It’s 5 p.m. on a Tuesday. I’m on hour five of what will be six hours’ worth of therapy sessions, all of which have focused on fears about kids returning to school. Patients are asking me questions all day long that I don’t have answers to.
What do you think of homeschooling for kids?
What if my school starts and then pulls the plug at the end of the first week?
What’s riskier, sending kids to daycare, or hiring a nanny?
As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist who specializes in working with mothers, I’m no stranger to spending many consecutive hours talking through maternal anxieties. I’m usually not personally affected by the things my patients say; if anything, immersing myself in the problems of others helps me, however briefly, forget my own.
But then, my patients and I aren’t usually having the same problems at the exact same time.
Pre-COVID, I often talked with patients about the “backpacks” they carry around; that is, the traumas or significant life events they’ve experienced that stay with them and influence their day-to-day lives. Nowadays all of us, myself included, are shouldering backpacks, stuffed with the traumas of the previous weeks and months of COVID-19, plus all the uncertainties that lie ahead. My backpack feels especially heavy at the moment, full as it is not only with my own experiences and fears but also with those of my patients. As a scared mother myself, it’s been a challenge to help other scared mothers.
Whenever I hear a patient’s impassioned arguments for homeschooling her kid, I start to doubt my own decision to send my kids to school. I’ll have just gotten to the point of feeling confident about my choice, only to have a patient remind me that first graders aren’t really good at keeping masks on — and by the way didn’t I know that those plastic partitions in the classroom really do nothing? Each new piece of discomforting evidence I hear feels like another rock being hurled into my backpack.
And then there are the times I’m given inside information I wish I didn’t have. One patient knows someone who knows someone who knows the governor, and this person believes that they will be pulling the plug on schools at the last minute. Another patient shares new scientific evidence about how droplets of COVID-19 remain in the air for a long time. Like many people, I try hard not to follow the news in an effort to keep the upsetting information at bay. But unfortunately, the news tends to follow me, as my patients keep telling me things I didn’t want to know, filling my backpack further.
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