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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.

we've known better for a very long time

We’ve Known Better For a Very Long Time

If you’ve never fallen down a flight of stairs, it’s an experience like no other. Unsettling is too small a word but I’m still all cattywampus so unsettling will have to do. Why am I bringing this up? Well, for one, I fell down a flight of stairs last night so it’s still fresh in my memory and two, it seems the entire nation has fallen down a couple flights of stairs this year alone and I thought I should say something about it. About Covid, I have already said all I think I have to say thus far. About the murder of George Floyd: we’ve known better for a very long time and it seems we are just now about to do a little bit better about it.

I talk a lot about my personal life and experience. I am a white, cisgendered, straight, urban, middle class woman. So I don’t have any experience with being menaced and murdered based on aspects of myself I cannot change. I am a woman but the white, straight, cisgendered, urban and middle class aspects of who I am have cushioned me against a lot of the harsher manifestations of sexism. So what can I say about what is happening?

I can agree that white silence feeds violence. I can agree that no lives matter until black lives matter. I can agree that the criminal justice system is broken. And I can link to articles written by people who have spent their lives investigating, advocating and agitating for change.

I can remember that no action is too small. I can get together with my friends and family and neighbors and like minded strangers. Think out loud about our strengths and abilities. Listen as others enumerate theirs. See where we can donate our time, our money, our skills, our energies.

And you can do all this, too.

Depleted in mind, body and spirit? That’s completely understandable. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Humanity will eventually need what you specifically have to offer, rest now so you will be available later. Those who are giving all they have now will one day need time to rest and that is when you can come in.

Be ready.

Our Lives Will Never Be the Same Without Them

Our Lives Will Never be the Same Without Them

Someone somewhere once said that the death of an old man is not a tragedy. I think what they meant was that even though there is sorrow in the loss, there is no sense of a life unlived or potential unrealized. We mourn but we don’t wonder what could have been. That being said, our lives will never be the same without them.

Across both our nation and our world, we are losing those we love. 100,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 as of this writing. Are the lost overwhelmingly elderly? Yes. Does that mean hearts are any less broken? No.

I think of the families trying to make sense of the loss of a loved one amid the fog of confusion brought on by living through this pandemic. My 80 year old dad died on a normal Thursday last January and I was so spun around by the loss I kept accidentally throwing away my keys and forgetting where I parked my car.

I worry that with all the attention on people railing against wearing face masks to Costco and having to admit they dye their hair, that the broken hearted among us are being overlooked. 100,000 Americans have died in the past few months. The deaths came so fast, our fellow Americans have been stacked into refrigerated trucks parked out back of hospitals until morgues or funeral homes can be found for them.

And there are people who want to protest their right to go to the beach? I can only assume it wasn’t their Nanas stacked up like cord wood in a truck outside of a funeral home in Brooklyn.

I cannot conceive of a person who loves America and yet doesn’t give a shit about Americans. And yet that appears to be what is happening. I understand that staying home is difficult and that the economic fallout will be with us for a decade, at the least.

But so will the mental anguish of people who sit in their cars in the parking lot of a hospital, looking up at a window and knowing their loved one is dying and they can’t be with them. I held my mom’s hand as she died and it was both wrenching and one of the most important moments of my life. She was with me when I came into this world and I was with her when she left.

Thousands of people have been denied that experience. But let’s talk about how you think a public health order violates your Constitutional rights. It doesn’t and you are behaving in a heartless manner I hope you will one day have the good sense to be thoroughly ashamed of.

I lay in bed at night next to an open window and listen to the silence of a city that once kept me up at night with all its chaotic noise. I worry that my older son will lose his job and won’t be able to pay his rent. He’ll have to give up his hard won independence to come live with me. Then I worry that I won’t be able to pay my rent and then where will he go? And what about my increasingly fragile younger son, who asks at least once a day if we have enough money to pay for food because he overheard our neighbors worrying about their situation. Where will we all go if I can no longer support us? And even if I can keep paying rent, I worry about inflation and food shortages and gun owners deciding their 2nd amendment rights extend to taking from anyone who isn’t as heavily armed as they are.

