Masked

 

I finally cried yesterday.

Save many a hormonal-fueled sob fest when I was pregnant, I’m not really a crier. My pain and anxieties manifest in other ways. So when the tears pooled and finally spilled, breaking the COVID-19 emotional dam I’ve been heaving around, I was surprised. And suddenly exhausted.

But I needed to get it out.

Yesterday was my first day wearing a mask full-time at the hospital. Working in a separate office far from patient care, I hadn’t been required nor compelled to wear one all the time — not at my own desk, in the office I share with just one person. But I do now. It feels like “it” — coronavirus, germs, illness, something — is lurking and, if I slip up just once, it’s coming for me next.

As one of millions of people who grapple with anxiety and OCD under normal circumstances, I’ve found the pandemic to be an interesting mix of eerie calm (my anxiety helps me function sharply in fight-or-flight situations) and total alarm (my anxiety exaggerates all dangers, or invents them completely).

Talking to my husband at the end of a long day, I realized where part of my panic was coming from: the mask itself. Being masked all day reminds me of being in labor with Oliver, when I was sick and terrified and had to wear an oxygen mask for the duration of my 15-hour labor and delivery.

I’m claustrophobic, and the oxygen mask overwhelmed me. I kept trying to rip it off so I could breathe, goddammit, but of course I couldn’t. Every scream, every shout, every cry was muffled and held tightly in that plastic pressed to my face. I didn’t have my glasses on; everything was blurred and strange. One of my sharpest memories after that ordeal was my relief when someone finally removed the mask so I could squint at the amorphous shape of my tiny baby, blindly pressing a kiss to his forehead before he was NICU-bound. Then the mask was back.

Approaching Oliver’s 5th birthday next week, my mind would have already been turning over and over these difficult memories — heavy stones now worn smooth with handling. This year is easier, because more time has passed; this year is harder, because we’re all cooped up now. Distractions are scarce.

Now that Spencer and I talked through why the mask has been freaking me out so much, I think I can accept that it was just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. When I let myself shed some tears — for the past, for the changed present, for the unknown future — and accepted that I don’t have to always be so relentlessly optimistic during a worldwide pandemic, I can dust myself off and begin again.

Today is a new day. It’s Friday. Weekends don’t have much meaning at the moment, but I’ll be home with my family and helping my husband, who is shouldering so much of the parenting load right now.

The sky is tinged with dusky rose and pastel blue. I’m wearing a new necklace. In an hour or so, my children will be giggling while their dad makes breakfast and I pull into the hospital’s parking lot.

I’ll slip the mask over my ears, take a muffled breath, and go on.

We can make it if we take it slow

Can we climb this mountain? I don’t know
Higher now than ever before
I know we can make it if we take it slow
Let’s take it easy. Easy now, watch it go
—The Killers, “When You Were Young”

As we all grapple with a new reality (and isolation — ’cause social distancing), I’ve been trying to manage my anxiety with … chocolate? Well, yes. But that’s not ideal. With reading. Breathing. Walking outside. Writing. If I thought it would help, I would totally chew up a few extra anxiety pills.

Spring dayDaycare has closed. My work schedule has changed but there is still much to be done, which is also true for my husband. We are staying home as much as possible — especially challenging with a 3- and 4-year-old used to weekend adventures. Shenanigans in the park, at the very least. I’ve explained all this to Oliver as “many people are sick right now,” so schools, restaurants and stores are closed. So far, at least, they don’t seem to mind.

We haven’t seen my parents “in person” since Hadley’s birthday, now almost two weeks ago. I haven’t seen my sister, brother-in-law and niece in nearly as long. Their new baby is due in mid-April. After a week with us, my mother- and father-in-law departed for New York this morning. Like all of us, they’re not quite sure what they’ll find when they get there.

After more than 10 years, I wrote my final newspaper column today. I don’t think it’s actually occurred to me that it’s done. I haven’t had a chance to breathe or process … and haven’t wanted to, really. I’m worried that if I start to really think about how scary all this is, it’ll get ugly.

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Sometimes I’m OK. Sometimes I’m not. I try to just sit with that and accept it. There is no playbook right now.

Spencer created a daily schedule for all of us this morning (two adults trying to work from home — or checking in, at the very least; two kids who need structure). I think it’s helping. It’s giving me a sense of control, at least, and that’s nearly as important.

I’ve started a folder of screengrabs with positive thoughts, quotes, and ideas to remember when I get overwhelmed (which is often) — that’s helping, too. And I saw this T-shirt and legitimately laughed. I thought about when I was really in a bad place, mental health-wise, and I used to repeat my mantra — be here now — over and over again.

