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Opinion | Juggling parenting, work and Zoom calls

The first instalment of a new column on mindful parenting looks at adapting to the new normal at work, home and as a parent

One needs to be open minded about online learning while maintaining safe and healthy boundaries for screen use. Photo: iStockphoto
One needs to be open minded about online learning while maintaining safe and healthy boundaries for screen use. Photo: iStockphoto

If you are a parent with school-going kids (or at least when they used to go), you know what I am going to talk about. I have always credited myself to be a rather easy-going person. I believe in making decisions and dealing with the consequences, comfortably accepting limited control and that there are no perfect decisions. But what I have seen in the last three months have pushed my humble acceptance and rationality regarding control into a chaos of sorts. 

When schools and work places promptly shifted gears into a work-from-home setting, I was more than amazed at the quick thinking, congruent team work, out-of-the-box problem solving by adapting to change. My son sat for online classes, while I made for a make-shift private home-office for my online counselling sessions and my three-year-old daughter kneaded flour, climbed up and down a home-made obstacle course or counted kidney beans with the nanny. A couple of hours went by easy as I touched base with kids in between sessions and managed home matters. It seemed doable, manageable and rather productive for a week or so. 

Shwetambara Sabharwal
Shwetambara Sabharwal

With the commencement of summer holidays for IB schools, we decided to add a couple of classes online for music, dance and art to avoid kids peeping in through the glass window of my office, eating that fourth chocolate of the day in front of that window or just “hanging out" with the iPad while I kept a straight face in my session! My husband went into war zone with figuring out his work issues and my work increased, given the mental health conditions among the populace. We suddenly needed a couple of more gadgets, screens, data cards, more bandwidth (all of which I had earlier never agreed upon) if we needed to simultaneously be productive. In the meanwhile, I had to organise some playdates reluctantly on Zoom.

I was fascinated to note that Zoom had been around for 9 years, not surprised I had never heard of it given my screen time boundaries and was still only mildly agitated with our growing dependence on it. Zoom became the other most commonly used word in our house besides, “kindly stop", “inside voice please" and “with you in a minute".

With every passing week, my concerns as a parent have increased given that screens may be replacing teachers, friends, family, mentors and counsellors! Our interaction with the outside world has become screen-based, which I am very worried about, despite trying to be open minded and adapting to change. 

Like I said in the beginning I am one to make quick decisions. I figured worrying and moping around about screens in addition to the many triggers at play currently, wasn’t helping. I decided to take matters in my hands. I came up with some solutions, adapting, accommodating yet maintaining safe and healthy boundaries for screen use which included video calls.

Short duration online study on apps: we study math/ Spanish/ science on apps for 20 mins in a day. Rest is up for discussion at lunch.

Frequent Breaks: between online classes, my kids have to take breaks (get up, blink 10 times/ drink of water/ 5 jumping jacks) and get back. 

Online Class with engaging teachers: I have ensured my kids do classes with teachers who are extremely engaging and active in the class. 

One physical exercise class a day: we do them online, but a gym or athletic class makes them take their gaze away from the screen and run around. Sadly, the teachers have no option but to stare into the screen. 

Phone calls instead of FaceTime or video playdates: the kids talk to grandparents, family and friends on the phone. We have reduced video calls significantly. 

Negotiated game time: if they want game time, we cut down on some other screen time/ TV show.

Meals are a no gadget time: much harder for us than kids. A lot of catching up and fun chatter happens on the table. 

Daily eye exercises: rotations, left/right/up/down/far/close and soft finger massage on eyes which my kids love.

This hasn’t been easy. It has needed much patience, monitoring, supervision and training, which has cost me work. But the only way to move forward and make a decision is to be okay with the consequences. Decision making is an important and often the toughest part of parenting, personal payoffs being those tough parts. While we wish we would be able to manage everything without compromise or things would go back to how they were earlier, neither of those are rational. 

As parents, we problem-solve consciously or subconsciously all the time, and every solution we find may either make things easier or present us with a tougher formula to crack. A payoff analysis of the decision-making process would have been beneficial but I truly had no time to breathe so I just went with it. 

My “solutions" have led me to sit and work late into the night, be sleep deprived, make changes at work, negotiate babysitting hours with my husband, take various tech tutorials to keep tabs on online activities on various gadgets, train my staff to read emails and teach my son to connect himself and his sister on Zoom calls in case I’m running late! To my surprise, everyone learnt to deal with it.

I take quick naps during math class supervision while pretending to read a book or sneak in a nap during shavasan daily. I recollected reading on that yoga nidra may be the key to feeling well-rested, how “yogic sleep" can be even more effective than conventional sleep. This came super handy. The guided yoga nidra experience takes you down into a deep brain-wave state—one that can't be reached through conventional sleep and because yoga nidra is a form of meditation, it helps activate the relaxation response and improve the functioning of your nervous system, hormones, cells regeneration and repair, and both help decrease anxiety and improve your mood. I was mostly looking for rest and relaxation, but this did more than that for me.

I have adjusted work, decreased individual sessions and do more group counselling and private seminars. Within weeks I have had my patients adapt to my new work format. I have also assertively stated the times that I will be unavailable while working. My kids, husband and most well-meaning intrusive staff have all magically accepted and adapted to those boundaries and have learned to figure things without me -- staying away from the glass window! In doing so I may have even changed everyone’s brain physiology, something I believe is necessary for us all to cope with the uncertain and revolutionary times we face.

Neuroplasty has been an area of personal interest for me. Research has shown that the brain never stops changing through learning. Plasticity is the capacity of the brain to change when exposed to new information or situations. Changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of connections between neurons (brain cells) where new connections form and the internal structure of the existing synapses change. Even though I knew this occurs, I saw this miraculous scientific phenomenon unfold in front of my eyes when everyone around me started to show signs of adjusting to the stark change in what we knew to be normal.

I may have to overlook an extra chocolate here and there and dog drool on the sofa, but largely I am adapting to my own decisions, novelty at work, home and mostly as a parent. This I see as a strength, a resilience that all parents are capable of, a gift we often forget to recognise, that with the humility to accept the pay-offs of comfort and familiarity, we can find solutions, we can learn and grow in the face of every challenge. Isn’t that the definition of evolution?

Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.

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