I feel for my husband. Yet in that moment, it struck me just how differently the pandemic has affected our lives. As a stay-at-home mom of two toddlers, lockdown had little impact on my day-to-day. If anything, with my husband working from home, I have more adult interaction now than I did pre-pandemic. When he goes back to the office and is reunited with all of his co-workers, I’ll be at home alone with our toddlers again.
Many aspects of stay-at-home motherhood surprised me, but none more than how isolating it can be. I have no co-workers. I have no meetings. And I do everything in my power to avoid running errands with my 2- and 3-year-olds, because it usually involves a meltdown or four. When the weather is nice and naps line up, I might head to the playground and chat with another parent while we serve as moving safety nets for our respective children. But even on the best days, summoning the will power to get out of the house when you are outnumbered by toddlers is a mental, emotional, and, frankly, spiritual challenge. So most days, we stay at home, which makes for a life that is lonely.
Only after the pandemic hit did I begin to recognize just how much the isolation of stay-at-home life was affecting me. It was about a month into lockdown, and I was crawling into bed at the end of a long day, exhausted but excited to do some journaling as my toddlers slept in the room over. The circumstances on that night were indistinguishable from the previous hundred.
But as I started to reflect on my day, I recognized that something felt different. I didn’t have that nervous, glum feeling that often overtakes me when I’m gearing up for the 10 hours of solo parenting that used to characterize my weekdays. My husband had been with me all day, and he would be there in the morning, which meant it wouldn’t take 36 minutes of wrangling toddlers into their socks and shoes and coats and then shoes again, and a 20-minute walk to have an interaction with another adult human being. I could just pop upstairs. “How is it that I feel less isolated under state-mandated social distancing than under normal circumstances?” I wondered.
Don’t get me wrong — lockdown made our life more difficult in some ways. My children are stir crazy. It’s impossible to keep the house clean with everyone in it at all times. My husband and I have to share the office. And without much to do on weekends, the Groundhog Day feeling of pandemic life has been rough.
But being a stay-at-home parent is always a struggle, and it’s been nice sharing that struggle with my husband for a little while. I like that when I take a moment to sip some coffee and collect myself in the middle of a chaotic day, he’s there to commiserate. I like that when one of the girls hurts herself doing belly flops onto our couch cushions, he pops downstairs to check that things are okay. I like that every time he grabs a snack or goes to the bathroom, he asks me how things are going, as if he doesn’t already know.
Under lockdown, parenting feels a little bit more like a partnership, which has been good for our relationship. Not exactly for romance, but for building trust and empathy and understanding.
A year of social distancing seems to have deepened everyone else’s appreciation for human interaction as well — just for the opposite reason. Stripped of all the socializing built into pre-pandemic life, my husband and almost everyone else have come to recognize the value of even their most peripheral relationships: breakroom chats with people we don’t know particularly well, the mere physical closeness of someone in a crowded bar. “The pandemic has evaporated entire categories of friendship, and by doing so, depleted the joys that make up a human life — and buoy human health,” wrote Amanda Mull in January, “But that does present an opportunity. In the coming months, as we begin to add people back into our lives, we’ll now know what it’s like to be without them.”
This collective societal wake-up call has been strangely comforting — hundreds of millions of people suddenly understand with searing clarity the odd psychological challenge of being at home alone all day. How difficult it is to schedule socialization when it isn’t already built into your day. How far Zoom and FaceTime fall as substitutes for real interaction. “I’m an introvert, and I love being at home, but the feeling that I’m trapped here is really getting to me,” a close friend told me a few months into the pandemic, summing up in one sentence something I’d spent years struggling to articulate.
Our renewed societal appreciation for social life has opened my eyes to the importance of proactively scheduling one into stay-at-home motherhood — I even asked another playground mom for her number the other day.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t apprehensive about the day that my husband goes back to his office. When he’s reunited with all of his co-workers, I’ll be losing mine, and I’ll miss him when he’s gone.
Stephanie H. Murray is public policy researcher turned freelance writer and stay-at-home mom of two little girls. Find her on Twitter @stephmurrayyyy.