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.

Have myself a home life

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I think I’m gonna stay home, have myself a home life
Sitting in the slow-mo, and listening to the daylight …
—John Mayer, “Home Life”

Today was the sort of picture-perfect early spring afternoon — cool in the shade; warm and resplendent in the sun — that makes it easy to forget anything scary is happening in the world.

And that’s a good thing.

Now roughly two weeks into the craziness of COVID-19, I finally feel like I’m not waking up daily with a pit in my stomach. Since I rely on books and articles to make sense of nearly everything in life, Scott Berinato’s piece “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief” landed just right with me. This passage, especially:

There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.

For us, proceeding has meant developing new routines. While I’m still reporting to the hospital for my work in marketing and communications, dispatching daily COVID updates, my husband is working remotely for the foreseeable future. Schools and daycare are closed by order of the governor. We can’t ask friends or family to help with the kids, given we’re all self-isolating.

We’ve had to find a way.

I’m really proud of Spence. Were the cards flipped and I was the one home with a 3- and 4-year-old while trying to work full-time, do you know how that would work out? … It wouldn’t. I mean, seriously. I’m high-strung on a normal day, let alone when my children morph into banshees the moment I go to take a critical phone call.

My husband has been handling this development with patience and grace. The kids seem happy and busy, rediscovering toys long-buried in bins around the house and getting outside as much as they can. I’ve adjusted my time so I’m coming home mid-afternoon, and I love having those extra hours of daylight to spend with them before the bustle of dinnertime.

If I weren’t donning a surgical mask the moment I reach my office, I’d say it’s almost peaceful.

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While part of me recognizes that we’re likely in the eye of the hurricane with the strongest winds yet to blow, I’m learning to focus on the here and now — a lifelong struggle, and one that’s all the more important when the future seems so unknown. I miss my family. The kids miss their friends. It’s still weird and surreal. But I’m reaching “acceptance,” because we’re in this for the long haul.

Searching for the positive in this strange situation, I’ve come up with plenty of unexpected gifts brought on by a pandemic. Of course I continue to worry for everyone’s health — that’s a given. But as we all practice social distancing and stay home save trips to work or the grocery store, there have been lots of glimmers to appreciate:

  • We’re eating at home. Save a few carry-out meals to support our local restaurants, breakfast, lunch and dinner have been served up right from our stove. I’m taking leftovers to work. We’re getting creative with what’s in our pantry and fridge, since we’re trying to shop as little as possible. Also, Spence busted out a crepe pan this morning. A crepe pan. When have we ever made the time or gone to the trouble to use that thing?
  • The kids are bonding. Hadley and Oliver haven’t spent this much uninterrupted time together since my second maternity leave — and, you know, I don’t think either was much aware of the other’s presence at that point. They still squabble, but they’re getting along remarkably well. They only have each other (and us), after all. I see them using their imaginations and helping each other, which is heart-swelling.
  • I’m caught up on laundry. Like: really caught up.
  • I’ve been reading. Because we’re spending so much time at home, the kids are used to hanging out more and playing by themselves. I’m totally enthralled with Brantley Hargrove’s The Man Who Caught the Storm right now. The man is #goals, y’all — his writing is insane.
  • The community is coming together. There have been so many offers of help and rallying of the troops, which is so reassuring. I just hope we keep that spirit alive if the days get harder … and when they get easier, too.

Happy Sunday, friends. ❤

 

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. ❤

 

Every tremor, every pulse

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The work truck was parked on the shoulder, door ajar.

I saw it long before I actually reached Allens Fresh — a stretch of marsh off the Wicomico. My commute takes me straight through this lowland daily. I might not have noticed the vehicle on a “normal day,” when fishermen crowd this strip and drop their skiffs. But this wasn’t a normal day. This is life in the time of COVID-19.

The roads haven’t been empty this week, but traffic has certainly been lighter. I’ve continued to report to the county hospital where drive-through COVID testing is now set up, working on communications. I’ve had a low-grade headache since Monday. Adrenaline has temporarily replaced caffeine. Sleep rushes up at me hard every night, thick and dreamless. Everything is surreal.

I noticed the truck because our vehicles were the only ones on this stretch of road. He’d pulled over just by the bridge — the one wiped out in the back-to-back tropical storms of 2011, the floodwaters erasing everything in their path.

I noticed the truck because, these days, I notice everything. Daily life has halted. Routines are totally disrupted. I’m hyper-aware of every sea change, every tremor, every pulse. Like all of us, I am waiting.

The sun was just cresting the horizon, painting Allens Fresh with warm orange light. Everything felt still. I was listening to The Killers — my current COVID coping mechanism — and trying to tune my brain to only white noise.

At first I thought the man was sick. He was so hastily stopped, not bothering with hazard lights. Not bothering to close the driver’s door. His work van was crookedly parked on the shoulder, like he’d skidded to a halt just in time. He couldn’t wait another second.

He was taking a picture.

On that strange morning, he’d hopped out to catch the sunrise. He was still.

I slowed as I passed, looking over to see the clear morning as he saw it. Miles later, I stopped to take a different picture: the tractor, the message … a reminder in strange times. Maybe a hopeful one, too. If everyone sees it, will they listen?

I got back to work.

And yes, I washed my hands.

