A few weeks ago, I hit my pandemic wall. It’s not the first one I’ve hit since the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and the world shut down. I suspect it also won’t be the last pandemic wall I hit before some version of normal fully returns. And I know I’m not alone. Huffington Post recently reported that many of us are hitting our pandemic walls thanks to burnout, a bleak winter, and a fight-or-flight response that is completely frazzled.
It’s somewhat comforting to know mental health experts say it’s normal to run into a pandemic wall now. But only somewhat. Because I didn’t run into this pandemic wall, I slammed into it with all my might. This pandemic wall coincided with the anniversary of my husband’s death, my children’s heightened grief, a winter storm that dumped two feet of snow and then a forecast that threatened more snow every day until forever, and an uncertain tomorrow. And what I realized as I slammed over and over into this pandemic wall, was this: pandemic walls and solo parenting don’t mix.
First, let’s backtrack. What is a pandemic wall? It’s “a term popularized by New York Public Radio host Tanzina Vega to capture the particular and sudden feeling of spiritual and emotional exhaustion with life during covid times,” according to the Washington Post.
It’s the feeling of losing momentum when you’re not at your finish line. The feeling that all the ordinary things suddenly take more mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth than you have available. It’s a feeling of hopelessness and exhaustion that can’t be cured by a nap. At least that’s how it felt for me. I imagine pandemic walls feel different to everybody.
Experts have provided strategies to utilize when you hit your pandemic wall. In an interview with CNBC, psychiatrist Dr. Patrice Harris advised movement, getting enough food and sleep, and creating new routines can help avoid the pandemic wall. She also recommended lowering personal expectations—accepting that you can’t do it all—and connecting with your social circle.
That’s all great advice, but also unhelpful for solo parents. In reality, even my pre-pandemic expectations for the amount I could do in a day were exceedingly low. I very quickly learned the limits of living a life originally built for two as a one. (For example, my kids know I won’t remember spirit day at school, but they can count on me to never forget their special snack; I’ll never return our library books on time, but we’ll always have a book to read together.) Some things just have to fall through the cracks in order to focus on the bigger picture. In a pandemic, that’s even more true.
The heart of the problem, I realized mid-pandemic wall slam, boiled down to this: the pandemic wall is there and solo parents have no choice but to keep running into it until the wall breaks. For nearly a year, solo parents have been lowering their expectations at each wall, just to make it through to the next. Now, there’s nothing left.
I can’t lower my expectations for myself anymore, because I’m already at the bare minimum–giving just enough to be the kids’ safe space, run the household, and keep us all afloat. I can’t carve out time for more sleep or sit-down meals, because already there’s more to be done than hours in a day. At the end of the day, the week, the month, there’s no one else who’ll do any of it . There’s just me—day in and day out, with no reprieve in sight and nothing truly to look forward to. (There’s the hopelessness talking.)
This isn’t meant to complain (or, well I guess it is a little bit.) Because overwhelmingly, I am grateful every morning. My children and I are very fortunate—we are food and housing secure. We have a stable Internet connection that makes virtual school and things like Roblox with friends possible. We have the support of a wide circle of friends and family, even if we can’t see those friends and family in-person right now. I know that’s not the case for all solo parents, or even all families.
My point in writing is not to create a competition. Admitting this pandemic wall was particularly grueling on solo parents doesn’t mean it wasn’t equally as grueling for everyone else in all situations.
Maybe my point is this: to acknowledge it’s hard, acknowledge there’s no easy truce between solo parents and pandemic walls, no moment of stillness after nearly a year of pandemic solo parenting. The best we can do is acknowledge that and remind ourselves this isn’t forever. That’s what worked for me, to break through this most recent seemingly unbreakable wall.
The pandemic will end. Spring will come. And maybe we’ll end up limping to the finish line, a little more battered than we’d like to be, but we’ll get there. Eventually. Of that, I’m sure.