It’s Monday. You get up, make sure everyone eats breakfast, drop the kids off at school, and then swing by your favorite coffee shop on your way to work/yoga/the grocery store/the pile of laundry waiting back at home. Pretty standard routine.
But what if one or even most of those activities becomes impossible? What if—and I’m just spit-balling here—there is a global pandemic that shuts down most of your world for months on end? What if, as your normal routines start to unravel, you feel yourself and your family starting to unravel too?
I happened to find myself in such a situation a few months back. My kids, my husband and I were stripped of most of our familiar routines, and we had no idea when they would return. There were those I mourned, such as the weekly mom-and-me gymnastics class with my two year old. And there were those I didn’t miss, like sitting in morning commute traffic jams. But each absence of routine left a hole, and it wasn’t long before it started to affect not only my mood and anxiety levels, but also those of my kids.
That’s when I started reframing my concept of routines and embracing what I like to think of as the micro-routine. A micro-routine is a minor daily task or activity—a small building block that might have gone largely ignored in “normal” times, but when things are abnormal it becomes part of the vital structure of your family’s day. Think: taking vitamins or maintaining your skincare regimen, a nightly game or conversation prompt at the dinner table, a short but special ritual with your child at bedtime. Even making the bed counts, and in fact a 2019 survey of 1,000 people found that regular bed-makers reported starting their day with a sense of accomplishment and feeling more productive leading up to bedtime.
Nearly everyone looks to routines as a source of predictability in an unpredictable world, and when we have kids, we learn how important the routines we create for them can be for their well-being. Anyone who has watched their toddler melt down after a missed nap or experienced the aftermath of a two-birthday-party Saturday, knows what happens when a child’s routine is thrown off. And sure, it’s no big deal when routines are abandoned for a day (or even a week or two of vacation), but when the instability lasts too long, there’s always bound to be trouble.
I saw the benefit of micro-routines at our house almost immediately. The daily rollercoaster of emotions we’d all been experiencing turned into more of a gentle carousel, and I stopped having that uncomfortable sense that the time and the day of the week had lost all meaning. Putting on mascara every morning, for example, gave me a little boost, even if I never changed out of my pajamas. And I began to look forward to and take comfort in new family customs, like asking Alexa to tell us jokes every evening while we made dinner. We made a point to stop focusing on the familiar things we were unable to do, and instead acknowledge the things we still could.
As parents, we all know the power of the small moments of joy with our kids. When life feels strange and uncertain, small routines can be just as powerful.
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