COVID-19 has hit us each so differently. For me, this time has meant weeks of holing up in our small apartment with a rambunctious, curious, and rather opinionated three year old. As a third year medical student, this has been by far the greatest amount of time I’ve spent with my wild-child. (Insert endless amounts of awe-inspired praise for his teachers here). With my internal medicine clerkship now becoming a “virtual” experience with a heavy case-load of notes, write-ups, zoom meetings, and a standardized exam at the end, being able to teach my son, who was now missing out on his usual full day of stimulating daycare activities and lessons, was near impossible. Yet, little did I know that during this time, he would be the one teaching me.
The following five lessons I learned from my little Dovid. They are concepts that, over my twenty-six years in this world, I’ve always known about and even put into practice here and there, but my toddler, who’s only been on this earth for three years, truly embodies and lives by these principles daily, and for that I admire him tremendously.
Believe in yourself and celebrate the small victories.
I’ve never been much of a social media person. I guess it’s mostly due to a combination of being extremely technologically challenged, behind the times (I had an iPhone 5S until a month ago), and strapped for time. But there’s nothing like isolating for weeks on end to turn you into a social media addict. I turned to Facebook for parenting/homeschooling hacks and Instagram for recipes, and it was less than a few weeks in when I found myself ending my days by scrolling in my bed, searching for ideas for the next day, not realizing the impact which this battery-powered 5×3 inch machine was having on my self-esteem and confidence.
First, it was the creative DIY projects I would nix right off the bat because they were too hard, and I didn’t think I could get mine to look like hers. While scrolling, I would happen upon a photo of a mom and her baby playing on a spotless living room floor with no piles of laundry on the couch in the background. How does she keep her house so neat? Why can’t I do that? My subconscious feelings of inadequacy started bubbling up to the surface. As I continued scrolling, up popped a friend doing a TikTok dance in head to toe LuluLemon and a green smoothie to boot, and I felt my self-esteem drop down a notch as I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast between her perfectly designed self-care getup and my second day t-shirt sheepishly hiding my quarantine fifteen. In a matter of minutes, without even consciously realizing it, I had let negativity seep in and start chipping away at my self-confidence.
Meanwhile, my toddler tests my patience daily with his determination to tie his own shoes and pour his own milk. The words “I can do it myself” are his mantra, and the thought that a task might be too hard, beyond his skill level, or even physically impossible for his tiny fingers never crosses his mind. When he looks at his piece of paper with indiscernible scribbles all over it, he sees a valuable work of art fit for exhibition on the fridge for all to see. He hangs it up proudly, not thinking about the number of “likes” it will get and not worrying how others will perceive his masterpiece. Rather than counting up the unchecked boxes on a to-do list, he celebrates every single accomplishment as if it’s the most important thing in the world, even if it’s something he’s “expected” to do. He excitedly announces it to the world every single time he goes to the potty. He doesn’t let the fact that his classmates have been doing it for months already rain on his parade.
If only we, as adults, treated our mundane activities as victories, we could build up our confidence to achieve more. Why do we feel the need to cut ourselves short before we even begin? Why do we fear failure so much? Let us harness our childish, naive confidence that anything is within our grasp. When times arise when—according to society’s definition—it appears like we have failed, let us define what our drawing is and hang it on the fridge with no label, no title, no explanation, but simply a testament to our hard work, because that is enough of a reason to celebrate. And when we do celebrate, let us dance like nobody’s watching.
Have a gratitude attitude—and verbalize it out loud.
Every morning, my son’s incredible daycare (shout-out to Gan Atid- Bronx Jewish Center!) has a Zoom class. They sing, dance, learn, do a hands-on activity, and end with tefillah. Each day, a different student takes a turn to be the leader and starts off by asking every other student in a sing-song tune, “What are you thankful for today?” I listen in as each child responds, “I’m thankful for cookies; I’m thankful for Thomas the train; I’m thankful for my Mommy and Daddy.” (Dovid’s answer usually has something to do with pumpkins—I have no clue why.) After each child has expressed gratitude for something, they continue on to sing Modeh Ani, in which we thank G-d for returning our souls to us in the morning after a night’s sleep. I, too, say this prayer each morning. Well, to be more accurate, I mumble it while I yawn, stretch, and rub my eyes. Then I proceed to get out of bed and start my routine, and you’d bet I don’t revisit this song with such intention later in my day. That’s not to say I don’t have moments throughout my day when I reflect on things I’m grateful for. But it’s not the same as having a daily practice of verbalizing specific things for which I am thankful. And on top of that, reflecting enough to meaningfully verbalize it to others.
