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Taking Control of Her Mental Health in a Pandemic

Taking Control of Her Mental Health in a Pandemic

Something about the quarantine life unleashed a darkness in Helene Skantzikas. It insidiously snatched joy and plunged her into the depths of hopelessness. Nothing and everything has changed in her life in the last three months: she lives at home with her mother and her son. Same as before, but everything is different. 

Even though the days blend together, there is one sure marker of time: before and after quarantine. Before, Helene (pronounced simply as Helen) ferried from one social scene to another like a stage actor with ever-changing backdrops: playdates at a park and sleepovers at home. There were dinner parties and moms’ nights out, and at the center was Helene — surrounded by people — often over good homemade food or a large spread at a noisy restaurant. It was a fast-paced lifestyle that suited her need to feel accomplished and connected.

After the start of quarantine, when the backdrop stayed the same and time seemed to melt, Helene felt herself sinking. Anxiety wrapped its fingers around her and squeezed tight. She would feel it in the back of her head where her reptilian brain would take over. Scream, it hissed. Break something.

“It feels like I’m going in hyperdrive. It feels unstoppable,” said Helene, 45. “It’s there and it needs something to grab onto to live.”

In anxiety’s grip, a stubbed toe — painful, sure — could unleash a disproportionate torrent of anger and frustration. Then she lands in sadness, the kind that anchors her body to any soft surface with dark, self-loathing thoughts: I feel like I’m losing my mind. I’m going to be mentally ill. I’m going to let down my son.

And the tears come, so many tears.

She wonders to herself: is this feeling going to define her? Will it blind her to the beauty of her 9-year-old’s face lit up with delight while reading Calvin and Hobbes comics? In the theater production of her life, is this the part where she loses control?

Helene has shoulder-length brown hair and eyes amber like the sky after the sun has slipped away. She has been here before, so she decides, no, she will not be robbed of joy.

Then just like that, Helene changes the narrative of her story. She contacts her doctor: You know the last time we talked, you said to call you if it doesn’t get better? Well, I can’t function. I can’t be there for my son, she sobs.

Her doctor listens compassionately. You are not the only one. There is hope.

In the battle to slow the spread of COVID-19, much of the focus has been on bodily care. Protect your face with a mask. Protect essential workers with personal protective equipment, and let’s count the ventilators. The mental health effects of a pandemic have largely been overlooked. In normal times, over 40 million adults in the U.S. had an anxiety disorder. The psychological effects of a pandemic like COVID-19 will endure even after the return to normal life.

Stay-at-home orders help slow the spread of Coronavirus, but it can also amplify mental health issues. Fear of the unknown and disruption of routine can collide in isolation to create a soul-crushing weight.

For Helene, the seed of her current state of mind was planted years ago in Toulouse, France where she was born to Daniele Rimbault and Elias Skantzikas.

It was nurtured by loneliness.

Daniele worked in sales, which required a lot of travel. When Helene was an infant, Elias left the family to answer the call to military service in his home country of Greece. To work and support her family as a single mother, Daniele placed her baby daughter in a home-based overnight daycare, which were common at that time in France, said Helene. She lived in one from infancy to 10 years old.

In this house without her mom for days, Helene would lay in bed at night waiting for sleep to settle her body. The sound of the television would waft in, and she would think, “I’m just sleeping here. This is not my home. This is not my parent.”

Depression is murky and insidious because it can travel silently across generations and over borders. It can lay dormant and take over without warning.

“Depression was a companion all my life,” said Daniele, 80. “Even when I was a child. I did not know what it was. Now I know.”

It was planted in early childhood when Daniele herself was abandoned by her mother. What happens when a young child is separated from her mother? It can create a legacy of pain that seems doomed to repeat itself. For Daniele, the decision to place Helene in an overnight daycare was difficult and heartbreaking, especially considering her own history. But it was necessary.

“Was it a good decision? I don’t know,” said Daniele. “At the same time when I see this marvelous woman with all the gifts she has, I think also the price she paid.”

Today, amid the pandemic, Helene lives in a suburb of Los Angeles in a white house that peeks through a wall of white roses. The 3-bedroom house holds three generations between its walls: Helene, her mom, and her son Pablo, 9.

Taking Control of Her Mental Health in a Pandemic

‘This time, I feel we have a real, real family life,’ said Daniele Rimbault (right) about the quarantined life with her daughter, Helene, and grandson, Pablo. Photo credit Karilyn Owen

Pablo is vivacious with a deep gaze that belies his age. He calls his grandmother “Mamette” and interchanges easily between speaking English and French, especially during intense games of Monopoly.

Since her childhood, there have been peaks and valleys in Helene’s emotional landscape, but the lowest of the lows seemed to disappear when Pablo was born. Even through divorce and an untimely death of a close friend, Helene kept it together for Pablo, the little boy with the musical laugh.

That’s what moms do.

In quarantine, there has been so much cooking in the white house. Sourdough bread and pork butter fly out of the kitchen, because if they have to stay at home, at least they can eat well.

All the togetherness has also created friction and remembrance of things past. Before quarantine, Helene and Daniele shared the same space, but in passing in a modern, fast-paced life — a hug or a few hasty words before rushing to the next appointment.

Now in a slower paced life, mother and daughter — like so many —are learning how to be together.

“This time, I feel we have a real, real family life,” said Daniele.

