On Saturday, the cabin fever set in hard. I thought I was doing quite well with the whole winter/pandemic/straight-outta-quarantine situation for my family, but it was like a tidal creep … rising slowly, slowly, slowly until I felt like I could barely stay above the water line. I just had to get out of the house. Immediately.
Pandemic weariness is familiar to all of us. The last month has been especially brutal. Between a 14-day isolation after a close exposure to COVID (everyone has since recovered, and thankfully Spencer and I stayed well) plus days of bad weather that later forced daycare closures, we’ve been looking for any opportunity for a change in scenery. Companionship. Life.
Of course, it’s 30 degrees. Even “safer” activities — hiking, playgrounds, visiting family masked and outside — are not pleasant to attempt at the moment. We knew it would be a long, dark winter after the desperate but hopeful cheer of Christmas 2020. The post-holiday letdown has definitely been real.
So I’ve tried to be proactive with my mental health. Already prone to anxiety and depression, I could feel my “keeping it together no matter what” shell starting to crack. To be honest? I’m amazed it stayed intact as long as it has. Some of it is the ol’ holding it together for the kids mentality; I don’t want to worry or scare them when so much has already changed. But the truth is that I have hard days, too, and sometimes I just want to curl up with a comfy blanket and hide.
I could feel that struggle taking place on Saturday. The idea of facing another weekend shut in our house, all four of us lost in our tablets and laptops and devices, accomplishing nothing, going nowhere, was just … awful.
“Let’s go somewhere,” I told my husband. “Anywhere. Where can we go?”
We settled on Flag Ponds Nature Park in Lusby, Maryland, just an hour east on the Chesapeake Bay. It was a balmy 32 degrees following last week’s ice storms, but we grabbed hats, scarves, and gloves recently dried from playing in the snow. Even I — nothing close to adventurous — unearthed my heaviest boots for walking muddy trails. We were acting on impulse, crackly with excitement (or maybe that was all the static electricity … either way).
We only saw a handful of other people on the icy trails and boardwalk leading down to the bay. Oliver and Hadley each took a map of the 500-acre property, taking turns “leading” as we set off for the shore. Above us, ice-crusted trees tinkled like wind chimes, sending their branch-shaped casings smashing to the ground. The paths were lined with these crushed diamonds.
Spencer and I had been there before for a sunrise shoot with our photography club, but that was easily a decade ago. It was completely different from anything I could remember in winter. With the temperature barely above freezing, the beach grass and trees dotting the shoreline all glittered and clinked in their wind-chime way. The kids were fascinated by the “ice leaves” their dad placed in their mittened hands.
I thought about how, a few years ago, a day like this would have been impossible. There would have been strollers to pack, formula to pre-portion, bottles to secure in a heavy backpack that would have made hiking feel even more arduous. Diapers, so many diapers — and diapers to change in the woods. Even a little while after, there would have been kids demanding a bathroom as we reached peak isolation in the woods. A bathroom and a snack.
On Saturday, Hadley and Ollie walked a few paces ahead of us — enough to offer the illusion of independence, which is so enticing for a 5- and 3-year-old. I could pull out my phone and photograph the landscape without worrying someone would wander off without my laser-focused attention. Spencer lifted the binoculars around his neck, scanning the horizon for signs of the Antares rocket lifting off from 100 miles away. We could be — just a little bit — alone together.
Salt carried up on a gusty winter breeze. I let it muss and draw out my long, tangled hair, finally recovered from my COVID cut. I felt more like myself again. A stronger self, even.
After the winter of our discontent? I needed this. … And was so grateful for it.
Like most folks (I hope, anyway), we’ve been spending more time at home than ever. Tired of staring at bare walls, I finally got around to ordering art for the living room a few months ago. We replaced the sole 10-year-old TV in our house, opting for a wall-mounted version that gives us more space below. And Spence and I have generally been cleaning, organizing, and decluttering like never before. We’ve only been in the house six years, but sometimes it feels … longer. Judging by the accumulation of stuff, anyway.
