By Alexandra Zissu — Moms Clean Air Force
Some mornings the news is so bleak all I can do is read headlines or Twitter, not full articles. Do you do this, too? I hide under the covers and hope my remote-schooling girls won’t come ask me for things, as I drink coffee and scan news snippets on my phone, trying to muster up the strength to approach another day of living at home with all-of-my-family-members-all-the-time, dwindling work, fears about the future, and general misery that COVID-required distance means I’m maybe missing out on my parents’ last viable years. (A dear friend’s father just died. I wasn’t at the funeral.) Every sentence I read jolts me: Systemic racism! Hours-long voting lines! Climate denier appointed to the Supreme Court!
Oh, the climate.
It’s hard to choose one stressor over the other presently, but the climate headlines are especially devastating. Part of our extended family that lives in California narrowly missed losing their house to wildfire. This article that links air pollution particles in young brains to Alzheimer’s put me over the edge. (I read that whole article, not just the headline; my beloved stepfather, currently stranded COVID-alone in a nursing home, has dementia.)
My climate stress has everything to do with my kids’ future. My poor, cranky, lovable, wonderful children. I have long worried about their climate burden. And now they’re also missing everything. My 7 year-old yearns to be closer than six feet apart from her friends and would give anything for an indoor play date. My 14 year-old is in knots after seeing on Snap Chat that other people’s parents allow her friends to hang out mask-free and in packs!?! We don’t because…science. Of course, they should want these things. I want them for them, too! I suspect I scroll headlines because I can’t fix any of this.
Recently a tweet from the environmental journalist Amy Westervelt at least made me laugh: “Woke up thinking “welp childhood had a good run.” Too dark? Good morning, America!” Westervelt has been refreshingly honest about juggling parenting and work. I appreciate any transparency about what a mess this all is, and clues to how other parents are getting through the struggle.
I’m stuck. As hard as I try, I can’t quite figure out how to help my kids manage their stress and anxiety over this loss of childhood (pandemic) and an uncertain future (climate); I can’t manage it myself! I try to take cues from a solid article on parents’ pandemic anxiety in The New York Times. It’s an ode to worry — and what it means now. But it doesn’t offer any survival tips. Or maybe there aren’t any? A potential upside is that the very real stuff we’re worrying about now could mean we won’t go back to worrying about dumb stuff in the future. “Maybe that’s how progress happens sometimes: You trade old worries for new ones, and one day you can’t even remember why Sally’s skirt had to go past her knees,” the article states.
Still seeking tips, I read every word of psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb’s Q&A column in The Atlantic on how to help kids deal in a pandemic. (I loved her book, ‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone?’) We already do a lot of what she suggests is helpful: We have structure. We spend time outside. My big takeaway here is parents have to take care of their own emotional health and try not to run themselves ragged. I could do more on this front for sure, though the amount of online yoga I’m doing currently borders on obsessive. How parents respond emotionally to a challenge “greatly influences how their kids do,” she writes. This makes me think of the many empty wine bottles in the recycling bin. Also, thanks to Gottlieb, I’m now keenly aware that falling to the floor in front of my kids screaming when I found out Ruth Bader Ginsberg died was probably not the greatest move.
As I wrestle with my stress — immediate and long term — in an effort to model behavior, or as Gottlieb calls it, “setting an emotional tone,” I’m haunted by the fact that I’ve always imagined — feared, really — that my kids’ future in a climate-changed world might look a lot like this semi-quarantined, truncated existence we’re sharing now. I just never expected to live through it with them.
Here, too, I’m not alone. Climate Twitter has been sharing an article by an Australian climate scientist detailing how she never thought she’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse. Want to know the weirdest thing? I found it uplifting! The morning I read it (in full), I bounced out of bed. Something about a scientist being depressingly honest and sad helped me regulate. It perked me right up. I set the emotional tone: this family is going to find normal in the abnormal. First, I helped one kid collect leaves for Zoom art class, then the other pick out a cute shirt for a distance visit with her best friend. Then I went to my office and took care of my emotional health by writing. I’d been thinking modeling behavior needed to be all or nothing. And that was keeping me from managing. But now I see it can be hour by hour, and hopefully it adds up. A less-stressful morning is an emotional win.
Life is a mess, but it goes on. Well, sort of.