I recently saw a hilarious meme. It said: “Those of you quarantined without kids, how is it? Is it relaxing? Are there naps? Can you just do what you want all day? Talk dirty to me, tell me about all the good times…”
As a mother to two beautiful, loving, annoying, exhausting kids that alternate between fighting with each other and calling my name like a song on repeat because they’ve lost the ability to do anything alone, I find myself often fantasizing about social distancing without kids.
What would it be like if my time were spent reorganizing my closet? Or making a roux I learnt in an online cooking Masterclass? Would I withstand the pressure to use this time to be productive and binge watch every episode of Ozark instead?
I can’t tell you what I would do, because as a parent, all that newfound free time doesn’t equate to “me” time. In fact, time apart just doesn’t exist when you’re living with children. Instead, my days look like this: waking up early on weekdays (even though we have nowhere to go), making sure the kids are doing their distant learning lessons, which in itself decreases the likelihood of having a good day, then there’s meals to figure out, fights to be put out, googling creative ways to entertain the kids when I can no longer stand the sight of them mindlessly glued to their screens, and answering my husband’s daily question of “what’s our plan today?” (yes, he seriously asks that).
As a parent, all that newfound free time doesn’t equate to “me” time.
And every day, from its start to its end, there is this constant grating buzz of human noise. Sometimes it’s just loud conversations, and other times it’s shouting, crying, moaning, or screeching. I know now how the phrase “I can’t hear myself think” came about. It was some frazzled mom stuck at home with her kids during the Cholera outbreak in the late 19th century, who ended up dying of unknown causes (though we all know it was her children’s whiny demands and regressive behavior that really killed her). On especially trying days, I daydream about what it would be like to sit alone in a quiet room. Literally. Just. Sit. In. A. Quiet. Room.
This is why, while I love my child-free friends and usually feel only moderate bitterness towards their exotic vacations and weekends free of sand buckets and chicken nuggets, I can’t help but roll my eyes at Instagram posts griping about being bored of Netflix’s offerings, stories of couples working out together in coordinated outfits, or endless streams of videos showcasing the process of getting ready for a themed Zoom party (yes, that’s now a thing).
The difference between our coronavirus experiences can be likened to families versus couples at Disneyland. Everything seems great until you’re a parent stuck in a two-hour queue for a two-minute ride because they’ve sold out of fast passes, and one kid needs the bathroom while the other won’t stop complaining that they’re too tired of standing. No one is happy, you’re all cranky and frazzled, and as you look around you in bewilderment, your eyes land on the childless couples. They’re easy to spot because they’re the only ones cuddling in the queue, seemingly oblivious to the throng of disgruntled, resentful families around them. They are the only adults actually sad to be leaving Disneyland.
As an experiment, I tallied the number of times my kids said “mama” in a one-hour period. It was 14 times. That is just abusive.
Don’t get me wrong. COVID-19 is affecting everybody. It’s an especially hard time for those living with mental health illnesses, those stuck in abusive relationships, and those living completely alone. Single parents, parents who are on the front lines, and families living in close quarters have it rough too. It would be narrow-minded to think that we’re all going through the exact same experience.
However, there are a few things that parents have in common during this time of social-distancing. One, we are physically exhausted. Beyond the fear and loneliness is a level of fatigue that sometimes feels insurmountable. Two, the virus has obliterated any semblance of work-life balance. It’s gone. Doesn’t exist. Three, distant learning has turned out to be a stressful endeavor that is threatening the emotional and mental wellbeing of families everywhere.
Every morning, I wake up with good intentions. Fortified by my giant mug of coffee, I start the schooling part of the day by reiterating the importance of adhering to the lesson plan. However, I have come to accept that I don’t incite in my children the same feelings of respect and the need to impress that their teacher does. As a result, my pep talks fall onto deaf ears and the day quickly goes downhill from there.
Eventually, they succeed in breaking my spirit. It usually occurs around the point when I am called a “bad teacher” for losing it on my kid for persistently lounging back in her chair as if she were sun tanning. This obviously causes the logistical issue of her hand being positioned too far away from the desk, so when she finally deigns to write, her handwriting is so illegible that even she can’t read back what she wrote. But, I digress. Because I’m a bad teacher.
It’s not just the schooling that has me feeling defeated. There are thousands of tantrums, arguments, exclamations of “what should we do now?” mere seconds after they’ve done something fun. There’s the mess left in their wake, the constant request for treats, and when that fails, the pleads for savory snacks. Then there is my job title, which is verbalized too many times a day. As an experiment, I tallied the number of times my kids said “mama” in a one-hour period. It was 14 times. That is just abusive.
But, as frustrated as it makes me, I can’t blame them. The truth is that we’re all a little sick of each other.
And yet, as bad as it may seem, there have been some really great experiences to come out of this so far. Really.
We are now having meals as a family every day as opposed to just on weekends. We’re watching family movie classics and sitting around our coffee table playing board games. We’ve had cook-offs, barbecues, and more video calls with family and friends than ever before. We’ve choreographed dances for Instagram challenges and I’ve even had a spa day with the girls, laughing as we lathered our faces in mud masks and placed cucumbers on our eyes. We are talking a lot more and getting to know our children better as a result. There are life lessons that we have been reminded of, such as “Family through thick and thin.” Our lives have slowed down and we no longer drudge through the week, only living for the weekends. We are finally doing what psychologists have been telling us to do for a few years now: relying on gratitude to maintain a positive outlook.
By having no agenda, we’ve managed to normalize doing nothing.
These days, I wake up without a sense of urgency. My kids aren’t nagging to buy toys. They aren’t unsatisfied with a day that doesn’t include seeing friends. By having no agenda, we’ve managed to normalize doing nothing. In fact, we have started to enjoy the vacuum of our day. Truthfully, I’m relieved at not having to make plans. Without the expectation of constantly doing things, we’ve been able to wind down and enjoy the feeling of having no obligations or social pressures. We no longer rush through a morning routine, hurriedly eat meals, or deal with a never-ending to-do list. Nowadays, we savor our meals. We don’t multitask. We have stopped glorifying being busy because we are no longer busy.
Today, I asked my seven-year-old daughter what the best thing about being stuck at home was. She said, “Being with you more.” It may not seem like it, but we’re making memories.
So let’s take a moment to allow it all to sink in. Our entire reality has shifted, and all the things we took for granted – socializing, the things we did that kept us sane, alone time – all that has been compromised or discarded. We are allowed to grieve the loss of our routine, to miss the life and sense of security that we had, even if we are slowly realizing that there was a lot left to be desired in the way we used to live.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed in the presence of those you love. It’s okay to feel hopeless about the future. It’s okay to prioritize your needs over your children’s. It’s okay to be disappointed about vacations and events being cancelled, irrespective of their significance in the grand scheme of things. And it’s okay to not exercise, or eat clean, or use this time to be productive. We don’t have to use productivity to distract ourselves from being in our feelings.
We need to give ourselves permission to ditch the school lessons on days when things get too heavy or feel tense between us, to be fine with the mess, and to allow things to fall apart. We need to hold space for ourselves and for our children, too. Don’t forget that their lives and routines have been upended as well. We need to allow ourselves to be the tired, stressed out, irritable, bored, scared, sad, overwhelmed versions of ourselves. Practice self-compassion; this thing we’re carrying, it’s heavy. In a time when there is no such thing as normalcy, know that your feelings are normal.