We’ve also been spending more quiet-ish moments together. (As quiet as it can be with a 3- and 5-year-old chasing each other at 9 p.m.). In the pre-COVID days, weekends were always crammed with plans and activities. Shopping, playgrounds, visiting parks and friends … enough commotion to get them both good naps in the van on the way home.
The past eight months have changed my perspective on that. Given my deeper understanding of Oliver’s sensory needs, in particular, I’ve come to realize that a little silence and “boredom” is A-OK for the Johnson kids — and their parents.
That’s not to say any of us are actually bored. I mean, first of all, the Leaning Tower of Dishes is always teetering precariously in the kitchen sink. And the towels used in this house. There is never a time we don’t have a surface in need of scrubbing or laundry in need of folding.
But that’s fine. I’ve been working on accepting that, too. Every moment of every day doesn’t have to be “productive.” It can feel that way — given the demands of jobs, home, family. When the weekend rolls around, I feel the need to “catch up” immediately: righting all the overturned objects of the house that get ignored Monday through Friday.
I did things differently this weekend, though. We didn’t have any major plans. I got stuff done, sure, but not at the expense of a few slow moments spent reading a book or watching a Christmas movie with the kids. I didn’t worry about tidying or working every moment.
After a busy and stressful week, Ollie asked if we could have a “pizza movie night” on Friday. I didn’t panic at the thought of Little Caesars given my renewed healthy-eating commitment (thanks, Noom!) — just settled in with a slice of Crazy Bread and enjoyed the evening as we introduced the kids to “Elf.”
Watching classic holiday movies for the first time with the kids is definitely an A+ experience as a parent. I had a moment of panic when Oliver and I watched parts of my beloved “Home Alone” together recently (too many ideas for my already-wild 5-year-old), but there isn’t much to fret over with Will Ferrell’s iconic character.
Giggling with them at Buddy the Elf is almost enough to make me not mind picking up the endless dirty socks left in Hadley’s wake.
I don’t know how else to describe it. Well, actually, with lots and lots of parenting books dog-eared on my nightstand … I guess I do. Oliver is relentless, dogged, determined, laser-focused. He is perceptive, bright, curious, hilarious. In a word, Ollie is spirited.
Being our first child, one who arrived eight weeks early, Oliver came with no frame of reference or guide for his dad and me. Is it normal for babies to scream for hours on end? Is it colic? Gas? Is he cold? Wet? Hungry? Teething? Hot? … Why is he so mad?
When Ollie was around six months old, he once cried so hard for so long that my husband and I took him to the Emergency Room at two o’clock in the morning. I was delirious, despondent — I literally had no idea what was wrong, where to begin, how to help. I thought he must have broken a bone or something … without my noticing. Because I was a terrible mother. Obviously.
Ollie turned out to have a fever that eventually bloomed into hand foot mouth virus — the first of many illnesses in that first year that tested the limits of my sanity. He recovered well, thank goodness.
I did not.
The ER night was the eve of our second wedding anniversary. We’d planned for a day spent just the two of us — something we desperately needed, and I’d been looking forward to. Obviously a sick baby meant we were staying home, and I felt more isolated than I ever had.
It did not help, of course, that I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression. Or that I was embarrassed to still be feeling rattled from Ollie’s premature birth and month in the NICU. I knew I “should” feel grateful to have survived such an ordeal with a healthy child, particularly as I began hearing so many terribly sad stories from the preeclampsia community.
Instead, I just felt jumpy, exhausted, and awful.
Having a baby who never seemed to just freakin’ relax and be a baby … that magnified everything else.
“Are we doing this wrong?” I kept asking Spencer, looking at friends’ infants curled up like sleeping cherubs in the middle of a boisterous get-together.
“Why is everything so hard?” my husband would whisper back, turning to face me in the darkness over the wails of a child who wouldn’t — couldn’t — rest.
One crystallized memory of this also happened around the ER night. We’d gone to visit Spencer’s friends for a baby shower. At six months old, I assumed Ollie would sleep in the car for the hour-ish ride there and also snooze on the way back to a family birthday party.
Two events in six hours. Two loud, packed events in a very pre-COVID world — with folks smashed in, passing Ollie around, cooing at the first grandchild and great-grandchild in our family.
