Did the pandemic break me? Or was I already broken?

Pandemic Parenting Part II

Originally posted on Medium 11/25/2020

It has been nine months since the start of the pandemic. I no longer have to make my own bread, toilet paper can be found in the stores, and we now have a variety of patterned masks I no longer have to bribe my child to wear.

Daycares have re-opened, but we have chosen not to send our three-year-old back to school. Our concerns are many, but foremost are the unknown long term health effects of COVID-19 on his small, growing body. My husband and I still shift-parent, but we have gotten better at it, and more used to the load. I still start work at 7am, and work until naptime, when I take a few precious minutes to snuggle my kid to sleep. My husband starts his workday at 1:30pm, and as soon as I have convinced my kid that he needs to sleep to grow big and strong, I get back to work as well. When he wakes up, it’s my turn to parent and my husband continues to work into the evening to make up for the time he missed in the morning. He also works most weekends.

Child looking at ipad while adult computer is open
My son “working” as I presented at a virtual conference.

This used to be hard. Every morning used to feel insurmountable and I was in a panic about the list of things to do before I had even stumbled to the coffee maker. Each morning I was already at a deficit, trying to get done the work needed to help pivot our non-profit toward a new direction mid-pandemic. I also struggled to be the parent I was socialized to be, raising my son with little to no screen time, engaging him in creative arts and crafts, preparing homemade and low-sodium organic food, often in attractive shapes and presentations, and so on.

I used to miss the morning snuggles because I raced straight to my desk after I had spent my time making oatmeal muffins or eggs. Now, while I clear my inbox sitting on the couch, he softens into me, and pats my hand, and giggles at the TV while he watches Moana for the 87th time and eats his breakfast of cereal, or toast with hummus, or a good old PB&J.

My husband may work afternoons and weekends, but he spends all morning with our kid every weekday, a far cry from when he used to leave at 6:30 am and come home at 6:30 pm, exhausted from his day. After working a long week, he still had to spend his weekends grading, because he lost 3 hours a day to his commute.

Dinner is …served. Sometimes it is a home-cooked meal, sometimes it is spaghettios. The sourdough starter is still alive, but is used as often to make chocolate cake or waffles as it is to make bread.

Living my pre-pandemic life and its attendant expectations was going to break me, maybe irreparably. Or maybe I was already broken and didn’t know it. The pandemic forced me to find a new balance, and let go of self-imposed mandates. Most of my friends with children don’t work outside of the home, but that means my comparison for “typical” mothering comes from those whose full-time role is to do so. So when I was trying to work as if I didn’t parent and parent as if I didn’t work, I was doing a great dis-service to myself and my child. By making my work invisible on both sides, I was denying myself my dual identify of being a working parent, and denying my child the realistic example of a balanced life.

Now I make choices on how I am going to fail today. What things am I going to let go of to make room for others? Spaghettios translates into an extra hour of hiking in the woods with my kiddo. A simple dinner instead of the more complicated recipes means that my three-year-old and I can work together to make it. And lo and behold, he is more likely to eat it! The clean laundry waits and watches us from the basket while we do arts and crafts after dinner. Sometimes it waits in the basket for folding until we are almost out of clean clothes, but it doesn’t seem to mind, as long as I don’t. Instead of the anger my son used to feel when I left him to go to work, to attend meetings instead of playing with him, he has worked towards acceptance and understanding. He understands that I work to help other children and their teachers, to make sure everyone can have education and a life filled with good food and a warm home. He also understands now that my work helps pay for the organic juice popsicles that are the highlight of his day during the sweaty summer months in Texas — one of the bougie pre-pandemic parenting things I can’t let go of.

Spaghettios for dinner! Hiking in Austin

This new understanding of my work, and why I work — both the purpose and the economics — has allowed me to to start the harder and more complicated conversations of privilege, which we have in abundance, of inequity, of racism, and the structure of oppression.

When the pandemic started, each day was a race to finish, to make sure all the balls being juggled continued on their trajectory, and the struggle to not drop and shatter some or all of them. Now I choose to just not pick up some of those balls. I evaluate each one before it joins the others in the air: Is it an immediate need? Is it required for social, emotional or physical wellbeing? If not, sometimes it doesn’t get thrown in the air. It is tucked away for another day, or sometimes outright buried, never to see the light of day again, because it is just not important enough to divert my focus.

My kid is never going to remember that I stopped making an entree with two sides and a salad for dinner each night — he is going to remember that we saved that energy to play word games during family dinner when we feast on pancakes and eggs. He is going to remember the mornings he played with his father. When he looks back and reminisces about those sweltering afternoons of the pandemic summer, he is going to remember how he sat in his seat on the front of my bike, armed with a bougie popsicle, and while I pedaled us through shaded bike trails he flapped his arms and pretended to be Maui, demigod of the wind and sea, how I kissed his sweaty neck from behind, and how I was able to make room for joy because I let things go.

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