Weeks 1-2 were a mix of denial and anger, all set to rhythms of Survival Mode, acquiring food and necessities, making sense of pandemic life, and figuring out how to rearrange the landscape of life in a way that we can all live with in this house.
Weeks 3-4 have been, so far, my low point. Replete with the constant wishing things were different, feelings of helplessness, and depression.
Week 5 was my Saturation Point of News. Since then, I’ve only been able to stomach 20 minutes of NPR while I’m making dinner. It’s just enough for me to think, Yep, things are still awful and No, we still don’t have a handle on this.
By Week 6, the depression started to lift as we were faced with the news that we’d been expecting for weeks: Sorry, no more school for your kids this academic year.
And our President thought it would be a good idea to look into using disinfectant to “clean out the lungs.”
This week, Week 7, I feel mostly resigned to living life like this through the summer and well into fall. In my mind, I overestimate (I hope) that we’ll be doing this same type of life through Christmas.
In Week 7, I was able to see my mom in person, though from six feet away and with masks.
In Week 7, I learned that COVID-19 is not just a respiratory disease–it affects the whole body through blood clotting. And I read this ICU nurse’s account of the inconceivable situations and grief that she and other healthcare workers are facing right now.
In all this darkness, I want to make plenty of room for the things that are still bringing me light.
My partner–My rationality, my burden-bearer, my chef and gardener, accountant and engineer. The person I still love to watch TV with (although we rarely have time to do that anymore).
Running. Sweet, sweet exercise. Early in the morning. Nothing but feet on the pavement and music in my ears.
Watching my kids grow closer together–This is both unexpected and welcome. They (generally) love being around each other. My daughter tucks my son in at night and tells hawks to “Stay away from her little brother.”
Working with co-workers via Zoom. Sharing our little victories in helping faculty teach online.
Attending church services via YouTube. I was surprised by how much my nerves are calmed every week by just hearing familiar songs and the liturgy. When so much is changing, my mind craves the unchanging, the stable.
Re-watching the entire American Pie series. And then all of the Austin Powers movies. (Apparently, this is the extent of problem-solving and just the right level of dumb that I need in my life to balance out all the soul-crushing news.)
It is freeing if we learn to accept that our lives are on loan and we are meant to give our lives over to others. That is the kind of lesson we are taught when we are young, though it often remains on the level of a noble idea that we may opt into or out of depending on our mood. What all the many sufferings of adult life show us is that this idea is actually the high and unbending rule, and it governs our bodies and our relationships and everything else, without exception.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo
There will be no return to “normal” because we are all forced to face our own vulnerabilities now. And so the question put to us now is, How will we react to this vulnerability? What will we do?
9. Listening to Kate Tempest’s “People’s Faces.” But first, grab a box of tissues. You’ll need it.
Her poem hits all the right notes for this moment in time.
The uncertainty, the desperation, the frustration, and the sadness.
It’s a strange thing, to be at home in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, walking through the backyard with my kids, flowers blossoming in the bright spring grass. To walk down the street and realize that, Oh, there are kids at that house, too. A dad is pushing his child on a swing, hanging from a tree branch. This dad and I are home in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, playing with our kids.
It’s strange to remind your kids that, Remember, we can’t get too close, okay? Saying, ‘hi’ is okay.
It’s strange to not be thinking about upcoming birthday parties. Or mentally preparing to present at a conference next week. Or coordinating the PTO hospitality lunches for my daughter’s school. Or taking my daughter to first communion classes. I deleted all these events from my Google calendar en masse. Also gone, the reminders: on Wednesdays, pack bathing suit for Felicity, in mid-April, order birthday cake by this day, in the first week of May, deliver Teacher Appreciation lunch.
It’s jarring to see the end of normalcy displayed so clearly in my Google calendar. It’s as if someone I loved had died and I just couldn’t even cope. It has echoes of Grief. But then, when my dad died, I went back to work the next week and the world spun on like nothing had happened. I wanted there to be nothing to do, but there was still everything to do. No one else behaved like there was any reason to change, and so I felt like the odd one.
I also had Choice. I could choose to allow myself to get swept into the rituals and rhythms of Life that no one else had given up and find some reprieve from the pain of my New Reality, however short-lived. It was a quiet suffering that I moved through in my own time. And I made incremental progress toward my acceptance. It was a personal journey and I was in control.
Not this time.
This time, there really is no escape, physical or mental, from this New Reality. I cannot binge-watch Netflix until May. I cannot even do much creative work, like video editing or writing. The kids are home. AND I still need to work. To sit here and write in quiet moments to myself, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and sacrifice a daily workout for the mental clarity that writing gives me.
At a time when I most need a reprieve, there is none to be had.
Being a parent is fun. This is all so fun.
You’d think that with the deletion of all those events and reminders would come a measure of peace and clarity.
Instead, my mind is overflowing with news and charts and numbers and questions and predictions and announcements.
I’m constantly thinking about disinfection and washing hands (all. the. time.) and cleaning up the house over and over and over, and getting the kids outside, and Is Felicity reading enough? She should be writing more. Are we doing enough for Henry?, and Relax. You’re doing the best that you can.
My mind doesn’t have much space left to think about anything else other than this Giant Wave that is approaching all of us.
When will it hit Ohio hard? How many people will die? Will someone I love die? Will their body be stored in one of those refrigerated semi-trucks until we can bury them? Was that cold that I had really COVID-19? I had a low fever and a sore throat. Then I felt okay, like nothing happened. Then my lungs were irritated for a couple of days, and that was weird. But no doctor would order a test for me with the few symptoms that I had.