We left my grandparents’ house way past Oliver’s normal “bedtime,” whatever that was. And he cried. And cried. And cried. He screamed for so long that I wound up stumbling outside in the dark, barefoot, just to get away from the noise. I felt like I was losing my mind.
“I need a minute,” I said, over and over. I need a minute. I need a minute.
“I need a minute” has become my catchphrase. I find myself saying it so often that Hadley actually incorporates it into her dolls’ conversations.
I need a minute, I say, and then I come back. Of course. And I came back then, holding Ollie and rocking him and murmuring in his ear. We gave him a bath, hoping the warm water would quiet his screams … and it did. Eventually, he passed out.
“You know, I think he’s overstimulated,” I remember saying — a word that shot out like a lightning bolt.
Overstimulated. Where did that even come from?
Takes one to know one, I suppose.
Ollie didn’t have the vocabulary to tell us something was too loud, or hot, or bright. Even now, when those things are weighing heavily upon him, I don’t think he realizes they are. He just knows something is “off.” Something feels wrong. Maybe it’s a scratchy tag in the back of his T-shirt, or socks with a seam that sits strangely on his toes. Maybe it’s a TV cranked past a comfortable level, fireworks cracking overhead, or a slice of cake with a crumbly texture he wasn’t anticipating.
No matter the source, these are the things that turn Oliver’s emotional regulation down to zero. Anything upsetting the apple cart becomes the impetus for a black-hole of a meltdown — one born of exhaustion and intense frustration.
Those are the rough ones. Hard to pull out of.
Oliver is 5 1/2 now. He is a loving, sensitive, clever kid … and every bit as intense as he was during his baby- and toddler-hood. Demanding. Serious. Relentless.
I know all kids go through the sorts of “no, I need the green cup, not the blue cup!” phases. And I know this because our second child, Hadley, is firmly there now. But Hadley does not fall into a well of despair if you ask her to wear jeans. Or a jacket is too tight, or too warm, or too scratchy. Or the milk she was expecting at a cafe had to be substituted with lemonade.
These things are tough to manage with Ollie. But we’re making progress … and I’m the right person to help him. Turns out I had to learn myself.
A friend whose child has autism once told me it can be difficult to examine a child’s behaviors because we may not be prepared to see so much of ourselves reflected back. No one wantsto think of their child as “different.” And no one wants to place themselves in that category, either.
But as I began researching sensory processing disorder (SPD) and the many ways it can manifest in children and adults, I felt an overwhelming sense of recognition. Then: relief.
Emotional regulation has been challenging for me. Anyone who knows me well will likely tell you that my face speaks before my lips do. The two times I got detention in school were both for rolling my eyes. I was voted “moodiest” in my high school theatre troupe and had a reputation as a drama queen, on stage and off.
For better or worse, I’ve always felt the lofty highs and frosty lows of life. I am not one speed. I am 32 speeds, switching gears repeatedly.
Like many parents, I’d wager, I don’t often feel like I’m the mother I “thought” I’d be. Though I love my children fiercely, I often end the day totally depleted. I am not my best self. Even before the pandemic, I worried daily … about everything, but especially if I was doing parenthood “right.” Intellectually, I understand there’s no such thing … that all I can do is love them hard, tell them, and try. But it doesn’t always feel that way.
Why is my patience always so thin? My heart always pounding? Why do I feel so overwhelmed when my children cry, scream, or even just laugh too loudly? More often than not, I find myself walking away during Ollie’s meltdowns because I need to calm myself down. It’s a fight-or-flight instinct as powerful as anything else.
Of all things, my Facebook feed helped me figure some of this out. A friend from high school — who also happens to be a licensed therapist — shared this graphic, and it caught my attention. I studied it, saved it to my phone, texted it to my husband.
Omg, I wrote Spencer. It me.
Though I’ve never been able to get my face wet (not in the shower, not in a pool … not anywhere), cannot stand the feel of dirt (or anything really) on my hands, get extremely anxious in loud restaurants, and am constantly scraping my hair into a ponytail to get it away from my face and off my neck … I hadn’t ever viewed those behaviors through a sensory lens before.