It’s not to say that Helene’s sadness and anxiety is all because of one thing or another from her past or her quarantined present. Who knows what caused it. Who knows what triggered the darkness. The important part is Helene took control and changed her narrative.

Helene’s doctor prescribed Lexapro, which works by helping to restore the balance of serotonin in the brain. After a few weeks of taking it, she feels like she can function again. She is also going to bed earlier and working out regularly. All these things have helped.

“Once in a while, I will feel anxiety, but it doesn’t overtake me. It’s like a passing thought. I can actually see it pass as opposed to being crushed by it,” she said.

For generations, people suffered with depression in silence. Helene wants to have an open dialogue with her son about mental health. She told him about her state of mind and the steps she has taken to help herself feel better.

“I share with him so he does not internalize this or somehow think this is his doing.”

Little moments of joy sprout from the cracks of an isolated life. Long bikes rides with Pablo in the Southern California sun often lead to adventures and laughter. In the fall, Pablo will not be returning to the school he left abruptly in March. They have started the unschooling process, which Helene describes as a home learning experience that is child-led.

The sequestered life unleashed a darkness in Helene, but it has also proven to be a blessing. It has allowed for reflection and insight.

“It has shown me what I have missed out on when I’m on non-stop mode,” she said.

All a sudden there’s time to observe and see what is actually happening within us, with the people around us.

“It’s not to say I am out of the woods, but if you could take a step and then another step. It just gets a little easier.”

The voices of moms parenting through the COVID-19 outbreak lives here. This series, “Parenting in a Pandemic” features stories and people from the home front — the leaders of the families who are balancing the world from their living rooms. Should you or someone you know be featured here? Send details to llgrigsby@gmail.com.

Quarantine Taught Me About My Husband

What Quarantine Taught Me About My Husband

My husband and I have been home together with the baby for a little over 2 months. We haven’t gone anywhere with the exception of my husband having gone out a few times to run to the grocery store. Other than that, we have been together 24/7. At first we were stressed out, annoyed with each other at little things, and seemed on edge. I’m sure it was the fear of the unknown and panic of what was to come.  It was a ROUGH adjustment.

As the days went on, we started to find a new normal, create a schedule and really communicate.  My husband has always been a very caring, patient person who would do anything for me, but this time has made me look at things differently.

Prior to having our child, I did most of the cleaning and he did most of the cooking, and we split things like laundry and taking care of the dogs. After having a baby, and with our careers, I did more of the cleaning and taking care of the baby because I was home more. However, during this time my husband has asked every day what I need from him, what I need to get accomplished that day for myself, my work, etc.

We started tracking our work in the Tend app and comparing our stats. I must admit, he was doing more housework and caring for the baby, while giving me extra time to work on my business. What a partner to have! I always knew he was very supportive, but being thrown into a completely different life, and being forced in our homes, changed my outlook. I felt almost bad for “falling short” of what I was doing before COVID-19 fell upon us. However, I haven’t been doing less, I am doing so much more for me. Ultimately, having that time to grow, learn and thrive has made me a better mom and spouse as well. I’ve learned that we still make a great team, and even though our schedules and careers look very different, we will get through this stronger than ever!

As unfortunate as this time has been for the world, I have found some joy.  I am extremely grateful for my family and the extra time we have received to slow down and truly soak in the moments and memories. My husband and I have been so deep in our work and careers for years, and then after a baby our time together really started to dwindle. This time at home has made me appreciate my little family more than ever, and appreciate my supportive husband.  I feel like we’ve all learned some lessons in the extra time we’ve had to think, and mine is that taking time for myself isn’t selfish, and that allowing someone to help me doesn’t mean that I am failing, but that I have someone that wants to support me and our family. And for that, I am truly grateful.

This Dance Is Hard

This Dance is Hard: Motherhood at the Quarter Century

With Older Son’s 25th birthday quickly approaching, it’s time for me to write up a few things I think I know about motherhood.

I have been a mom for a while, longer than some, not as long as others. 25 years so far. I have two children, one is 24 years old and one is 8 years old. There are no two people I love more in this world or beyond. They have been my great adventure and terror and joy and…well, all the things. They have given me dimensions I would not have developed if it were not for them. I think I am a better person because of them.

They have done and are doing a good job of raising their mother. The older one did a lot of the heavy lifting, especially there at the beginning and then 16 years later when his brother was born. For that I am grateful. The younger one had to live through enormous emotional and physical upheaval and throughout it, he has been unfailingly cheerful and just generally up for it, which if you have ever been on a disastrous vacation you know how much it helps to have that kind of person along for the ride. A mother couldn’t ask for two better guides through this ongoing shitshow we call motherhood.

And then there were two…

Giving birth is so personal and complicated I still don’t fully understand what happened. I was pregnant and then I wasn’t. There wasn’t a baby and then there was. I remember saying to my younger son, right after he was put on my chest, “You weren’t and now you are.” That’s about all I have ever understood about childbirth.

The first year is always the most psychotic

I did not know parenting was going to be so mind-numbing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s terrifying and glorious and all the big things people say it is but what people tend to leave out is what a mental freeze it can be. I watched all of Glee over a two month period in little bits and snips between the hours of 1 am and 5 am and I cannot for the life of me tell you anything that happened. There was singing. The clothes were awful. Jane whats-her-name was in it. That’s all I’ve got.

I have made chili once a week since 1997 and yet when I went to make chili a month after my younger son was born, I couldn’t remember how to make it. I stared at my older son and said, genuinely panicked, “I can’t remember how to make chili.”

