“This is not what you signed up for, but you keep showing up every day.”
When a friend said these words to me, something in my body and spirit shifted and synced.
We’d been talking about the pandemic.
Specifically, about how the lack of childcare for the past three-plus months during the pandemic has affected me.
Her words felt like an affirmation—an acknowledgement—that yes, parenting through a pandemic is impossible.
But didn’t you, a sneaky, shame-slicked voice whispered, in fact, sign up for exactly this?
When I first became a mom, my son was a colicky, constant nurser.
Every night, just as I’d be ready to pass out from a long day of soothing him, he’d grow as alert as a police officer working the graveyard shift. I was smacked with postpartum depression within days of his long, complicated birth.
On top of the misery I experienced—the electrified hum of anxiety, the swaths of hopelessness, the shattered sleep, the intrusive thoughts about hurting my beautiful son—I spackled myself in layers of judgment. How could the sacred experience of new motherhood feel so terrible, when I had, in fact, signed up for it?
Buddhism has a tenet called the second arrow. The pain we experience when a loved one dies, or we become ill, or someone scribes a nasty comment on our social media, is the first wound. But we often, quite literally, add insult to the injury by our reactions to the first arrow.
We judge ourselves or tell ourselves unhelpful stories about what the injury means, or we stub our toe because we’re so busy brainstorming witty responses to that nasty comment that we don’t see the coffee table. These are all examples of the second arrow.
What a terrible woman I was, I thought in those early months of mothering—pulling back the bow and aiming the arrow at my milk-swollen chest to loathe motherhood. To yearn for the days when I could take long showers with no crying baby waiting for me to be done. When my body wasn’t someone else’s food source. When I was so impossibly, sweetly untethered.
“It goes by so fast,” older women in line at the grocery store would say, gazing with longing at my boy, his plump cheeks, his shining smile.
Arrows nicked at my skin.
Time felt impossibly slow. In five and a half years, I thought to myself, he’ll be in kindergarten. I was an insect frozen in amber, caught in an eternally sticky landscape. An endless loop of gnawed sleep, of nursing and crying, of tending to my child’s needs while suppressing my own.
Then, one day, the facilitator at the postpartum support group I attended uttered words that softened me.
“You didn’t choose this,” she said.
You didn’t choose this.
Her words were a cooling balm, soothing the wounds of the second arrows.
I grabbed onto them—slathered myself in them. I’d reach for them on hard days, the ones when I’d count the hours until my husband would return home from work, or when I’d compare myself to other mothers—always coming up short.
I’d swallow her words like vitamins, waiting for my organs to metabolize them.
This isn’t my fault, and I didn’t choose this.
I’d prayed for a child, prayed to be a mother, surprised by the force of my desire. But of course, I hadn’t asked for the sharp hormonal dive that submerged me in a sea of anxiety and depression. I hadn’t asked for months of gnawed, interrupted sleep. I hadn’t asked for the fascia-deep, internalized sexism that told me to ignore my own wants and needs: for sleep, for autonomy, for the craving to guiltlessly lose myself in the solitary act of stringing words together, searching for the sweetest sequence of shimmering stones.
As the second arrows dislodged, I began to realize that postpartum depression and having a colicky baby with a sleep aversion were simply things that had happened to me. And though I didn’t quite believe it at the time, I began to float puffs of faith that I wouldn’t always feel like this. That parenting wouldn’t always feel so hard.
With medication and therapy, with pep talks from friends and family, and with some childcare, I slowly surfaced from the worst of postpartum depression.
As my depression waned—or perhaps my depression waned because of this—an urgency to write arose in me. I burned to sit at my laptop, alone, my shoulders unclenching as the words that scorched through me were released.
Sentences cycloned around my head as I changed diapers and nursed and picked up stray toy trains.
It was as if, along with my milk, some creative force had just arrived in me—invisible and flowing, pooling in a space where there used to be just ordinary flesh. The two roles I’d craved—mother, writer—competed for the same time and energy.
I was a better mother when I was also a writer. When I had time and space to fashion something from nothing.
My babies grew and went to preschool and then regular school. It did, as all those women in the grocery store said, go by so fast. The amber loosened. I wrote whenever I could.
Then, in March, COVID-19 hit.
Again, suddenly, I was encased in a sticky clot of amber.
Sure, my kids didn’t need to nurse or have their diapers changed anymore. They don’t even try to claw their way into the bathroom with me anymore, though they do inevitably shout for snacks during these brief respites.