Makes sense, I kept thinking, Googling more and more. Makes sense why I never learned to swim. Why I automatically butter toast with a clean “thumb hold” square in the corner. Why I often have to take a break at parties, lingering in the peaceful bathroom just a little too long. This … makes sense now.
I have so many examples. Suffice it to say that the more I read about SPD, the more I began to understand the coping mechanisms I’ve developed to overcome challenges … ones I can help Oliver hone, too.
Though nothing has actually changed, I give myself some grace now. I’m not broken. I’m not a bad mom. I’m frequently an overwhelmed mom, and often I can set myself up for success by planning ahead to prevent sensory overload.
Knowing how upset I get when I’m hot, for example, I dress coolly at home. Yoga pants, tank tops. Put my hair up. Turn on ceiling fans. Try to stay comfortable.
I keep the TV on low and minimize “background noise.” Noise is a major trigger for me — having Alexa streaming music, the vent over the stove buzzing, and “Peppa Pig” snorting away in the living room is just too much.
I walk around when I’m feeling anxious. Often, this means stepping outside in the dark when Ollie and Hadley are going at full-volume. Rather than exploding (my gut reaction) when they’re just being kids, I force myself to tap out and gulp cool air.
So what does this mean for Oliver? Well, we’re still figuring that out. I know I see progress; he’s grown up and changed so much in the last year.
For now, it means having a dry washcloth ready to catch rogue water droplets near his eyes at bathtime. It’s making sure I have a three-size span of the only soft cotton jogger pants he wears (cripes, what if they’re discontinued???) and ensuring his shirts are tagless. It’s providing ear protection during plane take-off at Gravelly Point and digging around at the grocery store for the smooth vanilla yogurt, not the fruit-studded strawberry that makes him gag.
More than anything, I hope learning to wade through these waters will be easier with my arm around his shoulder — the squeeze that says I understand, and I’m here, and my buddy, we’ll figure this all out together.
If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up circa 1990, the answer was quick: an artist.
I don’t think it was about talent. Even at a young age, I knew I wasn’t necessarily creating anything original. I just knew I liked it — that it was fun to draw, sketch, paint. I didn’t know anything about “making a living.” I’d never heard of a 401(K). My only responsibilities were making sure I cleaned my plate and changed my underwear. So becoming an artist? That sounded super to me.
Now that Hadley and Oliver are both stretching their creative muscles, I have covered the proverbial fridge (in our case: wall) with their work.
Sometimes Ollie wants to be an artist, too. At 5, a “virtual” kindergartner, his work is a bit more advanced. People and faces take shape. Outlines of vehicles, buildings and toys are appear.
I realized recently that Hadley — age 3, going on 13 — was closely watching my reactions to her brother’s papers. I’m sure this is universally true, but it was definitely true in the instance of their recent “art show.”
Hadley is a bit more … impressionistic, let’s say. She favors the bold and surprising. Very Jackson Pollack.
“I love the interesting colors you picked!” I’ll say to Hadley, channeling all the parenting books, blogs and newsletters I’ve studied in my quest to make life more … well, livable with young children. Don’t offer blind praise, the experts advise. Encourage them by pointing out positive traits, not just a uniform “great job!”
Along one corner of our kitchen/dining area is a long string dotted with clothespins. I hung it for Oliver’s first birthday, creating a timeline of photos from his first year. I liked it so much — and it took up so much of that otherwise empty wall — that we’ve kept it there, now using it for birthday and holiday cards, pictures, souvenirs.
The kids’ artwork goes there, too. Oliver is in art class with Ms. Burnett, who recently read Peter H. Reynolds’ The Dotwith the kids through Zoom and guided them through their own take on Vashti’s project.
Ollie zipped around the paper, suddenly turning his single dot into a “secret laboratory” complete with pipes and steam. His version was a more … scientific rendition of Ms. Burnett’s assignment, but I hoped she would grant him some creative license.
Hadley, true to her calling, took the more abstract route. Big lines. Lots of color.
When the kids were finished, I snapped a photo of Ollie’s work to upload and send to Ms. Burnett. Offering the appropriate “oohs” and “ahhs,” I also added it to the growing clothespin wall of mementos.
