“Normally there’s a bit more structure than this. It’s just, ya know….” my husband trailed off as he tried to explain to my cousin why our two-year-old was pretending to be a dog at the dinner table while her sister scooped a second helping of mac and cheese, despite ignoring her vegetables. My real dog was squeezing himself under the table to get their scraps.
“It’s survival mode,” I said. And if that meant playing along that dinner was “doggie treats,” I was there for it. Whatever would fill my toddler’s belly and help her sleep through the night.
A year ago, we were a family with some expectations and routines. We wouldn’t have put up with any animals, real or imagined, at the dinner table. But in the past year, a lot of our self-imposed structure has gone out the window.
First, it was merely pandemic parenting. Then, we embarked on a seven-month road trip around the country in an RV. Living together in 300 square feet meant that we were willing to do whatever made everyone happy and relaxed, with little care for formalities like bedtime routines or vegetable eating. I simply didn’t want to fight my children about anything. I wasn’t going to let them go completely wild, but I was definitely going to choose the path of least resistance.
It turns, I’m not alone. You’ve probably shifted your priorities this year too, and decided where you want to put your parenting energy, and where you don’t. Actress Kristen Bell, mom to Lincoln, 8, and Delta, 6, recently said that like many of us, she has tossed out the parenting playbook this year.
“You just got to throw away the rule book and you gotta be flexible,” she said.
Where Bell does choose to spend her energy is on prioritizing mental health, for the whole family.
“Balancing work and parenting and online learning during the pandemic, and especially supporting mental health, it was really hard,” she said. “Therapy’s been big for us during the pandemic. We both rely on it, my husband [Dax Shepard] and I, for personal growth and ultimately bring what we learn individually into the relationship.”
Bell has also talked with her daughters about their own mental health and wellbeing.
“Kids and mental health is interesting,” she said. Her approach is to “sort of dissect what’s happening in their brain and let them know that’s all okay.”
That includes open conversations about pandemic life and privilege.
“We’re always honest with our kids, and sometimes it’s been really hard,”she said. “We explained what COVID was and why it exists and we told them everything really early on and we just reminded them that we’re luckier than most people and we have to do what we can to help others during this time.”
That’s something I’ve been working on talking about with my own kids, especially my six-year-old. For them, the year of the pandemic has been filled with an awesome adventure and more time than ever with mom and dad. But the reality is that for many families and kids, this year has been defined by loss.
Bell is always willing to keep it honest, including on her Instagram, where she recently shared an all-too-relatable photo of herself with her daughters and dog hanging off her while she tried to homeschool.
She also shared a story of how 2020’s Christmas tree shopping experience went wrong.
“I ran back to the car, the kids were screaming in the back because they weren’t getting attention. Everyone’s mad. It was absolute mayhem,” Bell said. “We barely got the Christmas tree up, but when we did, it was beautiful. I think that’s a pretty poetic metaphor for this time: you gotta search for the joy amidst the chaos.”
That’s an approach to parenting that I can get on board with.
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