Photo courtesy of Scarlet O'Neill
On March 20th, uncertain about what my work demands as a doctor in Toronto might be, we made the family decision to live apart. My husband Ian, and my 5- and 3-year-old kids would live with my mother-in-law out of town while I remained in our family home.
The last time I saw my kids in person was on April 5th, though it feels like a lifetime ago. Before this, the longest I'd been away from them was four days.
If I had to use one word to describe how I feel, it’s unsettled. I think this comes from the change in the feeling around my roles. Until mid-March, I identified primarily as a mom, a wife and a doctor. But now, while my sense of identity as a doctor remains strong, my mom and wife roles feel completely warped. That change feels like it happened overnight and there's been a pit in my stomach ever since.
At work, I am focused and present, but once work is over, I feel lost. That's probably why the walk home from the hospital is one of the most uncomfortable times of the day. That’s normally when I would be getting excited to pick up the kids and spend the evening with my family.
My mind is preoccupied, wondering, are we doing the right thing? We are in unprecedented times, so is there such a thing as "right"?
My family is in a space where they can spend hours outdoors. They are living with the love and support of my amazing mother-in-law. We are extremely privileged. I don't worry about their physical health when they are there. What I do worry about, often, is the effect that this separation may have on my children and on our family. Will this be emotionally scarring?
But being reunited also comes with stressors. If they come home, we won't risk exposing my mother-in-law, who has been selfless through this. This means that in her absence more falls onto Ian. I can't commit to being able to share all our household responsibilities. If I need to be at work, I can’t help out at home. If I can work from home, I can't give my cuddly kids the attention they're used to.
My son earned his “marsupial” nickname for being in our arms almost entirely for the first year of his life. He craves constant human contact and likely wouldn’t understand why he can't sit in my lap or play next to me while I'm on the phone with ill patients or their family members. There will be pressure to keep the kids entertained and quiet, which will fall on Ian who also has a full time job. Many parents can relate. Which scenario is less stressful? Which scenario meets the most needs? There is no ideal.
When this all started, my heart wanted to believe that this could be short term. My team at the hospital moved to virtual care and I visited my family on weekends without worry about COVID-19 exposure. I wasn't comfortable being away from my kids during the week, but I knew I had the weekends with them. And if I'm being completely honest, I don't know how I would have done my job from our small home if the kids were there.
Three weeks ago, I was back in the physical workplace, at which point I stopped going to visit my family. In the first two weeks, my kids would cry over FaceTime at bedtime when we had to hang up. My 5-year-old daughter, Amelia, would call me back, and through sobs and tears, she would say, "I miss you, Mommy." One morning recently, Amelia asked, "when are you done working?" I knew she was thinking: because I want to come home.
In these moments, I feel gutted and heartbroken. The other day, my 3-year-old son Manny poignantly said, "it would be good if someone was with you, so you don’t have to be alone." I turned the phone camera away as quickly as I could to hide the tears streaming down my face.
Now, my kids don't cry on the phone when it's time to say goodnight. I'm relieved, but it also stings a bit. They're adapting to daily life without me there, although Ian tells me they ask for me many times a day. I want to be with them. I want to comfort them in person.
Sadly, Ian’s maternal grandmother died recently, and it was heartbreaking to not be able to hug and support them in person. I’ll never forget explaining great grandma’s death to my children over FaceTime while Ian and his mom mourned in the background.
As this continues, we are all trying to adjust and prepare for a new normal. I am thankful for the support of family, friends and neighbours who check in regularly. I have been the grateful recipient of many home-cooked meals and treats delivered to my porch with love. This support helps make my sadness more tolerable.
I won’t isolate from my family long term, but I’m still figuring out when the right time is to reunite. I ask myself, will I become preoccupied with the worry of exposing them to COVID-19? How will the stressors while reunited compare to the emotional experience of separation? How will I know if we’re doing the right thing?
I don’t think there’s a right answer. For now, I will look forward to the next FaceTime with my kids and remain grateful for the resources and support I have as we shift to this new normal.
Nadine Gebara is a mom of two and doctor in Toronto Ont. She works in palliative care and family medicine.