Hadley quickly proffered her work as well. “Look!” she said, then stopped. Haddie examined her picture, visibly contrasting it with her brother’s. Then in a softer voice, she asked, “Are you going to hang mine, too?”
Though I knew, of course, what the correct answer was, I did think for a second about what would have happened to that bright face if I’d said no. It felt like a strange turning point — that moment when I could have messed up royally, casting those wide and open eyes into shadow, but I did not.
This, at least, I understood.
“Absolutely!” I sang. And I helped her sign her work like Vashti.
We look at the art wall every day, with Hadley pointing out her colorful piece amongst her brother’s versions of animals, flowers, “spooky houses.” “That’s mine,” she’ll say proudly. “Mommy, you like it?”
I question myself constantly: my parenting, my patience … my mental fortitude, particularly through the pandemic. Everything feels hard. Fraught. I constantly feel behind. Overwhelmed. Very far from my “best self,” as a mom or person in general.
But sometimes, little glimmers pop in the darkness. I’m trying to trust that I’m doing the best I can.
It was a simple thing — something entirely normal in 2019, and 2018, and every year prior. But in 2020, the pandemic year, it felt amazing. Rebellious, even.
I keep thinking about Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. It was one of the first novels I read fresh out of college — back when the novelty of reading what I wanted to, whenever I wanted to was so exhilarating. Brooks’ historical novel — set in an English village during the time of the plague — is atmospheric, creepy, engrossing. It was deeply disturbing, too … enough that, though I’ve forgotten the exact language, I still remember the opening passages: how the fall of that year, the plague year, was redolent of rotting apples.
Man, I get it now.
Like just about everyone in 2020, I end most days exhausted. I fall asleep at 8 p.m. It’s not because I’ve had such a strenuous day … not physically, anyway. There’s the usual mental gymnastics of navigating full-time careers, the needs and desires of young children, the nurturing of relationships with family and friends. Then we spread on a layer of doubt and anxiety: the pandemic’s thick, unpredictable patina that seeps into and colors just about every aspect of daily life.
My 5-year-old son is in virtual kindergarten — “asynchronous kindergarten,” actually, given my husband and I are working outside the home full-time. So we try to keep up with the hours of daily recorded lessons from the school system at night, when I’m on my fourth cup of coffee. “Studying” is really just me scrubbing through the videos while the kids destroy the living room, or Spencer makes dinner, or I try to answer some emails.
I’m looking for any actual assignments … or some loose tidbit that could entice Oliver — a boy who barely pauses his activities long enough to eat, or use the restroom — to actually sit for a moment and watch. But he has no interest in observing his kindergarten teacher, a woman he’s never met or even seen in person, interact with 20 other kids on iPads who have no clue how to use the mute button. Because, you know … they’re five.
And can I blame him?
Of course not.
This is nuts.
Everyone is just muddling through as best they can. I trust that. But this sucks. He has zero interest in participating, and I have zero interest in forcing him. This is all weird and boring and unnatural for a naturally curious, busy kid. I don’t want to sour him on school before he’s ever actually stepped foot in a classroom. We also don’t have the wherewithal to attempt to develop a curriculum ourselves, and I’m barely hanging on as it is.
We’re not alone. I know this. The struggle bus is making all sorts of stops these days. Everything is weird and hard, and I want it to feel normal or find some sense of normal but I … can’t.
In the meantime, I’m in kindergarten again, jotting down sight words and studying math concepts. And it will be that way for the foreseeable future, at which time everything will change … again.
There are moments that I feel OK, though. Sunday afternoon was one of them. We weren’t out long, and didn’t do much … not even the morning on the local farm we’d planned, given the rain stuck around much longer than expected. But we made it to a tiny farm stand I’ve passed a thousand times along Route 5. Even in our masks, my fall-loving heart skipped a beat amongst the gourds and mums.
It isn’t a normal season. Not anything close to the fall we’d want.
But more than six months into this, the year of rotting apples …
A warm rain started just as I hopped out of my minivan, but nothing could dampen my spirits.
Hauling the box to customer service, the masked Target cashier greeted me with the customary eye-smile of 2020.