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.

There’s a reason IKEA sells ice cream at the exit.

IMG_4040Our marriage survived IKEA.

I say that half-jokingly, because … well. It’s is basically my version of a nightmare. Huge store, hordes of people, tons of decisions to make in a chaotic environment, maze-like twists with no clear exits … claustrophobia, thy name is IKEA.

I’m not at my best in those situations. The anxiety spikes until I’m snappy, hyper, eager to just … escape. Thankfully, my husband knows all about my quirks and has a high degree of tolerance for them.

Still, by the time we reached the check-out (for the second time … long story), I was definitely ready to eat my feelings. Magical IKEA ice cream, here I come!

I didn’t always feel this way. I, too, was young once. In my early twenties, I had a boyfriend with an apartment dangerously close to an IKEA. Many dates were spent admiring inexpensive art and furniture while wandering the cavernous store. Though we rarely purchased anything but dessert, it was fun to debate different pillows and wicker baskets (he was, I remember, quite anti-wicker).

I lived at home until I later married, so these trips were a glimpse into another world: one of furnishings and color, style and modernity. An adult world.

My boyfriend at the time lived in an inauspicious rental, just passing through; I was still in my childhood bedroom. We debated tables we’d never dine on, cups we’d never drink from, beds in which we’d never sleep. We were in transition, as we all seem to be at 20 or 22. Our relationship was always one of “someday,” though it took years for me to see it that way.

Almost decade later, I’m married to Spencer, handiest and kindest of souls, and we purchased our first home in 2014. I shook uncontrollably when we learned our house offer had been accepted, wondering if we’d made a huge mistake. Not because I didn’t love the place — I still do! — but … well, let’s just say adulthood caught up to me quickly. That level of commitment was terrifying.

I made a single trip to IKEA with friends after we closed on the house, suddenly feeling like I needed to Buy All the Things to prepare for this new phase of life. In the span of six months, I moved out of my childhood home, got married, and schlepped my earthly belongings to my husband’s condo. Then we bought a house and, after not moving at all for 25-plus years, I moved again.

I don’t remember buying much on that post-settlement IKEA run. I was then, as I am now, totally overwhelmed in that store. I’m a woman who buys mattresses on Amazon and has “PAW Patrol” mac and cheese shipped in bulk to her front door. Walking around an honest-to-goodness business is … exhausting.

But we needed to go. The cabinets my husband was after were available in-store — or very expensively online, or elsewhere. Like so little now thanks to our digital world, this required an in-person trip. Spence and I seized the opportunity to make it a “date,” and the kids hung back with my parents. We set off.

IMG_4023Walking the showrooms, I was transported through time — back imagining my life in this tidy world with its splashes of color. I could prepare tea in my black-and-white kitchen, then read comfortably in a velvet armchair. I could create an urban oasis with a bistro table and faux greenery wall. I could relax.

There were no tiny LEGO pieces scattered like confetti. No half-eaten yogurt pouches jammed in a couch cushion. No dirty socks balled up in every room of the house. 

On the rare moments my husband and I are shopping alone, we inevitably play a game: “What chaos would the kids be creating right now?” In the lighting area, for example, Ollie would be unboxing all the lightbulbs. Up in kitchens, Hadley would be scaling barstools and announcing herself as “the winner” from her sky-high perch. They would be obsessed with the giant staircase leading down to the marketplace. And I would be in a dead sweat, fretting.

Instead, Spence and I were sweaty just walking around. We came with a shopping list. Doing his research, Spence had a detailed plan for the cabinets he’s going to install in our basement. We’re creating a “project area” for the family — an eventual homework/craft spot for everyone to use without fear of getting paint on the carpet. (There is, in fact, no more carpet.)

The basement has basically been a dumping ground since we moved in almost six years ago. Spence has been really motivated to clean lately, and I ain’t stopping him. While I admire his energy, I … haven’t contributed much beyond picking paint colors.

IMG_4025I brought any strength I had to IKEA, though, and gave it my all. While Spence worked with an overwhelmed but eager young associate to track down everything needed for these cabinets, I wandered. And daydreamed. I snapped iPhone photos of armchairs and stools, rugs and planters, artwork and bowls. Tons of things we could then go find in the massive warehouse — practically a whole new house.

Thankfully, Spence caught me before I could do anything impulsive. After purchasing most everything online for years, taking me out to a physical store is dangerous. I have a mom van, after all — I know how to fill it.

But I behaved … or, more accurately, couldn’t get my thoughts together enough to commit to something even as benign as a new end table. The beautiful armchair, geometric rug and gorgeous valet stand will all have to wait. We did walk out with a trio of fake succulents and colorful snack bowls for the kids. (The bowls — and other kids’ tableware — are pretty great, actually.)

And, you know, we got the cabinets! Our trip was not in vain. Spence has been painting the basement and crafting a countertop to prepare for installation. I’m hoping to be able to write down there, too, when we get everything polished up. There are so few places to experience any semblance of quiet in our house … I’ll try anything.

So our IKEA run was successful. I enjoyed just walking around with my guy, though we were often inadvertently separated. And we did get home and realize yes, we had remembered to purchase handles for the cabinets … but accidentally grabbed two different finishes. 

Guess we’ll be going online after all.

 

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.