It was a particularly long Sunday. We had online church service in the morning, our foster child was taking an afternoon nap, and the rest of the kids were watching a family movie on Disney Plus.
Then it started. I can’t remember how, or why, but all I know is that my wife and I suddenly started arguing. And we couldn’t stop. Until both of us independently decided that the matter we were quarrelling about was too trivial to waste so much time on.
We decided to cool off by taking a walk in the park, although given the new Covid-19 measures, we had to ensure that our family of two adults and three young kids had to keep to the social distancing rules of travelling in groups of two. It was, after all, the first day of the new Phase 2 (Heightened Alert).
It’s been more than two weeks since Singapore tightened its Covid-19 safety measures, and we have found the root of that mysterious argument that day. In her wisdom, my wife reflected that the new measures had unconsciously re-surfaced the trauma following the Circuit Breaker of last April.
2020 was indeed hard for us, and like many self-employed persons, a significant chunk of my work evaporated in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak here. Training workshops were cancelled or postponed indefinitely, and face-to-face counselling sessions could not take place given the strict measures. Our family finances took a beating, and the uncertainties became a source of tension between my wife and I. Added to this was the often annoying and space-infringing experience of the entire family staying at home, all the time.
While the Heightened Alert phase is nothing like what we experienced during Circuit Breaker last year, the fear of returning to those hard days brought back painful memories. Our bodies also inevitably went into a state of overdrive.
This was followed by a state of restlessness; we spent days on end consuming nothing but Netflix, possessing neither the energy nor the desire to snap out of it.
Many of my dad-friends have similarly reported that they found it hard to focus on their work and were feeling irritable and joy-less more often.
In the words of Adam Grant, we were languishing.
“Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield,” wrote Grant in The New York Times article.
We’re not alone in this state of constant lack of motivation; many of my dad-friends have similarly reported that they found it hard to focus on their work and were often feeling irritable and joy-less.
Some of us turn to comforting and anxiety-reducing routines, like exercise or cooking up a storm in the kitchen. These may help to some extent, but we cannot disregard the “sense of dis-ease”.
On the mental wellness spectrum, Grant places languishing right smack in the middle, in between depression and “flourishing” – where individuals develop a strong sense of meaning, mastery and a sense of how you matter to others.
How then do we move from a state of languishing to one of flourishing?
While we not YET flourishing, there are three things that have helped me and my family cope with the pandemic. This has been in the areas of making meaning, gaining mastery and by increasing our consideration for others.
Making meaning through hobbies
My kids love animals. Since the start of the Circuit Breaker, we have given them something to care for other than themselves. Our home menagerie now comprises five hamsters, two terrapins and a colony of ants.
My boys learn to care for the animals daily, and we have seen both growing in responsibility. In addition, my younger son sometimes does non-conventional things like getting the hamsters to dance to the music of the “Coffin Dance”, which does add a burst of humour to an otherwise dreary day.
Gaining mastery through cycling
We love nature, and the great outdoors have always been a source of solace and peace. Late last year, one of our good friends gave us some bicycles, and we have since been cycling around the park as a family.
This has provided us with a degree of respite during such difficult times. My older son, in particular, has taken to cycling, and he thoroughly enjoys the freedom of riding with the wind blowing against his face.
I have learnt to give my family more space, and to allow them the personal space to be themselves, complete with all their imperfections.
Increasing our consideration for others
When we are in a state of languishing, our first instinct is to focus on ourselves, and the difficulties we face, forgetting that others around us may also be going though similar struggles.
I have since learnt to give my family more space, to think more of them and to allow them the personal space to be themselves, complete with all their imperfections. I’ve tried to set aside my expectations of them, and to acknowledge that they too are having a difficult time.
And this increased consideration for others may extend beyond the family, such as considering the challenges faced by migrant workers in dormitories, as well as healthcare workers who are at the front of the fight against the coronavirus.
Keeping ourselves healthy for our family
The current pandemic is unlikely to be going away any time soon. Indeed, there is the possibility that the virus might become endemic and we might have to continue living as normally as we can even as new strains of the virus continue to emerge.
We are not sure about the impact of new COVID-19 variants, and there remains uncertainties about the future of travel, the economy and our finances.
But we can control how we manage our emotions and how we care for our mental health. Whether it’s a chat with a friend when I feel overwhelmed, connecting with my online communities on social media, or simply heading out for a dose of nature, small steps like these enable me to be the best father I can be to my kids.
So, to dads out there, we may all be in varying states of languishing, but know that we’re not alone. Let’s do what is within our means to make a positive change at home and in our community, and ride this pandemic out together.
© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mentoring and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys almost 11 and 9.
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