“Hi! I have a return,” I began, trying to contain my glee. We processed the run-of-the-mill transaction: scanning barcodes, digging around for my Red card. I stayed quiet, willing myself to not act like a weirdo, but it still burbled out.
“We’re finally done with diapers!” I said. “Five and a half years!”
As the Target associate moved the unopened box of Pull-Ups, she offered me an air high-five. I resisted the urge to turn to all the random people at check-out and sing it from the rooftops: everyone in my house is using the bathroom!
Ah, good times.
Toilet troubles have preoccupied our home life for ages. True to his extra nature, Oliver was nearly four before he was using the facilities full-time. He told me it was “boring” to use the bathroom, and he didn’t want to stop building his tower or smashing his monster trucks long enough to bother. But once Ollie was done with Pull-Ups/diapers, he was done. He’s hardly had an accident since.
Hadley has been much more interested in transitioning out of diapers since her cousin, Leo, arrived this spring. Not wanting to be lumped into the “baby” category definitely helped her take potty-training seriously. My girl also just seems more susceptible to peer pressure in general. All the big kids use the potty, we say — a tactic that had zero impact on her brother, but will prompt an indignant Hadley to shuffle into the restroom every time.
Because the kids arrived less than two years apart, there has never been a time in our parenting that someone didn’t need a diaper change. In fact, for two years, we had two kids to wrestle. It wasn’t pretty … as I’m sure you know yourself, or can imagine.
But we did it!
I know better than to prematurely celebrate anything with kids, but I feel confident shouting this from the rooftops (er — writing about it publicly) because we’ve gone months with very few accidents. We haven’t touched a diaper since June. Returning the box of Pull-Ups felt a bit like tempting fate, but we’re three days removed from my Target run and doing fine.
I’m proud of Hadley for quickly embracing a “new normal.” I’m proud of Oliver for eventually putting an end to our toilet stalemate. I’m proud of Spencer and I for surviving five and a half years of diapering without going into the poorhouse.
Mainly, I’m just happy to be entering a new era of parenting — especially combined with the fact that the kids can now get their own juice boxes, open their own snacks, and play favorite games on their tablets without me hovering nearby to click for them.
That last one is definitely #modernparenting … but hey.
I never thought I’d say this, but I miss “Sesame Street.”
Hadley has branched beyond Elmo & Co., which should be a relief … but feels bittersweet instead. It’s been weeks — months? — since she requested to watch her monster pals, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my baby has moved on from her first great love.
For the last two years, our living room has been a battle ground between Hadley’s obsession with Cookie Monster and Ollie’s love of “PAW Patrol.” Unlike the pesky pups, Hadley’s pick is educational and positive, teaching about acceptance, love, kindness … and the ABCs. There’s a reason it’s been on the air for 50 years. Of all the shows the kids have liked, “Sesame Street” is one I’ve never minded watching as well.
Hadley’s love ran deep. Two themed birthday parties. At least 20 episodes in the queue at any time. One family pilgrimage to “Sesame Street Live,” which I think we enjoyed as much as the kids. T-shirts, books and toys galore. Elmo’s face on everything, and everywhere.
The kids’ dueling interests helped us introduce the concept of “taking turns” from a young age. We talk often about fairness and patience. One kid’s pick is followed by the other’s, and I try hard to balance their interests. They don’t like it, but they’re learning. … Hopefully.
I remember feeling strangely sad and even unmoored as Oliver left his “Muppets” phase. These characters become fixtures in our home; their presence is routine and comforting. I’ll always remember some of theclassic songs that wrote themselves into our family’s code for the first few years of parenthood, and Spence and I can still quote entire scenes from the 2015 iteration of “The Muppets” that lasted a season on ABC.
It’s so harddddd to say goodbyeeeee to yesterdayyyyyy.
This isn’t to say that Hadley might not return to “Sesame Street” sometime … Ollie’s Kermit love made a brief comeback. But never again will we have 24/7 requests from a little girl who expands her interests and knowledge of the world every day.
As the Johnson kids move forward, Spence and I press on as well. Remember the good times while still clearing some space on the DVR.
And always strive to be more of an Abby than an Oscar, creating a little sparkle wherever we go.