“Good,” he said and left to go buy the family yet another bag of tacos.

I’m still not certain I have the chili recipe right. Every time I make it there is a corner of my brain that whispers, “You’re forgetting something important and you know it.” I’m left muttering over the pot on the stove, like a disheveled suburban witch, “Is it chives? No, that’s tacos. Garbanzo beans…gross, no. Goat cheese? No, c’mon, get it together here. What lunatic puts goat cheese in chili?”

Maybe you had help the first year. Maybe you had that holiest of grails, a night nurse. Or maybe it was no one but you and baby. No matter how much or little help you had, it was still a wrenching shitshow, right? Why can’t we accept that something can be both glorious and everything you ever wanted and yet it took everything you had to carry it off. That’s success. You look back and think, with genuine wonder, “How did I do that?” And yet you obviously did because here you are, the first year is over, everyone made it through and now you’ve only got the rest of your life to get through. I have raised two kids, one all the way into adulthood, and no parenting experience was as relentlessly difficult as that first year.

Do not let anyone tell you different: this dance is hard. It’s a dance so there is joy and grace and beauty but the learning and the daily practice and the sacrifice it takes to learn…that is beautiful, too.

Three year olds should never, ever be left alone

It’s a better idea to leave your teenager in front of a computer with a credit card and your Amazon password than it is to leave a three year old alone anywhere at any time. And yet you can’t be with a three year old all the time. Mostly because they are annoying. I mean, there is no one on this planet more adorable than a three year old but man, they are terrible to deal with. Two year olds are NOTHING compared to a three year old. There are all sorts of important physical and mental developmental reasons why three year olds are the way they are.

That is immaterial. Your job is to endure. Also, squash all behaviors that if someone ten years older engaged in, would be untenable. Hitting, biting, yelling. Throwing anything unsanctioned. Talking to you as if you work for them. You do not work for them. I know it feels as if you do but you don’t. Please try and remember you are the adult.

Three year olds need to know that:

  1.  You know how the car works and they don’t so hand over the keys.
  2. You control the flow of snacks in the house as well as what appears on all screens.
  3. They are safe with you in charge and can relax.

Nobody feels safe with someone who gives the impression they have no idea what is going on or how to deal with it. Before GPS was widely available, I was lost most of the time. When we were lost, my older son would announce, “We’re lost again.” I would nod and say, “We are but I always get us home so don’t worry.” And we got home. Obviously. But I have to be careful. Confidence that rolls over into arrogance isn’t comforting. It just makes you look incompetent in a different way.

The best thing about parenting three year olds is, when all else fails, you can still just pick them up and put them somewhere safe. Teenagers…not so much.

Schooling, volunteering and other bad ideas

(I obviously starting writing this in February 2020, before our national distance learning experiment in terror began. Oh and I was right to break out in a sweat, I am an incompetent, lazy teacher and I feel sorry for Six)

Welcome back to school. It has been going on without you, lying in wait, getting weirder and more complicated. From preschool to college, you will guide your human through the process of being socialized, educated and squashed into a pigeon hole they will then spend the rest of their lives trying to pry themselves out of. And that’s okay. You can homeschool and many people do an excellent job. We should find someone to talk about homeschooling because whenever I hear the word homeschool, I break out in a flop sweat.

So, school. I really have nothing here. I endure and have endured as best I could. I’ve got one through college and the second one is in 2nd grade. Yesterday he was complaining about homework as we were driving to the store. After I parked, I turned in my seat and said, “You think I want to do homework? This is my third trip through 2nd grade. If I missed anything the first time I caught it the second. This is all pointless review for a test I will never take. Now, we can do this the hard way or we can do this my way.”

My younger son frowned. “Those are the same.”

“Yes. Good job. You have learned the great lesson of school which is someone older, tired and over it is in charge of your education. Figure out how to pacify them and you will go far.”

“Can I have a puppy?”

As you can see, he missed the point completely. But that is okay. No one teaches multiplication as well as Schoolhouse Rock and I have that shit on every delivery method known to man. There might even be a set of VHS tapes somewhere, left over from Older Son. (It’s on Disney+)

You will get through schooling. However you are doing it, you are doing a good job. Volunteer or don’t. Park and walk in to get your kid or stay in your car in the pick-up line like the antisocial troll you are (that’s what I do). No one needs me standing around making pithy comments while other parents are trying to answer work emails and make a grocery list and keep their younger child from eating a rogue Cheeto she found under the lunch table.

It’s okay to love being deeply involved at your child’s school. Don’t let the grumps ruin your fun. Do it up, throw yourself into it, make it big and loud and pour some glitter on it. Sign up and then show up. Chair a committee, run for PTA office, take over the school website redesign. Be the mom other moms dread. You own this moment and it’s yours just as much as it’s the cynical, frankly bitchy mom who makes fun of you with sly comments. Ignore her. Ignore all of us. You’re doing great and yes, I got your email and I’ll…I mean, yes I do know how to bake and wait, who told you I know how to sew?

