Foggy Feelings? A Therapist Shares a Guide to Pandemic Parenting

Navigating a pandemic as a parent is overwhelming for many reasons. This guide can help validate your experience and help you feel more in control of your family’s life.

It’s become pretty commonplace to know that 2020 and 2021 will go down in the history books as some of the most hectic, growth-filled, and difficult years in our time. For many families, especially those with young children, parents face many similar feelings and experiences to those of the newborn days.

We’re sharing six pandemic parenting strategies to help guide you through this challenging – and lesson-filled – time.

woman using hand sanitizer

A mental health therapist shares her story

During the height of quarantine last year, I found myself feeling an array of emotions that felt vaguely familiar, even though it was – thankfully – my first pandemic experience.

I felt wary of people coming into contact with my kids.

I was desperate for connection with friends but drained by both the anticipated and actual effort required to make plans.

The days dragged on yet also flew by, and I began to lose track of time.

I found myself sleep-deprived and, frankly, unable to remember the last time I brushed my hair.

I felt pulled in a million directions but unable to focus on anything; my tasks figuratively and literally kept piling up.

There were constant questions on my mind: why was there so much laundry if we weren’t even going anywhere? Was it possible to get anything non-kid-related done when I was the only person able to feed, clean, and care for my children for most of the day?

mom putting a mask on her son

Underneath the anxiety and fatigue was the feeling that I had been in this state of fog before. I was focused on survival, physically and mentally. And when I told myself to take things one day – actually one hour – at a time, I realized that I had felt foggy feelings like these after I had my babies.

My pandemic feelings of anxiety, fatigue, and more were eerily reminiscent of – actually, almost identical to – my postpartum feelings.

I am a licensed mental health professional, working parent coach, and advocate for women. If I felt this dissociated haze, also known as a “state of blah” or “languishing,” how about the women who gave birth during the pandemic? They were surely at risk of experiencing a sort of fog at an extremely elevated level.

Whether you count it as 12 weeks or 12 months (some would say it’s a lifetime), the postpartum period is a time of heightened emotion, not to mention exhaustion.

Although there are some tell-tale risk factors, studies show that up to one in five birthing moms experience a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), affecting people of any age, income level, race, or culture.

At a minimum, feelings of distractedness and forgetfulness – typically exacerbated by lack of quality sleep – can cause postpartum women to feel a sort of “mom brain” fogginess.

Though rest assured – no pun intended – this is usually a temporary feeling. Studies show that hormonal changes following birth can actually shape mothers’ brains and lead to growth in areas linked to motivation and behavior.

mom putting a paper mask on her daughter

Six strategies for coping with pandemic parenting

Many of the families I work with, whether postpartum or navigating pandemic parenting, use the following strategies to help to better cope with this time of change.

1. Set limits when necessary

For example, establish protocols (including your partner, if applicable) to protect your and your family’s health in the way that makes you most comfortable.

This might look like setting boundaries with family and friends, even close ones, with things like in-person visits, especially if you don’t know their vaccination status.

2. Create and stick to routines

If routines help you thrive, try to create and stick to schedules. But more importantly, try to be kind to yourself when things don’t go as planned.

Your little one may not nap when or for as long as you expect; your kids’ school may require a quarantine period due to an exposure.

Remember, get through one hour at a time. Tomorrow is a new day.

3. Embrace your new look

Embrace your new wardrobe, by which I mean the three (if that) sets of leggings and hoodies you rotate from your closet (or floor).

However, if it makes you feel good, a little accessorizing can go a long way. Your mood could be instantly brightened if you change things up slightly with your appearance, like a different pair of earrings, a new scrunchie, or a new favorite pair of sandals.

4. Venture out when ready

Go out. I’ll never forget how my husband encouraged me to grab dinner with him out in our neighborhood the night we came home from the hospital when our first child was born.

I initially wanted to stay in the apartment with the baby, but knowing that he was healthy and perfectly safe with someone we trusted and that we were going to a nearby restaurant for a quick meal made me feel comfortable that I could try.

Getting out helped me feel connected to a reality I had missed. Not everyone can or wants to do something like this, of course, and that’s okay. But it’s essential to make an effort to improve your isolation.

Try going for a walk outside, with your kids, a friend, or even alone. Call friends and family members regularly, even to quickly catch up. Connect.

5. Set realistic goals

Set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals.

Just because you are spending time at home during a parental leave period or the pandemic does not mean you have time to take care of the household or other long-term projects you think you could be doing.

In fact, you likely have a lot less time at home to be productive. Striving for time-consuming and potentially unrealistic things like learning to cook or putting together photo albums can lead to disappointment, especially if you compare yourself to others via social media.

It can be smart to keep goals small, especially during such a transitional period. Celebrate your daily wins, no matter how insignificant they can feel at the time.

6. Ask for and accept help

Ask for and accept help. Sometimes we feel guilty when things feel hard, yet we know we are more privileged than many others.

Everybody needs support sometimes. Use your experience to build empathy, and pay it forward when you can.

mom putting a mask on her daughter

Final thoughts on parenting in a global pandemic

We are now more than one year into this global crisis, and things have improved; rates of the virus in the U.S. are low, and the world is opening back up amidst a collective hum of excitement for life to go back to normal.

But we must recognize that our normal will be different from parents of new babies than before.

We are now different: we have different priorities, identities, and expectations. The fog feels real, but so is the fact that this is a moment in time that will pass. Savor all the snuggles and the smiles in the meantime and please, reach out for the support you may need.

Lauren A. Tetenbaum, LMSW, JD

Licensed Social Worker + Attorney

Lauren A. Tetenbaum, LMSW, JD, is a therapist, professional coach, advocate, and mother whose mission is to build community and connection, especially among working and new parents. A licensed social worker and attorney, she spent a decade in the legal industry supporting individuals facing various life transitions. Lauren currently uses her experience, empathy, and emotional intelligence to empower others through psychoeducational parent support groups and counseling and consulting services. Lauren is intensively trained in perinatal mental health and has been featured on several parental wellness platforms. She is actively involved in numerous efforts benefitting at-risk families in her area and abroad, including volunteering with Postpartum Support International's helpline.

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