I can’t obsess about the future. Too much is unknown. But I can embrace this moment for all its imperfections, breathe, and be here now.

Here’s a small collection of stories and ideas that are keeping me from “losing heart and courage,” too.

What’s getting you through? Any great and hopeful links to share? I’m alllll ears.

Happy Monday, friends. ❤

 

Life in the time of corona

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What a week.

Has it only been a week?

Sort of. It’s really been longer. But only a week since what was once a distant, abstract concern sharpened into a serious concern that has dwarfed everyday life … making “everyday life” here in Maryland seem quaint.

It’s like a natural disaster is unfolding, only it’s a beautiful spring day. Like prepping for a blizzard, but without radar to monitor … and no obvious way to know when the danger will be over. At least after a hurricane, the sun can be counted on to guide us out of the gloom.

This is love and life in the time of COVID-19. Never have I felt so unsettled about what lies ahead. My human neighbors and I are all in the same boat. And I can’t distract myself or get away from it — not at home, certainly, where the kids are camped out. And not at work, where I’m still reporting to our hospital. The front of my office building has been turned into triage. Marketing, too, is needed on the front lines.

Even in my mid-thirties, I fight the urge in challenging times to run “home.” Back where my dad has a plan and a fridge full of food. Where my mom has crafts, People magazines, and a backlog of Hallmark movies on the DVR. Back where I am not in charge. Where I don’t need to worry about making the wrong decisions.

Despite the mounting concern and media frenzy, I’ve been trying to keep it together. For now, at least, I’m still needed and expected at work, and so is my husband. We have the relief of knowing the kids are taken care of, tucked at home while we wait to see what the rest of this surreal time brings.

When my mother- and father-in-law arrived, I thought I was going to cry.

“I can breathe now,” I told Spencer’s mom. “I feel like the grown-ups are here.”

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At home, I try to stay “normal.” We have been cleaning like crazy, finally cracking into some of the cleaning products we’ve had for ages because I keep dragging in more after forgetting we own them.

Though I don’t want pandemic anxiety seeping into the kids’ lives, there’s no way they aren’t picking up on it. Day care is still open but, with Spencer’s parents in town, we’re keeping them home in the name of social distancing. Hadley and Oliver are both old enough to understand the departure from routine; my son especially struggles with change. Still, with their grandparents visiting (thank god), Hadley and Oliver have company and novelty to distract them.

They have walks in the woods. Coloring books. Easter crafts. They have snacks and “Peppa Pig” and LEGO blocks for days. They have Play-Doh and puzzles. When desperate, they have tablets. And if I were home, too, I’d have my books.

Like parenthood, there’s a great lesson of life in the time of corona: so much is out of our control. Things that would have seemed unimaginable a few weeks ago — closing schools; shutting down restaurants and bars; postponing elections — have already happened. These are strange times, friends. 

I fluctuate between “everything will be fine!” and “wow this is bad,” and I’m learning to be OK with that. One day at a time. We can only stay calm, scrub up, and carry on. Give our phones a break. Pause the newscast.

No one knows what will happen, but we can hold on and help each other through a turbulent ride. So wherever you are and however you’re reading this, I’ve got a light on for you. For all of us.

May we see ourselves swiftly through to the other side.

Perfectly-imperfect holidays

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It took forever, but it’s back.

For the first time since becoming a parent almost five years ago (!), I’m looking forward to this holiday with a sense of excitement. Anticipation.

It’s not that I dislike Christmas … only the expectation and exhaustion that can come with Dec. 25. After getting married and welcoming our first child, the mounting pressure of the holidays — throwing the perfect holiday! choosing the best gifts! making the happiest memories! — was too much for my already-overloaded brain to handle.

Grappling with postpartum anxiety, the pressure of the Year of Firsts — baby’s first everything, all needing to be commemorated lest the memories disappear into the sands of time — felt like another way I was failing as a mom.

Also, I was exhausted. All new parents are tired, but I was not prepared for the way that would impact every aspect of my life. Ollie woke constantly, on the hour, and I didn’t feel like a human being for years after this birth.

I didn’t think I was doing things “right.” Not for a long time. But when I learned I was expecting my second child, I knew I had to pull it together. I didn’t want to focus more on documenting the moment than actually living in it … and I wanted to enjoy Hadley’s first year in a way that I couldn’t with Ollie.

And I did.

I got better.

Medication helped. Talking helped. The passage of time helped. Also: sleep helped. For the love of snow-covered pinecones, our children finally sleep through the night ( … mostly, but we’ll take it).