But they did need someone to help them navigate the overnight shift to homeschool. They needed someone to provide a constant stream of fruit, and referee arguments, and occasionally wrestle them away from the depths of video games and out into the spring sunlight.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I continued to write. With a vengeance. I’d write in the mornings when my kids had screen time, then put my laptop aside to focus on them. I wrote on the weekends, and my husband and I worked out a system where I had an additional few hours each week to escape to my mom’s empty condo to write. My husband is incredibly supportive of my vocation as a writer. But the reality is that his career pays the vast majority of our bills.
Now, I’m so tired.
Like new motherhood, pandemic parenting feels relentless, and there’s no sign of when things might return to a more sustainable rhythm.
Even if, in some states, we are beginning to relax the most stringent measures we took earlier, many of us do so with heaps of doubt.
Should we avoid public bathrooms at all costs? What about day camp? How do we weigh mental health—our children’s and our own—against the risks the virus poses to our physical health? What level of risk is my need to write worth?
All these questions rewind me to the choices of new parenthood that felt so heavy at the time: vaccinations, and circumcision, and co-sleeping, oh my! The stakes of these choices now feel sky-high. They seem to carry in them the etchings of our future, our health, even our existence.
It doesn’t help that we are more isolated than we’ve ever been—and parents in Western society were already isolated. We already lacked affordable childcare and the tight web of community I recall from my own childhood, when my parents had a plentiful collection of friends and family they could call on if they needed a break, or if an emergency came up, or if they just wanted to escape for a weekend without kids.
My family is privileged. We are fortunate to be safe and well—physically and financially. And yet, I am starved for space, for words, for an empty house to write in. For a time when all these choices felt less weighted.
My children are starved for normalcy, to be able to play with other kids. “Our job is to be kids, and play, and we can’t do that right now,” my daughter said to me at bedtime the other night.
I listened and held her as my heart broke for her. For all of us.
So many of us are struggling, as my daughter articulated, to do our many jobs.
So when my friend uttered the simple phrase, “This is not what you signed up for,” my whole body relaxed into yes and thank you and I feel seen.
I was returned again to that medicinal phrase from my postpartum struggles: You didn’t choose this.
We did not sign up for pandemic parenting. We did not sign up to parent our children through something we’ve never come close to experiencing in our own lifetimes. We did not sign up for decisions about whether to send our kids to rec camp this summer, or in-person school in the fall—decisions that carry a life and death heft to them.
We did not sign up to revert to being the default parent, the full-time parent. To put our own dreams and projects, and words and hopes on hold as we tread the amber goo of the pandemic.
We did not sign up to spend hours navigating Internet rabbit holes about the viral loads and transmission rates among children. To wonder how we might measure the load we’re each carrying these days.
We did not choose this.
Here is what we can choose: to fend off the second arrows of guilt, like when I let the kids have extra screen time so I can escape to the basement and write.
We can choose to let some (many?) things slide and embrace being “good enough” parents.
We can choose to acknowledge how worn down we are, how scared and overwhelmed and exhausted, how hard this is for our kids and our partners. We can apologize when we lose our temper—which for me happens at least once a day—and we can also forgive ourselves, and shine a bit of grace our way.
We can choose to do what we need to do to survive. Sometimes, this means we feed our kids ice cream for dinner. Sometimes it means watching The Office with my 11-year-old—something pre-pandemic me wouldn’t have allowed. “That’s what she said,” my son hollered from the other room last night. That same little sleep-fighting, slate-eyed baby now has the whisper of a mustache and makes sexual innuendos.
Because for better or worse, nothing stays the same.
When I was in the thick of postpartum depression, I couldn’t envision a path out, an era of mothering when things would be easier.
Similarly, now, I can barely squint toward a return to normal. Our old normal is gone, eviscerated, just like my pre-mother self was.
We cannot go back to who we were or how things were. We are in the meaty mess of it right now.
In the same way that fetal cells float through mother’s bodies for decades after our babies are born, the pandemic will mark us in ways we can’t yet envision—the way all traumas and transformations do.
And like with any enormous loss or invisible war, there is, for many of us, a fierce need to be witnessed.
It’s part of why I write, attend grief groups, and went to postpartum adjustment groups.
It’s why my friend’s words sank into the raw, vulnerable muscle of me, and I felt like I could keep doing what she said I’d been doing—showing up, imperfectly, grumpily, and worn—another day.
Just as we can choose to fend off the second arrows, we can also choose to create small spaces to stare into one another’s wounds.
To say, as my sweet friend did, “You didn’t sign up for this, and yet you keep showing up, day after day, even when you’re worn down, even when you feel like the worst possible version of yourself.”
To say, “This is hard, this feels damned near impossible, and yet here we are, doing what our ancestors have done since the beginning of time—walking through it anyway.”