This past April, in the midst of the first shelter-in-place orders, we finally got around to turning my home office into a true office. For the past three years, my desk had been tucked into the corner of what was once the playroom/exercise room. Just behind my back at all times was the elliptical machine my husband occasionally used on weekends. Luckily this was a time before Zooms, and it didn’t matter what appeared in my background. But having just crossed the threshold of having both of my children in full-time school (or so I thought), I was ready to make this room all mine.
We dismantled the elliptical machine (a decision my husband would question later in the face of gym closures). I picked out a calming shade of jade green for the walls (a color supposed to inspire creativity). We removed the old stained carpet and installed carpet squares we had tucked away from a previous room renovation years ago.
I looked around in pride, anticipating how focused I would be in this new space.
Unfortunately, by the time it was finished, I wasn’t working anymore.
Like more than 2 million other mothers across the country, I had given up. Shrugged my shoulders in defeat and recognized that maybe I needed to take one for the team. It hardly seemed tenable to continue the way we had been going for the last two months.
I’m a writer and collaborator, helping authors write their books. I have worked from home for the last nine years, so working from home wasn’t a big change for me during the pandemic. But trying to work from home while managing two elementary aged children doing “remote” school was. It turns out writing isn’t something that you can do successfully in twenty minute intervals, praying that you won’t be interrupted by yet another Zoom issue.
So after turning in a manuscript on May 1, I decided to stop working until my children were no longer underfoot. Summer was around the corner with all summer camps canceled. What else were we going to do?
I had the financial freedom and flexibility to make that choice. I thought it would help my marriage to relinquish the awkward and exhausting exchange of who got to go into the office and work and who had to stay out in the kitchen to be on hand in case the children needed help with school. (And they always needed help).
But I didn’t realize that the sacrifice I thought I was making for my family wouldn’t be the solution. In fact, it might have made things even worse.
Of course, in May, when I relinquished my right to work, I thought we’d be back to school in August. But as August came and went with no back to school in sight, I realized I had inadvertently signed up for this reality for the foreseeable future.
And it wasn’t working.
At first, I thought I was struggling because my dear husband wasn’t doing enough. Wasn’t taking on enough. Didn’t realize that by the end of the day, I didn’t want to see anyone. Wanted to lock myself in my bedroom with a book and some Netflix. Please don’t speak to me until I am on duty again tomorrow and this “Groundhog Day” fun starts all over again.
Of course, I love my children. But they are exhausting. And they never go away in this pandemic.
I kept thinking that I just needed to hold on until they got back to school. And in November, it finally happened. Both kids off to in-person school two or three days a week. It felt like a gift from the gods. I knew so many other families were not afforded this luxury. And I thought it would be enough to regain my sanity, those two or three days. But those days only added up to fifteen hours a week on a good week. Not enough to really take on a new project. They were still home the other days. And I would yet again clock in for a job I never signed up for. Making sure they got on their Zooms. Making sure they stayed on their Zooms. Troubleshooting their technology problems. Ensuring they submitted their assignments.
During these days, I can’t go anywhere. I am always on call. I feel trapped, claustrophobic in my own life.
Meanwhile, I watched my husband go to work. Yes, sometimes that meant just walking into my home office (MY home office!) and shutting the door.
But I would stare after him, resentment slowly filling the empty, unfulfilled spaces in my soul.
I married a good one. My husband wants to give me what I want; he never expected or asked me to take on the children as much as I have. He is a very involved father and an attentive husband. So if I’m struggling with my husband, I can’t imagine how others are faring who didn’t hit the husband jackpot.
Because it isn’t just the big issues that are making things hard – the sacrifice of work or navigating the role of parenting with no breaks.
Being always underfoot wears on a marriage.
Our partners often frustrate us in little ways every day. They don’t hang up their towel, or they leave their unrinsed cereal dish in the sink. But in “normal times,” these small annoyances remain small, in proper perspective. We see the failure but then get swept up in our day. Maybe we head to a yoga class or give a big presentation at work. And all the little annoyances of earlier get washed away. We come together at the end of the day and all is forgiven.