So this year? I’m ready. Ready to embrace that holiday spirit. The kids are at great ages — 2 ½, 4 ½ — to peer into the darkness searching for the neighbors’ Christmas lights and eagerly anticipate Santa’s arrival. We decorated right after Thanksgiving, pulling everything out after I got home from work on Black Friday.

And that’s also how I knew I was better: I was too excited to wait any longer.

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So here it is: my Christmas spirit blowing through the front door on a gusty winter breeze — with advent calendars and elves on shelves, matching pajamas, hot cocoa . . . every jinglin’ thing.

As we dragged holiday box after box up from the basement, another surprising thing happened: the little hands reaching for fragile things did not bother me much.

Hadley and Ollie were so excited to start hanging ornaments that, within reason, I just … let it be.

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A year ago, my compulsive need to make everything “just so” would have meant plucking those delicate bulbs to place on a top branch, far from tiny fingers.

I would have been more preoccupied with making something “perfect” than creating so much that is pleasantly imperfect.

I’ve found lots of resources on what it means to be the child of a parent with OCD, but I’ve been a little too scared to delve deeply into what it means to be the mother herself. (I do relate deeply to articles like this one.)

I’m making progress … I know I am. I wouldn’t let any of the ornaments get purposefully broken, but I wanted the kids to enjoy the decorating process. Heck — I wanted to enjoy the process. When Hadley hung a third ornament on one scraggly branch, I didn’t interfere. And as Ollie collected all the red ones into a clump, I praised his creativity. I did not tidy.

Sometimes the OCD loosens its grip and I’m fine. Most of my need to “fix” seems to revolve around right angles, of all things: if I see a book or a box, for example, I need it to be flush against another surface, never askew. (Straightening a business card-sized calendar on my desk is a particular obsession.)

The tree has few angles, so I’m happy to let it reflect the kids’ creativity. I want our family tree to be an explosion of color and memories. I love the handprints on canvas, the popsicle art, the painted preschool creations. Some of the pieces are my own handiwork (circa 1989), while others are Spencer’s from childhood. Even more precious are the pieces passed down from my great-grandmother: hand-crocheted trees with lots of memories.

That’s Christmas to me: family and festivities. Tinsel-covered bits of holiday magic.

Plus, you know … the cookies. Joyfully eaten with my kids by our lopsided Christmas tree while the Elf on the Shelf looks on.

And to all a good night.

That time I almost lost it at Great Wolf Lodge (but didn’t)

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There are several stages of Traveling with Children.

The first is, of course, excitement. We’re going on vacation! As a working parent, I especially look forward to this uninterrupted time with my family. It’s easy to fall into this trap of daydreaming about the perfect trip during the planning phase: finishing a book poolside, laughing with my perfectly-behaved children at a calm dinner, tucking them into woodland-themed bunk beds, watching HGTV in peace. Ahh.

Next comes getting acclimated. After three hours on the road, we’re here! “Here” was Great Wolf Lodge last weekend: a family-themed resort with energetic children at every turn. GWL has a cult following and festive vibe that gets even straight-laced adults to don the trademark wolf ears (myself included). Getting acclimated includes taking in all the craziness that a change of scenery entails. Our four- and two-year-old basically just … screamed and ran at full speed for the first six-plus hours on the Williamsburg property. Calling them “keyed up” is an understatement.

Once reality sets in, we hit the “ooh, was this a good idea?” stage — usually around bedtime. This phase includes being kicked in the ribs at 2 a.m. by a child who refuses to sleep in the bunk bed of the pricey “wolf den” suite, because bunk beds are cool strictly during daylight hours. Your spouse must sleep on the couch.

So, I mean, I’m not a monster; I realize that a change in sleeping arrangements can be weird for kids. And my son, an extreme creature of habit, greatly depends on his routines. The idea of crawling into the top bunk and actually resting there alone was … a hard no.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. In fact, I was a little annoyed with myself that it did surprise me. But every time, I think … this time will be different. The kids are older now, and more adaptable; we won’t have the fussing and issues we’ve had on previous trips.

While it’s true that we don’t have to worry about round-the-clock feedings and a truckload of diapers anymore, thinking that Oliver, in particular, is adaptable? Mmm. This is the kid that, on our first beach trip, screamed so long and so hard at being put in a pack-and-play that Spencer and I wound up driving the beach access road for hours to get him to sleep … then carrying him inside in his carseat. Also the same kid that required another midnight drive around downtown Bedford, Pennsylvania, because we were desperate to calm him down. We wound up finding a well-lit gas station to catch a few hours of rest ourselves, then cut our trip short.

My blood pressure climbed just typing all that.