We are all trudging through physical isolation while also being solely responsible for regulating our consumption of the the deluge of news and social media posts that we consume each day about the surging pandemic.
Limit your social media consumption for your mental health, they say.
I don’t want to read about this all of the time, and yet I do. I don’t want to read about another instance of Trump’s feckless leadership and reckless disregard for the consequences of spreading misinformation during a pandemic.
And yet I do. It’s like my mind is begging for another example of,
See! There he goes again, being the biggest jackass the world has even seen! See everyone! He not only sucks at his job, but he’s actively making it worse!See! He doesn’t deserve to lead us one more day! Get rid of him! SOMEHOW!!!
And yet there are still millions of Americans who stand up for this buffoon. It’s not his fault. We can’t put the economy on hold forever. We have to go back to normal. Let’s get back to normal by Easter.
And so my mind spins on and on.
A few days ago, I woke up at 2:30 a.m. and just couldn’t go back to sleep. I tried. For an hour, I tried. But once the thoughts started, they rode the steep curve of that red line, riding the most terrifying roller coaster ever, clink-clink-clink, rising exponentially in the coming weeks. Up, up, and up. Who in my life would become part of that line? Who will I lose?
And to provide our human sacrifices all in the name of preserving the Great American Economy.
It’s too late for the outcome to be much different than that.
It haunts me. That undoubtedly, months from now, after thousands, if not millions of Americans have died, Trump will talk about how much worse it would have been had they not done whatever they had decided to do. Oh, right, sorry. The federal government isn’t responsible. It’s every State for themselves. Hope the States have enough funds to outbid foreign governments for their bulk purchase of medical masks and ventilators. Unless they use flattery to win Trump over. (Which I find even more maddening. Because if governors resort to falsely flattering Trump on the record in order to secure a federal response, now all the Crazy in America will have “evidence” that Trump is doing a good job.)
But in the event that Trump tries to take credit for whatever federal response the government may take, he can always say, More lives could have been lost, and be right. That’s the same argument that we’ve heard after years and years of increasingly horrific mass shootings. Hard to think that the argument will change much.
It haunts me. That Trump will undoubtedly, through tweets and press conferences, rewrite history over and over again so that it looks like he was never wrong. But, hey, at least he can’t use his rallies to rewrite history right now. I revel in the fact that he cannot hold these mass ego-feeding sessions that simply confirm his far-fetched delusions.
Trump will do everything in his power to be seen as the Winner.
But in 2020, it looks like there’s only going to be Losers. Trump included.
And in any case, we don’t need a Winner.
We need a Hero.
(Fauci for President?)
So after an hour of lying in bed, thinking and thinking, I decided to get up and do something for myself.
I did some yoga.
And then I cleaned the kitchen.
And then this happened.
After years of erosion along the bank of a creek behind our house, a tree fell over into our backyard. Now it lies against the edge of our backyard, at the end of its life, broken and unable to be properly disposed of as it is not considered an “essential service” at this time.
The morning after it happened, I occupied the kids by having them pick up sticks and put them in a bucket. It was cold that morning and my coffee cup warmed my fingers as I watched my kids poke through the safest parts of the fallen tree.
Looking at its dark branches against the pink of the dawning sky, I remembered a dream that I had about a tree falling over in the backyard, at a time in my life when everything seemed to be turning upside down.
Maybe it’s a coincidence.
I don’t think everything like this has to be a sign.
But I’m not closed to the idea either.
But it’s strange.
And then this happened.
While I was in a conference call, I was twisting my rings on my hands and I noticed that they didn’t feel right.
The setting was just gone.
I didn’t hit it on anything.
It was strange.
(Jewelry repair is also not an “essential service” at this time.)
These things don’t need to mean anything. I can be okay with believing that sometimes stuff like this happens all at the same time.
But it’s strange.
The rhythms of our lives are radically different, but we are making it work. I am working from home from the morning to the afternoon and my husband works from afternoon to midnight. There is no one else to help with care-taking. All the social support of friends and church, daycare and after-school care. It’s all gone. The best babysitter now is the TV and a Chrome book, which we use prudently through the week and throw caution to the wind on the weekend.
We are finding the good in being with our kids more. Time that we previously spent simply commuting to work and picking up kids and going to the occasional weeknight event is all now spent at home. We eat dinner together like usual, but our kids now eat with one of us at lunch time. Sometimes, I finish my shift online and find culinary gems like this waiting for me:
(I know. I’m lucky. I married well. I don’t share stuff like this all the time because he’s too good, and no, you can’t have him. I got him first.)
Although it is hard in the immediate moments of taking care of our kids to remember this, it is ultimately good for us to hold our kids close during this time. (Even though 25% of the care-taking still requires the constant vigilance and reminders of No, Hold on, Wait, Put that down!, Where’s your jacket? Away from the road!, No water guns right now, Zip up your jacket, My God! Stay out of the mud!, Too close to the creek!, Stop! No, that’s my coffee, Careful!)
It is good to take them outside to pick up sticks and discover newly blossomed flowers and put on their rainboots to splash in the puddles and watch an earthworm stretch its way across the paving stones for ten minutes and wish him well. Bye-bye worm!
It’s good to give in and read a Five-Minute Paw Patrol story (few girl characters, and they never solve the problems) when I’d totally prefer to read something like the Little Engine that Could (good moral) or even One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (good rhyming schemes).