Or don’t. Don’t volunteer. That’s okay, too. No one wants your put upon vibe at the bake sale or whatever else we’re doing to raise some money to pay a gym teacher so we can all stop feeling so guilty about the flotilla of screens anchored around our lives. This shit is hard enough without herding someone who doesn’t want to be there. I have placed a moratorium on volunteering until May. With my older son, I was constantly volunteering and going on field trips. I loved it. This time around? Not so much. Something has changed. Maybe if I could volunteer with the grandmothers rather than the moms? I love moms but grandmas know how to conserve their energy. They know three hours in the booth at whatever fun fair we are in the midst of is a marathon and to keep the chit chat on a slow roll. It’s not a first date. We are never doing this again. And if we do, what the hell are we going to talk about next time? Leave them wanting more. Or, just stay home and pretend you forgot there was a funfair this weekend and take the kids to the movies.

Never let them forget that this thing they are doing is hard

Middle school is garbage. From beginning to end. High school isn’t much better but if you are lucky you figure out a few bedrock things by sophomore year. Also, having at least one person who cares if you show up to school is a plus.

I’m probably still processing my high school experience and I graduated 30 years ago. When Older Son was in middle school I got the impression he thought there was someone at his school having a better or easier time than he was. No one was.

“This is hard. Go up to any functioning adult raised in the US and say ‘middle school’ and watch them crumble,” is what I told him. “Don’t ever forget that this is all hard and you are doing a good job. I am proud of you.”

I said this all through middle school, high school and college. I say it to him now.

People love to act as if youth is some magical time. It can be but it’s hard becoming who you are going to be. Never forget that. If someone tells you there is an easy way to do this, they are selling something and it’s probably a cult. Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit.

That about covers it

You are not going to be a great parent at every stage of your child’s life. There are going to be stages you are just better at than others. I am not the world’s best mom of children aged newborn to about when they start talking. I find this stage infinitely frustrating. I know they want something but I just can’t seem to figure out what. When they start talking, I can say yes or no and then we can negotiate from there. There is no negotiating with a screaming infant.

Weirdly enough, I tend to handle middle schoolers pretty well.

The best field trip I was ever in charge of was when I took 7 middle school boys to the zoo. Allow me to explain.

I have taken four year olds, 1st graders and middle schoolers to the zoo. The 1st graders were the worst. We got in that gate and they scattered like spies dropped behind enemy lines. I still mentally scold a 24 year old adult woman every time I see her for the disappearing act she pulled that scared the bejesus out of ten adults for half an hour as we scoured the zoo looking for her.

The 4 year olds stuck to me and each other like glue. It was sometimes hard to walk without tripping over them. But then they somehow managed to get into the gift shop and it took an hour to get them all out. I think a few of them shoplifted but I didn’t care. The 1st graders loved the gift shop as well. Some of them had money but most of them didn’t and there was a lot of smug parading of cheap stuffed animals amid quiet, envious tears.

The middle schoolers were great. They shuffled from enclosure to enclosure, mumbling to each other and gesturing in a very constrained, I would go so far as to say decidedly British, manner. They snickered at the chimpanzees, gazed with our peculiar human longing at the elephants and when we hit the exit I said, “I will buy everyone here ice cream if we can skip the gift shop.” To a person, they agreed. We were the first group back to the bus. I passed the driver a slightly melted ice cream sandwich and she fired up the bus for us. We sat in the air conditioning, eating ice cream and looking everywhere but at each other.

It was glorious.

news apps

News Apps

Someone needs to come over to my house and remove all the news apps from my phone. I am just scaring myself with them. No one has scarier maps than The New York Times. All that red pulsing out from city centers and swallowing the rest of America. 

There’s no good news right now but I keep checking to see how bad it’s gotten. Am I helping or hurting myself? I think if I check too often or spend too much time it can be harmful. That being said, this is no time to wallow in ignorant bliss. 

I have set myself a schedule of reading the news for an hour in the morning and another hour at night. 

Do I follow this schedule?

Not even close. But when I get in the weeds with charts and quotes from specialists, I remind myself of my limits, shut down the apps and try to focus on something else. 

But what? Thus far, I have two things I am doing.

One is playing solitaire with actual cards, which is fun. My mom taught my sister and I math facts and pattern recognition using a deck of standard playing cards. Solitaire, blackjack and poker were the usual games. Having a deck of cards in my hands makes me feel that much less alone. 

The other thing I’m doing is my very own low skill version of knitting. I am making a scarf because that is all I know how to do. The thing is going to be six feet long in honor of social distancing. It will probably look gnarly even when it’s brand new. 

No matter. The point is to putter around, staving off cabin fever as long as possible. I am hoping my anxiety will settle down and I can go back to reading books rather than newspaper articles but until then there is the tactile joy of just messing around with cards and yarn.

 

faith in a pandemic

Faith in a Pandemic

On the second week of March, Tara Hurley and her family did something that now seems strange to our sequestered world: she walked into a restaurant, sat down, and ordered food to celebrate her birthday.

The restaurant was The Cheesecake Factory, a natural choice for a family with little kids. The chain restaurant is heavy with options — “Glamburgers” live alongside a kid’s grilled salmon in a spiral notebook-like menu. 

Tara turned 34 on the last day in the free world before her suburban Los Angeles neighborhood shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. The Pasta Da Vinci arrived, but the birthday girl’s attention floated past her family to the quiet restaurant and the edgy waitstaff. Uncertainty clung to the air in the days before city officials issued stay-at-home orders, but on that day there was cake and a bowl of pasta swimming in wine sauce.

“That would probably taste so good right now,” said Tara, pronounced Tar-ah, like her Irish parents, Emer and Niall O’Mahony, do.