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Sleep is at the heart of so many issues. And when traveling, of course, sleep is a major unknown … because the comfortable routines we have at home don’t directly translate. Hadley goes down relatively easy at bedtime, but Ollie is different. He struggles to settle on a regular day at home, constantly telling me that “sleeping is boring,” so traveling is just … next level.

So in the “ooh, was this a good idea?” phase, I beat myself up with big questions. Why is it so hard to enjoy something that hundreds of families are all enjoying at this very moment? Why does this feel challenging? Am I broken? Are my children? Why are we spending all this money to be exhausted and stressed in a different location? And, of course, why can’t I just relax and have fun? 

Thankfully, after the first night, this exhausting (and depressing) phase typically melts into a better scene: making the best of it and hey, this is actually enjoyable, which comes after the kids, Spence and I have adapted to staying in a hotel room — all four of us, together, with little distraction — and being out of our normal patterns.

Great Wolf Lodge has the advantage of being very obviously kid-friendly. Kids here, there, and everywhere. Kids shoving past you in Build a Bear. Just … kids.

While it got overwhelming at the end, it was refreshing not to have the added stress of feeling like we were disturbing everyone around us. Our crew never earned the familiar glares of nearby couples just trying to enjoy their crab dip appetizer in peace, thankyouverymuch. 

Camaraderie was in the air, actually — an “in the trenches” solidarity amongst the weary parents and grandparents. Wading through knee-high water in our similar tankini tops and skirted bathing suit bottoms, the thirty-something moms and I exchanged knowing smiles. These women got it. They, too, were wrestling toddlers into swim diapers and chasing sugared-up “PAW Patrol” characters through hotel halls. They were also in line at Dunkin’ because they would croak without another shot of caffeine.

Because we visited GWL during their “Howl-o-Ween” festivities, we enjoyed nightly trick-or-treating. Spence and I wound up walking the candy trail with another couple whose kids were close in age to ours, and our shared jokes warmed me up with the recognition of kindred spirits. My husband and I joked that we should have asked where they were from. Everyone needs friends. And this couple — with the dad dressed like Rocky ready to enter the ring, and his playful wife continuously “dinging” a bell on her iPhone — were definite contenders.

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So … did we have fun at Great Wolf Lodge? Absolutely.

After our iffy first night, I faced a hard truth: Traveling with young children feels so challenging because I’m just as much a creature of habit as they are.

Understanding myself better as an adult, this is about anxiety. I get stressed when I’m out of my element. I thrive on predictability — and traveling with children has none of that. My anxiety kicks into overdrive and mostly-managed OCD issues flair up. The familiar fight-or-flight panicky feeling awakens, and I want to run away to feel normal again. By then? Well, I’m just a hot mess.

I’m working on all that.

By realizing it fairly early this trip, I could collect myself, pull it together, and coax my anxious brain back into neutral territory. Once I relaxed, we had a great time with my mother- and father-in-law at the expansive resort. There was plenty to do, and the water park was enjoyable even for a mom (and kids) who can’t swim!

Most importantly, Hadley and Oliver had a blast — and we have a new collection of fun family memories with their grandparents. I have a feeling that we’ll be talking about “the wolf place” for a long time to come. And who knows? Now that he’s four, maybe our GWL trip will be one of Ollie’s earliest memories.

Which brings us to the final phase: looking at photos and reminiscing about the great time you had. The hotel neighbors having a dance party at 1 a.m. and long lines behind indecisive middle schoolers at the breakfast buffet are all forgotten. We’re left with sweet smiles floating on a tube in the lazy river, joy when hitting the 1,000-ticket prize in the arcade, and happy, tired kids passing out within minutes on the drive home.

These are the days. The tiring, wild, haphazard days.

I have earned that pumpkin creme cold brew, friends … but it’s true that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Bring on the wolf ears!

 

A soft place to land

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File it under “Things I’ve Had to Get Used to as a Parent.”

That’s a pretty thick folder.

Spending time outside is a way of life. This wouldn’t be a problem except I hate to sweat, can’t deal with bugs, and feel my skin sizzling to a nice red crisp within .10 seconds of being exposed to daylight.

My kids, of course, love it. Hadley adores being in her stroller and swinging the hours away. Ollie, too, loves running around like a nut, getting good and sweaty, and catapulting himself down the slide.

Well, “catapulting” is a little strong. Much to his anxious mother’s relief, Oliver is a pretty cautious kid. He doesn’t leap from couches or reach out to hot stoves. My three-year-old takes me at my word when I tell him something is “dangerous,” and one of the first two-word phrases he strung together was “be careful!”