In all this time with the kids, moments emerge.
There’s the moment when I hear my daughter reading to my son, as the daylight fades from their rooms. They are having a moment together, apart from me. And it doesn’t tear me apart. It makes my heart soar.
There’s the moment as I’m sleeping that I feel my husband’s hand slip into mine and I wake long enough to squeeze it but not long enough for my mind to start spinning again.
There’s the moment when I hear, for the first time, my son say to my daughter, “I love you, Cici.”
Although my places are restricted, time marches on, leaving behind moments in its wake.
Both of us are trying to work remotely, tagging each other in as the day allows.
We are creating a New Normal.
We are trying “home schooling” and mandated House Clean-Up times and schedules and nipping bad attitudes in the bud.
We are also just trying to not lose our minds.
I consider it an astounding feat that we have managed to limit TV time to less than 3 hours per day. Winning.
Here’s a real conversation that happened this Tuesday, 3/17.
Henry: “Is it Sunday?”
Henry: “Oh, it’s Saturday.”
Felicity: “No, Henry, it’s Monday.”
Henry: “No, it’s Saint Patri’s Day!”
Aren’t you jealous?
On Thursday, 3/12, the first wave of anxiety hit me with the announcement of the closure of all K-12 schools in Ohio.
On Sunday, 3/15, we learned that all restaurants would be closing to dine-in customers. The second wave of anxiety hit me. Not because we eat out a lot. Not at all. We actually eat a lot at home.
But it felt like the first sign that soon, very soon, public places were not going to be an option for occupying the kid’s time.
Read: No kid’s museum, no indoor parks, no library, no movies, no all-the-typical-places-where-we-might-take-them-to-stay-sane.
I’m not prone to anxiety. I worry, sure, but anxiety? No, not really.
But the thought of losing my go-to methods of occupying the kids, actually, not even really having a break from home life for 2, 3, or 4 months…
Oh, Sweet, Sweet Jesus.
So after driving to at least four stores to find toilet paper (still haven’t found any. Thanks to friend, Cate, for sharing some rolls), my husband decided that we should order take-out from a local Mexican restaurant, while we still can.
But by the time we got home with the food, he had decided to drop us off with the take-out bags and continue his search for needed supplies, as the thought loomed in our heads: When we will be officially told to shelter-in-place? And are we ready for that?
The kids ate the tacos and beans like champs, happily and hungrily. I stared at my food, cold waves of anxiety rising and washing over me again and again. Feelings that I haven’t had since I had my first baby and my mother returned to her home in Minnesota. That feeling of floating alone in the ocean, holding on to a life preserver, not knowing when the circumstances were going to change. Not knowing if a wave was approaching that I couldn’t see. Not knowing if I had the fortitude to hold on. And then all of the guilt because, let’s face it, I am likely to be just fine. A healthy, 30-something in the suburbs.
Before I knew it, the kids were done with their food, and I was still sitting there, thinking of what I needed to do to get ready for a week with my daughter at home.
They abandoned their plates, leaving the mess behind and disappeared somewhere else in the house.
When I realized they didn’t wash their hands before they had gone upstairs, I yelled at them to do so, but remained there, paralyzed, looking at the take-out bags.
But they washed their hands before dinner. Pretty sure they did. Yeah, they did. Or was it just Henry’s hands?
And then the thoughts started.
You can be asymptomatic for up to 24 days. Wash your hands. Cough into your sleeve. Wash your hands to Happy Birthday. You might not even know you have it. Stay home. Don’t go out. Wash your hands. My hands, but also the kids. All the time. Wash three sets of hands, that’s six hands. Every time you enter and exit a room. The virus can live on surfaces for up to two days. It floats in the air. Someone doesn’t need to cough on you–You can just breathe it in. There aren’t enough ventilators and there may not be enough hospital beds. What about my friend who is pregnant? Is she okay? What about Mom? What if she gets it? Can’t think about that. Can’t let the kids see her until this whole thing is over. What happens when the daycares close?
And then, I started eating. One taco. Two tacos. Three tacos. Chips. Beans. More chips. Salsa. More chips. Beans. The second bag of chips. More salsa. Oreos? What the hell. Sugar felt good. Where’s all the chocolate around here? Maybe some ice cream. Oh, there are cones, too. Hm.
Oh my God, I realized. I’m stress eating.
I haven’t stress-eaten in probably 15 years or more.
When my husband got home, we let the kids play alone upstairs while we processed what was happening around us.
“Sweets, people are getting f***ing crazy out there,” he said, eyes wide. “I saw a guy, two older guys actually, at Sam’s with–I swear to God–nothing but Swiss Miss packets in their cart. Just boxes and boxes of Swiss Miss.”
“Shut up,” I said, relieved at having something to laugh about.
“I’m serious. I’m serious,” he assured me.
It felt good to laugh. (Is there anything more attractive, at this moment, than a partner that can genuinely make you laugh? I think not.) And he was more than happy to oblige, with story after story of Ridiculous Carts in Sam’s Club.
“It’s really hitting me,” he said, “just how many people there are that have literally no idea how to cook. They’re like holding these cans of food and saying things like, ‘Could we make this or this?’ ‘What about this?’ There are people walking the aisles of stores with actual faces of fear and panic. I’ve never seen it like this before.”
And welcome to Life in the Time of COVID-19.
A time when we will choose to either battle our internal demons of the fear of scarcity or succumb to them and war with each other. Over toilet paper and Swiss Miss.