It’s been almost two months now of staying at home, right? Who can keep track? The days blur into each other like an endless ballad on repeat.

Tara is tall, slender, with light cerulean eyes. She is the kind of mom who dresses up all four of her kids — Mary, 8; Rose, 6; Finn, 3; and Cora, 1 — in their finest clothes for an Easter celebration at home to keep some sense of normalcy in a world turned upside down by the Coronavirus outbreak. They made prime rib and had an egg hunt — just Tara, her husband, Patrick, and their kids. 

faith in a pandemic

Tara watches Mass in her living room with her children. Quarantine has brought on introspection about her faith.

For Tara, this time of sheltering-in-place has brought on introspection about her faith. She is a practicing Catholic, who has always leaned into her religion for inspiration and comfort. In her childhood bedroom in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, she painted a wall with a portrait of Jesus.

Her faith shapes her kindness. Or is it the other way around? Once when Tara was about 9 years old, their family hosted a yard sale to purge the house of accumulated stuff. Tara sold some of her toys and stuffed animals for $7, which she then put in her church’s Sunday collection. 

“That shamed me into donating the $300 we made at the yard sale into the collection also,” said Emer, her mother.

As a mother herself now, Tara always reserved Sundays before the pandemic for church. It was never easy to get four little kids ready and quiet for service. Often, it bordered on chaos, but the Hurley family always made it to a pew. 

Now her church doors, which were always open to welcome the weary, were locked. No large physical gatherings meant no sacrament of the Eucharist. No squirming Hurley kids to hug and cajole in their pew.

Their church was empty, and it unsettled Tara emotionally in many ways.

“Making sure I am able to feed my children spiritually is so scary to me,” she said. “How can I give them this on top of everything else?”

Los Angeles’ lockdown came amid Lent. For Catholics, it is a time of waiting and penitence as a solemn observation of the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. So for Tara, it seemed appropriate to ask her family to cancel any plans that would take them outside of their home. The way she saw it, they were being called upon to make sacrifices. But when Easter came, joy was tempered with a new reality: lockdown orders were still in place. The churches were still closed.

“It was really hard,” said Tara. “I am struggling with that every day, but not letting that drag me down.”

That Easter Sunday, the rain fell steadily. The Hurley family watched Mass online. Their oldest daughter, Mary, had a classmate with a birthday, so as with the fashion in a pandemic, a celebratory drive-by parade was planned. The parade is a new, tenuous tradition that has a razor’s edge rate of success. Often it teeters on awkward, especially when it rains and the birthday girl stands in her driveway dressed in her best, unsure of what to do.

Especially when the Hurley kids made signs to flutter out the windows of their car to bring light to this little girl’s life, only to find out halfway to their destination that the signs were left at home.

Tara is only human.

“I’m like ‘Are you kidding me? It’s the one thing that we could do!’”

So they found some American flags inside the car. Okay, just stick them out the window, she told them. It will be fine. And it was, for the most part. But it made Tara again think about her faith and her resolve, beyond anything else, to make this time a positive experience for the kids.

“I feel I am being stripped down and I can’t control what I used to be able to control. How do I operate now? The lesson is to be present. It’s here and it’s now. I can’t control more than just right now.”

faith in a pandemic

All six members of the Hurley family are sheltered in place in a snug suburban home with a muddy front yard paradise.

The Hurley’s “right now” looks, well, a little cramped. All six people are sheltering in place in a two-bedroom house, about 800 square feet. It was supposed to be a 2-year house, but then 7 years yawned by. And on any given day, a walk down their street will stop any pedestrian in front of their yellow house to drink in the energy of love pouring through the windows. And the laughter. There is so much laughter.

Patrick, an audio supervisor and technician in the television industry, is an even-keeled California boy, according to Tara. He’s like the doldrums of the ocean with no wind or waves. Pandemic? Meh. No problem. Nearby, Tara storms, her waves of emotion crash on top of each other.

Recently, the Hurleys have welcomed bedtime with a reading of “On The Banks of Plum Creek,” one in a series of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s children’s novels about a pioneering family putting down roots in a new world. In the story, a storm of locust decimate the family’s crop, but the father carries on in the face of adversity. He just finds a way to be a steady, protective force for his family. For Tara, there are many parallels between the book and real life in a pandemic.

Bedtime reading of “On The Banks of Plum Creek.” For Tara, there are many parallels between the book and real life in a pandemic.

“As parents we have an added responsibility to shape the memory of this for our kids in a way that is not all negative and scary,” she said with optimism seemingly unrattled by all the uncertainty.

It’s a quality born into their daughter, said Emer. One Halloween, little Tara wanted to dress as a smiley face in hope that her yellow outfit with the smile painted on the back would be contagious.

It’s probably the only thing the world needs to catch right now.

In the snug Hurley house, all the togetherness and time has grown something unexpected in Tara — patience to listen to all sides of conflict between the kids and truly empathize. She is letting their feelings air out, unfettered by time or her own emotions. It’s something she hopes she can hold onto when the world returns to normal.

“All of this time to spend with the kids is such a cool unique gift to be given right now,” she said. “How can we make it a good memory and not think back and say, ‘Man, that was awful?’”

Just as Tara says that, Mary opens her bedroom window facing the back patio and giggles at her mother.

“Go to bed! I will be in in a minute to kiss you,” Tara calls out to her.

“Oh boy. Hooligans,” Tara laughs before disappearing into the night for snuggles and goodnight kisses.

