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SAUL: Welcome to episode four of Life in the Time of Corona, a podcast exploring the many ways to stay healthy and sane in these strange times. I’m Dr. Saul Rosenthal, a developmental and clinical health psychologist. Many of the clients I work with are married or in committed relationships. Since the start of the pandemic I’ve been hearing about changes in the relationships. Some talk about feeling more easily irritated by their partners, others talk about feeling closer. It led me to wonder about the relationship effects of sheltering in place, concern about the coronavirus, suddenly living with children who aren’t in school, and worrying about a spouse who might be working as a medical provider, a grocery clerk, or in some other job that requires daily contact with lots of people. Today we are joined by a couple who can help us figure it all out.
Dr. David Helfand is a relationship and relaxation psychologist, certified yoga instructor, neurofeedback practitioner, and neuro-meditation instructor. He started his practice, LifeWise, to work with individuals, couples and families experiencing negative effects of chronic stress. He runs couples retreats and focuses on holistically improving the health of each person and their relationship. His wife and partner is Anna Helfand. Anna has a master’s degree in counseling from Boston College and is a licensed mental health counselor. She worked for several years in an outreach mental health program north of Boston, and now at the Triumph Center with children, adolescents, and families. She specializes in the parent-child interaction and parenting support. Welcome to both of you.
ANNA: Thank you.
DAVID: Thank you, it’s great to be here.
SAUL: So one of the questions I’m asking everyone who comes on here is what are some of the biggest changes that you’re going through both in your work, and in your life?
DAVID: That’s quite an apropos question for these times isn’t it? So I mean, of course, being an entrepreneur there is a difference now in the business side and trying to restructure how I serve the families that I work with, the couples, the individuals, but then more immediately for the family life, my daughter… we have a four-year-old daughter and she’s not used to having me work from home, and so trying to come up with systems that she understands… like, well, “Daddy’s in the basement now,” and it’s kind of like he’s at the office, has probably been one of the biggest challenges
ANNA: Yeah, and I would say, too, for me this whole transition has fallen towards the end of my pregnancy as we’re expecting another child soon, and so as I was trying to wrap up with my work and transition into this new role, it just had an added layer of complexity and just a lot of different variables got thrown in.
SAUL: And what are you hearing from your clients about some of the biggest challenges that they’re facing?
DAVID: Well, I think that they’re going through a lot of what we’re going through as well, I mean some families are fortunate that they can work from home, but it’s creating a whole new system and paradigm, and it’s creating new stressors in many ways about how they structure the home and work life, and where the two of those fields clash now in many ways, and also the many hats we have to wear. I mean to some extent, every parent is becoming an entrepreneur, right? They’re having to become an educator, they’re having to navigate child care. They’re having to navigate cooking and grocery stores. They’re also having to get at the very least, an Associate’s in medical pandemic relief, so that they can be conscious of what’s going on in the world and how they protect their families. Many of the families that I’m speaking with as well, that are conscious about someone’s health and risk factors in the home, such as you know, my wife who… you know, we’re waiting for the arrival of our child in a week or two, which as anyone that has kids know it could be tomorrow. It could be during this podcast as a matter of fact. And so we’re having to take a lot more precautions in some ways… we have a neighbor who is in good health. And he’s a little bit more kind of fly by the seat of his pants at this time. So the roles that families are having to take on is so nuanced and independent that it can cause a lot more stress for people.
ANNA: And I’ve heard about, you know, with my families, it often depends on the age range they have with the children, where they’re finding that maybe prior to this, they weren’t spending 24/7 with their young child or their school age child, and so they’re kind of finding out more about their kids and their personalities, and what pushes one button, or what works, so I think they’ve been having to almost reorganize their perception of their children week by week as they help them through this and become their social network and their support system like you said, but also navigating a lot of worry for these kids… I think they’re wearing many hats and they need a lot of grace to understand that this doesn’t come overnight.
SAUL: So, adults and their children are finding themselves taking on multiple roles. Focusing more on the couple’s relationship, what are some of the common reactions that a couple might find themselves going through?