And then the first bird chirps into the slowly graying dawn and I realize I’ve stayed awake another night. And I get up and shower and take the dog outside and make my younger son breakfast. This is hard but nothing I go through comes close to what my fellow Americans endure. I live every day knowing that for literally thousands of families, today is the day they will lose someone they love. Someone who, as Mister Rogers used to say, loved them into being and now that person is gone.

And there will be no funeral that looks or feels familiar, no somber potluck back at the house where spontaneous, inappropriate snickering erupts in the back corner of the sun porch, well out of earshot of the steely eyed Aunties taking up all the comfortable seats in the front room. And no one knows when these kinds of gatherings will be safe because the Aunties are getting old (don’t say that in front of them) and a funeral in these times can set off a domino of funerals within the same family.

The phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’ keeps surfacing in my admittedly hazy brain. Republicans have been ordered to stop saying and tweeting it after mass shootings but they might want to think about reviving it. Of course, what exactly are they thinking and praying? I think their thoughts are with the voters who will run them out of office if they don’t keep silent regarding the chilling sight of armed civilians filing into the Michigan statehouse. I wonder at the mental gymnastics needed to ignore the real pain and suffering of their neighbors while passively supporting the misplaced rage of a small number of predominantly white men, many of them armed to the teeth. And what were these heavily armed men thinking?

They weren’t thinking that people in their state were some of the hardest hit by the pandemic and maybe those people needed help picking up or dropping off relatives at the airport. Or that someone needs to go get Grandpa’s stuff from the VA hospital but everyone is too sad or old or immunocompromised to perform the task. If only there was someone who was young enough and healthy enough and not as afraid of the virus to help…but instead of lending a helping hand, they gathered up their guns and stormed the statehouse.

Sometimes, when you need saving the most, it’s not the big hand of power, privilege or position that plucks you from oblivion. It is, instead, the humble hand of a neighbor who’s felt the urge to do a little good in the world.

To all my fellow Americans who think this whole thing is a hoax that is ruining our economy? Do something constructive. Put down your sign, stop wasting the time and energy of your local police department, put on a mask and lend a hand to help rebuild this great nation. Volunteer to drive the bloodmobile or deliver meals to seniors. Get in on your church’s efforts to make contact with every parishioner past and present to make sure no one is suffering in embarrassed silence. Older generations are less likely to ask for help even when their need is great. Act like they are doing you a favor by letting you help them. Be sneaky.

Take your cue from the Cajun Navy. Gas up the truck and get out there, your fellow Americans need you.

our new movie night

Our New Movie Night

Felicia and I watched Logan Lucky on Saturday night. She was on her couch 200 mikes away from where I was on mine. Took us a bit to sync up the sound but aside from that it was great fun to watch a movie together. Our new movie night wasn’t so bad, especially if you find a movie as charming as Logan Lucky.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Rebecca Blunt, a pseudonym for Jules Asner, Soderbergh’s wife, Logan Lucky is a charming, slyly funny and well-crafted heist movie starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Daniel Craig. You read that right. I proposed we watch the movie without even know what it was about, simply based on those three names.

Felicia is crazy for Adam Driver and I tend to lose the power of speech when Daniel Craig turns on the charm and Channing Tatum is America’s sweetheart. They could have spent two hours arguing over a Denny’s picture menu and I would have watched it.

Luckily the movie was very good. We got confused a couple times but that was because we were distracted at the beginning trying to sync up the sound on our two TVs. There was a lot of, “I’m confused.” and “Wait, is that his sister or his…oh, it’s his sister. I get it. Sorry.”

I wonder when we will return to movie theatres. I think we will, the experience is so closely tied to ancient rituals of collective entertainment. We’ve spent millennia packed into uncomfortable seats, irritated beyond bearing by our noisy neighbors, and I seriously doubt we will give it up anytime soon. Maybe a trip to the movie theatre will be more of an occasion, the way it is going to a musical or a play or whatever other live performance you don’t mind shelling out 45 bucks a head to see.

Our new version of movie night was fun but I miss the movie theatre because when we all laugh together or gasp as one or there are sniffles and furtive searches for those woefully inadequate napkins to mop up unexpected tears, there is nothing like experiencing those emotional highs and lows among my fellow humans.

 

 

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.