Family life

Parents in lockdown are quietly falling apart—I’m one of them

As we hide in our homes waiting out this virus, I’m worried about another, silent, pandemic.

On any given day, I make 17 snacks, change 12 diapers, listen to 957 complaints, constantly remind everyone to wash their hands, and burst into tears at least three times. 

Yes, this is life with young kids. It’s what I signed up for and no, it’s not glamorous. Being a mom doesn’t come with “me” time. Showers are forever getting interrupted by preschoolers and their endless barrage of nonsensical questions. With three kids aged six and under, including a newborn, sleep is segmented, at best. 

Before COVID-19, the tantrum-filled, sleep-deprived whirlwind was mostly relegated to the weekends—but at least they were also filled with park visits, lunches with grandparents, playdates, dance, art and swimming classes. And back then, there was actually an end in sight—back to work/school/childcare on Monday, huzzah!

But now, 82 days into the longest weekend ever lived, and I’m so, so tired. Tired of living the same day over and over again. Tired of making toilet paper binoculars and watching Paw Patrol. Tired of Lysol wiping the groceries and Amazon boxes. Tired of staying home. Tired of being scared of COVID-19.

My four-year-old has developed a propensity for never-ending tantrums. My now feral six-year-old refuses to change out of his pyjamas or wear shoes. My husband has set up a home office in our basement storage room, the place least likely for a partially dressed child to wander in during a Zoom call (and literally the only other room in our house that is not occupied by the rest of us). The baby is oblivious, smiling and cooing at the chaos around him. Me? I’m quietly falling apart.

How can I keep doing this? How can I get in the shower every night, wash off the spit up, the glitter glue, and the sandbox, only to crawl into bed, feed the baby, and wake up in the morning of this never-ending Groundhog Day and do it all again, without a break in sight? I, like many parents, am worn out and tired, and I fear this unsustainable hamster wheel we’re on is giving rise to a silent, mental health pandemic. 

A recent survey published by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto found that ​Canadianparents​​ of children under 18​, and mothers, in particular,​ were disproportionately more likely to report new or amplified symptoms of anxiety and depression related to COVID-19. These survey results are alarming, but not at all surprising since COVID-19 has changed parenting and redefined the landscape of motherhood. 

I’m progressive, outspoken, and strong. I’m a feminist. Yet, like so many moms, I carry the invisible load of mothering and somehow, feminism and motherhood are still, to a large degree, at odds with one another. Even before the pandemic, I was the grocery shopper, the list maker, the show-and-share rememberer, the doctor’s appointment scheduler, the meal organizer, the tear wiper, the boo boo kisser. And while I’m incredibly fortunate to have a partner who cleans up everything, is a bath-time guru, and does all the laundry, I am, unequivocally, the default parent in my home. And by that, I mean, it is me who carries the social and emotional welfare of our family. So I can’t fall apart, or we all do.

But at the best of times, I’m just barely holding on. I have a history of anxiety and panic attacks, which is, under normal circumstances, fairly well managed and I’ve learned ways to cope. Cue COVID-19 to push me over the edge.

I’m a worrier and I sometimes tend to catastrophize. I lost my sister to brain cancer when she was 20; and when you’ve been slammed, you can’t help but to fear the worst. Illness makes me incredibly anxious. Now, I worry that we will get COVID-19; I worry that we will make my parents ill; I worry that my children’s mental health is suffering from being isolated from friends, family, and school; I worry that there won’t be a vaccine; I worry that we will again be stuck at home all winter long. Hit me up with the postpartum period of anxiety coupled with sleep deprivation and then add in a global pandemic, front and centre stage, and it’s all I can do not to spiral down a rabbit hole of what-ifs.

Especially since all of our social support systems are gone. After a complicated c-section at the end of February, my network of grandparents, friends and family were no longer safely allowed in my house to help during a difficult recovery. My 6-week postpartum appointment took place over the phone. A physical exam would have put my mind at ease that I am healing well—but now I have another thing to worry about. Of course, this was a Catch-22  because going to the hospital in the middle of COVID, newborn in tow, was also a terrifying prospect. I know I will require follow-up, but am faced with yet more uncertainty as to when or if I will be seen. 

Sure, I’ve seen my therapist virtually a few times, but my appointments are not my own with the kids wandering in, or the baby crying. Even my favourite escape, my spin studio, is now a stationary bike in the room behind my kitchen, no longer a place to decompress, as my daughter dances (often naked) beside the bike, or the baby wakes early from his nap and cries. 

As a mother on my third maternity leave, my experience this time around is starkly different. There are no malls to push a stroller around on rainy days, no baby music classes, no lunch dates. My big kids, home all the time now, demand my attention constantly; I am often nursing the baby, while simultaneously trying to teach my six-year-old to read; my four-year-old is stuck to me like crazy glue, and she needs me to play with her because she misses school and her friends. The intensity of it all makes me feel like I’m going to explode. I get frustrated more than I should. I often feel like I can’t catch my breath and the old feelings of panic return like a vengeance. I feel lonely and sad, but ironically cannot find a place to actually be alone.  

In addition to my teaching job, I am also a small business owner. While I imagined that on my maternity leave I would have some time during the day when the big kids were at school, to manage, collaborate, and keep tabs on operations, I now hide in the bathroom to try to send emails, or drive around with the baby in the car to return client calls. 

I’m tired of hiding in my home from this invisible enemy. I’m tired of the numbers and the news. I’m tired of trying to power through. Parents of young kids, and mothers in particular, whose careers have been exchanged for zero work-life balance, whose employment takes the second fiddle to our husbands’ (typically higher-earning) jobs, whose emotional load has been amplified 100-fold, supporting our children’s education, well-being, and mental health—we are the glue, keeping our families together, yet we feel so very alone.

So amid the very real pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, another, quieter pandemic looms. And I don’t think we’re ready for it, either.