What I assumed and how I learned otherwise

Opinion: Columns

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Kristen Keleher

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As a therapist with over a decade of experience in crisis intervention, I assumed I would be better prepared to handle the effects of the COVID-19 crisis as a mother in my own home.

Initially, I was able to process the magnitude of the pandemic while remaining grounded: I looked on from afar, took time to pause and to reflect, and at times even reached a place of deep gratitude for my health, home, stability, and other privileges I am afforded that many do not have. 

When I heard of school closings beginning around the country, I concluded that if schools closed here it would be an opportunity for me to connect more deeply with my children — to see in real time what they're learning, and to have a chance to participate more directly in their education.

As the crisis began to escalate, I became overwhelmed by the hysteria, distracted by grief, and quite honestly discouraged by the thought of being confined at home with three kids, unpredictable resources, and no plan. How would I keep my children active and engaged with no library, ballet, or playground? How would I hold it together so my children didn't know how sad, scared, and overwhelmed I felt? How would I manage my new role as educator in addition to my work responsibilities as a therapist and supervisor? 

I found myself feeling helpless and facing the same challenge as many of my clients: how to respond to the unknown.

I witnessed in my community and on social media a way that many people chose to respond: plans, lists, agendas, color-coded schedules. In a panic, I mimicked this response and attempted to remain grounded with orderliness — I made schedules and nametags, assigned seats, organized art supplies, and labeled ... well, everything. I frantically turned my house into a model kindergarten/preschool. 

In short, it failed.

On the first day, the water table was flipped over within an hour thanks to my surprisingly strong 2-year-old. The chairs from the darling reading nook had been propped upside down on the couch to be used as springboards. In fact the only successes of the first day were that my 4-year-old had written a play about how much she missed her teachers, and my 6-year-old had made a calendar counting down the days until school starts again. When my husband asked me that night how it went, I defeatedly said, "The only thing they learned is that I'm not a great teacher."

What went wrong? In my own moment of crisis, I had forgotten to check in honestly with my children and myself to see what we really needed. I had hoped my feigned enthusiasm and sense of control would keep them from knowing how scared and overwhelmed I felt. But they did know.

What I've realized since making space to listen to my own intuition again is that I don't need to convince my children that everything is fine, that nothing is changing, and that I'm not afraid. I need to be myself. I need to be present and engaged, and let them know it's OK to feel scared. I need to reassure them it's natural to want things to stay the same or go back to the way they used to be. I need to remember my intentions and beliefs as a parent — that children learn through play and meaningful engagement, with things they are curious and passionate about, and through authentic interactions with others modeling healthy emotional expression and communication. Easier said than done, yes. So most importantly, I need to know when to ask for support.

I have talked with friends and family more in the last week than in the past year, and I'm reminded of how resilient we are. The pandemic is straining our financial and health-care systems, disrupting and taking lives, and testing the fabric of our compassion and faith in one another. And we are showing up, connecting, and coming together as communities, even at social distance. I've seen in our response to the crisis that adults still have imaginations, that we often fail to recognize the importance of creativity, and how valuable imagination and creativity are, apparent in the efforts put forth by teachers, neighbors, and leaders to maintain a sense of connection. I've seen that learning does not require a desk, exercise does not require a gym, and community is not defined by proximity.

My work in crisis intervention hasn't fully prepared me for this crisis. What guides how I respond to these novel challenges is my intuition as a mother, my role as a member of a community, my ability to ask for help, and my willingness to reimagine our world. 

We may need to do this at a 6-foot distance, but we don't need to do it alone.

Kristen Keleher is director of Community Outreach and a therapist at Thrive Counseling Center.

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