Those end-of-the-world disaster and pandemic movies that massaged our basest instincts to flee or fight, it feels like our brains are feeding on them to fuel our daily behaviors.
We didn’t think we would be here.
Disasters on this scale don’t happen to the U.S., right?
They happen in “third world countries.” They happen in places with less technology and fewer resources. They happen in countries without the same number fighter planes, tanks, and missiles.
But for some global perspective, let’s remember that Syrians continue to run for their lives as Russian planes swoop in and bomb the living hell out of Idlib. Meanwhile, we are experiencing a very, very, very mild version of the panic and fear that these refugees face every day of their lives.
But we are not used to this.
More specifically, affluent White America is not used to this.
We are not used to restrictions and limitations and “unavailable” and “2 per person” and postponing elective surgeries and schools closing for months and church services moved on-line for safety reasons and March Madness being cancelled. (Okay, honestly, that last one doesn’t bother me at all.)
This is Land of Freedom and Choice and Individualism, baby.
Actually, not for the next 2-4 months.
Now, we’ve got to learn how to be Collectivist, to behave in a way that benefits the common good, to postpone or abandon plans, to cooperate and be kind, to put competition aside so that we can protect lives and ensure that we don’t end up holding the hands of our 60-, 70-, and 80- year old loved ones as they die without proper treatment because of health care rationing.
Think about that.
Toilet paper is the least of our worries.
I’m concerned that there is not enough emphasis on looking out for each other and supporting each other through this difficult time.
That’s what led to my meltdown on Monday night this week, as our son came home from his last day of daycare.
No more daycare. No more support, was how it felt to me.
Now, it’s just the four of us.
No help from grandparents.
Now, we will have to alternate work with care-taking. Now, we will have even fewer quiet moments together without the kids.
Our village of friends, daycare, school, after-school programs, libraries, and church just collapsed into the space of our home.
I wasn’t prepared for this. None of us were.
So that’s where I’m at with coping. How about you?
If you’ve got a story about Ridiculous Pandemic Carts, I could really use a laugh.
We were three years into this decade before the biggest memories were made. It’s strange to think about now, but what did we do from 2010-2013? I remember that we traveled to Finland and Maui. We spent a lot of time with friends, cooked a lot of breakfasts…
… and experimented with making prickly pear lemonade and brewing the perfect cup of coffee.
I wasted a lot of time worrying, wondering if I would ever be able to land a full-time job in my field.
And then one day, there was a newborn hand, wrapped around my finger
Maybe you remember something similar
Maybe if you thought hard right now, you remember
That bouncer where they slept, all swaddled, mitted, and capped
The beep of the microwave (tsk-tsk) as you warmed water for a bottle
The smell of Pampers and Similac and detergent
The creaking of the tea kettle as you boiled water at 3:00 a.m.
All the onesies, the bibs, the burp cloths, the swaddles
And all the Googling.
All of the Googling.
Normal baby poop.
Milk allergy in newborn signs
Breastfeeding milk production normal
How to stop breastfeeding
When does a baby start teething?
How old is a 20-pound baby?
Best car seats
What does croup sound like?
Croupvs. whooping cough
Can toddlers get whooping cough if they’re vaccinated?
My toddler won’t chew disorders
How often do toddlers get diarrhea?
Bleeding diaper rash remedies
And then, the Googling stops. Mostly.
One day, you just decide, To hell with it. It is what it is.
You decide the toddler is more like a preschooler and you let him carry scissors around the house, and play with teeny-tiny Legos, and walk around without a Pull-Up on.
You’re on the brink of Life without Diapers, but not there quite yet.
There is Light. A Sweet and Glorious Future beyond the constant wiping of butts.
And you wonder, How did I ever get used to wiping another person’s butt?
That whole area of another human being used to be totally private and off limits. And then, suddenly, you became completely responsible for the care of another human’s butt and genitals.
It was strange.
But so was the feeling of another person growing inside you, jostling your internal organs, barreling through your genitals, and causing your breasts to ache, throb, and leak.
It was all very strange.
How their tiny cries subsided when they smelled your skin, felt your heartbeat, and heard your voice.
You weren’t expecting to be so moved by this. You weren’t prepared for the swallowing of your heart, how the gentle breath of a newborn on your chest could eclipse all the pain, emanating from top to bottom, inside and out.
You weren’t expecting that you could be this utterly exhausted, and still be strong. And still practice patience. And not completely lose your shit while on the brink of sleep-deprived psychosis.
You expected them to be earthquakes in your life, each a great shifting in the plates of your being. You expected there to be changes, fractures, new landmarks, and new paths to chart in their wake.
But you didn’t expect that it would lead you to new beauty.
That it would create new oases, new islands.
And now here we are.
On brink of having a three-year-old and a six-year-old.
My babies are not babies anymore.
They have become tiny people with personalities that converge in some respects and diverge in others.
It goes by so fast, they all said.
Does it really?
There were moments that felt like hours. Times when I, hand-to-God, prayed that we could all survive the Present Moment. If we could just get through this day, everyone alive, it would be a win.
A huge win.
If I could just get to the end of today, when the kid or kids are asleep, I will be okay.
How many more hours until bedtime?
How many more hours until I can go to work and someone else can do all this?
Oh, Sweet Lord, if I have to tell you to eat your food one more time, I’m going to completely lose it.
…And, there it is. I’ve lost it.
The truth is more like, The nights are long, but the years are short.
The last six years of care-taking is settling in on my face, in lines that are not going away and little patches of gray hair that will one day make a magnificent streak (though I’m not ready for that just yet).