DAVID: You know, it’s interesting, in talking with colleagues and the couples that I work with, there’s a somewhat serious joke that in about a year from now there are going to be a lot of babies and a lot of divorces… and so one of the things that I’m noticing is that everything in the relationship is amplified right now because there is no respite. So if now that the couple is forced in many ways, to be with each other at a much more frequent rate, and more time together, that can cause some conflict, or if they have a pretty steady, stable relationship, it actually brings them closer together. You know, my wife and I, hopefully she will agree with me… that we have a very good relationship and…
DAVID: And we were talking last night about how we actually feel very close to each other through all of this because now I get to go upstairs and have lunch with the family, and on my lunch break I get to run around with my daughter outside. We built a snowman recently when we had that snowstorm, but I’m hearing from a lot of couples that it’s actually amplifying some of the struggle and the issues in communication they have, and in some ways it’s creating and highlighting the need for them to work on these things if they’re aware and have the ability to reach out for support.
SAUL: And Anna, I’m wondering how does that amplification play out when there are kids involved as well, so with the families that you’re working with what are you hearing?
ANNA: Well, I think they’re having to do a lot of prioritization and balancing of their schedules and suddenly having to decide, well, who gets to work when, and who take son childcare roles? These days parents cannot just bring someone in the home, they can’t send the child anywhere, so I think with children, it’s finding a balance with their schedules… you know, who does an afternoon shift, who does an evening shift, who has to completely take time off or just stop because sometimes I think the stress of having to balance this becomes too much. The other thing with children is people need to prioritize time to be alone and to have that mental space to recharge and validate that there are things they want to continue doing that they were doing before this whole pandemic began. And I think as these new roles develop to help the kids understand that and… you know, they’re seeing their parents navigate these things, and they’re not very hidden these days, so I think as the parents work through their stressors, I think it’s pretty clear that the kids can pick up on it, and that they can either have the kids witness it or they can have the kids understand how to work through these things and model it.
SAUL: I was recently working with a client of mine. He and his wife have three small children. He is still working full-time but from home, and his wife is the primary caretaker, but their children are pretty challenging. They are very active with attention and hyperactivity issues, they have some behavioral management struggles, normal developmental demands, and all of that on top of everybody is cooped up together for the last several weeks. School really helped the kids regulate themselves, but it’s much less effective with the little amount of online time they have. The situation is pretty common now for couples and their families. What sort of advice would you have for that couple?
DAVID: Yeah, it’s actually quite a common example these days. So, I mean there’s a couple of things that strike me in the example that you gave… you know, first of all as Anna was saying, negotiating the roles and managing the expectations of the family and the schedule becomes really important at this time, so ne thing I’m noticing is a lot of families are just sort of improvising, and it can be very helpful to have a plan and a format in place, not only for the couple and their kind of emotional needs, but also so that the child knows what to expect. So, for example, if the parents can agree that, you know, this time is family time and then during these other times maybe you or I are responsible for the childcare, because one thing that is becoming really helpful these days and I believe Anna would agree with me, is making sure everyone has their alone time, and their quiet downtime. Whether that’s the adults or the kids. I had a family session the other day and I asked everyone in the family, “What would you like to see more of right now?” And everyone said, “Me time”, because everyone is just on top of each other these days. And then, of course, I mean we could spend the whole podcast talking about communication styles of how you get that need met, and what you’re looking for, and how to communicate that. I would say just as a real quick take-away, making sure that you’re asking for what you want, and you’re soliciting that same response in the children, if you’re the adult, is really important. So for example, there’s a very different feel between these two communications, saying that, “I really want some time to myself to recharge”, and hearing that from a parent or a spouse is very different than, “You need to leave me alone because I’m about to explode”.
ANNA: And I kind of want to validate the fact that… I mean what you pointed out… a family with young children… I think these families are really struggling right now, because what should be a safety network of family and friends, being able to have a parent take a child out and let the other parent rest, just getting basic kind of physical needs met of rest and recharging has kind of gone away and so even that communication of, “This is what I need to stay sane and healthy and how can I either get that met or how do I sort of outsource it”. I know for me personally, you know, being able to connect with my friends now via a lot of FaceTime. During this last weeks of pregnancy, I thought I’d be hanging out with people, I thought I’d have a social network to see my family, and it had been hard, so I think the parents with new arrivals have been hit very hard with that and so this family is probably feeling it a lot.
SAUL: I think that’s absolutely true. One of the interesting things I’m noticing in our conversation is we’ve kind of focused on the parenting role, and I suspect many couples are finding that that’s true as well, while neglecting the couple role, so to speak. So I’m wondering what you have to say about that and how do couples balance that parent role, assuming they have kids in the first place, with the role of maintaining their own partnership, their own intimacy?
