The world is in chaos, and so was my psyche. Until I made some basic — yet vital — changes.
I was furloughed from my job in travel advertising in April and, with respect to all the people out there who have been left in dire straits by the reverb of the coronavirus, my layoff was a relief.
My husband works as a firefighter and paramedic, so our family’s risk is elevated. And the woman who came to take care of our 1- and 3-year-olds during my work hours lives with her 80-year-old grandmother. Each day she came, my stomach was in knots imagining we might unknowingly pass this obscure pathogen on to her and, by extension, her vulnerable grandma. I shuddered at the idea that I could become an unwitting murderer.
So when I found myself on an impromptu all-employee conference call announcing the furloughs one day in late March, I felt my anxiety abate. And in truth, I felt my ego arch its back, too. I mean, it’s the first job I’ve held on to for more than two years (the announcement came a week before my five-year anniversary, in fact), and as jobs go, I’ve always enjoyed it. It was my workplace through my engagement, my wedding and the birth of our two children. The company has bent and flexed with me as my life has changed, and its allowed me to shift gears to do some of the most creative work under its umbrella. So the thought of parting — potentially permanently, and so suddenly — brought on its own emotions.
Still, as I sent the nanny home and knelt to take stock of my toddler and preschooler — both of whom would be fully in our charge now — I understood that not only had I received a pardon from potentially hurting her family, but I’d also gained an opportunity to actualize something for which a part of me has always yearned: To be a stay-at-home-parent.
Granted, being any kind of parent in this climate feels a bit like setting adrift on a murky — and lonely — lagoon. Given the chance to mother full-time, I’d always imagined I’d draw up an exciting weekly calendar stocked with library classes, play dates, Gymboree sessions, playground outings, zoo visits and all the family-focused events I could wedge in around my littlest one’s nap time. Needless to say, none of the above was available for my actual stay-at-home-mom docket.
So instead, as we donned our masks and gloves to purchase what felt like the Last Load of Groceries Ever, I resolved to be the best literally taken “stay at home” mother I could be. I ordered all the craft supplies I saw on the “momtrepreneur” Instagram channels. I got all the preschool workbooks. I reorganized the toys (or, to be real, organized minus the “re-” — I had never had time or energy to tackle it before) and both kids’ rooms. I was a mom on a mission.
And it went great. My kids ate up the sensory activities (thankfully not literally, although my baby definitely did nibble on some of the homemade playdough) and whacked an assortment of musical instruments enthusiastically along to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” At our home “preschool,” my three-year-old daughter leapt ahead of her actual preschool learning, sounding out and reading short words — and noticeably enjoying that her doting mother was her personal tutor. Meanwhile, “Coach Papa” had her swimming across the pool the long way in a matter of weeks, and even snorkeling like a pro.
When Mama became the sole storytime purveyor, my baby boy suddenly became hooked on books — something he didn’t have more than a few minutes’ patience for prior to the changing of the guard. He was always a precocious talker, but his sentences soon grew to four, often grammatically correct, words. Maybe that’s not because of me, but the gem is that I got to witness each syllable. Oh, and all the extra baby snuggles, cuddles and achingly cute conversations I got out of the deal — it was like Christmas every day.
Then there was time. Delicious, elusive time. We finally had it. Long leisurely breakfasts. Time to lie together on the shaggy rug in my daughter’s room. Time to walk at my son’s pace around the block (spoiler alert: it is very slow and non-linear).
I had never before stopped to think that maybe a three-year-old doesn’t enjoy being hustled around five days a week to preschool. I assumed that she enjoyed playing with her classmates and doing all the cute activities. She had rarely complained about it. But when I asked her if she missed going to school, she thought about it briefly and gave a decided “no” (although she did wish she could play “PJ Masks” with her best friend Alex on the playground again).
Before all this, when my husband and I had discussed the possibility of my parenting full-time, we had built “me-time” into the sketched out plan. A few weeks into quarantine, I reminded him about this, and asked that we set aside one day a week to be my “me day.” He agreed. So I started taking some time for myself each week, during which I elected to put pen to paper (figuratively — I run a paperless office) for the first time in a long while. I set up a weekly FaceTime workshop with a childhood friend who also writes (and had also been furloughed) so we could motivate and critique each other.
