The heavy mental load of decision-making when it comes to kids and COVID

© Provided by ABC Health

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

There is a new variant of Monday-itis (or, Sunday-night-itis) affecting households with young children in New South Wales.

The symptoms may include the endless roundabout of decision-making about whether to send little ones to daycare, and whether playgrounds should be avoided in favour of lonely, but safer, ball-kicking in the middle of a deserted oval.

The health advice in Victoria has been more clear-cut, with playgrounds closed up until recently, and all families instructed to keep their children home from care unless parents are authorised workers, or the child is at risk of harm.

The NSW government is “strongly encouraging” families to keep kids at home unless they “need to be at the service”, and the daycare sector is desperately seeking clarification on this issue.

Every family’s situation is different, and in many ways, my family is lucky: To have access to daycare in the first place, and other short-term family childcare arrangements as a buffer. My husband and I also had early access to vaccinations through our workplaces, and our son doesn’t have any chronic health issues.

I acknowledge that essential workers don’t have the luxury of thinking of childcare as a choice. Nevertheless, I’ll illustrate our thinking during these anxiety-riddled Sunday night conversations.

As a family, we’ve closely reviewed the available scientific literature on children and COVID-19, which I will crudely summarise as: Although children are getting COVID, it’s unlikely to result in hospitalisation, and is even less likely to result in death. Our son’s doting, and concerned, grandparents are sending us links to news articles that reach the same conclusions.

Our personal philosophy on parenting acknowledges that we can’t protect our son from everything. If we want him to lead a full and rich life, we accept the possibility of broken bones, disappointments, and heartbreak. We don’t like it, but we accept it.

Delta has changed the game

But, as we’re so often told, the Delta variant is a “game-changer”. We also know that 211 childcare facilities around the country are currently closed, more than 150 of those in NSW, and the vast majority because of COVID transmission.

It seems that no amount of well-informed decision-making can provide us with what we really need at the moment – a guarantee that sending our child to daycare is safe. And so the niggling feeling of unease remains.

The conversations I’ve had with friends over the past few months, conversations overheard, and conversations in my own head, go something like this:

Surely the most important thing here is to protect our precious children?

But we’re so burned-out, and they love daycare! What happened to the idea that it takes a village?

Hang on — what’s this business about long-COVID maybe affecting kids?

I’m an essential worker. I would love to keep my child home, but I don’t have a choice.

I want to follow the health advice, but I’m worried about my capacity to work at home with a toddler.

Will my children miss their friends and the stimulation daycare brings? We don’t do craft very well at home…

But surely, we could ‘make it work’ and keep them home, if it meant protecting his health. Isn’t that our parental responsibility?

And around we go. The cycle is exhausting.

I have trained as a clinical psychologist, so I’m well-versed in supporting people to make complex decisions in line with their personal values and circumstances. I can see that decision making is becoming increasingly difficult, complex and burdening to families in lockdown. For parents who are essential workers, the lack of choices can be very distressing.

My knowledge of clinical psychology by no means makes me a better, or less anxious, parent when it comes to my own decision making. I can empathise deeply with the seemingly impossible challenges that families are facing.

So what ideas might serve as a useful compass for navigating difficult decisions in these unusual and stressful times?

Idea 1: Uncertainty leads to ‘What if?’, and you can’t fight ‘What if?’ with facts

It’s no surprise to anyone that humans generally dislike uncertainty. Most of us have felt this acutely over the past 18 months.

Uncertainty makes us worry, in an effort to control the uncontrollable. When the ‘what ifs?’ are about the health and safety of our loved ones, our brains go into a particular kind of anxious over-drive. No amount of information-gathering, reassurance-seeking, or thinking-it-through can provide relief.

With that in mind, it might be time to give yourself some respite and press pause on the worry, even for a little while.

Worrying is associated with that feeling of paralysis and is often intrusive; that is, it hits you when you’re lying awake at 2am trying to sleep. Problem solving and decision-making are more intentional, and typically result in action or an outcome.

Even in a global pandemic there are things you can control – it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on what these things are for your family.

Idea 2: Decisions are complex, and personal

As a parent, it’s hard to disagree with the statement that you want to protect your child from COVID at all costs.

At the same time, life is messy and there are likely other factors that will play into your COVID-related decision-making, including your mental health, job security, and putting food on the table.

Admitting that these very real issues also factor into your decision-making doesn’t make you a bad parent. There’s no ‘right answer’. We are all weathering the same storm, albeit in different boats.

Idea 3: Kindness is key

We are not living in normal times. The stress of hard decisions, and a pervasive sense of grief at what has been lost, has worn-down families. It’s not a pretty picture: It’s chaotic, messy, unrelenting, and we’re tired. If there is ever a time to let yourself off the hook and be kind to others, it’s now.

It may also be powerful to acknowledge what you’ve done well as a family – no doubt there’s a lot to be proud of.

As restrictions in New South Wales ease and as the Australian Government’s messaging moves away from ‘zero COVID’, parents all around Australia are going to be having Sunday-night conversations to determine what ‘living with COVID’ looks like for their young family.

There’s no right answers and no way to predict with certainty what the eventual outcomes of our decisions may be. We need to remember that we are all doing our best with the information and resources available to us.

Brittany McGill is a clinical psychologist.

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