Parenting is forever changed by this pandemic, but it’s going to be worth it, right?

If there was one word to blanketly describe the feelings of living amid this pandemic, it might be “intense.” Intense frustration. Intense fear. Intense love. Intense gratitude. Intense boredom. While my family and I are incredibly lucky right now — we’re all healthy, my husband and I have jobs we can do from home, we have Wi-Fi, healthcare, and a yard in which our three kids can play — the intensity rarely lets up. At least, that's how it feels right now for me, an emotionally leveled-up version of myself I never sought to achieve — at least not so relentlessly.

To give some context — and I’m sure every parent can relate to this in one way or another — a few weeks ago, I was lying in the backyard with my 2-year-old daughter while my 8- and 5-year-olds rode their bikes up and down the driveway. It was sunny. No one was arguing. It was a moment a few weeks prior that never would have been a reality at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. “What an opportunity,” I thought as I played with the sun-hot ponytail of my youngest and last baby — the one whose schedule has always involved a babysitter and being shuffled around to the various activities of older siblings. 

The next day, however, the weather was awful, and in the span of an hour, there was a broken glass, an email from my oldest’s teacher saying she missed a school assignment, two epic tantrums, work emails piling up, and the denouement? I kid you not — diarrhea. We’ll leave it at that. Before cleaning up the broken glass (which was meant to be a “fun” drink for my son — sparkling water, lots of ice, twists of lemon and such), I snapped a picture of my wet floor and sent it to two friends with the caption: “I am done.” The heaviness I felt pooling in my chest at that moment was a different brand of parenting despondency that comes from, say, a child who’s on a particularly solid run of night-waking or a toddler who recently discovered the word “no.” This feeling was encompassing, boundless and totally vague. 

Intensity, of course, is the plight of parenting. Pandemic or not, it’s always full of big, contradicting emotions — despair and glee often co-mingle. But normally, there’s a beginning and an end to the moments of enormous frustration and joy. They’re neatly placed into blocks between gymnastic class and school runs and trips to Target to get leggings for a child who evidently just had a growth spurt. But this is different. The delight, fear and anger is indefinite, and, if you take a glance at the news, cast against a pretty grim backdrop. It’s bigger than usual, and none of it, the highs nor the lows, lets up. 

We still have a few things that help us step outside the intensity of living and parenting during a pandemic, but right now, they can feel a little forced. The yoga, the meditation, the walks, Netflix — they all ground us or add levity to life. And they add a far more valuable respite than, say, a trip to the drugstore ever could, but they’re an intentional break-away from this bizarre, emotionally charged world we’re all living in now.

Before all of this started, it’s doubtful parents derived joy from the menial tasks that come with life and children. The errands, the carting around to activities, the lists, emails and personal admin. But normally, these boring things momentarily take us out of the rumination of life. They make us feel like we’re moving forward. They’re mini-resets throughout the day that provide a gap from the existential. Most of these tasks are absent altogether right now, and the ones that remain — going to the grocery store, paying bills, anything school-related — are tinged with an unfamiliar heaviness. Even the time-honored escape of TV can be faintly shrouded in a sense of strangeness. (Has anyone else read a book or watched a show recently and had the knee-jerk reaction of: “Wait, why are those people so close right now?” that jolts you out of escapism?) 

Put another way: Instead of being a gap in the good or bad intensity that is life, these everyday to-dos only add to the daunting pile. 

Normally, there’s an infinite amount of time to change, to enhance ourselves. But now, adding to the daily gravitas, there’s a gnawing sensation to do better when this is all over, particularly when it comes to parenting, and it can feel like we’ve been given a deadline. Some moments, it feels like this is a test, and there’s an end date when we’ll all shuffle out of our homes, hands up to the sky to block the long-forgotten light, and we’ll determine if we’ve evolved or if it was all for naught. 

“Will I take pleasure in running to Trader Joe’s for cheddar rockets and juice boxes?” I find myself wondering. Probably not for long. When my kids are cranky and making a massive mess of our house after school, will I have the patience of Job? I’m guessing not forever. Will I be softer? Kinder? More cautious? More grateful? Will my family keep up with our crafting, board games and walks? I hope so, but I don’t know. Is it possible to improve as a mother or person in an atmosphere that’s so persistently extreme? I don’t know, but it feels like something that warrants exploring now and again, no?

When my big feelings are good feelings, I think about how when the Zoom meetings and birthday motorcades and distance learning and masks are over, for a lot of parents, other things will be gone, too. Random, mid-morning walks with kids. Watching siblings create “spy stations” in the basement at noon. Eating breakfast as a family everyday. All the intense, foreign things will be gone, not just the bad ones. Perhaps, in a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way, our feelings will be a combination of relief and grief when life resumes, however it’s going to be. Who can know when we’re in it, right? But hopefully we’ll all be able to breathe a little easier and unpack our feelings after some chatter about the weather on the sideline of a soccer game while we half-watch our kids in the distance. 

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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