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Reframing the Prosocial Stress of Motherhood During a Pandemic

By Laura Newell

It’s been almost two years now since COVID-19 first rattled our livelihoods and had us feeling locked up inside our homes. We’ve moved through so many stages and waves that it feels almost overwhelming to try to sit down and reflect on all that we’ve experienced both individually, and collectively. Our experiences have not all been the same from one person to the next, however it’s fairly safe to say that COVID-19 has had a fairly major impact on all of us. I only know my own experience, and that is the experience of being a mother to young children throughout this pandemic. Specifically, and thankfully, I’ve also been a mother with a connection to Self-Reg and access to the tool of Reframing.

In late 2019 I had my second child, a beautiful baby girl. Her brother was three years old at the time, and happily attending daycare each day with his best friend. Their dad had a fairly easy commute into the office each day, which allowed him to get home in time to join us for dinner every night. The kids’ grandparents didn’t live too far away, and they usually came to visit once or twice each week. We had a great family flow going. Our youngest was up a lot during the night of course, but we were finding ways to get through the newborn haze without too much discomfort. We were pros at this now, having done it once before with our first child. We felt confident, and we felt happy.

In late February 2020, just before COVID hit us at full force, my daughter got an infection which led to a short stay at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. She was so small, hooked up to her IV, kicking around in her little hospital crib. I think a lot about how if this infection had happened just a few weeks later, we may have been hesitant to take her to the hospital when we noticed something didn’t seem right. It’s an ongoing stressor to think about what could have happened if time and circumstance had shifted just slightly. I’m so thankful that we were able to get her the help she needed, right when she needed it. But the experience and the awareness of what could have been has certainly stayed with me ever since.

Then in mid-March 2020, as we all know, COVID led to multiple lockdowns and shut downs all over the world. I distinctly remember one Thursday afternoon hearing the Premier of Ontario announce that schools would be closed for two weeks in addition to the upcoming school holiday. That was the moment when my mama bear instincts kicked in.

I packed up my daughter and went straight to the grocery store to ensure I had staples for my son – milk, his favourite snacks, some dinner options with a good shelf life, etc. I also loaded up on coffee. Everyone around me was loading up on toilet paper while I was filling the bottom of my daughter’s stroller with coffee grounds. I must have anticipated that I would be getting even less sleep than usual in the coming weeks.

From there, the prosocial stressors just built up and built up. They hit me from all angles. I was worried about my kids, my partner, my mom, my in-laws, my students, and their parents. I was especially worried about my son. He kept asking when he could go back to his daycare, and when he could see his friends. I smiled and told him he’d get to go back to daycare soon. I did my best to boost him up by telling him that the whole world was “working together as a team” to solve this COVID-19 problem. I organized FaceTime chats with his friends and made the effort to provide exciting learning provocations and experiences for him every day. I stayed up after the kids went to bed in a fraught state, cleaning the bathroom at midnight, or wiping down door knobs and other heavily touched surfaces. I was worried in equal parts about both their physical and mental wellness.

The prosocial stress extended into my worry about the grandparents, and this stress was exacerbated with each passing day where they didn’t get to hold their youngest grandchild. It certainly was not lost on me that this would likely be the last grandchild for both my mother and for my in-laws, as both my brother-in-law and my own two brothers completed their families years ago. I kept up with Facetimes and sent loads of photos and videos of the kids to them daily. I had the kids paint and draw pictures for their grandparents, then we’d walk to the mailbox together and mail them care packages full of special art projects. I was constantly trying to find ways to help the grandparents feel connected to their grandkids without actually being able to be with them face to face.

In the midst of all my worry and stress over the people I love, I drained myself to the point of complete and utter exhaustion. I had nothing left in the tank to give myself. I was barely prioritizing my basic hygiene needs, let alone providing myself with any form of self-care.

After a few months of this elevated stress state, my partner and I connected on how run down we were both feeling. As we fell into a flow of being each other’s co-regulators again, it hit me: It was time for a big, huge family reframe.

When we actually sat down and discussed everything we were doing, everything we were trying to manage, all the people we were trying to support – it was only then that we recognized how much our worry about others was actually making us less of a solid support for the people who needed us most. It’s like that old saying that you can’t pour from an empty cup. We were both trying to pour from empty cups and it wasn’t helping anyone.

As we reframed our situation, as we recognized our stressors, as we really thought about how all of this worry about our loved ones was affecting us, we agreed that we needed to find ways to restore our energy. This would be no easy feat, but we knew how important it was for our family’s collective well-being that we try.

Over the next several months, we worked hard to create circumstances that allowed us to restore our energy. I found long walks with my daughter in her stroller to be especially helpful, while my partner found taking ten minutes to walk to our local coffee shop for a takeaway coffee (once it re-opened), to help him start the day in a better space. But unfortunately, none of these efforts were consistent – not necessarily by choice, but mainly due to circumstances around COVID. Just when things started to feel like they fell into a somewhat manageable flow, something would shake things up. Shops that were open for takeout would have to close. Kids would be moved to online virtual learning. Playgrounds would open and then close again. My son would end up having two surgeries, (one tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy, followed by an emergency surgery due to a post tonsillectomy hemorrhage about two weeks later), and I wouldn’t be able to bring my daughter into the hospital with us so that I could nurse her. The fallout from the extensive blood loss my son experienced during his hemorrhage would lead to multiple trips to clinics to try to regulate his iron levels, and he would sometimes cry and scream on the waiting room floor while I held him close. He was so tired of being poked and prodded with needles. My son’s stress level around all things COVID and hospital-related kept building to the point of regular, major outbursts. The stress, the worry-load, the anxiety about what to expect moving forward – it all piled on. And no matter how much we worked at trying to restore within our particular lockdown circumstances, it never felt like enough.

But we continue to reframe. We continue to try to restore. We continue to support our kids, our parents, and each other. For a few months, I was thankful that we had reached a point here in Ontario where our kids could go to school (even in their little masks), and where grandma and grandpa could come over for dinner. I was thankful to have access to some of the external things that help me to restore: childcare, face-to-face visits with friends, the library, esthetic and wellness services, and so on. Unfortunately, the omicron variant has suddenly pushed us backward again and we find ourselves moving back to an online learning model, with limited access to the services I find so restorative. My partner and I have been able to recognize immediately this time around however that carving out time daily for each of us to engage in something restorative is a must, and we’ve already prioritized scheduling this time into our days. This has made us both feel far less anxious about what may be in store for us over the next several weeks.

Today I feel grateful that for a short period, I was able to experience so many of the small pleasures that I once took for granted, and for the knowledge that I’ll be able to experience them all again soon. I’m also grateful that thanks to Self-Reg, I’m able to reframe this next mini-lockdown phase and any possible future lockdowns as an opportunity to connect with my loved ones in creative ways. But most of all, when I think about my overall pandemic experience, I feel grateful for the extra time I’ve been able to spend at home with my little family unit over the last couple of years. For me, that’s the biggest and most powerful reframe of all. Yes, it’s been hard to mother young children during a pandemic, but what a gift it’s been all the same.

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Aviva Dunsiger
Aviva Dunsiger
Jan 18, 2022

Thank you so much for sharing your story. While I'm not a mother, these sentences really resonated with me: "But most of all, when I think about my overall pandemic experience, I feel grateful for the extra time I’ve been able to spend at home with my little family unit over the last couple of years. For me, that’s the biggest and most powerful reframe of all. Yes, it’s been hard to mother young children during a pandemic, but what a gift it’s been all the same." Talk about an amazing reframe. I think now about how much the recent shifts in online to in-person learning and the opening and closing of businesses have caused huge amounts of stress for…

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