It’s important to note here that I struggled with eating disorders and addiction for about 15 years until I began my recovery at age 27. And for some reason, when I sat down to write at this moment in time, without a conscious thought I began to dredge up stories from my past and sort them out on the page. My writing partner was already acquainted with this metamorphosis, so he wasn’t shocked by my stories, but he was somewhat impressed by them. During one of our sessions, he remarked that he thought I should put them into a book.
At first I laughed. I hadn’t written anything personal for half a decade, so going straight to a novel-length work seemed an absurd first foray back. But soon I found myself daydreaming about the idea while cleaning up blocks and chopping up squash for the kids. When would I ever have a graspable opportunity to take on such a project — the likes of which I have aspired to do since childhood? Suddenly it seemed blaringly clear that this was a pivotal moment. Would I seize it or concede to spend another five years wondering if I would have had the mettle to actually create something remarkable?
That week, I began shuttering myself in my office for the entirety of my “me-day,” culling through uncomfortable remembrances of relationships gone bad, weeks and months and years spent strung out on self-destruction, loneliness and dishonesty, reconstrucing and reliving difficult memories from sunup to sundown. I recorded all I could and would emerge around my children’s bedtime with an ache between my eyes, more from the strain of reexperiencing shame than from the demand on my retinas. Still, I’d head back for more after singing the last lullaby of the night. I decided I was in a race against time — against my being called back to work, or being compelled into another job by impending financial constraints — and every word I could cram in now would put me closer to the finish line of having a marketable manuscript.
A few weeks went by and my writing partner was called back to his job; he wouldn’t have time anymore for our weekly critiques. I understood, of course, but felt the loss disproportionately. Having a comrade with whom I could share my work and check in regularly — even if just through the magic of cellular data — was more than a quality assurance measure for my writing, I realized. It was also an antidote to the loneliness the solitary work and the regretful remembrances brought.
I tried and failed to find another writing partner who was interested and available for weekly pow-wows. So I would press on alone. When I thought about it, it actually seemed kind of childish to need someone to pat me on the back every time I wrote a decent sentence. Time to “wo-man” up, I concluded.
At the same time, now that my husband was dedicating a full day off to childcare, the yard maintenance and errands he usually spread throughout the week became more concentrated on the other days. Sometimes it felt like I went a week without seeing him, even though we were no more than a few hundred feet from each other much of the time. Then one week, we got news that an insurance inspector would be coming to check on our hurricane preparedness. My husband had been accumulating all the shutters and brackets we would need to be ready — and secure hefty insurance discounts — for some time, but he hadn’t installed them. Thus began an urgent, tedious and physically grueling project that consumed him for the better part of a week.
Of course, that meant I was alone with the kids for all that time. Normally, that would be no big deal. But this moment was not normal. I hadn’t left the house for ages. I hadn’t talked to another adult in just as long. I was pumped full of the sting of humiliating memories thanks to the punishing way I was running my book-writing project. And, maybe as a way to cope with that, I was staying up too late and numbing out with Netflix every night — only to be woken up before dawn by my still-breastfeeding toddler’s primordial scream for “booby-nap-time.”
I found myself gritting my teeth and exploding internally when my daughter spilled a cup of yogurt or my son repeatedly snatched her toys. Normal happenings that typically would not faze me. The sound of crying — which inevitably arises a few times a day when you’re raising preschool children — made me either want to throw myself through some window glass or shut down to a dead-eyed shell. Neither of which is a rational or estimable response, I knew, but I was raw. I wanted to have the energy to set up engaging activities, throw a tot dance party or suit everyone up for an outing at a nearby park that had now re-opened to the public. But I felt completely sapped. Unstable. Pitifully low.
In that state, everything from motherhood, to my marriage, to my prospects of writing a book or doing anything else worthwhile looked grim. I knew I was in trouble. Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it — this wasn’t the first emotional bottom I had hit. And I knew how to crawl out. Here is what I did.
I talked about it.
I told my husband what was going on with me. I was careful not to blame him — it was not his fault — but instead described in an objective way what had happened and where I had landed. He is not a natural communicator, nor is he anywhere near as outwardly emotional as I am, but he is a good listener and he steps up to the problem-solving plate whenever he is asked.
