I'm A School Psychologist, But Nothing Prepared Me For The Stress Of The Pandemic

by Dr. Rebecca Branstetter
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and damircudic/Getty

On March 11th, 2020, I got the alert on my phone that shelter-in-place was in effect here in California due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I have two young daughters, and like so many of us, overnight, I was a homeschooling-working-from-home parent. I thought I was ready.

After all, I’m a freakin’ school psychologist and have written books and created entire online courses on parenting.

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Within days, I had created a three-part video series on how to help parents and applied it in my own home. I had checked off all the boxes of what I knew how to do in a crisis for my kiddos: Visual school schedules with built in sensory, movement, and calming breaks! Check! Pre-planned calming toolkit of strategies, placed up upon the fridge. Check! Collaborative meetings at the beginning of the day to prime the family for success, and end of the day meeting for reflections and processing feelings. Check!

I spent the first several months carrying the positivity and gratitude torch.

This. Is. Great. I. Am. Great. Everything. Is. GREAT!

My inspiration for these first few months was Pinkie Pie, the perpetually optimistic My Little Pony (for those mamas out there who have escaped watching the My Little Pony movie a bajillion times, this pony is disgustingly happy. She falls down a deadly waterfall and claps her hooves as she plummets because….wheeeeeeeeee!)

In my own family, I reframed everything from negative to positive.


All of California is presently on fire and we cannot go out in the toxic smoke. Well, at least OUR house is not on fire!

All of our family plans, my daughter’s 6th birthday, and celebrations are cancelled. Let’s get a quarantine puppy to bring more joy in our lives!

I have to do Zoom meetings in a hot car in my smokey garage as an office because it is literally the only place in the house where I won’t get interrupted. I hate my “gar-office” so much. Who would be thrilled to work in a gar-office? Someone who has lost their job! Someone who is being evicted. You are lucky!

And for a hot second, channeling my inner Pinkie Pie was working. And I liked having a fuzzy Husky puppy sidekick in my “Everything is Awesome” campaign (cue LEGO music).

And then…

My whole family hit a wall at the same time.

My personal life fell apart. My friend passed away and I attended a Zoom memorial and it was weird and awful. Later that day, in my grief fog, I hit a car in a parking lot and caused $3000 worth of damage. My husband tried to console me and I yelled at him. I cancelled my trip to see my nephew’s high school graduation because it wasn’t happening anymore. Our only family vacation we take each year was cancelled and my girls were crushed.

Distance learning fell apart. My six-year-old melted into a puddle of tears over a simple worksheet. We could no longer use the name of the distance learning program “Seesaw ” in our house because it was an instant trigger word for a meltdown. My eight-year-old was “devastated” that her best friend was not in the same class, and was irritated at everything.

Work/life balance was a hot mess too. My kids found a new hobby of playing the un-tuned piano, right when I needed to focus. My girls constantly knocked on my gar-office car window during Zoom calls, ignoring my “Mama is Zooming … ask your Dad!” sign. I was like that meme of Dolly Parton that emerged at the beginning of the pandemic — instead of working 9-5, I was working 9-9:02, 9:45-9:55, 10:00-10:05, and so forth all freakin’ day.

And the puppy was getting up at 4 a.m. every morning. We were all exhausted.

It’s so hard to stay grateful when all the things out of your control are happening … even when you’re a Pinkie Pie Mama with a well-positioned “Gratitude Jar” on the breakfast bar.

I started to beat myself up for not being able to manage it all.

Ironically, I had literally just created an entire parenting course for a wellness organization on how to have “peace of mind” while parenting.

I was practicing gratitude, as I advised to do in the course, that was for sure. But I had forgotten about another key component for coping that I taught other parents, but wasn’t doing myself: Accept things as they presently are without judgement, and give yourself grace when everything is a shit show.

Wait. What if I took my own parenting advice?

When I had this revelation, to cultivate acceptance and grace, I started adding the phrase “in a global pandemic” to any self-criticism I made in my parenting or work/life balance.

I have not gotten any of my to-do list done for work today … in a global pandemic.

My kids are not finishing their math worksheets … in a global pandemic.

My house is a disgusting mess of dog fur … in a global pandemic.

Look, gratitude is an amazing tool. But it turns out, I needed its positive psychology cousins too: acceptance and self-compassion. You might need these too right now.

Like gears in a larger system, they all work together. Accepting what is, treating yourself with the same kindness you would treat a best friend going through the same thing, and finding the good where you can.

Like right now … I’m sitting next to my six-year-old doing distance learning as I try to focus on writing this. Her head just flopped down on her computer in despair, which triggered the Chrome extension that narrates everything she does, including reading all the letters in a url for no reason. I can’t figure out how to turn it off. As my rage against the Chrome machine builds, she’s just biding her time by drawing a picture of herself feeling sad and labeled it “sad.”

Deeeeeep breath.

This is happening. And it’s really freakin’ hard.

I would tell a best parent friend that it’s okay, they are doing the best they can.

I am also grateful I am able to be present with my daughter to comfort her.

We’re all healthy and safe.

And I’m going to give her the hug we both need right now.

… In a global pandemic.

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