Among the many frustrations of the Covid-19 crisis is our increased reliance on a range of technologies that aren’t always reliable. When my family recently changed our internet provider, we had to reprogram every wireless device with the new id and password. The printer wouldn’t cooperate, even after we reinstalled the driver and successfully printed a test page. Stress mounted as every freshly Googled fix suggestion failed. Then — lightbulb! — we remembered the first thing tech support always tells you no matter what problem: Unplug and reboot. After disconnecting for a bit, it worked perfectly.
Unplug, reboot, start anew. What a metaphor for our current situation. While we remain steeped in uncertainty — the lulls and spikes in new cases, the ever changing landscape of potential treatments, the mystery of school reopenings — we can rest assured that this crisis will pass, but we will be forever changed. But how? Can we emerge from this crisis restarted rather than shut down?
A discussion on Israeli TV touched a nerve on this subject. Dr. Dana Shai, a professor at the Academic College of Tel-Avi Yaffo, spoke on a program called “The Day After” about how these last months will change our lives and society. Dr. Shai is a psychologist, assistant professor, and head of the the College’s SEED Center for the Study of Early Emotional Development. Combining innovative research with teaching, clinical work, and advocacy on public policy, the SEED Center focuses on the infant-parent relationship and how improving family bonds can nurture healthier people and society.
Dr. Shai offered insight on the impact of coronavirus on the individual, interpersonal, and policy levels. While acknowledging the risks of isolation and emotional constraint brought by health restrictions, Dr. Shai also sees opportunities for rejuvenation and growth. Individuals have found new powers of flexibility, intuition and resilience. We’ve been compelled to radically prioritize, to examine aspects of our lives that had been on autopilot, and to develop coping strategies for impossible situations, like how to conduct a meeting with a toddler on your lap. Dr. Shai speaks of individuals suddenly liberated to integrate the formerly compartmentalized aspects of themselves, merging their multiple identities into a single, stronger self.
What starts at the individual level can carry into interpersonal relationships. As people examine their own priorities and needs, they have an opportunity for greater understanding of the needs of those around them. In her clinical work guiding new parents, Dr. Shai encourages a process
called mentalization, whereby parents learn to conceptualize even their infant children as possessing an inner life that guides their actions. With this framing, parents are better able to offer empathy and companionship, and to relate more positively to their children’s resistance or aggression. While well aware of the unique challenges and stresses parents face in this time, not least of are the increased caregiving and educational demands, Dr. Shai offers hope that the extra time together can allow families to grow closer and more understanding, to the benefit of all. She especially sees positive change in the relationships children have with fathers in traditionally structured families, now together for many more hours a day than they might have previously spent in a week. The increased time uncovers shared interests, encourages shared experiences, and fosters deeper intimacy and understanding, leading to stronger relationships that will outlast the corona times.
Of course Dr. Shai recognizes the risks of this disruption as well. Stress and isolation exacerbate underlying problems, including domestic violence and mental health conditions. Yet even here, the changes of this period offer hope for new solutions. Even before corona, the SEED Center clinical research developed numerous low-cost interventions to ease postnatal depression, emotional distance and other risks to families. However access to help was often limited by time and distance, and many in need were unable to get services because of difficulties traveling to the clinic. Now, with clinicians of necessity offering online courses and therapies, many more can avail themselves of professional support. A training she periodically offers to clinicians on interpreting nonverbal interactions filled up within minutes, drawing many participants from remote areas who previously would not have been able to attend. Similarly, parents who need support but lack childcare suddenly have a greater range of options because they need not leave home; they are taking advantage to an unprecedented degree. Moreover, knowing that they are dealing with unusual difficulties has created an unexpected therapeutic benefit for parents who previously resisted acknowledging their challenges. Because they can frame their struggles as pandemic-related (at least in part), they are less defensive and more open to advice and growth.
Dr. Shai is most critical at the societal level, where the SEED Center’s advocacy work has long sought to improve standards of care for ages zero to three. She points out that corona changes quickly demonstrated that no government agency had a mandate for this age group. Although there are programs for new parents through the Ministries of Labor and Health, standards for daycare or education were bureaucratically “orphaned,” with no agency demanding attention to child development, family well-being, or protection of the helpless. SEED is using the opportunity to advocate for “courageous decisions” to invest in reforms that may not see results for years to come. Corona highlighted how quality early care plays a crucial role in economic recovery, as a necessity for parents to return to work. Added to extensive research on the lifelong impact of early development, the case for investing in programs for parents and caretakers has never been stronger.
On every level, corona restrictions have forced us to re-examine the way we work, educate, and parent. The lessons we draw will shape the our society for years to come. If we take the time to examine the benefits as well as the costs of this time, we can hope that the reboot allows a fresh start for individuals, families, and society as a whole.