At get-togethers and parties, I’m realizing that, Whoa, I’m no longer the youngest adult here anymore.
I feel like I’ve just left an abusive, toxic relationship and fallen straight into a healthy, functional one.
Does this happen?
Is this how people work?
What the hell?
This kills me because I actually truly LOVED teaching.
Okay, not all the lesson planning, assessment making, grading, and tracking. The stacks of books on other books, the Post-It lists that never seem to be completed crossed off. And then all the micromanaging from above to point out all the times that I didn’t keep a few of the 10,000 things straight.
So like I said, what I truly loved was the TEACHING. (Advising was a close second.)
I loved the relationship building: the conversations, the jokes, the stories, the updates. So really, it was the people. Both the students and my colleagues. And the fact that I was providing a service that was helping others. Bonus points for the fact that I was helping a vulnerable population. It truly checked (most) of the boxes that I needed in a job to be fulfilling.
I just dealt with the mountains of work that came with it.
Yes, that was me: Stuck in a line of cars at a railroad crossing. When a friend wished me luck on the interview by text, I sent him this picture to let him know how the day was going so far.
No big deal, right? I still had 40 minutes until the interview and I was only 12 minutes away.
But this was the first time in my ENTIRE life that the train moved forward a bit… and then back a bit… then forward a bit… and back a bit… see-sawing along the track with no apparent end in sight.
So I called the contact person, and she assured me it was no problem at all.
I ultimately arrived at about 9:10.
The interview was with three people on the team. They took me to the Green Room.
“Is this actually a Green Room?” I asked.
Yes, it was. This was where they might help someone get ready for filming.
They had a list of questions, and they were all good ones. A lot of them were questions I had anticipated and planned for. A few of them were unanticipated and I thought I rallied well in answering them. They told me more about the job: It would be in the production department of eLearning, so I would be assisting with filming shoots and doing things like writing scripts for videos and helping with sound editing. I would be trained to do a lot of different aspects of create high-quality videos that would be used to supplement face-to-face instruction.
My first thought was:
Shit. This is way over my head. When they figure out that I don’t have much experience in any of this kind of stuff, they’ll ghost me.
My second thought was:
You totally have experience for this job! You’ve done video and sound editing! You’ve written scripts for videos! You are well-versed in all things higher education! HUSTLE, GIRL!
So I hustled. I talked about the projects that I had done, the software that I used, books that I had read, and my understanding of living out learner-centered teaching. The things that I said were very similar to what I had said in a previous interview.
Which was a problem at times because when the conversation would veer toward my background and why I was looking to change careers, I kept thinking, Don’t say that! That might have been the reason you didn’t get the last job! You were too honest! Button it up! They don’t have know the level of dysfunction that you’re coming from! Why can’t you just say that you’re looking for a better opportunity?!?! SHUT UP!
But honest, I was. Albeit tactful.
It felt like a good interview. I thought I did great.
But then I thought I did great at the last interview…
On my first day of work, I walked into the office and my name was already on the door.
In half-a-second, this job had already made me feel more included than my last one, which “welcomed” me as a full-time instructor by sticking me at the other end of the building because they just couldn’t figure out how to add another cubicle in either of the two offices where the other teachers had desks. And, yes, there was plenty of room. (True story.)
This was my new office and office-mate. And there was my desk. With TWO computer monitors?!?!
And would you mind reading this email that I’m about to send to the division to make sure that I represent you well?, my new boss asked.
Um…. I wondered, Is this somehow a trap?
Then my new boss walked me across campus to orientation rather than setting me loose with a campus map.
And on my second day of work, he gave me a full campus tour of all the buildings. We spent an hour and a half just walking around, him introducing me to administrative assistants and random people in the hallway that he knew.
And apparently I’m getting paid for this?
I don’t have to be actively teaching or grading or creating something every moment of every day?
Sometimes, I would find myself in a conversation with my new co-workers and I would realize 40 minutes had passed. Sometimes the boss would keep the conversation going.
Of course, we would go back to work. But no one seemed to feel guilty about taking time to talk to each other. There was no feeling that we had just squandered 40 minutes and now WE WERE EVEN MORE BEHIND!!!
Is this what some people do at work? It’s okay to sometimes spend 40 minutes talking?
Could it be that there are jobs where the pace doesn’t consistently move at 100 miles per hour, exhausting you to the point that when you finally do have a chunk of time off, all you want to do is wall yourself off from people for a solid week, just to recover from the emotional and mental drain of simply fulfilling the requirements of your job? (Which, by the way, are totally industry-standard, so it’s not like you have any reason to complain. I mean, everyone in your field is overworked and underpaid.)
Have I just been a white-collar factory worker for the last thirteen years?
Every moment of the day carefully portioned and allocated to the endless tasks that encompass teaching.
I repeat: Is this what some people do at work?
To be clear, it’s not just days and days of talking. Some days have been filled with meetings, filming, and writing. I like those days. Others have been more low-key. And on those days, I find plenty of ways to continue to grow and learn. (Hey, did you know that there are jobs that will allow you to do professional development and trainings during your work day? Wonder of wonders!)
I think that’s what is different: the fluctuations in pace. The pace of this new job is like drinking from a water fountain with variable pressure: You’re always able to drink, but at different speeds.
And this is shocking to me, having spent the last 13 years drinking from a firehose, turned on to full power for eight-weeks straight, five times per year. Each time someone turned the hose off, I was so water-drunk, exhausted, and disoriented that I couldn’t do anything for days when a break mercifully presented itself.
