Maternal bandwidth (or lack thereof) during a pandemic

“Is anyone else streaming anything in your house?” “How far away are you from your router?” “Are you using your cell phone, or your laptop?”

This is me, during virtually every therapy session I’ve had over the past few weeks. I, like many mental health professionals, have had to transition to online therapy, which has meant discussing extremely personal issues while patients’ kids walk by or the Housewives blare in the background or, most frustratingly, the screen starts to freeze, a phenomenon I’ve learned is due to limited internet bandwidth.

Thanks to the rapid transition to internet-based therapy, I have had to quickly learn about bandwidth. I’m told that we all have fixed amounts of internet bandwidth, and that certain activities, like streaming movies or downloading files, use it up. Because I specialize in treating stressed and anxious parents, family internet usage is a big problem; during sessions, I’m often competing for broadband with a kid watching toy-opening videos. I’m constantly working to make a better connection, literally and figuratively, with my patients.

Interestingly, clinical psychologists are used to speaking with patients about bandwidth, but of the non-technical, emotional variety. Emotional bandwidth refers to the emotional energy/resources/patience we have at any given time. Like internet bandwidth, emotional bandwidth is not infinite. We have a fixed supply of it, although the amount of bandwidth we have can vary, depending on current life circumstances.

Recently, both internet and emotional bandwidth have been in short supply. Anyone who’s tried to conduct a Zoom meeting while their kid streams movies knows the frustration of limited internet bandwidth. But fewer of us acknowledge the problem of limited emotional bandwidth.

During stressful times like these, we parents don’t have the emotional bandwidth we usually do, since we’re worried and exhausted. At the same time, we’re being called upon to provide unprecedented amounts of emotional support—to our children, partners, parents, and friends. To use a way-too-apt metaphor, it’s like we’ve suddenly found ourselves with far less food and far more mouths to feed.

All parents have their own unique emotional bandwidth issues. One big issue for me concerns family FaceTiming. Everyone (myself included) has been recommending virtual social contact as a way to stay connected. I feel awful for my parents and in-laws, who are desperate to see their grandchildren, and would love for my kids to FaceTime them constantly. However, my kids hate FaceTiming (always have, since way before this pandemic), so getting them on FaceTime is torture, involving yelling and bargaining and occasional bribery.

Here’s where my emotional bandwidth comes in: if we’re not in a time of crisis, I endure the forced FaceTiming for the sake of my beloved parents and in-laws. But at this moment, I do not have the emotional bandwidth to endure the torture. If my kids are on board with FaceTiming, I go with it. But if not, if they beg instead to play another round of Spy Alley (a great quarantine board game, by the way), I just let them play another round.

Of course, letting them play another round makes me feel guilty. My heart breaks thinking of my parents and in-laws all alone. But I am so tired, and my bandwidth is so low.

I’ve been talking with patients about the many things they are being asked to do but don’t have the emotional bandwidth for these days: following their kids’ online school curriculum, for example, or corralling their kid to join a Zoom playdate with 15 other squirmy 4 year-olds, or even, at times, donating time and energy to charitable causes, which they may wish to do in theory but which can feel overwhelming in practice.

All this thinking about bandwidth has led me to this conclusion: the key to managing our emotional bandwidth is to think about how we manage our internet bandwidth.

First, when we see we have a poor connection on Zoom or Netflix, we take stock of all of the devices using up our bandwidth. Are our kids streaming something? Are we inadvertently running other programs?

In the same way, when we are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, we need to take stock of who/what is using up our emotional bandwidth. Are we spending too much time on the phone talking about the virus? Are we filling the hours we’ve gained by not having to commute with even more work? Are we exhausting ourselves trying to coordinate our neighborhood’s front yard stuffed animal safari?

Second, if we decide that a particular Zoom call has to be a priority, we turn off all other non-essential devices that might be eating up our bandwidth. We tell our kid to stop watching videos and our partner to reschedule their meeting.

In the same way, if we’re emotionally drained, we must look at the list of things eating up our emotional bandwidth and prioritize. During these trying times, being present for our children when they’re sad or scared has to be a top priority. I am also constantly encouraging parents to prioritize their own mental health and self-care. Needless to say, if we’re completely depleted we won’t be able to function successfully as a parent or partner or employee.

Emotional prioritization may mean any of the following:

  • Letting your kids play several hours of video games while you watch several hours of Schitt’s Creek
  • Taking a walk around the neighborhood when you technically should be working
  • Allowing your daughter to take a lengthy pause in her schoolwork so she can vent to you about her softball season being cancelled
  • Not pressuring yourself to immediately return your friend’s text, when you know she will just freak you out with the grim statistics she just read
  • Going to a quiet space and crying/yelling/cursing, for as long as you need to
  • Extreme loosening of house rules (unmade beds, undone laundry, chicken fingers for breakfast)

Finally, we generally don’t blame ourselves if our internet bandwidth limits our ability to complete a work call. Yes, we may have a dynamite presentation to deliver, but if circumstances beyond our control render our presentation glitch-ridden, we don’t beat ourselves up for it. We recognize that we did what we could given the unavoidable technical issues we experienced.

Similarly, we have to forgive ourselves if we don’t have the bandwidth to provide the emotional support to all the people we want to. We need to be kind to ourselves, rather than pummeling ourselves with guilt. We’ve got to remember that these are unprecedented times, and we’re being pulled in unprecedented directions, and we’re doing what we can with the limited bandwidth we have.

While this pandemic drags on, we’re going to continue to run into bandwidth issues, both of the internet and emotional variety. I can’t give you any guarantees about your internet bandwidth, but I can assure you that your emotional bandwidth issues will improve post-virus, as the demands on your time and energy dramatically decrease.

In the meantime, conserve your bandwidth for the people and activities that truly matter to you. Don’t blame yourself for limited technical and emotional resources. And in the face of a weak connection, whether it be to a certain website or a particularly draining friend, don’t hesitate to power down.

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I’m Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D., aka DrCBTMom. combines the expert advice of a self-help book with the warmth and readability of a mommy blog.
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