Leaning Into 'Free-Range Parenting' Has Helped Us Manage Our Pandemic Stress
As my small New Hampshire town began to cautiously open back up last month, my four-year-old daughter Juniper noticed something on a drive home that made her squeal with delight. “Mommy! See all those people! Coronavirus is gone!” she screamed with a grin from ear-to-ear as she watched restaurant patrons eating at socially distanced tables on an outdoor patio. I didn’t have the heart to tell her just yet that COVID-19 was still unfortunately alive and kicking around us, however much it had quieted down in our neighborhood. So in that moment, I didn’t. My husband Matt and I laughed and said something along the lines of, “Well, would you look at that? That’s a lot of people!”
When we got home, I sat my daughter down and gently informed her that we were still in fact living in a pandemic, but that certain places would be slowly opening up. We’d still need to wear our trusty masks out in public, and we’d also want to keep our distance and wash our hands a lot too. But I didn’t minimize the joy of her seeing those folks at the restaurant. I celebrated it along with her, however anxious I felt about it underneath. I also allowed us both to call COVID-19 a “stinky butt nose” in the comfort of our home that day.
For as long as coronavirus has been wreaking havoc on our world, my kids have understandably been struggling. Juniper and her one-year-old brother Everett used to play daily in the backyard of our neighbor’s house, but that has barely happened during COVID-times. We used to love hitting up the library, our local play spaces, and cool museums on the regular, and all of that has been put on hold. Trips to Target to pick out toys and new clothes have been canceled, along with visits to see our extended family in neighboring states. As you can probably imagine, it sucks for everyone.
Like so many other families, our kids were also dealt the blow of temporarily losing their spots at the daycare and preschool they each attended weekly. So for the first several months of this crisis, Matt and I became two working parents who didn’t have viable childcare. Since my husband’s gig was far more demanding than mine, I became the ultimate 24/7 default parent and “homeschool teacher” who was left with crumbs of time here and there to get my own work done. Matt also grappled with working a job from home that required full studio equipment we just didn’t have. Our finances took a huge blow as he transitioned to a new job, and I hit up the food bank when necessary to keep meals on the table for us all. “Schooling” for two kids under five also completely unraveled into a hilarious form of unschooling as I let my kids use our backyard, their toys, and spontaneous cooking projects as their new lessons. Hey, whatever works, right?
Somehow, powered mostly by microwaved coffee and dirty sweatpants, we’ve managed to create a largely relaxed, playful, and even hopeful environment for our kids during this lockdown, more than I ever expected that we could. It hasn’t been easy most days, but we’re doing it. I don’t know exactly how we’ve managed to make this work more than not, but I think it boils down to becoming the kind of parents who learned early on to embrace the giant ass dumpster fire that was new parenthood, especially since it almost ate us alive a couple years ago. We moved from the West coast to New Hampshire in 2019 for my failing mental health and to finally have some family nearby to support us. We never planned on also hunkering down here during a global pandemic.
So what’s been our secret to getting through the endless season of coronavirus without our kids always feeling like it’s the literal end of times? We’ve lowered our standards of living even more, let our children really lead us for once, and kicked perfection out the door. We’ve also turned mask-wearing into a semi-fun game (who knew that was even possible?), navigated our children’s reactions to social distancing with a lot of hugs and empathy, and let go of needing everything to be okay right now.
Because everything does not have to be okay right now. Life is inherently chaotic. And we are all imperfectly human. Why not squeeze the fun moments for all their worth, hang through the tough ones with compassion and gentleness, and be emotionally authentic with our children while we do it?
I wasn’t always this laid back, nor did I ever want to be. When my husband met me, I was your average perfectionist neat freak who was obsessed with cleanliness, to-do lists, and having a plan for most things. But as we made our family together and blended that family with my stepdaughter, I reluctantly began to soften and surrender to the unknowns of life as I learned how to compromise, adapt, and become eternally flexible within our unique dynamic. I also fell forcibly into the realm of trauma recovery healing as motherhood triggered old parts of my past that I didn’t realize needed repair. I’ve had to get used to being comfortable with discomfort, not being in control all the damn time, and adjusting to the inherent messiness of life with kids. These qualities just happened to be exactly what I’ve needed as I’ve shown up for this total clusterfuck of a year. And leaning even more into this way of being has helped my kids see these recent challenges more as opportunities than endless bummers.
While I firmly believe that our kids certainly deserve to know the truth of what’s going on right now, that doesn’t mean we need to turn every single stumbling block into a downfall for them. I’m not saying we should sugarcoat every piece of bad news or have them plug their little ears to the reality of our world right now. I do believe we can clearly inform our children of the changes that are inevitable with a relentless pandemic. But we also can turn just about any piece of adversity into a lesson worth learning, some major resilience building, and a way to laugh in the moments when it feels totally weird to do so.
Early on during the lockdown, Juniper was going through some majorly explosive emotions that ran us totally ragged. This kid has “social butterfly” written all over her and is usually the last child to leave the playground. As I witnessed her having what can only be described as tiny extroverted breakdowns, I started dialing back my standards for the day, got into therapy twice a week, and revisited every “spirited child” podcast I had been loyal to during her first few years of life. I actively sought out how to adjust to her growing stress, create moments of adventure and free play whenever possible, and showered her with the comfort of dessert for breakfast and movie night bedtimes. When we’d stick our masks on for the rare times that I’d need her to join me at the grocery store, I pretended that we were sneaky superheroes as we tiptoed through the automatic doors. Did we look freaking ridiculous doing that? Of course. Was there a smile on her face underneath that mask? You betcha.
Yes, I’ve had to deal with the television being on marathon-style during daylight hours, meals and snacks littered through every room downstairs, popsicles becoming a part of my children’s food pyramid, and going through more play-doh containers than I know what to do with. There are gaping mud holes in our backyard, chalk and crayons scatter-drawn across the walls inside — and outside — of our house, and we’ve been a wee bit (ahem, a whole lot) delayed in getting our laundry done due to not having a washer and dryer. You could say that life is more of a shitshow now than it ever was before. But for my kids, a lot of these days have been surprisingly joyful, thanks to the “whatever works” outlook that has been serving my husband and me since we started swimming in the choppy waters of raising kids together.
As my husband and I have moved through the obstacles of parenting in a pandemic, the new regulations we’ve needed to uphold, and the onslaught of horrifying news updates we’ve received that make us want to flip every table (and then wash our hands, of course), we’ve also done our best to model emotional resilience, authenticity, and playfulness for our kids. This makes the hard times a bit less painful, the easy times a bit more fun, and has created a status quo in our house now that feels oddly functional. The kids have gotten used to a reality where coronavirus is still sticking around with no end in sight, and they’ve also embraced the notion that we might as well enjoy what we have in the process. This has led to some unexpectedly special memories made during an otherwise devastating moment in our country’s history.
None of us have to pretend we’re okay right now, especially as parents. And sometimes, when we just let our guards down with our kids and acknowledge this truth with love, levity, and some humor sprinkled into the mix, things may start to feel a little bit more okay.
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