 

Should you or someone you know be featured in “Parenting in a Pandemic”? Send details to llgrigsby@gmail.com

To Parent or not to Parent

For possibly the first time in human history, people are able to ask themselves if they want to be a parent. Think about that. For thousands of years you had children for reasons out of your control. Your culture, your parents, your place within society dictated whether or not you became a parent. For millions of people, that is still true to this day. But for millions of others, there is a clear choice to be made.

To Parent or not to Parent, that is the question. And good God what if you make the wrong decision? There is a wrenching, painfully honest thread on Quora that asks the question, “What is it like to regret having children?” I think it is important to allow people a place to be honest about their experience of parenting, especially when it doesn’t match up with what the wider culture tells us. Would there be as much resentment and regret if we were to give parents a break from the constant requirement that we adore every aspect of our parenting life?

Also, stop having an opinion about whether other people have children. You made your choice, let other people make theirs. Just because being a parent made you less of an asshole doesn’t mean the same will be true of your friend/sister/cousin/co-worker. Leave people alone. Read that Quora thread and you will likely never express an opinion regarding whether someone should spawn. Go home and cuddle your kid(s) and be grateful you actually enjoy being a parent.

I became a parent when I was 22. I was single, I lived in my cousin’s unfinished (rodent infested) basement and I had dropped out of junior college at the age of 19. The only thing that would have made me a worse candidate for parenthood was if I’d owned a machine gun. I think back to where I was and I can’t believe people didn’t laugh in my face when I told them I was planning on becoming a parent. My son was born in 1995. I drove a 1984 Honda Civic that lacked both A/C and insurance. I drove him home from the hospital in it. I lived in an apartment that registered 90 degrees inside by the end of July and just pretty much stayed there until the end of September. The furniture was hot to the touch.

To parent or not to parent? Did I make the right choice? I think I did. Despite everything we didn’t have going for us, we survived. Does that mean other people in the same situation should make the choice I made.

Nope.

And fuck anyone for using situations like mine as an argument for maintaining pregnancies they don’t want or feel certain they can’t handle. I wanted my son. He was unplanned but he was never unwanted. There is a very important distinction between unplanned and unwanted and no one gets to make it but the pregnant person.

My second son was born when I was 39. I had been married since 1997, my car had air conditioning and was insured. I was a homeowner (there were rodents in the detached garage). I had a college degree. I had some idea of what I was in for. Was having my second son an easier, better choice?

Nope.

Parenting doesn’t work that way. Maybe it did once but not anymore. You can be wealthy beyond measure and have an absolutely nightmarish parenting experience. Money helps. I won’t lie about that. It was wonderful to have enough money to afford air conditioning and not be hot all the time. Aside from that (and being able to buy a bag of tacos for dinner when I couldn’t remember how to make chili) money doesn’t change the fundamental aspect of parenting. Metamorphosis.

You are not a parent and then you are and that change is ongoing and never ending. It isn’t as if someone plops a baby on you and the heavens open and suddenly you know exactly what to do. Maybe for some people this happens and I have to say I am jealous. I have been stumbling and bumbling my way through parenthood for 25 years and the only solid advice I have is, “Be gentle with yourself.” You should be gentle with your children but also with yourself.

What does it mean to be gentle with yourself? I think it means treading lightly across your weak points. Not a morning person? Give up the dream of cooking everyone a big breakfast. You aren’t making anyone happy. There is no french toast and you feel bad about yourself. I also think being gentle with yourself means going big on your strengths. Were you a theatre major in college? Make your bedtime reading a show! Play the guitar? Reading is fun but a bedtime sing-along is a thing of joy (we used to enrage our crazy neighbor with them). What if you are a stodgy bore who favors three piece suits and leaving off the vest is how you join in for casual Friday? Teach your kids how to dress for success. RuPaul says that if you want to make money, wear a suit. No one argues with RuPaul when it comes to appearances.

You have gifts, abilities and joys your children will benefit from. Share them. This is your journey, not your mom’s or your neighbor’s or anyone else’s. If every child is different, it follows that every parent is different. Celebrate what you specifically bring to each of your children. And that might be different for each child. Maybe that is the thing about parenting that feels both beautiful and impossible; there is no destination, only journey. That can feel exhausting.

And that is okay. If you are in pursuit of perfection you might want to pass on becoming a parent. Perfection and parenting do not go together. It’s like oil and water or worse, toothpaste and orange juice. I could not tell you the purpose of parenting beyond making humans who go on to make more humans who then make cake that the rest of the humans get to enjoy. I should have paid closer attention in biology class. I have enjoyed being a parent. I like reading kid books and playing endless games of Uno. Going to bed at 9PM seven days a week brings me joy. Spontaneity, in my opinion, is just a fancy way of saying you don’t want to make plans for fear of something better coming along. And ‘going with the flow’ means you are the type of person who goes on vacation with the idea that you will roll into any city or town in the world and magically find a clean, comfortable, safe place to sleep. That is how people get murdered.

What I am trying to say is that many aspects of parenting match with my boring personality. Maybe yours doesn’t. You can still be an excellent parent. Just make hotel reservations in advance, okay?

Please. For me.

Questions Not to Ask Yourself During Quarantine

Questions Not to Ask Yourself During Quarantine

Now is not the time for me to reassess my life. Maybe for some people, a worldwide pandemic where you are locked into your house with a partner you stopped loving and started hating 6 years ago is a perfect time to say, “Time for a change.” However, for me, quarantine is no time to ask the big questions.