ANNA: I mean, I think for me… we were talking about this earlier, that there are definitely ways of having intimacy that have strengthened, and there are sort of newfound ways of intimacy. I was telling him the other day that being… the three of us having these close moments together and for me to sometimes witness the conversations that our daughter has with him now… that to me is not only heartwarming, but it feels very close to me and just makes me feel more connected to him as well. Well one thing we’ve kept up is having moments during the day, plenty of them, to reconnect with each other. Whether it’s a nice hug and kiss as he goes down to the office to work, or perhaps it’s us checking in with each other, you know, “Hey do you need a cup of tea? Do you need 10 or 15 minutes to sit while I hang out with our daughter?” But just really noticing like intuitively too, what does the other person need? And just kind of carrying out that 5 minutes of kindness or compassion, I think it’s brought us very close.
DAVID: I agree, and just to add to that, I think it’s important for people to remember that no one can read someone else’s mind, and so if you have something that you’re looking for, to ask for that is really helpful. In the first couple of weeks of this whole pandemic, Anna came to me and said that she was feeling very overwhelmed, and that she wanted more time to socialize with friends because she was not getting that. And I was so wrapped up with my business and trying to meet the needs of my clients, that I had neglected to even think of that as something I could offer to her, and so her saying that this is something that’s really important to me allowed me to make some time in my schedule and to start offering that and you know, in my mind, her needs were not on my mind to be honest, because I was so focused on, “Okay, I need to provide financially for my family, and I need to meet the needs of all these other clients that I’m working with because they were really struggling”. And so to refocus the attention on her and the family was a real eyeopener and I would say that hopefully I feel like I’ve done that since you asked.
ANNA: No, definitely… I think I came to him and I said, “You know, I’m just sad”, that I was just sad that this was how life was kind of turning out at this point, and our relationship and I think communicating that allowed me to just let go of that weight. And I think, too, with couples, being able to validate how much each person feels the loss of something, so for someone it might be the loss of, “Oh my goodness, my business was on such an upswing, and then I’ve been told to shut it down and completely revamp, and almost restart, right?” And I know for him… for David… it was a lot, it was definitely on his mind 24/7, but being able to support him through that and being understanding and kind about it, and being able to learn about all the nuts and bolts that go into running this business. I think for me it’s been a journey of being more aware and really grateful for what he does, being able to witness it in our home, but I think couples just have to understand that there’s a loss at every turn for someone depending on what it might be and to be flexible and kind with each other about it.
DAVID: And if I can add one more item to that list, is I notice that I’m talking with a lot of couples about love languages, and if they have not looked up love languages or know what those are, there are so many resources online, so many books written about it, it’s a fantastic body of literature. The basic idea is that there are generally five ways that we like to give or receive love and compassion from those around us, particularly from our spouse, but it goes further than that as well. So for example, for me, physical touch and acts of service a love language that I hold dearly, so when the kitchen is clean when I come up from my office, that to me feels like I’m being taken care of and then I can cook dinner for my family because I’m generally the chef in the home. Getting a hug or a kiss or some physical affirmation is also really important to me whereas Anna, I believe, has… she does like physical touch as well for her love language, but also words of affirmation and quality time are really important to her. So once you kind of understand the love language of yourself and your partner, it allows you to then speak that language. So one thing I tell clients all the time is that if someone’s communication is French and yours is English, it’s really important that you learn how your partner communicates so that you an validate and meet that need. Otherwise, it’s going to feel like you’re alone in this.
SAUL: It seems a lot of what you’re saying is to be able to bring all of these skills, all of these ways of thinking about each other to bear in these very uncertain times, but to do it in a more planful way, to really think through how we’re going to maintain our connections, maintain our communications with each other. You mentioned improvising versus planning, and on the one hand, almost every day is a little different, so improvisation is necessary, but if we sort of have a plan or a structure or a framework that we can put into place, that can help us kind of make it through those improvisational moments.
