more, the next day its me.
We need to empathize with our kids too. A parent I spoke to tells me of another question they discuss as husband-and-wife daily: ‘How are each of the kids doing?’
Since our kids act bad when they feel bad, if a child is unhappy, then try to figure out why this might be, as well as the best way to connect with their child’s feelings and guide them.
Especially if we have teenagers, let’s be kind to them. A mother tells me how she doesn’t put any pressure at all on her Grade 12: “I don’t shout at them. I tell them I believe in them. I think of every encouraging thing I can say to them. It’s love, love, love. I bring them tea and a snack and tell them to take a break.”
4. Use screens for connection, but limit them where possible.
Screens usually mean disconnection, but they can be used for connection too. Rather than our kids watching one thing, and us another, we try find something we can all watch together. Right this moment, my wife is snuggled up with the kids watching Top Chef, tickling each other, and pushing pause now and then to make a comment.
The problem with family screen time is that it’s such a reliable and easy way to get entertained. But for every evening we devote to the screen, we miss out on other ways of bonding. So in my house we often watch something before dinner, then after dinner I play music and we chill together in other ways. Whether its chess or braaing or dancing or any of a 100 other ideas, at the end of the night Julie and I say, ‘Imagine we watched a movie rather than that – what a fail that would have been.’
Tight-rope two: Routine balanced by Variety.
Routine means that everyone knows what should be happening at various times, while variety means that from time to time you break the routine entirely.
1. Write/draw up a daily schedule.
Most of the families I spoke to swear by the importance of good routines and rhythms. They say it took a few weeks to fine-tune it but the goal is to write up (for those who can read) or draw up with pictures (for those who cannot ) for all to see, a daily plan with times allocated – get up, exercise, have breakfast, do morning activities, lunch time, afternoon activities, early evening activities, dinner time, evening activities, dinner. Some slots are structured, others not. Some are work, Some are play.
I usually resist too much routine because, by personality type, I like to go with the flow, but kids just do better when they have a sense of what’s coming next.
If you kids have got into computer games, the way to get them to stop begging is to point to the time in the week, they can play. Each time they harass you after than, you take off 10 minutes.
2. Also have a weekly routine.
Here especially you can build in some variety. With this much space, it’s better to not try do the same many things every day. One family has washing Wednesdays or gardening Saturdays or pajama Sundays. Then there are braai nights, and Marvel nights and days off.
3. Break out the box of predictability.
Be open to throwing plans out if as parents you deem that necessary or if extra pressure suddenly falls upon us parents.
Take the day as it comes. Ask yourself, what does this family need that the routine does not seem to be meeting? Some days we tell our kids that there will be no school work at all today, or that today’s a pajama day.
Sometimes you don’t have to think about variety. It just happens. One person then another starts doing something different – dancing to music, pulling out a new game from the board-game pile, baking something – and then everybody just go with that. Those unforced, self-creating moments are some of the best. But they need space to happen.
4. Give your kids something to look forward to.
‘Hey guys, two more days till Marvel-movie and Pizza night!’ ‘Hey guys, braai night tonight – and guess what, I bought giant marshmallows!’ ‘Two days to Kids Church where you watch Funny Man Dan!’
Tight-rope three: Work balanced by Replenishment.
The fuller everyone’s emotional tanks are, the happier we will all be, and the better we will all act. People who are running low, start to act out in unpleasant ways – and I am not just talking about the kids here.
The stress related to Covid-19 has created a serious leak in each of our tanks, and then the work we are all trying to do from home (income generation by parents, school work by kids) also has a way of draining us. Add to that the fact that the previous inflows of energy are cut off – the people, places and activities outside of the home that we used to go to for emotional replenishment are no longer accessible.
Here’s the problem. If your outflow exceeds your inflow, the shortfall will be your downfall. In the main, there’s not much we can do about the outflows, so we have to work hard to protect the inflows.
In crisis times, I don’t think there’s much more important than feelings of closeness in the family, as well as people being filled up emotionally. That’s far more important than productivity, progress and keeping up with the curriculum! Here’s ways to refuel everybody:
1. Find solo-time.
If you’re always available to each and every demand and need of your kids and spouse you won’t be worth much to them before long. Precisely because we love these people, we need to get away from them.
If you’re a dual parent, see how you can take turns to hold the fort while the other is allocated times to sleep in, or go to some private part of the house, or have an afternoon nap.
In the case of our more introverted kids, encourage the same – this week we let one kid go back to sleep after exercise, and today, we let another lie in bed to read for hours on end.
2. What about a four day week?
There’s a lot of research that says we can do far more in four days than five days if we’re strategic. So what about creating a mini-weekend on Wednesdays? I first got this idea from a parent who told me that their 15 year old was not coping with all the school work, until they did this.
3. Get that body moving.
It’s amazing how exercise can generate a sense of energy and well-being.
I have created a bike track around my house and I ask my kids how many times they managed to circle the house today. I also tie my surfboard leash to the side of the pool and do 500 paddles.
In my first jog in a year, I ran 5ks with my 11 year this morning. Not only did it bond us, but it boosted my energy and positivity today. Earlier to bed and then waking earlier to walk around your ‘hood is a far more replenishing activity than sleeping till late.
There you have it:
- We need effective co-functioning, but we need connecting even more.
- We need routine but balance that with variety.
- We are doing work-work, house-work and school-work, but we need to work especially on replenishment.
You got this one.