Updated: May 12, 2020
Picture this. It is 7:00 pm, a time known by many parents as the “witching hour”, a time when bedtime routines should be completed and when most children under the age of five years old should be asleep or almost asleep. For parents, it may mean a chance at a small respite, maybe some time to catch up on some Netflix episodes while eating from a tub of ice cream (shh…, don’t tell the kids!). It may mean, for some couples, a chance to spend some quality time together, to connect after a long day. During our new reality of social isolation, this alone time, even if it means dozing on the couch, is crucial for parents’ mental health and wellbeing and works to fortify relationships. For families that are dealing with spouses in the emergency or essential services, 7:00 pm looks a lot different.
Our family’s schedule has always been unlike the average, nine-to-five family. As a first responder who works shift work, my husband works long hours and rotates between night shifts and day shifts. In order to necessitate our lifestyle, and in order to ensure that I am at home with our first born who has high needs, we have had to come to terms with extra shifts and less time as a family unit. It is hard, even on a normal day.
Resources run low, tanks run dry.
During a crisis like the one we are in now, my husband has been working what seems like non-stop and in an environment that is much different than the one he was used to. Though work has slowed down thanks to social distancing measures, stress levels on all fronts are higher for obvious reasons. After a day of dealing with the public and with policies, by 7:00 pm, there isn’t much left for him to give.
As a wife of a shift worker and as a primary care provider of an exceptional child, I can also say that my days are long. Being alone with two children while on social isolation, all while being four months pregnant, puts a strain on my mental and physical reserves. I feel tired, stretched to the max and, yet, feel the constant pull of my regular responsibilities nagging at my heels. It can be hard to keep up. By 7:00 pm, I’ve checked out and am ready to go to sleep. I want to stay up and have alone time with my husband but I just can’t. My exhaustion defeats me every time.
When I started this blog, I made a promise to myself to post a relevant article once a week, not only to work on my business, but for my own mental wellbeing. I love to write and have always found solace in the written word. However, on Monday night, had to put my own needs aside (again, you know how it is) in order to deal with my child.
It was 7:00 pm and my son was in crisis.
The three of us had had a wonderful day together. We played outside for over two hours and enjoyed a picnic lunch on our backyard park bench. We went for a stroll around our neighbourhood while baby number two napped. My son, Roman, and I talked about our dreams for baby number three. When we got home, we made cookies together and had a delicious dinner of baked salmon and rice. For a child with ADHD, it was a stellar, gold star, kind of day and, when Daddy appeared at the door at 7:00 pm, I gushed at how much fun we had together while my first born played with some dinosaurs outside while waiting in anticipation of seeing his father. Then, suddenly, it all stopped.
My son began sobbing uncontrollably over a misplaced mud puddle. He said that he didn’t want to go inside and go to bed and that his Daddy was being mean. He escalated quickly and began screaming. My husband and I both tried to ask him what was wrong but the level of his tantrum grew exponentially to the point where he started to become violent. My husband brought him into the house and into his room where he could safely tantrum while I took my daughter into another room in the house. I could hear the door shaking and rattling and could only imagine what was happening behind it.
When my second, Aurora, was effectively distracted, I made my way to my son’s room where he was still sobbing. The sentences he uttered made no sense despite our best efforts to understand. We spoke softly, tried to rub his back. Eventually, my husband couldn’t take it anymore. It was already 8:00 pm and my baby girl was long overdue to go to bed. He took her and rocked her while I took my son, still crying, down to our basement bedroom. I placed him on our king sized bed as he wept and screamed, placed his weighted blanked on him, as he covered his ears. I held back my own tears as I held him. Finally, and abruptly he stopped and said,
“I am not disappointed in Daddy. I am disappointed at the coronavirus.”
I stopped. We both took a long pause and I took a deep breath, shocked that something so eloquent came out of a three year old.
“Why are you disappointed in the coronavirus?” I asked.
“Because it is making people sick and that makes me sad. Daddy isn’t home.” Roman said it plainly as he fidgeted with his dinosaur toys.
Children with ADHD are easily aroused. They work hard, play hard…feel hard. On a good day, Roman struggles with my husband’s shift work schedule as he naturally tries to shift his own day/night schedule in order to facilitate seeing his father more often. It kind of makes the whole, average family, “bedtime routine” rather difficult to facilitate. In a world that demands more of his father, he is also feeling the demand. And it is making him sad.
Another long pause ensued as I racked my brain for the correct response. If felt the need to empower my son, to send the message that what he is feeling is normal and that he isn’t alone.
“Roman, the coronavirus is a sad thing. You’re right. Everyone is feeling sad about it right now, and that is a really hard thing to feel sometimes.” I was being honest.
He agreed, “Yes, it is.”
“But you know how we are at home by ourselves? We aren’t playing with other kids or seeing other people. That is called social distancing and, actually, you are doing an excellent job at it. By staying at home, you are helping other people stay healthy by making sure that you aren’t spreading germs. I am so proud of you for being so strong.” Ugh, this was so hard to say out loud without crying.
“Being strong means no museum.” The poor guy missed his old routine, and the special times we had together while researching his favourite dinosaurs.
“Yes, it does. The Museum of Nature is your favourite, special place, isn’t it?” I acknowledged.
“Yes, it is.”
“Do you think that once we get rid of the coronavirus that you would like to go there again?”
“Yes, I would.” He said matter-of-factly.
“In the meantime, can you remember the things that we did today to make social distancing extra special?” I hoped that he had interpreted my efforts to make the day special for him.
“We made cookies.”
“They were delicious, weren’t they? You made one with raisins AND chocolate chips in it! That was crazy!” I said.
“That was a crazy cookie!” I start to see a smile creep on his face. My shoulders released.
“And what can we do tomorrow to make it special, too?”
“Maybe we can go for a walk a talk again.”
“Ok, Roman, let’s do that.”
And, with that, he was done. His outburst was over. My husband came into the room and tried to read Roman a story but, with tears welling up in his eyes, Roman told him to go away. It saw that it hurt my husband but I understood this time.
He couldn’t see his dad in order to miss him all over again.
Roman stayed in our bed downstairs that night. He snuggled close to me and held his weighted blanket. I held his hand. It took a lot of effort for my three year old son to articulate his anxiety the way he did. I was an awe of his ability to communicate his fears of the coronavirus, of his sadness that it was hurting others and of his feelings of distance from his father, whom he looks up to so much. Sometimes, even when we are socially isolating with our immediate families, it can be easy to feel alone, especially when we struggle to communicate our feelings. During this time of need, I implore all families, and especially first responder families, and those families with young children, to check in on each other and do your best to communicate your feelings. Sometimes, all it takes is us offering a hand to hold.