As I started to write this story, I learned my car needed an estimated $850 in repairs…all for being parked in the driveway for the past six months. The color drained from my face as I glanced at the clock—ten minutes until my shift to watch my daughter started, relieving my husband as we both worked while caregiving—and all I could do was delete the one measly paragraph I’d written here, because it no longer made sense.
Make no mistake: I realize how fortunate I am to even call these things problems. But still, the call from the mechanic caused a full-on panic attack. Possibly because it signaled that the struggles from the past year were far from over.
You see, just before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in the U.S., my husband, one-year-old daughter and I went to Florida to visit my parents for the week. We wound up quarantining there for six months, and in the process, gained a new appreciation for family, the ability to live with less (since we essentially lived out of a suitcase all that time)—and for the Southern staple of biscuits and gravy (as my forever-tightening pants can attest).
Somehow during that time, I held onto the hope that when we finally returned to New York, it meant that the worst was behind us. We’d be entering a brave, new post-COVID world. We’d host a Halloween party that had nothing to do with Zoom. Or invite friends over to watch football on Sunday, without worrying about communal chip bowls and masks. But as any human living in America can attest, we’re not post-COVID by any means, so when the time came to come back to New York, we put on our masks, packed gloves and Clorox wipes for any pit stops, and road-tripped it home to create our new normal.
When we arrived, we bounded into the house, filming my daughter’s reaction, which could be best described as bewildered ambivalence. “Do you remember where your room is, Emmie?” I asked eagerly. She looked around, before finally pointing to the living room. Seeing her room, she lit up over the array of toys; they were all new to her. At a month shy of two, she’d spent a quarter of her life in Florida. The twin mattress she slept on in the corner of my childhood bedroom was more home to her than this place. I set out to make it feel like home again, as she wandered our hallways, asking where grandma and papa were.
First, we tackled the annoyances we expected: the car battery was dead, along with every plant we owned, save for our micro cactus. Next, I deep-cleaned the horror that was our fridge—we’d left milk, which had somehow curdled and exploded, requiring Mr. Clean and a spatula used as a chisel to carve it off the shelves. I applied the KonMari method to our closets, giving us a literal fresh slate.
I also wanted to teach my daughter that this was her home. The crib was converted to a toddler bed, and after reading Dr. Harvey Karp’s advice on how crucial routines are for lowering a kid’s stress levels and helping them feel secure, resolved to restore bedtime, limits on screen time and more engaging playtime. It’s progress, but she still clings to me like a life preserver all day, often shouting “hold you me!” as I carry her. (Oh, and we can’t seem to shake her newfound belief that shoes are pure evil.)
And ultimately, it’s this emotional instability that was (and is) hardest for me. I was prepared for dead plants and a stomach-turning fridge. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional toll of living in our pre-pandemic home in a still-pandemic world. I could clean, I could organize, but that wouldn’t change the reality of quarantine—or how I’d feel those first few days back, a little homesick, a lot overwhelmed. So, I did what many parents do—I put my head down and fought for what I could control while outwardly trying to project, “Ignore the Dumpster fire behind me! Everything is fine! It’s all fine!”
Some days, things really do feel fine. Better than fine: fantastic. Fortunate. Freeing. Other days, I fail at everything. Just this afternoon, I tried to balance my daughter while eating lunch and replying to an email, only to have the bowl slip and crash all over the floor. After we replaced the car battery, our SUV still wouldn’t start. We had it towed to the dealership, where I got the message that there was a transmission switch issue, hence the $850 bill. I don’t feel present enough for my daughter; I worry I’m not present enough at work.
I know I’m not alone—74 percent of moms feel like their mental health has suffered during the pandemic, according to a 3,000-person poll from Motherly. Similarly, the New York Times found that moms tend to handle 70 percent of the joint household and childcare responsibilities during the workday, compared to men. My husband and I struggle to find a balance that works for us until daycare resumes in October. We think we have it figured out, then a meeting pops up, my daughter has a meltdown and it’s like we’ve hit a slide on Chutes and Ladders: back to start. Well, I’m ready to flip the board.
Returning has made me confront my own magical thinking; the temptation to believe that when this happens, that issue will be resolved. But the reality is that I make progress, face setbacks and am forced to see what I cannot control.
Whatever happens in the moment, I’m trying to take a step back and remember that the new normal is whatever we accept it to be—and sometimes that comes from realizing what we won’t accept. All while giving ourselves the grace to try, screw up and try again.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to order a new pothos plant. I hear they’re pretty resilient—and resiliency is a look I’m trying to cultivate.