I also consulted a friend who is a counsellor. One of the first questions she asked was when I had exercised last. That was a real flashbulb moment for me; exercise had been an immense part of my recovery from the very start. The endorphins jumpstarted by a daily run were nature’s perfect elixir for soothing my raw early-sobriety nerves. But over the last four years, motherhood and career had left little time or energy for it. So where I used to run marathons, now I could barely scrape up the drive to race my daughter to the next stop sign on our family walks. I saw that this had to change.
I also made sure to attend more meetings with my recovery group — another priceless resource I had neglected to make use of in my rush to the imaginary finish line — and to speak up honestly about what I was experiencing.
I made a plan.
My husband and I worked out that using “me-time” solely for shutting myself away with difficult memories was proving unhealthy. He also volunteered to take care of the kids while I got in exercise throughout the week. Since I was no longer a breadwinner for our family, I had felt that motherhood now had to be my full-time job, and I mean full-time, save for the day set aside to do something that might one day amount to an alternative source of income. The fact that I — someone who went out of her way to start a blog on self-care in motherhood — held this mindset exemplifies just how pervasive motherly guilt can be, and how disparities in earned income can affect self-esteem and contribute to inequity in married couples.
The bottom line is that we are parents and people. Our children need us. Our children need us to be well. And we need to be well as individuals and as a couple. It’s basic stuff, sure. But it’s easier said than done.
On that note, we decided that my husband should have some real time off as well. We built a free day for him into the weekly plan. And we both resolved to go to bed earlier.
I took action.
I felt better immediately after sharing my plight with my inner circle and coming up with a solution. But now it was time to execute or crawl back into the black hole.
So the next day, I strapped on my running shoes and I hit the pavement while my husband held down the fort at home. My muscles readily took up their well-rehearsed rhythm and life’s anxieties were replaced by the simple meditative thought of putting one foot in front of the other. Graced by a cool breeze, lush Floridian foliage and smiles from fellow pedestrians, I found this first run instantly rewarding and I readily repeated it the next day. Even when Ian was at work, I kept up my streak by stoking my little ones with snack sacks and loading them into the double stroller for a morning jog — something I’d previously deemed too cumbersome to attempt.
I made a point to call a friend or family member each day and attend a Zoom meeting several times a week. I shut the lights off by 10 p.m. And I skipped self-isolating for my writing day to take an impromptu day trip to the Keys with my family. It was refreshing to sit next to my mate for a few hours in the car and talk as we took in the calm of the endless ocean views along the way.
I reaped the rewards. We reaped the rewards.
Immediately after putting the plan into action, my mood lifted. I felt the togetherness I had been so sorely missing. The ache in my forehead was pacified by the regular flow of endorphins unleashed by my long-dormant exercise routine.
And mothering my little ones became more intuitive again, too. I began again to see spills of glitter, beads or orange juice as reasons to haul out cleaning products rather than to internally combust. Play ideas started flowing spontaneously again, as did laughter all around. As I started to feel healthier, even my cooking got a boost — I was inspired to infuse more plant-based ingredients into all of our meals. Sometimes, my toddler would even eat them!
My relationship with my husband has also leveled up. In my limited experience as a married person, one partner has to speak up when something isn’t right so that the pair can decide together on a new trajectory. In my marriage, as the more sensitive, emotive and communicative person, I am always the one to raise the flag. I believe that the success of our union is hinged on my acceptance of this responsibility, and I do accept it, though it can sometimes be a chore. There isn’t much room for pride in a loving and functional marriage — or at least there isn’t in mine. And every time we work our way out of a snag such as this, my faith grows in him as a partner and in our union as a whole. This time was no exception.
Does this mean I’m abandoning my dream of writing a book? No. But I am reevaluating the project. Maybe there is a way to process my lowest moments that doesn’t require immortalizing them. Maybe there’s a better way to tell the story. Or maybe I have a more inspiring story to tell. I’m still working it out, and prioritizing it while recognizing that it’s not the most important thing in the world.
But I have learned one thing for sure during this incredibly odd, stress-inducing wrinkle in time: I am nothing — not mother, not wife, not creator — if I am not well. And everybody benefits when I lay claim to the necessities of my spiritual strength.
Have you had to make adjustments to your life in the “new normal?” Please share your experience below.