A few weeks ago, I couldn’t find the words to ask for help until it was too late.
I was fried to a limp, crispy shadow of myself.
“I’m not doing so well,” I finally told my husband during our morning check-in.
As I exhaled the words, I began to cry. All the things I’d been holding started to leak out.
I’d been carrying so much since the pandemic had swept through all of our lives:
Nearly full-time care for our two children. Half-assed oversight of their education. Fear about what the pandemic meant for the future. And just below it all, a near-constant hum of panic that I was failing at all of this.
This was in addition to what I already lugged before COVID-19:
Grief for my dad who died last June. Concern for my mom, newly widowed. Part-time work, the machinery of keeping a household in motion, the wild monthly swings of perimenopause, the challenges that come with having ADHD—all punctuated by a steady stream of migraines.
The only way I felt capable of hauling this load was the time I had during the days when my kids were at school. I needed those swaths of time to work and fold laundry, to walk and do yoga and hear the sound of my own breath.
I love snuggling with my kids. I love reading to them and rolling on the ground together. At night, I lie next to them, amazed by their lengthening limbs, surreptitiously soaking up the smell of their hair, and praying the same prayer I’ve always said for them: keep them safe, keep them healthy, keep them happy more than they’re not. Let them, please, please, please, let them outlive us.
But I don’t love being with them constantly. I don’t love homeschooling. Or being tech support. Referee, PE teacher, therapist. I don’t love having to tuck my own needs and wants into the dusty corners of the day.
And I certainly don’t love the judgments I lob at myself for finding this all so hard. Like how could I—with the vast privilege of only working part-time, of having a husband who can work from home, of having relative financial security—complain?
But here is what I know, what I keep coming back to: we don’t have to feel guilty for longing for other roles. We don’t have to pretend that motherhood, or any role we find ourselves in right now, is a light load.
We live in a fast-paced world, a drive-thru world. I hear other women saying they feel like they should be in a better place by now, that they should feel more grounded or productive.
But we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. A sustained trauma threaded with uncertainty. Some of the central scaffolding of our society, like childcare and health care, is wobbling in the wind.
Yes, we will learn new things from this experience. Yes, there are small gifts scattered within this new landscape. But it’s not over yet—it’s probably not even close to being over. And we can’t usually make sense of an experience while it’s happening. We need time to process all that we’ve been through, all that we’ve held.
We are all holding so very much.
So once again, I’m practicing setting things down.
Like the lie that radical self-care isn’t the most important right now.
I’m writing every morning while my kids have screen time. I’m texting friends daily. I’m escaping at least once a week for a few hours to my mom’s empty condo, where no chores wait for me, where no one asks me for snacks. I’m exercising every damn day, because if I don’t, I start to feel the tugs of a deep, murky depression. I’m attending 12-step meetings on Zoom, because I need frequent reminders that I’m not alone with my struggles, because one of my defaults is to minimize my own struggles by telling myself I’m weak. I’m doing Zoom yoga and listening to self-compassion meditations daily, because if I don’t, I forget to treat myself like a sweet child of the universe, I forget to soften, to drench myself with love.
Some moments, I still feel guilty. I still think I’m failing Pandemic 101.
So I did what I sometimes do when I need to tap into wisdom. I sat down and I wrote a letter to myself, from my future, in this case, post-pandemic, self:
Oh, sweet girl. You are holding so much right now.
The things you thought mattered? The untidy house, the assignments your children didn’t turn in, the nights you served ice cream for dinner, the times you snapped at your kids, husband, and the dog? The hours and hours of screen time you let the kids have so you could get breaks?
None of these will matter.
The raised voices will fade. The fatigue that suddenly enshrouds you every day around 3 p.m. The half-hearted meals and the times you locked yourself in the bathroom and cried—you will remember little of this. You might recall this time as a tangle of despair. You will still feel the texture and heft of it, the dull blue of it. But so much of it will drift from your memory, like the hardest parts of childbirth or grief or any other type of becoming.
You will also forget your strengths, your successes. The games of hide and seek you played with your kids, even in the rain, your too-long bangs plastered to your temples, a childlike grin on your face as the decades dripped away and you remembered in your fascia the simple delight of play. The time you arranged heaps of steak and vegetables into smiley faces on your son’s lunch plate, giggling at the ridiculousness of it. The puppy piles you made with your kids, a warm mess of limbs and gleaming eyes that feels more like love than anything you know.
You might also forget the small, slow, sweet moments: the bird nest under the porch, and how your son, breathless, announced the appearance of eggs. The family walks you took, and the books from your own childhood that you read aloud, and how the stories wove a braid that sweetly connected the past with the present.
The times—too many to count—when you made them feel safe just by existing, just by not crumpling to the ground. The space you held for their feelings without even realizing it.
You will know for sure that what mattered was that they were loved.
And you know how you love them? Fiercely, unconditionally?
Shine that same love toward yourself. Set down the judgments that don’t serve you, the striving for perfection, the idea that every other mother is functioning better than you are. Snip off the tendrils of martyrdom that sneak into the room, uninvited.
Say: No, thank you. I don’t need you.
Say: I choose to set you down. You no longer serve me.
Say: This is a pandemic; it isn’t supposed to be Pinterest-pretty.
Say: Our only goal here is to survive.