My Covid-Life Crisis: Letting go of my pandemic parenting

Photo courtesy of Standsome Worklifestyle @standsome

“How are you?” I’ve just started seeing a therapist and this is always the first question she asks. It’s impossible to answer, so I don’t.

“How much time do you have?” I joke.

“About 45 minutes,” she says.

I want to tell her things she already knows. There’s a pandemic going on. I was furloughed and decided not to return to work to support my children through remote elementary school. My life has shrunk. Every day I imagine I’ve sunk deeper into my floor, a screw twisted a half-turn with each day that passes. But the pandemic is old news. Even I’m sick of talking about it. The window to process these emotions has passed and I don’t want to be the one holding us back.

“My daughter is returning to school,” I say. “Five-days-a-week, in-person first grade.”

“That’s wonderful,” she says flatly. “That’s a big change from having her home all day. How are you feeling?”

“Great,” I say. And because she doesn’t know me, she doesn’t see that I’m lying. Or maybe she does. I can’t decide which is worse.

I fill the silence by saying all the obvious things. My daughter gets to see friends again. I have more time to work. Life can return to normal. My therapist suddenly becomes another parent I must make small talk with while we wait for the school bell to ring. Our bonds so different than the friends we had before kids. These friendships without any foundation, able to pivot or disappear based on the whims of our children. My therapist smiles. I fight the urge to look at my phone.

There were silver linings to the pandemic, of course. I looked forward to the daily lunch breaks with my children. I treasured watching them play together. I loved having my partner home. We got a dog. I will miss these moments now that my son was back in preschool and my daughter at school. The year felt like a pause in my children’s advancement away from my orbit and into their own lives. Their often-suffocating dependence on me, for learning, reassurance, and entertainment, gave me an extraordinary importance.

Amid the tantrums, the sibling fights, my breakdowns, and all the yelling, we somehow got to know one another better than we had before. My children looked behind the curtain of my appropriate behavior modeling to see my messy struggle. They showed me their frustrations, their boredom, their abilities to lie. We all learned the catharsis of stomping on our creaky floorboards. It was as if our family had become a tornado. We were all breathing in the same swirling madness.

An end to the pandemic meant an end to this at-home universe. Worse, it meant I no longer had a socially acceptable excuse to ignore my email. No more, “I’m homeschooling two children! What do you want from me?” Now deadlines must be met. Job searches begun. Tasks I had once longed for, but now have no interest in achieving.

I haven’t said anything in a few minutes and so my therapist jumps in. “I know so many parents who can’t wait to be in your shoes.”

I smile and look at my lap, allowing this dollop of guilt to trickle through my body. Who am I to complain? So many have it worse. When I close my eyes, I see their exhausted, disappointed eyes. Single parents. Parents with children with special needs. Those with unsafe households. The list is endless, and I am at the bottom. Best stay quiet to respect their struggle.

“But it’s a lot of change,” my therapist offers. “It’s been a year of transition.”

We spend the rest of the session talking about selfcare. We’re both mothers. Practicality is a shared language. We make a list. At the end of the session, I promise to take concrete steps to help my mental state and report back.

I end the zoom. I don’t feel better, but that’s not always the point of therapy. I know my unease won’t last forever. This too shall pass. All I need to do is wait. But this solution does not satisfy me. That’s all I’ve been doing for over a year, waiting. It feels like waiting is the only stuff of my life. Waiting to live a new day that is like the one just lived. Waiting to return to a normal that no longer exists. Last March I had a list of goals I was desperate to achieve, but the woman who wrote this list is a stranger to me. In 2021, what’s the point?

This feeling of waiting annoys me. I remember the expression, “It’s okay to not be okay.” Our Covid mantra, shared endlessly on social media, tagged at the top of every facebook thread about school re-opening plans. This, too, annoys me. Because while it is overused, the message is helpful.

It’s here that an idea stands up in the middle of my moment of self-pity and self-hatred. Perhaps I am waiting for the waiting feeling to end. I had spent a year honing necessary instincts — to plan, to control, to construct. I no longer need to create an engaging, age-appropriate math curriculum. I no longer have to fill every inch of our house with crafts. I don’t need to assess my children’s every emotion, searching for signs of trauma. My children’s world no longer revolves around me.

The world tumbles on. I know I’m not ready to fully retire the instincts that have got me through the pandemic, but I also know it’s time to move on a little. Sometimes I feel I am nothing but a deep puddle waiting to evaporate. It’s time to let go, if only to make space for whatever is coming next.