This week before Christmas has typically been a time when I haven’t had to work.
I would use this week to delve into creative projects that had been on the back burner for months while I paddled along through life.
I would probably watch The Family Stone (my sappy, no-one-wants-to-watch-with-me Christmas movie). I’d get Christmas shopping done, address the cards, and bake cinnamon rolls.
Then, I’d brace for the impact of doing all the Christmas stuff with kid or kids in tow.
But this year, I do not miss taking this week off at all. Not one bit.
My husband has told me for years that he thought I’d be happier at a job with a slower pace, but with less time off. Maybe you wouldn’t burn yourself out so quickly, he said.
Wise words. Though I didn’t recognize them at the time.
Summer is usually the time that I write more, but I’ve ended up using the past two and a half weeks just immersing myself in the healing power of Doing What I Want to Do.
This past academic year was rough. Extremely rough. I took six graduate classes in one year while teaching full-time. And I presented at three conferences. And then there were the two kids.
I don’t mean this to sound like I’m so Amazing Because I Do So Many Things. It was actually kind of stupid of me to over-commit myself to so many responsibilities. If I learned anything from this past year, it’s this: Although my mental breaking point has risen dramatically since I had the kids (surprise! surprise!), IT STILL EXISTS.
In mid-June, there I was. Dissolving into tears at a Saturday Morning Breakfast when a friend asked, “How are you doing?”
How am I doing?
Does it matter?
I’m dying inside.
I haven’t had more than thirty minutes to think about something besides responsibilities in over SEVEN MONTHS.
I don’t do anything besides chores, work, school, chores, work, school.
Well, yes, I exercise, but I get up at 4:00 a.m. just to do that.
I haven’t seen adult TV since April. Period.
I haven’t done anything creative, FOR ME, for ten months.
I think that’s what has hurt the most. I’ve been holding onto a list of Things to Do that is about 100 items deep, and every time I knock enough of the things off the list and edge closer to a moment when I can do something that I want to do, SOMETHING ELSE FOR SOMEONE ELSE TAKES ITS PLACE.
Well, that’s just motherhood, hon’. Get over it, part of me thinks. You can do something for yourself in fifteen more years.
And so the fight goes on.
This is the headspace of Mother of Two compared to Mother of One.
I truly don’t know how my mom survived being Mother of Five.
She didn’t drink. She had no vices that I could see. Her weapon was optimism.
I still don’t know.
So this is what burnout looks like.
Dusting off the ole’ PS 2 (purchased in 2001…) and playing Final Fantasy VII from the beginning, this time checking off the acquisition of each and every damn Enemy Skill, leveling up the characters beyond what they need, and grinding away at enemy fights with high AP.
Burnout is reveling in the complete obliteration of fake monsters, which you’ve already beat at least five times before, mind you, (even if it was years ago) that cower with your use of Beta or Bolt 3. It is actually mentally and physically enjoyable to watch yourself knock out Boss after Boss in a few major magic attacks–when you’ve spent the entire academic year grinding away, teaching the same classes over and over again, wondering if you’ve yet told that joke to this current roster of students.
Oh, they laughed, so nope, that joke was still new to them. But you are so very tired of yourself. You don’t find yourself clever or interesting anymore. Teaching has become a bit of an out-of-body experience where you actually–while verbally giving instruction–imagine a reality in which you are finally completely ALONE in a cabin, high in the mountains, with nothing but silent snow falling all around and six more books in the Wheel of Time series to read.
That’s what I’ve been coming back from over the last two weeks.
However, it’s conclusion was this: Hey, Moms. Be vulnerable and let people know that you can’t do it all. Be real and don’t pretend that it’s all okay.
Um. Thanks. That’s not helpful.
I’m real all the time about how things are going. A month ago, an energetic co-worker saw me in the office’s kitchen and cheerfully asked how I was doing.
I said, “Running on fumes.”
“Awww, poor thing. Sorry to hear that.”
Which, yes, is somewhat nice to hear, but it doesn’t do much. And I’m certainly not expecting acquaintances to solve my burnout problems. I might also hear or “Eck, that sucks” or the murderously infuriating, “Well, this time goes fast, so don’t waste these moments!”
But it’s not helping to be vulnerable and real with people about the stress that I typically carry when I’m working full-time and taking care of two little ones.
That’s because the problems are systemic. When you live in a country that PITIFULLY supports parents, you end up with high levels of stress and burnout among working parents. (Not just working moms, hello.)
The 40-hour work week sucks for parents because you’re probably spending an additional 3-4 hours each day just caring for kids. And when you’re done with that, you just want to sleep. So really, between working and caring for kids, you’re putting in 60+ hours.
AND THEN HERE COMES THE WEEKEND.
Only it’s not the “weekend” anymore. It’s 24 waking hours of taking care of your kids, or at least keeping them safely occupied.
And if at any point in this post, you’ve had the thought, Oh please, move on, hon. This is your responsibility–You are proving my point.
Being real and being vulnerable about these issues doesn’t help because too often society says that parents (in particular, moms) should not only selflessly accept their responsibilities–they should revelin these most sacred of moments, when the children are small. Because that is what GOOD MOTHERS do. They find endless amounts of fulfillment and life satisfaction simply in seeing their children thrive.
If that’s what a good mother is, then I’m doomed to be a Mediocre Mom.
As much as I love my kids (and I really do), I cannot pretend that neglecting myself for months on end doesn’t have its consequences.
