My just-turned-five-year-old looked at me and whined, “What are we going to do today, Mama?” I sipped my coffee and didn’t respond verbally. But my chest started to tighten and my blood pressure rose.
It was day three of a string of who-knows-how-many stay-at-home days courtesy of COVID-19 where I’d be engaging in daily combat, outnumbered by my three small children, while my husband pushed papers around in his home office on our third floor. Or at least that’s how I was thinking about it. And, she was perhaps the fiercest warrior: big feelings about everything, unafraid to throw down over anything.
She was also the one that had to be going somewhere, always. Famous for asking, “Where are we gonna go now?” as we got in the car to head home after we had just spent the entire day at the park and children’s museum. My husband or I would glance at each anxiously from our seats before one of us replied “Home,” and she let out a wail like she’d just been shot. Her full body thrashing in her booster seat like a wild interpretive dance to match her cries. And now everything was closed indefinitely. There was nowhere to go.
We had spent days one and two of our quarantine doing a home school that I had whipped up in a bout of anxiety—trying to create time blocks, parameters, and activities to keep control of the situation and my sanity. On top of the life-altering news that there was a global pandemic and school and daycare would now be closed (not to mention lives lost, jobs lost, parents working and watching their kids at the same time … but this isn’t the story, it’s my story), I was also anxious because I hadn’t had three consecutive hours of sleep in the previous five months courtesy of our new baby boy. And on top of that, last time I was postpartum, sleep deprived, and stressed out I literally lost my mind from postpartum psychosis.
Eight months post-birth with no previous mental illness history, it came on like a freight train. I was overtaken by deranged thoughts. Thoughts that eventually had me fighting and pleading with my husband to let me go up to the roof of our NYC apartment building—I needed to jump, or show I was willing, in order to save us—before the NYPD arrived, handcuffed me, and took me to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.
It had been five years. I had done so much work to understand my mind, my body, my hormones. And before having another baby, I worked to understand the data—that about 10 to 15% of women experience mental health issues postpartum, and that only one or two per 1000 women experience psychosis, the most severe of the postpartum mental health illnesses — but that once you’ve had it, the odds of it recurring with your next birth are around 50% if unmedicated. Heads or tails.
But I was doing great this time around: I had planned; I knew myself better; I had support; I took more time off; and I was medicated just in case. Still, the curveball of a school-closing global pandemic leaving me with now full-time care of my six-and-a-half and five-year-old girls and five-month old baby boy, with no sleep and the heightened anxiety that a global pandemic creates, had me doubting myself. Could I keep it together? Or would it happen again and I’d lose it all this time?
In efforts to keep it together, I had tried a blocked schedule hour by hour the previous two days and became “Miss Cliffel.” I leveraged my classroom experience from eighteen years ago, my whole career in education, and my lifelong Type A personality. And it worked. I had control. The girls learned some things. We even had fun. But I was exhausted. And after experiencing postpartum psychosis and therapy-ing my way back to a new me, something I now knew in my body but still had to remember to practice was: if it’s good for me, it’s good for them. Self-care. And this “Miss Cliffel” exhaustion was not good for me. So, I’d given them the option to not do home school on day three and see how that felt instead.
And now, she, the one who had said strongly that she did not want to do homeschool today, was accusingly asking me what we were going to do today. The nerve.
So, I turned to her, chest tight with anxiety and honestly a little pissed off and said snarkily, “I don’t know, Millie. What are we going to do today?”
She looked at me. Paused. And then said calmly, “I think I’m going to go play market.” And she walked upstairs and played market.
And it was in that moment that I re-learned a lesson I have re-learned thousands of times: The voices in my head cannot be trusted. They want it to be controlled, engineered, and well-planned. They are anxious if things don’t go their way and if things get messy. And with young children, things almost never go your way and are almost always messy. The voices are bad advisors. Unqualified for this job with real live children.
So, she went to go play market. And I committed to try out surrendering and instead of engineering and doing, just being. Our days changed. Central activities on the next few days looked like this: they dressed the color of our walls and furniture and played ninja for hours; they raided my closet and played a complicated game of queens; they “ran away from home” and built a complex new home in our living room.
It wasn’t mine. It was theirs. I lost control, but they found joy, guided by their imaginations. And so did I as I got to witness their creations while I mostly tended to our infant. It felt more authentic than what I had engineered. And with their boundless imaginations, if I wait just a little bit to answer their cries for Mama (except the ones that seem to indicate someone is seriously injured) and defer their search for guidance, they almost always come up with better solutions and new ideas.
I recall my own childhood and know that it was spent making something out of nothing, creating games with my friends, and somehow I felt it had to be different. The pressure of now doing “homeschool” made me think it had to fit into the factory model despite the fact that I know better. For young children, I am certain that this is enough. That you are enough. That I am enough. Let them play.
I did hang onto two little bits of my structured home school: one-and-a-half hours of independent quiet time and earned screen time. You’ll have to pry those from my cold, dead hands.
Take care of yourself, caregivers. This is intense.