For the past 50 days, anxiety has been my constant companion. I worry about the health of my family — my husband and daughters in my house, and my father in a nursing care facility in another state. I worry about screen time. I worry about my daughters’ mental health. I worry because I don’t know how to answer all of their questions. I worry because I can’t find answers to my own questions. I worry because I’m not sure how much longer I can take this.
These past seven weeks, my husband, kids and I have moved through stages of grief. At first, shelter-in-place was an adventure. I assumed it wouldn’t last past spring break. A hallmark of denial. Then I vacillated among anger, bargaining and depression for a month. I’ve wanted so badly to arrive at acceptance, to notice the silver linings more than the inconveniences. I know that gratitude can release dopamine and serotonin, but when I list all the things I’m grateful for — our health, a roof over our heads, working Internet and food in our fridge — I then think of the families who don’t have these, and I feel guilty for complaining, then ashamed and, thus, more depressed than ever.
I used to have big plans. I was writing a TV script. I had full days meticulously laid out on to-do lists. I used to be a person who wore bras and didn’t absent-mindedly leave a stick of butter in her closet. Now, there’s no need for lists. My days consist of walking back and forth between my kids’ rooms, helping them and answering their questions, except for a block of gym and lunch, which my husband handles. You would think I would work out during that break, or fold laundry while watching some sort of guilty pleasure TV — something to restore my sanity. Instead, I usually stare out the window. Or at my phone. I am a tablet with 5 percent juice left; the battery is red and there is no charger in sight.
Well-intentioned friends and family have sent all manner of links and ideas — and all I can think is: Oh good, another thing to help my kids with. Or worse, they dole out “advice,” like: “Make sure you take care of yourself.” What is that? What is “self-care” during a pandemic? Early on in this process, when I had more energy, self-care was listening to D-Nice DJ while I danced around the kitchen with or without my daughters. But who has time for self-care anymore, when there are groceries and mail and kitchen counters that need disinfecting?
I cried in the bathroom for myself, and for my husband. We’re still trying to work, but really we are full-time educators now, and house cleaners and dogwalkers and cooks and referees breaking up fights between our daughters, 7 and 8. We are the emotional, mental and academic support for our children, for the foreseeable future. But much of it falls in my lap. When our kids scream and vent about missing school, it’s to me. When they need help navigating this unprecedented time and the disappointment that comes with it, I’m the one who’s with them.
Once in a while, after the kids go to bed, close mom-friends and I have Zoom cocktails to combat our collective loneliness. We complain about our partners and all the little quirks we’ve noticed during quarantine: My husband lunges into sandwiches as if they’re his last meal. He pronounces Budapest Budapescht.
We talk about the mental load, about how we got here politically.
We try to support one another and cheer one another up. But the theme of these calls is: My life is over for the foreseeable future. When will my time be my own again? When can we go back to that? And we know we are privileged — to have homes, to have food, to have paychecks, to be able to pay the bills. But we are so tired, too.
Mostly I was crying in the bathroom for my kids. They love school, and they miss their teachers and friends terribly. My second-grade daughter, especially, asks me daily: When can I go back? And though I’ve never lied to her, I’ve been grateful that I didn’t yet have confirmation and was able to say, “I don’t know.”
Mid-breakdown, I considered writing back to the head of school with a simple: “No, thank you,” or “I need an end date. Please.” I thrive on deadlines, on keeping a calendar.
But I don’t write back to the head of school. He is a lovely man, supportive and compassionate in all of his videos and mass emails during this time. But I’m bitter about everything, so all I can think is: He doesn’t have kids of his own. Of course he’s lovely: He doesn’t hear the following, on a loop, every day, all day: Mommy, can you help me? I don’t get this. What do they mean? I can’t thread these myself. Can you print these 18 files for me? How do I do this? Mommy? Is it snack time yet? Where’s my folder? My helmet? My handout? I don’t understand. The dog ate ranch dressing! When’s lunch? What’s a fraction? What’s a simile? The page won’t load! What’s your password again? When can we go back to school already? Does ranch dressing kill dogs?
I have read articles by child psychologists telling us how to help our elementary-school-age kids right now. Many of them encourage parents to make this time as “magical” as we possibly can. I’ve been trying so hard, I feel like I’m burning myself out just to keep their lights on.
As I sat now on the cold tile floor, I thought: I can’t do it. I can’t do this for possibly four more months, including an unstructured summer “break.” What is summer, when we will have been home for four months already? I can do hard, but I cannot do the impossible.
Eventually, I got up and wiped my face, in time to make dinner.
The next day, I went on a walk with my daughters and our puppy. It was a hot day, but windy. Southern California weather: another thing for which I’m grateful.
I told my daughters the news, that they wouldn’t return to school until the next academic year. Our first-grader pumped her fist and said, “Yesssss.” She has always enjoyed more time at home and is generally more introverted than her sister and me.
Our second-grader wailed.
“I know,” I said. “This is so hard.”
“Zoom play dates aren’t the same,” she cried, anticipating my next suggestion.
We sat on a patch of grass. My first-grader took the leash and ran our dog up and down the sidewalk.
My second-grader cried very hard, like she does when she scrapes a knee. I know that this experience will build resilience and flexibility in her generation. They might even develop an aversion to screens and go back to the basics, value face-to-face communication more. But in the moment, it’s just hard. For them and for us. I hugged her, holding her in the embrace, said, “It will be okay, it will all be okay,” because eventually it will be, right? It has to be. I have to will it to be true.
“One day at a time — it’s the only way,” I told her, and myself. Thinking too far ahead is crushing, suffocating.
Her sister was climbing a tree now. The dog rested beside us in the grass, then rolled around. This made us laugh.
A few days later, I developed my own sort of routine: listening to a meditation app right before bed, and trying to steal time during the day to read part of a Pema Chodron book or poetry by Mary Oliver, two things that have brought me comfort in the past.
I am still hanging on by a thread at the end of Week 7, feel more burned out than ever, and it’s definitely getting harder, not easier. I remind myself of the Pema Chodron quote I have now taped onto my computer: “The key is to be here, fully connected with the moment, paying attention to the ordinary details of life.” There’s fresh air to breathe, magic in the form of warm winds, trees to climb, roses and jasmine in bloom, and we can hold onto hugs for a long time because there’s no place else to be.
Carrie Friedman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. You can find more of her work at carriefriedman.com.