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Quarantined in motherhood

I remember bringing my newborn baby home from the hospital six years ago in the dead of winter. Almost immediately, I was plunged into a dark room filled to the brim with postpartum anxiety and depression. There was no way out. No windows. No key. The isolation and desolation were overwhelming. It was as if time had been put on pause in our house. My life seemed to be taking place on another planet—one I never thought I would visit. The daily routine of breastfeeding and sleep deprivation made me feel like a zombie.

I longed to travel back to my old abode, but it no longer existed.

That harrowing postpartum experience has always stayed with me. Six years later, flashbacks of that traumatic time visit me daily. I am reminded of it now as we all try our best to survive the strange and unexpected new world of COVID-19. Since our school’s officially closed and my daughter has been home with us full-time, I realize that this place I inhabit is all too familiar.

Once again, I have become a mother forced into quarantine.

It can be super stressful to juggle work schedules with my husband, but parenting is definitely the hardest part of my day. Having an only child confined to a house with two parents who aren’t always available to be playmates sucks.

It’s a constant battle of wills, and I frequently watch myself crawling up the same four walls. My low-level anxiety, which usually just hums in the background of my life, is slowly drowning me. My casual and rare imbibing of alcohol has completely gone out the window. I have taken up drinking in the early evenings.

Remote learning has been a disaster for our family. The first two weeks were a novelty. My daughter enjoyed seeing her friends and the videos of their “News of the Day.” But we didn’t know then how long this pretending-to-be-educators gig would go on for. We were game at the beginning, because we didn’t want her to fall behind her peers.

It all seemed sustainable, until suddenly, it wasn’t.

When you’re a mother with diagnoses of bipolar II, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, a more severe form of PMS), the everyday obstacles that pop up with a bored and unmotivated kid are a lot more overwhelming. How can I support my child and remain patient in the midst of her meltdowns when I am staggering mentally myself, despite my newfound addiction to chamomile tea?

In the early days of social distancing and trying to put a positive spin on things, I too posted pictures of my daughter and me painting rocks with motivational messages. The colorful hopscotch game we spray-painted on our driveway. The cute sign we created for sanitation workers and taped on our compost bin. They were all worthwhile activities to teach my daughter how we could play our part in a small way. But as this quarantine has dragged on, the inclination to take walks and see the unique ways our neighbors are honoring our frontline workers has slowly dwindled.

There have been many moments when I have simply broken down, walked upstairs and fallen face-first on my bed. Times I’ve closed the blinds and shut the door and waited for this ridiculous never-ending situation to end. But it hasn’t happened, and I’ve had to dig deep to find shreds of my own resilience and ingenuity. Not just for me, but for my husband and daughter.

They need me.

And sometimes I win, and my daughter and I have a good time. We enjoy hours together riding our bikes outside. One day we even made our own version of a Captain Underpants book, featuring a female superhero sidekick. Later we hid the hand-drawn pages for my husband to find in a treasure hunt. It was some much-needed fun.

The pendulum of parenting seems to be regularly swinging to extremes these days.

Maybe tomorrow will be different, but I’m not going to pretend it’s all right when it’s not. My most important job may be as a mother, but I am still a human being. I am allowed to be overwhelmed and sad. To express how worried I am for my well-being. I’m sure I’m not alone in this parenting spiral. But it’s not something most people in my real-life circle want to hear about.

They want me to toughen up, take it one day at a time and think positively, but it’s not easy. I don’t want to post COVID haircuts or snaps of homemade bread. Instead, I’ve managed to find my tribe of kindred spirits online: strangers and mothers I’ve never met who just get it, and also admit how they’re unraveling, bit by bit.

In my darkest moments during this pandemic, the hardest thing to deal with as a mother is the deficit of hope. My home feels like a jail. My heart is hanging on for dear life. All this social distancing is doing its best to knock me off the rails. And the usual problems of parenthood are harder to get through unscathed.

While we wait this out, I don’t want to live on the tragedy end of the motherhood spectrum. Most of all, I want her to be able to see her friends, go back to school and not feel detained. I want her to have her own life, so I can have mine back again.

Tara Mandarano is a Best of the Net–nominated writer and editor, and an advocate for patients in the mental health and chronic illness communities. Her latest work is featured in BIG: Stories About Life in Plus-Size Bodies.

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