The Jewish people are called in Hebrew, “Yehudim”, after the tribe of Yehudah. The name “Yehudah” comes from the word “Hoda’ah,” which means “gratitude.” Leah, Yehudah’s mother, named him this as she was filled with gratitude upon his birth. But isn’t everyone filled with gratitude upon the birth of a child? Why was it Leah who specifically was the first one in the Torah to give this name to her child? Leah was a neivah, and she knew that Yaakov would be the father of twelve sons who would become the twelve tribes. Being one of Yaakov’s four wives, she thought that each wife would have three sons, adding up to twelve. Thus, after she gave birth to her fourth son, Yehudah, she was filled with overwhelming gratitude that G-d had gifted her with an extra son. We, as the Jewish people, are named after Yehudah, whose name was an expression of gratitude for that which was beyond what Leah felt she was “entitled” to. As his namesake, we are reminded constantly to live our lives imbued with a sense of gratitude, for everything in our lives is extra. Nothing is “owed” to us, everything is beyond that which is expected, and, thus, every tiny detail is a gift from G-d, worthy of our gratitude.
Witnessing my toddler share what he is grateful for each day has inspired me to make this a conscious daily practice, and for that, I am grateful.
Engage with the present.
During this quarantine, I have spent more hours playing with my little boy than ever before in his life, and I have been blown away by his ability to be completely present in the moment. The other day, he was fully engrossed in a game of make-believe, in which he was a pilot flying his stuffed animals in a cardboard-box airplane to some made-up country. He asked me to play with him and I joined in, but my creativity has a lower threshold, my imagination is creaky and out of practice, and I found myself thinking too hard and trying too hard to craft my dialogue to fit the scenario, even when it was all make-believe anyway, and nobody but myself was judging the authenticity of my contributions. Half of my brain was pretending to play pretend, the other half contemplating what to make for lunch, considering how many chapters I had to study that day, and the list goes on. Being so future-oriented, agenda-driven, and productivity-obsessed, I ironically didn’t make a very good copilot. My three year old, on the other hand, who was wholly immersed in the task at hand, was the one who could be trusted to fly the plane to safety.
One of my parenting inspirations, Dr. Shefali Tsabary, in her book, The Awakened Family, writes, “Were you to ask me what I believe to be the root of conflict between parents and children, I would tell you that it’s a clash of time zones. Parents are oriented to the future, to getting to wherever they imagine themselves to be going. Children, on the other hand, when left to themselves inhabit the present.”
So often in life, we are only partially present. On my journey in medicine, I’m all too familiar with the ever-present underlying thoughts of what lies ahead on this long road. It’s ingrained in me to always be thinking about the next exam, the next evaluation, the next rotation, the next decision I need to make. There are constantly new important dates and deadlines around each corner, and we are trained to be goal-oriented and forward-thinking, like a racecar driver in a video game collecting yellow stars on this road to success. Yet, sometimes when I reflect back on the moments and milestones leading up to where I am, it’s as if there are little holes in the picture—blank white spaces my mind didn’t have a chance to fill in because it was too busy fast-forwarding to what lay ahead. It checked out too early, planning for the future while neglecting to fill in the present. As Andy from the television show, The Office, says, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”
As an adult, this challenge is so much harder than it is for my toddler. It’s against everything we’ve been taught to do. We are indoctrinated to produce, to achieve, to accomplish, to grow, but sometimes in getting caught up in the “doing”, we lose sight of what it means to simply “be”. This is why so many people who reach the “finish line” are burnt out by the time they get there, largely forgetting what fueled their passion to embark on this journey to begin with. I speak for the career path I have chosen, as that is what I know, but I know it applies to so many others’ paths as well. It is so hard to truly live in the moment. It takes faith to let go, and it takes energy to be mindful. But learning to fully engage with and give intentional attention to the present allows us to be so much more conscious as humans. It enables us to remember the details in our human interactions, recognize emotions brought out by our experiences, catch mistakes in our work, and go through life in a more mindful and purposeful way.