Right now, the consequence looks like this:
Of course, it truly does help when you hear your two-year-old says this:
Okay, truthfully, that’s not all I’ve been doing. I’ve definitely needed time to myself, but I am still very much me–and there’s part of me that just cannot be tamed, I guess.
We have finally filmed a video on knife sharpening for our YouTube cooking channel, which we have been planning to film for the past ten months. I’ve laid it out. It’s edited. It’s mixed and almost produced.
Knife and whetstones
There’s also another project that I’ve been quietly working on, which I’ll debut in a few weeks, if not earlier.
More to come.
And, hey, thanks for reading and not judging.
Hopefully, I’m not scorched in the comments for “being real.”
On February 15th, NPR’s Morning Edition ran a segment on “Singles Awareness Day,” focusing on how single people shouldn’t feel so alone because everyone else, apparently, had such an amazing Valentine’s Day.
Here’s how Valentine’s Day went down in this house, where two kids and a marriage of 13 years reside.
Valentine’s Day Prelude
Wednesday, February 13th: Spent the day at home with the toddler because of a diarrhea bug, which was mercifully mostly over by Wednesday. Lost time for grading and planning.
The Big V-Day
4:15 a.m. – 5:10 a.m.: Glorious morning run under the stars
(Calm down: This is the extent of the day’s romance.)
5:12 a.m: Voicemail from public schools. Daughter’s kindergarten class is cancelled because of a water boil advisory due to a major pipe breakage. No problem. She’ll just spend the day at daycare, right?
5:30 a.m.: Bathe the toddler whose poop has turned into sludge and has mercifully remained contained in his footed pajamas.
7:00 a.m.: Daycare decides to also close because of the water advisory. Reverses course 15 minutes later. Children finally dropped off and settled by 7:40 a.m. Daughter forgets all classmates’ valentines in the car.
8:00 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.: Teaching all morning, lunch for five minutes, grading/planning, public student poster presentations
3:30-4:30: Drive home, make dinner for the kids
4:30-4:45: Eat a leisurely 15-minute dinner alone before getting the kids (salad, hard-boiled egg, peanut butter pretzels)
4:45-5:30: Retrieve children from daycare
5:30-6:30: Feed children/ wash dishes/ sort through bags of valentines, crafts, and candy/ do laundry/ give baths/ dress kids for bed
6:35: Daughter says to me, “My panties have poop in them. Can you help me?”
7:00: Go to bed alone.
The Day’s Redemption: I achieved not one, not two, but THREE full sleep cycles.
So, let’s dispel all those myths that married people / people in relationships are having amazing Valentine’s Days.
Because at the end of the day, what married couples of so many years with young kids really want is SLEEP.
This is going to be quite the year.
That has been the feeling for at least the past 12 months, since the youngest child started becoming mobile. In the back of my mind (as I’m transferring clothes from the washer to the dryer or moving dry dishes to the cabinets or dirty dishes to the dishwasher), I’ve had this nagging feeling that…
Perhaps, it’s all over.
“It” being my ability to reclaim any empty moment for myself.
If, by some miracle, an empty moment finds me during the day, and I choose to use it for myself, I’m overwhelmed with the feeling of Oh my God, you should be doing something else right now! You are so far behind!
But then, the thought: Behind who? Behind what?
Who am I comparing myself to?
My pre-child self? Because she’s been dead for quite a while. And the hope of her resurrection is pretty much gone.
But then there’s the realization that, There is no end to this.
At least not for the foreseeable future.
This is my life now.
Moving from task to task to task to task until the day is done.
My life has become an endless treadmill of tasks that begin at 4:00 a.m. and pull me along, chug, chug, chug, until I throw in the towel at 6:45 p.m.
I don’t mind being busy. Sometimes, I even revel in being busy. Instead, what pulls me down is when I feel like I’m not growing or changing for the better. If I’m not pushing myself to learn more or grow, boredom soon sinks in. And that makes it harder to find joy and purpose in what I do.
So with that in mind, here are a few things that I’m trying out this year, as a way to grow and change.
Relearning algebra, geometry, and trigonometry via Khan Academy
The rationale here is…
I’m afraid of math. And I’m tired of being afraid of math.
So I wondered, What it would be like to learn math without being afraid of failing? What if I could go at my own pace and see how far my limits take me?
It’s also great preparation for taking the GRE (I may or may not be thinking about a Ph.D. program in the future).
Learning how to write computer code
Again, this is something that I’ve been afraid of. Maybe because it’s mostly a male-dominated field? But it seems like learning how to code is becoming not only useful, but necessary as computing power doubles, triples, quintuples.
Reading the Wheel of Time series
This is unabashed escapism. I’m okay with that.
Some mothers have daytime TV.
Some have romance novels (I never could get into those. Too formulaic. Too many one-dimensional characters.)
I’ve got fantasy fiction.
So, Fellow Parents, gather your provisions and your fortitude, and breathe deeply.
Rocking my almost two-year-old son in the rocking chair.
The humidifier steams. The white noise machine zzhhhhhhs.
Faint lights from passing cars travel across the walls.
With his soft breath against my shoulder, I rock back and back and back. One year. Two years. Five years. Ten years. As many Christmases as I can remember.
Plenty of happy ones.
Plenty of ones filled with tension. (Growing up in a house with four teenagers will do that).
Plenty of forgettable ones in my 20s. (That limbo between getting married and having kids.)
Now, we’ve entered a series of Christmases that no longer mean comfort and joy or the most wonderful time of the year.