And why is that? Well, thanks for asking. For one, I have been alone since March 13th and it is now March 29th and no one can safely enter my apartment until April 5th because I got a fever and I don’t want to get anyone sick. Did I have Covid-19? Who the hell knows. But I want to be as careful as possible with the lives of those around me so hello darkness, my old friend, you are stuck with me for one more week.

I am looking at 3 weeks alone with only my neurosis and whoever is kind enough to have a virtual drink with me to keep me company. Upside, I finally figured out how to knit! Downside? Pretty much everything else. But that is okay. As bad as this is, it still isn’t as bad as when my mom died and my dad came to live with me and my husband disappeared in an affair and Older Son was broken hearted and we all started to realize Six’s relentless energy was actually more than just a toddler’s naturally high spirits.

So, what can a person do in their apartment by themselves for 3 weeks that doesn’t descend into The Yellow Wallpaper territory?

I’ve already watched Fleabag and Schitt’s Creek. I’m so anxious I’m having trouble reading which is a huge loss since I have spent one third of my life asleep and one third of my life reading so I don’t really know what to do with myself. 

I don’t want to waste food resources baking or experimenting with recipes and I’m getting tired of lying on my bed staring out the window (which is one of my favorite pastimes). There is no baseball to lull me to sleep and I don’t have a subscription to ESPN Classics. Think how relieved all those sign stealing cheaters feel now that COVID-19 has distracted most of the public from what they did. I remember, but I don’t count. 

I’m watching how much I drink because I do not need to battle an addiction right now but I am telling you, if this drags into more than 3 months I am starting to smoke again. There is only so much one human can take.

I would sew masks but I had a fever and if I am shedding the virus that isn’t going to help anyone. (I finally got better and sewed about 50 masks for my friends and family.)

So. What is left?

Endurance. 

I do not engage in endurance sports but like many people, I engage in endurance living. I just dig in, put my head down and see if I can outlast this latest storm. Sometimes life feels like one endless game of truth or dare where truth isn’t an option and each dare gets harder and harder. 

My dear fellow humans, I miss you and I have the personality of a bridge troll so that is saying something. When this is all over, and it will be over eventually, I hope I never take the simple pleasure of being irritated with my fellow humans for granted ever again. The only person here to get irritated with is me and I am used to all my bad habits so there’s not much to get annoyed with. 

I ask myself, what will I do when I can go out among humans again? Hug strangers? Coo over tiny babies? Race to my closest bar to get both drunk and…ahem…engage in activities between consenting adults?

Who knows? I don’t. But I can’t wait!

During the COVID-19 Outbreak Don’t Tell Me to Count My Blessings

During the COVID 19 Outbreak Do Not Tell Me to Count My Blessings

If you ask me how I am feeling, I will tell you I am marginally okay.

In the age of a modern day outbreak, I can’t tell you I am well or fine — those platitudes seem to describe a different, more carefree time before Coronavirus insidiously crept into all our heads.

Slowly, freedom has been peeled away. The virus called COVID-19 has become larger, more pervasive and insidious. What was first a series of heartbreaking headlines from distant lands is now lingering right outside my door, so I go inside and hope.

Being safer at home makes it feel dangerous everywhere else. From behind my mask, I can’t smell the sweetness of blooming Wisteria anymore.

Like I said, marginally okay over here.

Just over a month into staying at home, I still feel anxiety, anger and grief. But I also feel gratitude for health and safety. These feelings often swirl together and cross sides, creating a nebulous storm on the inside while on the outside, I calmly lead my family through their day.

Because I am mom of two kids, ages 8 and 4, who count on me to maintain some semblance of calm, I can’t fall apart. Moms run towards projectile vomit with bare hands and a plan. We run into burning buildings with a blanket and a bucket.

We get things done.

So in a pandemic of course it’s family-first, feelings later.

I coordinate Zoom calls for my first-born son to engage with his teachers and classmates. I print out assignments and spend what feels like hours trying to figure out new basic math concepts (I only cried twice). I try to balance the 8-year-old’s Zoom school schedule with my 5-year-old’s remote preschool song time schedule and countless FaceTime conversation requests from many different little human beings, who miss seeing my kids at their schools.

Like most Americans, I have a new way of getting food to feed the family. I stand in long lines and suffer panic attacks when people infringe on my 6-foot comfort zone.

I keep working at home, calmly on the outside, while the storm of feelings brew on the inside. But I am not okay.

Things I normally love to do feel empty and belabored. I am a writer by birth and trade. When spoken words fail, I sing them bravely through written words. But in my social distancing world, the white screen of my Word document screams at me with its emptiness. Then I go sanitize the doorknobs and light switches again.

As the storm swirls on the inside, one feeling keeps bubbling to the surface: guilt.

In the age of COVID-19, I feel guilty. I live in a blue house in the suburbs of Los Angeles. We have a grassy front yard with succulents and a backyard with a pool waiting for hot summer days. My kids can do their remote schoolwork in a sun-drenched illegal room addition built long before the house became ours. So when I want to put my hands in front of my face — without actually touching — and lament my fate, guilt hisses in my ear, “You have it better than most. You have no right to complain.”

In a way, my guilt is valid. Many families are facing an uncertain future. A record number of people have filed new jobless claims. Those who are “lucky” enough to have a job, work at their own peril.

