I could hear my kids before I saw them, their angry footsteps pounding up the stairs in a frantic race to my home office. My seven-year-old son was yelling before he even got through the door, with his nine-year-old sister close behind—and she was just as mad. Apparently, someone had done a somersault on the couch, kicking their sibling in the head. “By accident!” the perpetrator wailed, furious at being ratted out. Before I could respond, they were listing all of the terrible things the other had done, from “giving a mean look” to knocking over a box of crayons. Down the hall, I could hear my husband participating in a video conference, or at least trying to.
“Get. Downstairs. And. Be. Quiet!” I hissed, steering them back toward the living room. “Daddy is in a meeting and I have work to do and you two are being absolutely ridiculous.”
“But, Mama…” they both started to whine. Picturing the to-do list on my desk and the unanswered emails in my inbox, I cut them off in a burst of frustration.
“I haven’t gotten anything done today! Even when you’re not fighting, you interrupt me every ten seconds!” I shouted. “This isn’t a vacation—this is a work day for me!”
“We’re bored, you know.” My daughter scowled at me.
“I don’t care!” I snapped, stomping back upstairs. “Figure it out!”
Sitting at my desk a minute later, the guilt set in immediately. This pandemic has made me such an asshole mom, I thought to myself, my heart heavy in my chest. Why am I so short-tempered, and what’s happened to my empathy and my usual levels of patience? How can my kids be expected to “figure it out” when I haven’t figured this out myself? It’s not their fault we’re suddenly living in a pandemic, or that their parents are attempting to balance work and childcare while following increasingly awful world news and attempting to keep up with home learning. I’m stressed, but this isn’t easy on them, either.
My kids aren’t being neglected, but with two parents working full-time from home, they are definitely being ignored throughout the day. The household dynamic is much closer to Lord of the Flies than Mary Poppins. They’re noisy when they’re having fun, and even louder when they’re mad or fighting with each other, so I’m shushing them constantly. And when they interrupt our work time with a story or a question, they can sense our impatience. I mean, I gave my son the finger behind his back one day because he had been humming the Jurassic Park theme song for what felt, to me, like hours. We’ve gotten into shouting matches about Minecraft.
I’d love to be the mom who is kicking ass in quarantine: baking with her kids, going on bike rides and nature walks, having dance parties in the living room and joyfully homeschooling, but I am not—not even close. Most of my non-work time is spent reassuring my Type-A older kid that everything is going to be fine (even if I’m not sure it will be), or dealing with broken video links and other e-learning tech problems. My only goal is to get to 5 p.m. without any of us having a major meltdown.
And yet, as far as living-through-a-pandemic scenarios go, our situation is close to ideal. My kids have two loving parents and a safe home. There’s no abuse or food insecurity to contend with. We have a spacious backyard and approximately 700 puzzles. They’re independent enough that I don’t have to supervise them constantly. (I really feel for the baby and toddler moms who can’t turn their backs for one minute.) I even have a dedicated home office with a door I can close.
My kids are reading books, making art, build forts, running around outside and yes, watching way too much TV. There are plenty of morning cuddles and happy moments, and some days have been downright relaxed. We have a family dinner every night and often play board games together before bed. On weekends, I’ve even briefly forgotten about coronavirus entirely because I’m so content in the peace of my home. We are the lucky ones.
Why, then, do I feel like such a terrible mom?
It’s because, like many parents, I’m falling short of my own impossible ideals. Pandemic parenting doesn’t come with a road map, and this is hardly the time to judge ourselves harshly. Some self-compassion, and acknowledging everything I’m juggling, is a much better use of my emotional energy than piling on the mom guilt. I’m trying to steer my family through a crisis without dropping the ball at work and losing my income.
I’m also recognizing that I tend to yell a lot more when I’m anxious, not when I’m angry—and this past month has been a hell of a ride. The perceived endlessness of the situation, and an overall lack of control, makes for heightened emotions and sleepless nights. We’re all feeling it: frustration, stress and a longing for normalcy. The kids are acting out some days and apparently, so am I.
But I don’t think my kids will be scarred for life because I was more irritable than usual, or because I let them have too much screen time. This is not forever. All I can do is adjust my expectations and try to find little moments for myself. A long solo walk, an hour spent reading a good book in the bath, a glass of wine over Zoom with friends—these are the small things I can do to help me be my best self—or at least a slightly more chill version of me. We’re all just doing the best we can, and we’ll keep doing it until this is over.