Mainly because it is forgotten.
This is how marriage works.
But with quarantine, there is nothing to distract us, to erase the irritation. In fact, that little failure stares at us all day long as we’re stuck in our houses. The dishes piled up in the sink, or the laundry that didn’t get put away. It is always in our field of vision, stoking our anger with every walk by.
By the end of the day, we haven’t forgotten it, let alone forgiven it. Instead, that minor moment has become a mountain of grievance. We stew about it all day long. There is nowhere to go but deeper into our own despair and frustration.
And so we drift apart on a sea of undone laundry.
Of course there are some who are grateful for the changes brought on by the pandemic. My sister’s husband used to travel three to four days out of the week, while she tried to manage working part-time with two toddler twin boys. I know she loves that he is home for dinner every night, is available to take turns with bedtime. There are certainly people who appreciate this reset of priorities and the chance to be around their children in ways they have never been able to before. No activities for kids to rush off to, no after dinner drinks crowding the calendar.
But I think the majority of people are like me; exhausted from the reality of parenting and partnering during a pandemic.
The fact is, we can’t just do what we’ve always done. Our previous patterns are obsolete. We have to learn new ways of being parents and partners if we are going to survive this suspended state of waiting for normal to resume.
Thankfully, I feel the world giving us permission to be selfish during this time. Emails from our county and elementary school remind us that this is hard; we have to learn to take care of ourselves. But that is easier said than done. Ask for what you need, my husband says. But before I can do that, I have to know what I need. I have to recognize when I need help. When those feelings of overwhelm and frustration threaten to erupt, I have to learn to stop and listen to what is going on, instead of pushing through them, ignoring them. I have to believe that my feelings are valid and that it is okay to not be able to do it all.
Oh, I need fifteen minutes to myself in the bedroom. I need to go take a walk. I need to call my husband and say: Hey, can you come home? It’s been a long day. Even if it is only one in the afternoon.
I was not conditioned to do this. Somehow I learned that to be a good girl you had to stuff down your needs. Sacrifice what you want. Abandon yourself. Give to others. This was the formula.
But quite frankly, I don’t want to be that person anymore. My marriage can’t take it, nor can I.
So if you are now struggling in a marriage that until this unprecedented time worked pretty well, know that you are not alone. That this doesn’t mean the end of your marriage, but that we all need a bit more grace than usual. Try to make space for yourself and your spouse. Because this setup is bound to make us feel like we are failing. Typically throughout the course of a relationship, the neediness is distributed. We take turns. One spouse loses a parent, and the other steps in to hold things together while their loved one grieves. One partner faces a job loss, and the other keeps the money coming in and the spirits up.
But what happens when both fall apart at the same time? What happens when there is no respite from the grief, when each person has reached the end of their tether, when the entire world is tilting and no one has anything to hold on to?
It won’t always be this way. There will be an end to this pandemic. People will go back to workplaces, although maybe not the way they did before. We will be able to carve out time for our own pursuits and passions; we will once again feel in control of our days, have our children back in school, and be able to breathe again. We’ll even be able to hire babysitters, go on actual dates, to take trips with our lovers, and reignite all those feelings that may have gone dormant as we survive this state.
But until then, what exactly will we do?
We will take deep breaths.
We will give hugs even when we don’t want them.
We will learn to ask for what we need.
My husband and I each now have one night “off” per week, when, after dinner, we get to go and do whatever we want and the other parent puts the kids to bed. Honestly, since there is nowhere to really go, it often means just holing up in our bedroom. But to know that you get some time off, during a season when we all feel like we are always on, has been life-changing. To know that there is no one to look after, except yourself, the greatest luxury. I look forward to it all week, and I always feel much more gracious toward my husband afterward.
Oh, and I finally told him that I want to go back to work. I know it won’t be easy, as we take turns manning the kids’ school on the days we are home. But I know deep down, that it is what I want. It is what I need. There is no need to sacrifice my sanity any longer. It turns out no award ceremony waits for those who give of themselves the most.
So I sit here, in my office, writing. And let me tell you, in a world that feels so wrong, it is one of the only things that feels right.