DAVID: Absolutely. I mean, I think to your point, the entire structure that people have built, whether it’s a business or a home life or work life, or you had a vacation plan to go to Cancun, or whatever it was… I mean all of those plans have been completely turned upside down, and I’ve been speaking with a lot of families who have talked about how this is kind of a grieving process, the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, they feel like they were just in denial, like, okay we’re going to get through this really soon. And then there was the anger and depression, and the emotional phase of like, the… almost like the tantruming that occurred… well why should this be the case, and you know, I can’t believe that my business has been thrown off. I can’t believe that the daycare shut down, you know, those sorts of things. But now people are starting to get into that negotiating and acceptance phase where now we’re actually being planful and working through things, and I imagine this is a pivotal moment… that in the next couple of weeks, if people can put a solid foundation down that at least has the semblance of structure that could be successful for themselves and their family, and building in self-care, again, is so important, that if you can… I mean one thing that Anna had asked for recently was that she wanted… there was this… what was it… a prenatal yoga class on Sunday mornings that you said, “Listen, if I could at least make it to that, if you could be with our daughter and keep her away from this room where she secluded herself,” that would be so big for you.
DAVID: So again, if there’s that… if you can find a structure to get back to and recreate what’s important to you in your life, and the family life, then that’s so important right now. And I think we’re starting to fall into that phase now at this point in the pandemic.
SAUL: So it’s an opportunity to each what Anna called these newfound ways of intimacy?
ANNA: Right. I mean, I’ve seen lots of families use this as an opportunity to kind of reinvent certain things about the family. I’ve always encouraged these families as we’ve started having… as we were having telehealth sessions, is communicate with each other as a family. What’s going to be important for you guys? Is it going to be that now everyone gets to plan a family meal, which I think we’ve talked about before, is kind of a vital time to connect and recharge together, but being open with each other and your children that this is different, this is kind of life-changing, but here’s the things we are doing to gain some control in our own lives, and here’s things that we will feel resilient about, and here’s things we are completely allowed to also worry about, but allowing the families to… in an age appropriate way… to have conversations with each other and reinvent certain things that maybe they’ve wanted to reinvent, and some things they’re having to reinvent, but it does allow for some of that flexibility to occur, but in the later weeks. I don’t think that flexibility could have happened in that first week or even the second or maybe the third. But now it’s almost like, “Okay, we got some things under our belt, what can we now build on as we go forward?”
SAUL: So again, sort of planfully building on things to perhaps end up at an even better place in our relationships than we started.
SAUL: As we’re starting to wrap up now, I’d like to ask each of you a few “one thing” questions, if that’s okay?
SAUL: So I’ll start with you, Anna. What is one thing that people should take away from our discussion?
ANNA: I think they should take away that there needs to be both a softening during this time, within themselves and their family units to allow for these changes to be processed, and also a readiness to then build on that, so allowing themselves to have this duality of “Yes, I am a changed person, but I am going to come out with a different foundation here”.
SAUL: How about you David, what’s one thing that people should take away from our discussion?
DAVID: So I think there are many moments in life that people see as pivotal, and oftentimes we hear about how life changes in an instant and it’s often used in a negative way. I think this is an opportunity for people to have their life change in a very positive way as long as they integrate and assimilate the new skills or new opportunities they have. So Anna mentioned, for example, that families are home now, and this is a chance to have meal times. So I would say that if couples can think about what strong values and what opportunities and ways they want to feel are really important to them, and then start making a plan to achieve one or two of those. So if it’s that they’ve never felt connected to their spouse, well this is a great opportunity to plan some events together. So whether they do that themselves or whether they reach out to a professional for support, this is really an opportunity to turn things around fix some things or at the very least, improve relationships in the home.
SAUL: David, what’s one thing you’re doing to take care of yourself?
DAVID: Yeah, there’s a good question. So, again, I would say I’m probably doing what most people have done which is the first week I was kind of in denial, maybe two weeks probably… third week I was trying to figure out okay, how the heck do I make time for all the things that I used to do? So one thing that I think I’m doing which is perhaps a little bit more existential is I’m trying to be realistic with my goals. I think that I had an expectation of my productivity… I had an expectation of my performance both as a parent, a partner and an entrepreneur that was pre-pandemic, and I’ve had to adjust those goals and expectations, and my idea of what success is day-to-day. So one of the things I do is I make sure that on my to-do list is time with my daughter each day and that could sound a little hokey as a self-care sort of activity, but it really is true that spending time with her is something I’ve never had time for in some ways, because I’ve been working such long hours trying to build a business. But now that everything is at a standstill, I find that spending time outdoors with her is actually quite fulfilling and fun, let alone the fact that I think it helps with the childcare from an honest perspective.
