Why So Many Parents Feel Absolutely Numb Right Now

When the pandemic first hit New York City in March, abruptly closing my boys’ school and daycare, I was a wreck.

I was terrified of my kids getting sick. I was so anxious sitting in bed at night, listening to sirens scream past my window down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I’d lose my breath. Then sometimes, I’d have moments of delirious happiness: My family was safe and hanging out together at, like, 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. We never do that! It was emotional and logistical chaos all day, every day.

Now, months into this mess, I move through my days feeling basically … nothing. When I see friends and family (from a safe distance, outdoors, usually wearing a mask) and they ask how I’m doing, I say something like: “We’re good! We’ve kept our jobs, and no one’s been sick. Also, I’m dead inside.”

This is only a partial joke.

The everyday stresses parents are facing now are arguably worse than they were when the virus first emerged. Where I live in New York City, public schools recently announced they’ll likely open for in-person learning between one and three days a week — as though those are remotely similar. I have no idea if my husband and I are sending our older son in. I have zero idea what we’re doing for childcare for our younger kiddo, because I do not see a solution that feels relatively safe and is one we can actually afford. I have no idea how we are going to get through the fall or winter or any part of next year.

But I’m not freaking out; I’m numb.

“After being on high alert for so long, it’s entirely understandable that numbness would set in. No one can sustain a state of emergency for any length of time. We weren’t built that way,” said Olivia Bergeron, who runs Mommy Groove Therapy & Parent Coaching in New York City. “Fight or flight is supposed to be a temporary state to ensure survival, not a permanent way of living.”

No one has taken a good look at how parents are coping with everything that’s been thrown our way during the pandemic, but the preliminary (largely anecdotal) evidence suggests it has hit all of us really damn hard. Roughly half of parents say they’re hovering somewhere between 8 and 10 on the stress scale. In one survey, 80% of moms said they were struggling at work, and nearly 30% described their current emotional state as “terrible.”

“We become disconnected as a way of coping with the unending scary news. Perhaps binging on TV, food and drink as a way to escape. Becoming irritable, lonely or numb,” Bergeron said.

Here is where I note again how fortunate I am: No one in my family has come down with COVID-19. As of yet, my husband and I are both still employed, and I’m able to work remotely, which lets him do his job. But good God, these past months have been relentless. And things will continue to feel relentless as this pandemic continues for months, maybe years. Considering that possibility makes me go blank inside.

Fortunately, mental health experts say that some level of emotional numbness may be a good thing.

“Numbing can happen for a lot of reasons, it’s a type of coping skill,” said Perri Shaw Borish, a Philadelphia-based licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating anxiety among parents and described it as a kind of protective measure. She added that we are — all of us — in a moment of collective trauma that will have profound mental health implications for adults and kids.

So she urges parents, like me, to pay close attention to how long this kind of emotional numbing has been going on, and how it manifests itself. If “numbing” means that you’re just not getting too worked up about fluid school plans or thinking too far beyond the next few days, that’s probably OK. But numbing with drugs or alcohol is a red flag. Shutting down emotionally or feeling really unmoored from life is a warning sign.

“As a temporary state to get through something that is really stressful or traumatic, [numbing] can be useful,” Shaw Borish said. “But it’s not a long-term coping skill.”

That’s the challenge, of course. Numbing isn’t a coping tactic mental health experts recommend for any real length of time, but the healthier approaches that can help parents tackle our underlying anxiety — like therapy, or yoga, or even really basic self-care — take time (and often money) that most of us do not have. There just aren’t good answers for us parents right now. I certainly don’t have any, and I’m not finding the golden parachute anywhere I look. So we’re learning to live with this uncertainty, hoping not to shut down too many pieces of ourselves along the way.