Add a little more music.
To say that the balance between full-time parenting and full-time schooling during this lockdown has been a challenge is an understatement. There were many occasions when my half-naked, toilet-training toddler attended my medical school Zoom classes (thank goodness for the “mute” function). One morning, while we were sitting on the couch listening to my professor lecturing, Dovid turned to me wide-eyed and asked, “Mommy, why isn’t your teacher singing?”
I laughed at how adorable his comment was, how cute it was that he thought that all teachers must sing their lessons. And then, as I continued to share this story with my family members throughout the day, the profound sweetness of his comment started to sink in. While of course I don’t expect my medical school lecturers to break out in song about Virchow’s triad of thrombus formation or Reynold’s pentad of acute cholangitis, I’m also pretty sure that my son learned a completely new alphabet in a few days simply by singing a catchy song. The amount of time I spend memorizing thousands of facts, not to mention my long-term retention of material, would undoubtedly benefit from my son’s learning tactics. Music is such a powerful tool that we use heavily as children, but often forget as we grow older and start adulting.
Music also adds an element of fun to mundane work and activities, as so masterfully portrayed by Mary Poppins, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and so many other Disney movies. Music fosters creativity and keeps us energized. A 2016 study by Mindlab International Ltd. found that pop and dance music not only produced faster overall performance, but also helped reduce the number of mistakes made by employees. Many times when I’ve scrubbed into the operating room, I’ve seen the surgeon or resident scrolling through their iPhones for a playlist, recognizing the power of music to keep us energized and focused. While music in particular is a powerful medium many of us can easily implement into our adult lives, general methods of appealing to our inner child in the effort to cultivate creativity have been implemented at several high-tech companies. Companies like Google and Facebook have installed adult-sized ball pits, slides in the place of stairwells, ping pong tables, and more in order to fuel the fires of their employees’ imaginations and keep motivation high in what would otherwise be a stressful and taxing environment. Personally, I know that there is nothing that kills my productivity level quicker than boredom, so maybe we ought to take a page out Snow White’s book and “whistle” a bit more “while we work”.
Be quick to forgive.
Quarantine has definitely been a test of my patience as a mother. It’s as if each day I grow a new set of buttons, and somehow my toddler suddenly knows exactly which ones to push. Some days are better or worse than others, and, to put it nicely, I’ve surprised myself a few times at the new decibel level my voice has been able to achieve. Like the time it was minutes before Shabbos candle lighting, and nothing was ready, and my son decided that it would be the opportune time to unleash his inner Picasso all over the living room wall. With a million thoughts racing through my head, I lot it and yelled at him. Of course, as things settled down and some space in my brain opened up to accommodate thoughts about how I had reacted, the feelings of guilt started to percolate. I went into his room to check on him, and he was lying in his bed playing with his stuffed animals. I felt bad for yelling, for reacting in the moment, and I wished I had exercised more self-control. I went over to give my little boy a hug, and after we talked it over for a little while, he was back to normal as if nothing had happened. This scene has played out many times, and each time he is so quick to forgive and forget. He doesn’t hold a grudge, and he never even reminds me of the times when I’ve lost it. He’s the same way with his friends—one minute they’re hitting each other and grabbing toys away from each other, and the next minute they’re best friends again.
Of course these are extreme examples, and our adult conflicts often involve “larger” issues than grabbing toys away. But perhaps if we learned a bit from our children’s ability to forgive and move on, our relationships would be a little bit stronger. Perhaps if we allowed a hug and apology to sometimes be enough, we would allow more room for unconditional love.
During this quarantine, let us believe in ourselves a little bit more.
Let us express our gratitude a little bit more.
Let us live in the moment a little bit more.
Let us make music a little bit more.
Let us forgive a little bit more.
And let us learn from our little ones a little bit more.