We can’t give them normal, but we can give them resilience. By Jen Bremser, PhD

I’m writing an overdue blog post for a book project that I am behind on. I’m not sure if there will be another post to follow after this. Or a book. This was supposed to be the summer that I gleefully dropped my children off at the Q-Club, the raved about but still affordable, ½ day recreation camp in our town.  Both kids were finally old enough to participate! I envisioned sitting in my new office (with a window!), typing away for 3 uninterrupted hours a day. This is something I have never had in my academic career. I wrote my dissertation as a brand new mom, sleep deprived and on a strict pumping schedule every 3-4 hours for the first 10 months of her life. I worked between her broken sleep on weekends and evenings. I even pulled an all nighter in a hotel room as the deadline approached. Just me, piles of articles, data and my pump. IMG_3671

In the first few years of my career, my time was spent getting excellent reviews from students, department chairs and peer-review committees so I could get promoted. I published bits of my dissertation and began new projects, but only in the minutes I stole from other activities. The year my son was born, I perfected my job materials to apply for a job that would bring me closer to home. 

I hit the academic jackpot and landed that job in my hometown. My teaching and service load was more manageable and the research expectations were higher. This would certainly free-up the time I needed to spend more time on research and writing. Or so I thought. 

A month into this job I found a lump in my breast. I was 34, had breastfed both children and was otherwise healthy. The lump was most certainly nothing, but I got it checked out just in case. The lump was cancer and I needed a year of treatment. Well, maybe during all the downtime and travel time (I drove 4 hours for infusions), I could write. It turned out that those trips were riddled with too much anxiety on the way there and feelings of nausea on the way home. And the downtime? That never came with a 1 and a 4 year old at home. I worked and parented full-time through that year of treatment.

I picked up side research projects with collaborators in my field, and earned tenure within the expedited clock I had negotiated for. I let myself breathe for a summer. Then I turned to community service projects and a side gig as an adjunct professor.

Now we are in the beginning of a pandemic. My kids came home in March as did thousands of others. Camps were cancelled. Sports were cancelled. I was resentful, tired, filled with guilt and anxious for the future. My kids were lonely, sad, and didn’t find me to be a particularly good or patient teacher. 

My previous feelings with cancer returned. The uncertainty was familiar. But more potent was the longing for things to go back to normal. When I was first diagnosed, we took my kids out to breakfast. I remember peaking into other people’s lives at the restaurant. They all looked incredibly normal. That normalcy was a stark contrast to the fear and desperation I was experiencing. “Things aren’t going back to normal for me,” I thought. And they don’t. It is sad. It is unfair. It is frustrating, but it is true. I couldn’t give my kids normal, but I could give them resilience. 

That is the parallel I see with our current situation. We have kids feeling anxious and uncertain and more than anything we want to take away those unbearable feelings and provide them some normalcy–maybe it’s some ice cream, some time with friends, some baseball. We are all well-intentioned parents doing our best for our kids. 

However, there is no going back to “normal.” You can grieve, you can feel angry, but we are not going back. 

This is what we can do–we can teach our kids resilience. We can be examples of what to do when things go wrong. We can teach them how to create solutions to their problems. We can sit with them while they learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. We can help them express these feelings, teach them gratitude and the importance of helping others. We don’t have to do this perfectly. Just because we didn’t get it right today, or all of last week, doesn’t mean we can’t teach our kids how to be resilient. Part of this is being honest with them as we struggle together to navigate this new terrain. The good thing about this resilience is that it is built into our species. We are wired to respond to environmental challenges. Without these challenges we fail to develop to our fullest potential.

Arguably, the desire to bring back “normal’ for our kids resembles a type of coddling that researchers suggest has already backfired. We can’t usher them away from conflict, difficult feelings, people that disagree with their opinion, or plans that can’t come to fruition for one reason or another. When we do, we send them into the world ill-prepared to deal with the challenges they are bound to encounter as they grow. We are seeing increasing rates of anxiety and depression in teenagers and young adults. A pandemic could only make things worse, right?

Maybe not. Maybe through some forced solitude and the cracks in our routines, we can learn to navigate this uncharted territory with them. Just like my experience with cancer–it was traumatic, life altering and difficult. But it taught me how to keep moving forward even when we couldn’t go back to normal. And frankly, I no longer want to.

 

About the Author: Dr. Jen Bremser is An Associate Professor of Psychology for SUNY Plattsburgh.

 

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