SAUL: And how about you, Anna, what’s one thing you’re doing to take care of yourself?
ANNA: So I’ve realized that for me, it’s been pretty much a necessity of making sure I have solitude at various parts of the day, just me as a person I know I need that, I am definitely more introverted in my personality, but I’ve realized quickly that having you know, a vibrant, exuberant child at home, I was kind of having sensory overload by certain parts of the day and even when she didn’t physically need me there’s always motion and sound and your name being called every ten seconds, so one thing that’s really helped me is when I wake up in the morning and if the house is… if everyone else is still sleeping, I just get up… I go read, I have my first breakfast, but really being more disciplined that this is my time, and if I start my day in a way that just feels like a breath of fresh air to me, then I am a much more relaxed, I think, productive, and I just feel like me for the rest of the day. And then at the end of the day also, just being able to say, “I’m going to go close the door”, and once again I’m going to read, zone out, do something, yeah, for me it’s definitely been that recharge of solitude.
SAUL: Finally, Anna, what is one thing that you think has changed forever?
ANNA: Oh… I think it’s a shift in the different ways we can do things. I think before it was like, well this is our trajectory and you know, this is what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it, and now I feel like there’s a little more wiggle room, like, “Oh, we can make certain work schedules work”, or different ways of working work, and still have the family time we’re looking for, and I think for me personally, like, having this pregnancy has really nuanced this just because I think that will always be part of this story when we look back on it. I think we’ll always remember how we were able to get through it, and I think for me to see just how hard David worked to get through it, and like, the things we’ve worked on together to get through it so to me, I think it’s just like, “Oh, we can take that going forward”.
SAUL: How about you, David, you don’t have to give the same answer as Anna did.
DAVID: So for me I think what’s changed is developmental trajectory for all the people in the home. And I say developmental not just with the kids in mind, but the parents, the relationship, the family system. You know, this experience is going to change the trajectory for many people, whether it’s the career they want to go into, because maybe their career opportunities have changed… It’s going to change relationships and dynamics in the family, and I think as we’ve kind of mentioned in a couple of different ways, it’s an opportunity to really… I want to be careful of the word “capitalize” because it’s not just in an economic sense, but really emotionally capitalize and developmentally capitalize on opportunities that would have otherwise gone unrealized. For example, family planning in meals, and opportunities such as that, but also the emotional development of kids in particular. So we recently taught a Mad Libs for our daughter and we’re trying to teach her nouns and verbs and some of these things in, I suppose you could say sneaky ways, and so I said, “Well I want you to come up with a noun? What’s your favorite place that you can think of?” and she said, “At home with my mommy and daddy”. And I remember thinking, “Wow, no one over ten is probably going to answer in that way”, but I think for a lot of parents we think, well our kids don’t want to be here, they want to be school, they want to be with their friends, they want to be at sports and all these kinds of things, and she couldn’t be happier, to be honest, so using… having that sort of reframe for me was really eye-opening, like, “Wow, she loves this!”
ANNA: She does.
DAVID: And that, I think, is going to change her development in some very profound ways, that she gets to spend the next few months with mommy and daddy is huge for her.
SAUL: So keeping our relationships strong through this pandemic can help us build even stronger connections with each other. Listener, thank you for joining me during Life in the Time of Corona. You can subscribe to this show at iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate the show and leave comments. Find out more at my website, saulrosenthalphd.com and follow me on twitter and Instagram @DrSaulRosenthal. Dr. David Helfand is a relationship and relaxation psychologist, yoga instructor, neurofeedback clinician, and neuro-meditation instructor running a private practice called LifeWise. You can find him at lifewiseMA.com. David, is there anything people should know about contacting you?
DAVID: So first of all, because we are expecting our daughter, I might not get back to you as quickly over the next couple of weeks, but in general, if you look through the website, there’s plenty of information about my services. I am offering telehealth and virtual services right now, and I look forward to getting back to working with people face-to-face as soon as all this clears up.
SAUL: Thanks very much, and Anna Helfand is a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in parent-child interaction and parenting support. Anna and David, thank you so much for joining us.
DAVID: Thank you, Saul, for the opportunity.
ANNA: Thank you so much.
SAUL: And thank you listeners. I look forward to continuing the conversation on Life in the Time of Corona.
Saul Rosenthal, PhD May 4th, 2020
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