There was the Christmas of Nausea (2012), when I grasped for ginger candy and Sea Bands or whatever anyone suggested that might help me ride the waves of first trimester nausea. From December until mid-January. (Truly a delight, let me tell you.)
And the 37-Weeks-Pregnant Christmas (2016), when I told myself that I only had three weeks left to go. (It turned out to be another five weeks. Yeah.)
And all those fun Christmases of Illness (2014, 2017, 2018). 2017 was by far the worst, as the baby’s diarrhea stretched on for a few weeks, taking us all down into its shitty vortex.
And the downright sad Christmas (2015) when the baby’s heart stopped beating. After I had a D & C on New Year’s Eve, I sat in the parking lot of Whole Foods while my husband bought me a slice of apple pie. I listened to “Long December” by the Counting Crows and cried.
And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself
to hold on to these moments as they pass
But if I’m really thinking about the Christmas when everything in my life changed direction, when I started plotting a course that brought me to this rocking chair, with this child in my arms, while my oldest sleeps in her bed across the hall, I always end up traveling back to Christmas of 2002.
It was Christmas Eve. 11:00 p.m. At Wal-Mart. And I was standing in the card aisle. Looking for cards for a few friends and my boyfriend. I had no trouble picking out the cards for my friends.
But I was having the hardest time picking out one for my boyfriend of three years.
Forever and always. My one and only. Meant for each other.
I couldn’t even pick them up to consider them.
Because I understood, suddenly and completely, that I couldn’t see a future for us anymore, the way that I used to.
What was our future? It was his vision for what we would become. A married couple. A house. No kids. I could be a teacher, but did I really need any more education than a Bachelor’s degree? Why did I want to travel when he was the most important thing in my life? Wasn’t a life with him good enough? And kids? Why have kids? They just ruin a good thing.
And for a long time, I thought, Yes, of course. You’re right. You are the only thing that I want in life. I couldn’t possibly want anything else. Right. I don’t want kids. Nah, too much work. We’d be much happier by ourselves. Living our life together without kids getting in the way.
But I did want more. Much more. And in time, conversations about the future brought me back again and again to a realization that I could not ignore.
We had come as far as we could together, but now there was more pulling us apart than was keeping us together.
And although my heart had been feeling that way for some time, I didn’t want to give up. I had poured so much of myself into making it work. I wasn’t a quitter. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I liked his family. I didn’t want to make life more difficult or more inconvenient for anyone.
And above all, I didn’t want to believe that although love can bring people together, sometimes it wasn’t enough to keep them together. No one makes movies or songs about the power of finding someone with compatible values and goals for life, or someone who trusts you and works with you to resolve conflict. It’s not sexy enough. And if I’m being honest with myself, I didn’t have the vocabulary back then to even articulate the problems.
I just remember thinking, This isn’t working.
I thought that a lot.
And yet, I was like the women in my family who came before me: devoted and long-suffering, servile and contented.
To end this relationship was not within my repertoire. At all.
But I also couldn’t lie to myself.
And therefore, I wouldn’t lie to anyone else anymore either.
I paid for the cards for my friends, got in my old car, turned the heat up, and flipped on the radio. The voice of Stevie Nicks reached through the speakers and the tears rolled.
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
I don’t know.
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
Because I built my life around you
But time makes you bolder, children get older
And I’m getting older too
I didn’t realize it yet, but when I left that store that night, I had changed the entire trajectory of my life.
Because the very next guy that I dated became my husband.
Three years later, we were married.
And we had two kids.
I know. I know.
It’s what we’re tempted to believe: That all the decisions–good and bad–that we’ve made in our lives have brought us to a point for which we’re ultimately grateful.
But, had I made different decisions, would I have ended up somewhere else, where I would be equally as grateful?
But what I do know is that I did something extraordinary on Christmas Eve of 2002.
For years, I imagined my future, married, but no children. Never kids.
But on Christmas Eve of 2002, I allowed myself to imagine a different future.
A life in which, someday…
I might have kids.
It turns out, as it is with a lot of things, the biggest steps that we take all start with a thought.
The simple willingness to imagine a different future.
That ability to imagine a different future has taken me far beyond the original course that I had plotted for my life. It has helped me imagine that I could get a Master’s degree. And travel overseas. And change my political and religious beliefs. And write a book. And lose forty pounds. (Three times, yeah.) And relearn algebra. (It’s true.)
And, yeah, it has helped me to imagine a life that includes kids.
And, with endless gratitude, it has helped me imagine a future moment in my life when my children won’t always need me every moment that they are awake. And a time when we won’t have to pay for babysitters. And a time when we can travel with them without losing our minds.
What about you?
What different future do you imagine for yourself?
And what will you do tomorrow to help you get there?
Because I have pretty much no time to write lately due to a combination of factors and because I feel like, Come on, it’s been a whole month and you’ve written nothing…
Totally expecting to find only memes related to the infamous Clerks’ line of “I’m 37!?!“, I was surprised to find that googling “I’m 37” led me to a several humorous tidbits that have helped me to celebrate my 37th birthday this year.
Bad Science Journalism: According to what I can only assume I should view as bad science journalism, the age 37-38 is when you start to feel old. I have to say though, I don’t typically “feel old” yet. Well, at least until it’s 6 p.m. By 7 p.m., I’m begging to crawl into bed so I can be ready to do it all over again at 4:30 the next morning.
2. Monty Python: I’m not a lover of Monty Python (though my husband is). Still, this made me laugh out loud.