My husband and I rounded the corner and encountered a woman smoking a cigarette. “Ooh, cute, can I have a look?” she said, peering at my baby. “No, thanks,” we replied and kept on walking.
I declined her request because she was a stranger and had a cigarette in her hand, not because I was afraid of COVID-19. The truth is, it wasn’t really on my radar then.
But I’m one of the lucky moms. My daughter was born just on the right side of the chaos, when the realities of the virus hadn’t yet upended our lives.
She was born on a Monday, and by that Friday, the Prime Minister announced that schools would close in advance of the first national lockdown here in the United Kingdom.
Holding my 4-day-old baby in my arms, I learned that I would be homeschooling my 5-year-old son for some undefined amount of time.
How do you teach a 5-year-old how to form letters and write sentences when you have a newborn in your arms? How do you muster enough mental energy to convince your wonderful but very bouncy son to sit down and do the work when you’ve only had a cumulative 8 hours of sleep in the past 4 days?
While I was giving birth, I didn’t imagine I would be asking myself these questions a mere 4 days later. I was concerned with how I would bond with my daughter and physically recover from the beautiful but taxing job of bringing life into this world.
Bonding? Sitting around and snuggling your newborn? Sleep when the baby sleeps? (That one always irked me anyway.) Laughable! I found myself in one of the most impossible situations during what is one of the most vulnerable times in a woman’s life.
This pandemic has asked far too much of us all, but the burden it has put on women — mothers in particular — is unfathomable. And it broke me.
There is a hub run by the New York Times called “Primal Scream.” They have a hotline set up for mothers homeschooling their children where they can just vent. Listen to the desperation in their voices. Their voices are mine.
I love my children more than anything in the world, but homeschooling a 5-year-old while also looking after a newborn baby is a form of torture. I don’t say this in jest or with hyperbole. It was a daily assault on my nervous system.
In the early days, while my body was knitting itself back together after giving birth, and while my only pressing concern should have been whether my daughter was feeding well and thriving, I also needed to be teacher, peer, lunch lady, playmate… everything for my son, who couldn’t even go to the playground.
It was relentless.
There are things I can teach him with bleary eyes, such as handwriting and mathematics, but I cannot be a kid his age and help him learn the social skills that are so important at 5 years.
What is more, he would not sit still. (Do any 5-year-olds?) The constant jumping, running, and bouncing set my nerves on edge, and my protective motherly instincts went into overdrive to keep my daughter safe.
During the first year of my son’s life, I can remember experiencing anxiety.
I later learned that this is common due to the brain going wild with the instinct to keep your baby safe. This happened again after my daughter’s birth, but with the pandemic bearing down on me, the worry about my children’s safety sat on my chest like a hippopotamus.
I would tell my husband that I was experiencing anxiety and intrusive images, but I realized I wasn’t adequately explaining it to him. One day I did, and his jaw dropped. Allow me to illustrate what I mean.
What I communicated to my husband: “I’m anxious about our son’s safety while I’m walking with him and our daughter alone.”
The event that happened in real life: While I was walking around our neighborhood with my kids, my son skipped ahead of me. To ensure he stayed safe, I called out to him to stop while I caught up with my daughter in the stroller, which we did.
What happened in my head: As my son ran ahead, and I worried for his safety, a truck came from out of nowhere and crashed into him at 60 miles an hour.
My brain played this image in front of my eyes as if it were actually happening. And it would sit with me for hours or days afterward. My body didn’t know the difference between daymare and reality — the cortisol, the worry, the trauma was real for me.
These uninvited slideshows of horror would play in my mind daily. It was insidious because they would materialize from out of nowhere anytime I thought about potential dangers.
Every new mom has what I call “the fear” — that heightened sense of duty to keep your delicate little ones safe. But mine was running amok.
It all came to a head when a panic attack hit me sideways on a Monday evening. I was sitting on the floor, playing with my children while my husband finished work, and I suddenly felt sharp chest pains.
I should note I was in a state of calm. I wasn’t panicked about anything. In fact, I was having a lovely time with my kids, thinking about how happy I was, of all things.
The chest pains got so intense that I calmly told my son to get my husband, and I went to our bedroom to lie down, heart racing. I was sure I was having a heart attack.
While we waited for the paramedics to arrive, my husband put my son in front of the television and sang songs to me with our daughter in his arms to keep me calm. My body was shaking uncontrollably.
When the paramedics arrived and had me do a standing blood pressure test, I fainted. “You’ve just earned yourself a trip to the hospital,” they said when I’d recovered.
Because I had fainted, I wasn’t allowed to walk out of my house, so they strapped me to a chair and carried me to the ambulance in the road.
I will never forget the image of my husband, standing helplessly in our front door with our daughter, waving at me and calling out that everything would be O.K. Meanwhile, I was panicking that my children would grow up without a mother.
After undergoing many tests and my doctors ruling out all possible major health events, the picture became clear that I’d had a panic attack. In the coming weeks, I began to feel anxious about feeling anxiety.
It would come on at random times: while walking, while eating breakfast, while folding laundry. I never knew anxiety could be like this. My previous experience with it was always predictable, based on something specific coming up, like an exam or a big event.
Now, I was scared even to leave the house alone because I was so worried the anxiety would come on and that I would start to feel like I couldn’t breathe again.
I would wake in the middle of the night convinced I heard someone trying to break into our house to steal our children. My fear was so great that I had my husband install an alarm in our home just to put me at ease.
Feeling so out of control of my own body was the most frightening aspect of it all.
I’ve come a long way since then, and I can now confidently say it’s behind me, thanks to acupuncture, running, and also just generally acknowledging that I was feeling anxious.
The reason it got its hooks into me is that I was in denial. I kept telling myself I was O.K. and that I was lucky. I suppose this is what is meant by toxic positivity.
There are so many people who are having a much harder time than I am. I have a beautiful baby daughter, a beautiful son, a lovely home, and a loving husband. Why should I complain?
But anxiety doesn’t care about your circumstances. It can hit you at any point, even during one of the happiest times of your life, and you have to acknowledge it and get help. Otherwise, it will eat you alive.
We’ve just celebrated my daughter’s first birthday. For nine of her 12 months of life, I’ve been homeschooling her big brother.
A lot of her experience of me is shouting to my son: “Be careful! Don’t jump near the baby! Give her some space! Time to do some writing! No, don’t dump all of your Legos in here!”
Anxiety aside, I really have been lucky to be locked in with such a wonderful ball of joy.
We’ve all looked for the silver linings of this horrendous year, and the silver lining for me is this: my children are completely in love with each other. There is a 5-year age gap between them, but their bond is unlike any I’ve ever seen. My son absolutely dotes on my daughter, and she is starting to say “brother” proudly to him.
Had life resumed as normal, I don’t think they’d be as close as they are now.
I am lucky, happy, and privileged. But I have also been completely and utterly broken in half this past year. Both of those things can be true at the same time, and I know that now.