As the COVID-19 pandemic closed in on their lives, Alice wept during our Zoom session as she shared the sense of slow dissolving of her relationship with Carter, the father of her infant daughter Riley. (As always, details from my behavioral pediatrics practice have been changed to protect privacy.) Seemingly unsolvable conflict between Alice’s risk tolerance for exposure to the virus and Carter’s more lax attitude hung like a cloud blocking opportunity for joy. Worst of all, she felt the gulf between her ability to meet Riley’s needs and Carter’s sense of failure to meet those needs widening. Socially isolated by the pandemic as full time caretaker, she desperately needed time away to preserve her own emotional balance. But she felt flooded with guilt when she returned from an outing to a screaming Riley and an overwhelmed and distraught Carter. I suggested that for our next visit we all meet together. While she expressed skepticism that Carter would agree, we scheduled an appointment for the early evening shortly after his return from work.
When the threesome appeared on the screen for our visit, Carter admitted following Alice’s lead. He had no idea why they were meeting with me. Alice launched into a description of the most recent episode, explaining her concern that, “Carter didn’t know what to do.” She shared her understanding of the situation, namely that Riley needed an earlier bedtime and was overtired. As often happens in such visits, soon our conversation veered to concrete questions about what to do about Riley’s night wakings given the small living quarters. I needed to take action to bring Carter into the conversation. I chose to lead him moment-by- moment through the latest “failure” when Alice returned from her run of errands to find the exhausted pair in the living room despite the late hour.
“I saw she was tired, so I got her changed and put her in her basinet,” Carter began. “She went right to sleep.” Alice looked at him quizzically, saying, “I didn’t know you did that!” We paused to recognize this new piece of information. “What happened next?” I asked. Carter took care of some chores around the house and was just settling himself in front of the TV when after 20 minutes of sleep Riley awoke screaming inconsolably. “Why do you think she was so upset?” I asked Carter. He then described her experience of waking alone in a dark quiet room after falling asleep on his chest. Again Alice expressed surprise that Carter understood this perspective. She had felt herself the “expert” with regards to their daughter, and Carter had willingly accepted that attribution. But as we took time to slow things down he began to recognize his own insight. He said, “I figured it out just before Alice got home.” It turned out that while Alice had returned to a highly distraught father, Riley had stopped crying, with only a residual quivering of her lower lip revealing the stress of the preceding hour. “So twice you successfully helped her navigate a difficult moment” I said. “It just took longer the second time.” I shared my observation that while Alice was home all day with Riley, the two had countless opportunity to work through moments of disconnection. Carter and Riley had significantly fewer such moments simply by virtue of that absolute length of time they spent together.
At this point Riley, who had been sleeping in Alice’s arms, awoke. She looked at her father who gave her a broad grin and swept her up into his arms. On the screen father and daughter shared a joyful moment of connection as Riley then nuzzled her face into Carter’s neck. As the visit was coming to an end, I asked them what they thought of us spending time like this together. Alice said she found it very helpful to protect the time as they were generally too busy to ever stop and think. She felt relieved, unburdened of guilt by my framing of the issue as Alice and Carter forming unique ways of being in relationship with Riley, without giving judgement to either.
In the final minutes I remarked on the unusual way Zoom sessions allowed for a kind off photo op by screen shot, framing their family of three. Of course I wouldn’t take a photo as that would have been inappropriate for the setting, but I wanted to share with them what I saw. In our hour visit, with opportunity to slow things down and make meaning of everyone’s experience, we created a moment of meeting. As together we navigated from mismatch to repair, both Alice and Carter appeared to feel a renewed sense of confidence. With hope, moments like this strung together over time will serve to buffer this growing family from the storm of challenges the world presents in this time of unprecedented anxiety and uncertainty.