“You think you’re the only one who wants to go hang out with friends, but you’re not!” I raised my voice in frustration with my 17-year-old son. “We’re all suffering!” I added for dramatic emphasis.
And then I went upstairs to cry. Pandemic Fatigue, is that you again?
We are all suffering from pandemic fatigue
We are nearly eight months into the pandemic, and my teenage sons have been home in a distance learning model since March. I’m juggling part-time work as an on-campus and online adjunct professor while my husband hunkers in his basement office.
Only our dog seems to benefit from this new way of living as there is always a lap to snuggle on. For the rest of us, the Groundhog Day mundaneness often feels like too much, especially during a time of time when teenagers are supposed to be asserting independence and increasingly relying on peer support. Instead, ours, like high school and college students around the world, are mostly here at home, stretching their cramped wings inside their childhood bedrooms.
Podcasts have provided a healthy distraction from the barrage of political news lately, and one of my favorites has been The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos, a podcast dedicated to the science behind what truly makes us happy.
I recently listened to the episode on made-up rituals from season 2, and the relevancy to Pandemic Fatigue was quickly apparent. According to Dr. Santos, rituals — from organized funeral rituals to everyday routines like always brushing your teeth before showering (or vice versa!)–can give us a sense of control, especially after we’ve experienced a loss. And I think we can all agree that life in 2020 has felt like one loss after another.
While listening, I realized that my family has created a series of made-up, organic rituals over these months that don’t eradicate our perpetual grief, but that are giving my family a small sense of control in our corner of the world.
Family rituals that mitigate Pandemic Fatigue
These daily rituals give us all something to anticipate in a world where anticipation is elusive.
- Each morning, 30 minutes before he needs to log on for distance learning, my 15-year-old wakes up to our dog jumping on his bed. He then makes his bed with military precision, opens his blinds, and puts in his contacts, all before greeting me in the kitchen. If this doesn’t happen someday, I will know he isn’t feeling well.
- In the evenings after dinner, the four of us watch an episode or two of whatever show we’re currently working through. (In eight months we’ve made it through more shows than I should admit. Comedies are usually the favorite because real-life has enough drama. (We are currently in season 3 of Scrubs.) Before the TV is turned on, though, my 17-year-old dramatically pulls the front curtains shut while shouting, “Goodbye, cruel world!” (I think the melodrama contains some truth in 2020.) Even our assigned seats for TV and movie viewing have become a comforting ritual.
- After I’ve said goodnight and made my way upstairs for bed, I have my own routine that has grown even more elaborate since March. I play a few rounds of my favorite word games and crossword puzzles before applying my moisturizer, lavender oil, and lip balm. Before pulling down my eye mask (yes, I’m a high maintenance sleeper), I say, “Good night. I love you!” to my husband. He responds with “I love you more” while I smile with a “not possible” before drifting off to sleep, ready to start the rituals again the next day.
Weekly rituals don’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. They can be simple routines — like weekly movie or game nights or Sunday afternoon drives — anything that keeps the days of the week from blending together into one never-ending fog.
Let Saturday be Saturday; give Monday night a personality of her own.
- “Can we please order Brunson’s again?” my 15-year-old pleas each Friday morning. Every Friday evening since March, our family has ordered takeout, usually from a favorite local restaurant. (Brunson’s is requested because their chicken thighs designed as hot wings please the voracious appetites of my teenage sons.) I’ve always enjoyed meal planning and time in the kitchen, but now I look forward to Friday nights as a break from the three-meals-a-day monotony. Now that the weather has turned colder, our cozy fireplace serves as the perfect side dish to our takeout tradition.
- Weekends provide other rituals. On Saturday morning after breakfast, we all dance to “Saturday in the Park” by Chicago in the kitchen. (The teenagers will deny this, but it’s true.) Even the dog gets in his favorite moves.
- My husband and I have always run together, but on weekends we’ve started branching out from our neighborhood now that we aren’t getting opportunities to dine out and attend concerts in other parts of our beloved city. We take in new scenery while soaking in some vitamin D, burning calories, and getting some teen-free time, too. My sons spend extra hours at the driveway hoop each Saturday, scheduling in time for dad-refereed one-on-one when the weather allows (which won’t be much longer here in Minnesota).
Our seasonal traditions feel more important than ever this year. We know our holidays will look markedly different in 2020, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue beloved rituals to give us some sense of control. Seasonal rituals don’t have to take place only in their designated spots on the calendar. Last spring I cooked a turkey with all of the trimmings to celebrate Thanksgiving in April. My food-loving teenagers did not complain.
- Even though my kids are now 15 and 17, I still make mummy hot dogs for dinner on Halloween and coerce them into carving jack o’lanterns. My teenagers might feel too old for trick-or-treating, but I watched many neighborhood families find creative ways to safely celebrate the holiday, from backyard treat hunts to PVC candy chutes. Their creativity has inspired me to think of new days to keep our fall and winter holidays special and safe.
- Thankfully, some of our family’s already-established holiday rituals will require no adjustments. For at least one whole day during Christmas break, we will spend the entire day cuddled on the couch watching Christmas movies. Other simple rituals include croissants for Christmas breakfast (thank you, Trader Joe’s), new pajamas and slippers, and favorite ornaments collected on pre-COVID travels decorating the tree. Because other traditions will be sidelined this year, we all need to make the most of safe rituals that remind us that we do still have some control.
Turning the page to 2021
When we turn the page to 2021, I might have to borrow a friend’s idea of “Tiny Christmas Parties” to get us through January and February. We can switch up our weekly movie night for a Christmas movie and exchange little gifts to sprinkle in some added joy.
Because Thanksgiving in spring isn’t enough, perhaps we’ll invent more “holidays.” Maybe I can convince my teenagers to indulge in some “Just Because” days, fashioned after another friend’s family ritual. If food is involved, I won’t have to do much convincing. We could eat on fancy dishes, Just Because or try a new culturally-themed meal, Just Because. On a long winter day, we could drive around and take selfies with our favorite city murals, Just Because. While the calendar might not always call for a ritual, that doesn’t mean we can’t add our own!
The medical experts keep reminding us that the pandemic isn’t over yet, and many new outbreaks are occurring because Pandemic Fatigue is leading to riskier behaviors, and riskier behaviors are putting our communities in perilous positions.
Just as colleges are seeing better results by providing “safer” options rather than out-right banning risky activities, our families can adjust to get us safely through the fall and winter. Made-up rituals and beloved favorite traditions can give our teenagers and our families an extra dose of happiness and sense of control as we trudge through new reality.
And maybe years from now, when the pandemic is written about in history books, a tiny blessing will emerge from this strange time: our children might be practicing these rituals with families of their own.