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How I'm Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety and Shame When Parenting During a Pandemic

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with social media. I imagine there are many of you who feel the same. There are days when it provides the perfect distraction from whatever wildness is happening in my life, days when I’m grateful to have the ability to see the tiny humans belonging to the people I love grow up right before my eyes, even though we are not in the same location.

But then there are the shadow days. The days when no matter how hard I try, I cannot discern the light. All I can focus on is the propaganda, the divide, the filtered perfection. Not that any of these feelings are novel. Just Google search “love/hate social media” and uncover a plethora of articles dedicated to the topic, which prove we are not alone. We all love and hate Facebook.

But then came COVID-19, the great quarantine and along with it some really complicated new feelings.

With the emergence of the coronavirus and stay-at-home orders, I found myself filling far more of my day online, and boy was it ugly. Not the kind of ugly we are all accustomed to — the political or other exchanges — that is a whole other article. This was different. This ugly was inside of me. After a few weeks it was clear. There was definitely an infection spreading, but not the physical kind. My anxiety, my struggles caring for a son with a disability, my vulnerability, they had teamed up with Facebook and were helping to incubate a really nice bacterium in my brain called shame.

See, I was not the only one with extra time on my hands. Everyone on my Facebook feed had a lot more time to write posts, share pictures and upload videos. They also had far more time with their children and were seeing firsthand — now serving as their children’s teachers — what their littles were capable of. In turn, more posts than usual were centered on a healthy dose of “look how awesome my kid is!”

We were only a few weeks into our “new normal” and the amazing kid shoutouts before some terrible things started flooding my thoughts. With every new post or video I would find myself becoming angrier and more judgmental. OK, I’m going to stop right here for the people who may not read any further to say something as loudly as I can — this is not an article hating on people who brag about their children. Please, celebrate them! There is nothing wrong with using the internet as a “My Kid is an Honor Student” bumper sticker  This is not about the posters and the celebrators.

This is wholly about shame and the not so fun stuff that comes with it. And I’m sharing what happened to me, because I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not the only one who has found herself struggling with this amid the proliferation of homeschool success announcements.

Anxiety has always played some evil tricks on me. But this new game of shoving me deep into shame over Facebook posts came as a bit of a surprise. People I genuinely liked, even loved, whose children I typically celebrated as loudly as their parents, I was passing judgment on. I was angry at them, I was ridiculing in my mind — and that made me feel awful. I was so deep in my “where is their humility?” that I even started contemplating writing an article about pride. Seriously. In the middle of one of my — how dare they, don’t they know how hurtful their posts are to people with disabled children or essential jobs, or whatever it is that I made up to give me a right to judge them — I actually started penning some thoughts on their lack of pride.

Not so ironically at the same time I happened to be listening to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Lewis takes an entire chapter to cover pride and man was I going to give it to those prideful bragbookers. Until… Lewis quickly put me in my place by following up almost the entirety of his thoughts on pride with this reflection:

the more pride one ha[s], the more one dislike[s] pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, “[h]ow much do I dislike it when other people. . . show off?

Ugh. Signal the shame storm.

I spent the next few days not writing a compelling piece on egoism, but instead tearing myself apart for being all the things — unkind, evil, self-centered, judgmental, broken, unlikeable. Based on my completely thorough (hopefully you can sense the sarcasm here) analysis I was the only terrible one. The only prideful one. And what’s more, in my very certain mind it was no wonder all those kids on Facebook were seemingly so much more advanced than my own children. Because how could such a poor excuse for a person be a good mother and raise children who excel?

Whoa. And just like that my poor sweet, amazing babies were pulled into my dark spiral.

Deep breath.

Thankfully, after a bit more centered and less anxious reflection I recognized what was happening. I packed shame’s bags, showed it the door and demanded a respite.

This whole COVID-19 thing has unleashed a whole host of vulnerabilities in all of us. For me, while I may like to adorn myself in armor, having a child with a disability is a soft spot. And vulnerability is unquestionably BFF with my anxiety. What a duo. As I watched the videos of toddlers who can read and five-year-old’s doing calculus, I couldn’t help but think about my son who may not do those things even when age appropriate. Instead of acknowledging my fear for him (and admittedly how my fear fuels pride) and addressing that, it was way easier to blast the people forcing me to feel the feelings. And because I was squashing down all the realness, I had basically issued shame a formal invitation to take up residence.

The entire exercise was a good reminder of why shame should be spoken, and why this would be a much better article than one about bragbookers. I could have identified the feelings that mattered and healed them so much quicker (well, not completely, we are all works in progress, but you get the point) if I had bothered to say my thoughts out loud from the very beginning.

But that’s the thing about shame, isn’t it? As Brene Brown said, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” I felt too afraid to say that I had “feelings” about the posts. Then once I decided all of my feelings were “bad,” that I was completely unworthy and my children would amount to nothing as a result, it was so much harder to own what was happening in my head. I refuse to let shame win, though. Because it is a big fat liar.

Vulnerability, anxiety, pride, shame. They create a vicious cycle. But the cycle can be broken. Own your feelings. It’s OK to have icky feelings. As long as we remember those feelings are about us and not project them onto someone or something else, shame doesn’t stand a chance.

For more on parenting during quarantine, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by cosmaa