My brother and sister-in-law both work in hospital emergency rooms. Their approach to COVID-19 is when, not if, they are exposed. They, like many other health care workers, have taken extreme safety measures to protect their young children. Their fear is acute because their bodies, which they use to save others, will become weaponized against the people they love most.

What do I have to complain about, my guilt demands? Heck, Central Park in New York City may become a temporary burial site. Should I — still of sound body and mind — be crying over a little freedom lost?

Guilt makes me compare my hurt to other people’s hurt and tuck away the sadness. It invalidates my feelings before I feel them, because I should be grateful. I should appreciate life, livelihood, family, chirping birds and blooming flowers I can no longer smell.

But the truth is social distancing, sheltering at home and feeling like a ticking time bomb of anxiety sucks. And I hurt.

I mourn my personal space and my creative ability to express myself in written word. I fight back tears to see my 8-year-old social and academic interactions reduced to 2-dimensional faces in boxes on my laptop. And I want to raise my fist in the air when it rains and our world gets even smaller.

Yes, I can focus on gratitude to help shape my perspective in this uncertain time, but it should not be used to torpedo any feelings. Stop telling me to count my blessings, it isn’t helping.

The COVID-19 outbreak dramatically shifted all our lives in different ways and the feelings that come with missed milestones, canceled events, missed human connections are all real and valid.

So I tell you I am marginally okay because that is the truth. 

Sometimes the margin skews more towards good, like when we all went to rescue worms after the rain. Sometimes it skews into darkness, like when my oldest son dug his fingers into my arm and said he wished he weren’t here anyone, so he could be free. These moments, and their feelings, can live side-by-side as real examples of what it is like for my family and I to live through this time.

No guilt needed.

Quarantine

Caregiving During Quarantine

Our world has been upended. Navigating empty store shelves, parsing quarantine orders, figuring out how to homeschool without ruining my children’s already shaky attachment to learning…We’re all trying to figure out our new lives and how to safely care for our loved ones. One thing is clear, our work as caregivers and mothers has never been more important. 

Much of our mental and physical work has shifted to discovering best practices regarding how to provide for and protect the ones we love. And yet the laundry still has to be done, dishes washed, dogs walked and cats peeled off furniture. 

Here are some ways we know Tend can help you with your own caregiving during quarantine journey:

Maintain Order: Tend can help you to remember that some parts of our lives are still normal; the laundry, the dishes, putting our kids to bed and waking them each day. These small, ordinary tasks connect us to our first principles, that we want our children to be clean, fed and asleep.  

Remember: Tracking gives you an opportunity to look back on these days and remember what they looked like after life returns to whatever the new normal will be. 

Journaling: The Tend journal is a safe space just for you, to vent openly and freely and to check in on your mental health.

Prioritize: Make sure you’re still devoting time to self-care, personal development, and your relationship in whatever way feels right to you.

Tackle Big To-Dos: Tend allows you to add custom tasks to your to-do list, so you make sure you’re allocating time to start that book list you put together in January, clean out the garage or teach yourself a new language. Let’s all learn latin then we can understand half again more of what the medical experts are talking about!

Let us know how Tend is working for you and how we can support you!

mothering in the time of covid-19

Mothering in the Time of COVID-19

With the deep concern currently circling the COVID-19 pandemic, we thought we would talk about it. Being a health care provider and a new mother definitely has me feeling conflicted. On one end of the spectrum, my health care side is telling me to relax, continue to wash your hands (something I constantly preached way before any of this came about!), and to remain cautious yet calm. After all, I have seen a lot of sickness, trauma, and chronic health issues in my career. Then I have the mom side of me, wanting to disinfect everything, stay away from all the people, and look deeper into the issue. Welcome to mothering in the time of COVID-19.

It is easy to start to panic if you’ve been watching any type of media. It’s all the news is talking about. It’s all over social media with highlights about celebrities and major athletes testing positive, cancellations of any major or minor gatherings, and travel restrictions. While it’s great that we’re taking things so seriously, frankly, it’s scaring the crap out of everyone. The grocery stores are empty, pictures of shelves completely bare, even Amazon is out of stock. I saw a 12-roll pack of toilet paper being sold on Amazon for $78! 

I have so many questions swirling around in my head. What is the right way to go about doing things? Stay inside and ride it out until this all passes? Continue living your life in hopes that the people around you are healthy? I think the fear of the unknown is the scariest part. As a health care provider I want to see statistics, facts, and what’s happening in the other cases. As a mom I want to frantically Google everything I can to see how to best avoid this for my family. Keeping my daughter safe is my number one goal, but with a husband also in the healthcare field, keeping him safe is also important. He’s out there every day caring for people, sick or not, and doing his part for the health of others. Selflessly risking his health for others. All the health care workers are, and I hope everyone is thinking about them.

The moral of my story is this is a scary time. I know we will get through this, and hopefully fairly quickly. I tell myself to remain calm, do what you can to keep your immune system up, sanitize, wash your hands, stay away from crowds, etc. As a new mom, part of me totally understands the panic people are feeling. You just want to protect your babies, no matter what that takes. I too am feeling that panic inside of preparing for the “what if ” situations.

Just know that no matter where you are in this, whether you think it’s all ridiculous and are living your life per usual, or you are prepared to sit at home for the next month with your 10 packs of toilet paper, you aren’t alone. We’re all in this together, and we will get through this!