I'll Never Parent The Same Way After This Pandemic Is Over

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I'll Never Parent The Same Way After This Pandemic Is Over

I just read an article in the New York Times that documented the unraveling of three moms who are struggling to get through the pandemic while juggling jobs, home, parenting, and marriage. These women looked bedraggled in all the familiar ways that I feel.

It wasn’t just the descriptions of the daily grind that all moms go through. You know, chores, kids, life. It was the up-close look at the intense anxiety that spools its way around every minutia of every moment in a day. It felt uncanny to read because these women’s pain so accurately mirrors my own experience from this past year.

But there was something equally critical left out of that piece. When concentrated pressure is applied to anything, that thing will change.

I started thinking about how I’ve survived this long without running away — because some days I absolutely want to — and I realized that the way I parent today is dramatically different than how I was parenting my three children last March. Covid has changed my family, perhaps forever, and in one important manner that is a good thing.

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IDGAF about the chores anymore.

My house is a nonstop mess now, and I have stopped caring. In the days before Covid, I spent my days trying (and usually failing) to keep my house orderly. But that old truism that kids can destroy a home faster than a mom can clean is accurate. Still, I always tried to clean like the Queen was coming. That was a piece of advice someone once gave me — clean like you’re expecting important company and you’ll always have a lovely house.

But not anymore.

There are many days that I don’t do the dishes before I go to bed because I am too damn tired. The dishes can wait a few more hours, but my sanity cannot.

I have quit doing the laundry for the most part. I’ll still toss it in the wash and dryer, but I forced my family to step up and fold and put away their clothes. It’s not my responsibility if my husband and kids get the clothes in their drawers or if it all lands on the floors. I can’t care that much about laundry anymore.

For the most part, I don’t do breakfast or lunch anymore. Instead, I created ways for my kids to feed themselves in the morning and at lunchtime. They know where the cereal and bowls are. They know how to make macaroni and cheese or sandwiches. They can clean up their mess and ask for help when they need it. When no one wants cold meals, I step in and cook. This has alleviated a lot of fights over what to eat and when.

I quit trying to control my kids’ schedules and lives.

My kids are homeschooling now because the local public schools are not safe. Until everyone here is vaccinated and the threat of Covid is not enough to shut down my town, we’re not leaving home. That said, I don’t have to put the pressure on myself to emulate school routines as I did in the beginning. My kids, I have discovered through trial and error, do their best work in mid-morning. They don’t want me hand-holding them through their assignments. Instead, I give them their pile of work for the day, and they do it when it is least frustrating for them.

I am not a teacher. And this is temporary. At some point soon, my kids will go back to school, and they will settle into routines and expectations that are wildly different from mine, and that’s ok.

My feeling is, as long as my kids are reading, doing math, and learning something every day, then I’m ok with that. Because the mental health issues that my kids — and every other kid we know — are going through are far more urgent than whether or not my fifth grader masters how to divide fractions. He’ll eventually crush that skill, but for now, my job is to make sure that his spirit isn’t also crushed during this pandemic.

My idea of what self-care is has dramatically changed.

I used to fully buy into the idea that self-care and spa days were the same thing. Now, to be clear, my spa days took place in my bathroom with a glass of wine, a face mask, and a hot bubble bath.

And yes, that feels divine, and I still do that from time to time.

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But self-care is also screaming. I’m not kidding. I sometimes bury my face into a pillow, and I wail as loud and for as long as my lungs will handle without popping. Why? Because it f*cking feels fantastic.

Self-care is refusing to let the chores in this house determine or measure the quality of my ability to parent.

I get up in the early mornings to read for fun now. I bake. I eat. I dance.

But more than anything else, I talk.

Talking is the crucial life-line in our home.

My kids sometimes hate this, but I talk. A lot. I ask everyone in this house how they feel, what they are thinking. Our family has evolved in the past year to place a significant priority on emotional and mental health. If one of us isn’t doing well, then none of us are.

My oldest child keeps a diary now, and some days he fills pages and pages of it. On other days he ignores it completely.

My middle child is learning how to put his feelings into words, especially his big, explosive, angry feelings that once sparked thrashing and yelling. He still has meltdowns, but he is beginning to assign those meltdowns words.

“I AM SO DAMN MAD, MOMMMM!” he bellowed from upstairs yesterday. I heard a crashing sound as the books on his dressing hit the floor.

I give him a minute to breathe. We sit in silence, side by side on the edge of his bed; he cries into his hands, I rub his back gently and breathe with him. We hug. We cry. We talk.

My youngest is learning to express her feelings in art. Big, colorful crayon drawings litter the fridge and walls and even the floor sometimes. She knows happy and mad and sad. She knows love.

I am learning to be honest with my husband about how much I hate being the default parent. Our years-long, carefully-choreographed dance of sidestepping our feelings to prioritize getting through our days has stopped. We can’t lean into our old schedules to avoid the conversations that have needed to happen for so long, and here we are. It feels very much like DIY therapy some days.

I’ll never go back.

I was never the perfect mom, but I had tried to be so many times that the failures eroded my self-esteem. I was martyring myself and didn’t realize it until we were all trapped in our house with nowhere to go for restless stretches of time.

None of this is easy. But forcing myself to adhere to standards and expectations that don’t even exist anymore gives me more breathing room.

When all of this is over, and we can go back out into our community and see friends and family again, I envision that I’ll carry less stress than I did before. The poles of what matters (emotional, mental, and physical health) and what does not (clean counters and action-packed schedules) have flipped — I don’t care as much about appearing to be the right kind of mom.

And I don’t think I’ll ever care that much about it again.

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Sarah Cottrell is a writer and author whose essays have been published at the Washington Post, VICE, Bangor Daily News, The Cut, REAL Simple, Parents Magazine, and more. Visit her website for more of her work.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.