I struggle often with the push/pull of my anxiety and letting my children be children. What constitutes a legitimate danger, and what is simply a normal part of growing up? It takes all my willpower — a lot of willpower — not to shadow my kids like the proverbial monkey on their back. I’m glad that Oliver runs around at “school” without me, because I don’t think I could handle seeing him on monkey bars.

We went to the playground yesterday, and it was the first time I spent most of my time on the ground instead of squeezing myself into child-sized spaces. Oliver climbed a kid-friendly rock wall and went down a tall slide. Without me.

It was a big moment.

Anxiety confuses and deceives you, making everything feel like a fight-or-flight situation. Being a parent has meant I must get used to stepping back and letting my kids get dirty and sweaty and potentially bruised.

I don’t like it. It goes against my very nature. But I can step outside my nervousness and realize that “protection” is an illusion. No one can be protected all the time.

All we can do is be there to guide them.

And remain a soft place to land.

 

 

 

In which I ramble about anxiety

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I’m not going to lie to y’all: I’m all over the place right now.

Which end is up?
Which end is down?

I was doing really well in advance of the move, but Spencer has been away this week and . . . I’m having a tough time.

Why is it so hard for me to say that — that I’m struggling? We’re used to putting on a brave face. Many people in my life are dealing with truly tough things: illness, grief, job loss. When I stack my “problems” next to theirs, they look wholly inadequate. Silly. #firstworldproblems, you know?

And I don’t want to complain. Or look bratty. Or selfish. So I say little, smile, keep going . . . but inside, all that “nothing” has been hard. I’ve been keeping it in.

Spencer has been gone. He’s been out on business before, but I was still living at home then — so I spent that week eating my parents’ home-cooking and generally doing my normal thing. But this? Now? A week before our move? I’ve been alone in the apartment, obsessing and worrying and wondering. Trying to pack but getting too overwhelmed to do much of anything. All the ambitions I had for the week have evaporated, and I feel guilty and sick knowing I could have done so much but chose to avoid it all instead.

But it’s Thursday, I keep telling myself. I still have time. I can pack tonight, check on the new house, get some things together. The week hasn’t been “wasted.”

I think I just needed a break.

And a chance for some forthrightness. Is that a word? I’m making it a word. Because on this specific Thursday, I felt the urge to say I’ve spent most of this week feeling anxious and weird and freaked out about so many changes on the horizon . . . and that’s partly embarrassing and partly just what it is.

More than just my husband, Spence is my best friend. When he’s not here to talk me out of my nonsense, that nonsense becomes all-consuming. Before him, I’d never had a significant other so in my corner . . . someone so thoroughly in the trenches with me at all times. Until this time alone in our boxed-up apartment, I’d never considered how emotionally reliant I am on him. I just really miss him. I love him. It’s been one silly week, but this has been hard.

The truth is . . . I tend to panic. Though I don’t often talk about it, I struggle with anxiety. The easiest way I can describe it? When I’m stressed, I operate in fight-or-flight mode. Despite the fact that I am not in a life-threatening situation, my body screams at me that I absolutely am. My pulse races; I begin to sweat. I have a hard time breathing. When I’m in an uncomfortable situation (like being home alone), my instinct is to flee. My mind convinces me that I’m in mortal danger even if I’m safely ensconced in a locked house.

It’s rather inconvenient.

I don’t walk around scared all the time, but I’ve noticed my anxiety issues reach a fever pitch when I’m stressed about something — usually totally unrelated — in my life. Right now? That would be the upcoming move. The one happening next week. And because I’m stressed about that, my body has begun its attack on all rational sense. I’ve been sick to my stomach since Monday.

I’ve been thinking about why I don’t often write about my anxiety given I talk about . . . well, just about everything else. And I don’t really have an answer. I’m afraid of someone misunderstanding or judging me harshly, of course, and also of having my fears dismissed. I don’t like looking “weak” — even though I don’t see this as a weakness, per say. Just a facet. I struggle like we all struggle: shades of being human.

In disclosing our worries, we realize everybody’s got something. And when I talk about how I fear not finding a table in a crowded restaurant, some folks could snicker . . . but most accept this and try to help, you know? Rarely has anyone been unkind. Never am I teased. We adapt and accept and, when you’re with those who love you, they want to help.

Even if that means pushing you outside your comfort zone.

But that’s another post.

I felt compelled to scratch some thoughts out this morning because life isn’t always polished, as we know. I’ve felt like writing this week . . . but not in the way I normally would. My attention has been all over the place — too scattered to talk about books, though I’ve finished some good ones. I just wanted to talk out loud and think, and I knew you’d be here. You’d understand.

I feel a little better already.