In 2020, the bottom fell out of motherhood for me.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, but that didn’t make it any easier to get through. Beginning that fateful March day when the WHO declared the pandemic, I watched in horror as all the supports that made our family work fell away one by one. My daughter’s beloved preschool closed for two days. And then two weeks. And then indefinitely. And then permanently. We kept our youngest out of daycare, continuing to pay full price for zero childcare. (That only lasted for three weeks before it became clear that either I was leaving my job and spiraling even deeper into depression, or she was going back to daycare.)
My mental health declined steadily, taking a vast drop in mid-March followed by a continued slow spiral, like an air mattress deflating little by little over the course of a long, sleepless night. There was no one to call for help. And after a summer with no outings or playdates or visits with grandparents, our oldest began kindergarten virtually. Her agitation and despair at being deprived of a true school experience challenged our tenuous grip on reality even further, every day a bleak repetition of the torturous day before it. Trying to work from home with a kid having a meltdown every five minutes. Trying to keep a distractible and highly social child glued to her seat watching an iPad for six hours a day. Failing at both of those things, and watching my self-worth drop in real-time. All of my self-care and positive self-talk strategies could not scratch the surface of this misery. In a society that already does so little to support parents, we were being asked to continue giving and giving of ourselves long after there was nothing left to give.
It felt like all the magic that made the hard parts of motherhood bearable had been taken away.
The swell of overwhelming pride at seeing your kid get on the bus for the first time. The sense of connection and community from touring the school and meeting the staff. The friendship and solidarity of chatting with your mom friends while your kids play and leave you alone for a bit. We had none of that. All of those things that made it possible for me to keep going, to feel hopeful about the future, were gone.
There were good parts, of course. An amazing mom in my daughter’s class organized a small pod for a few days a week, and our sweet girl began to come back to life a bit. We found ways to cope and felt a new sense of gratitude for our health. We realized a lifelong family dream of buying a cabin. All those things are huge privileges, and talking about how hard it was for me does feel a little cringey knowing that many others had it so much worse.
But to paraphrase Brené Brown, there is no point in comparative suffering. Denying my own pain does nothing to lessen the pain of others. The empathy I feel for others can and must be extended to myself. And I am not the same person that I was before the pandemic. I’m not the same mom, either.
I have watched the last few months as pieces of “normal life” have started to come together for my family. My daughter is back in the classroom full time. We are able to see grandparents. We even went on vacation. But none of these things have felt like relief to me. I’m watching the same show, but I can see the strings now. The illusion has been broken.
I think back to the early days of motherhood, how magical it all felt, and I wonder if I’ll ever feel that way again. I try to beat back my annoyance at my kids, my quick temper, and my sharp tongue. I try to enjoy the good moments when they are playing together nicely, when the sun is shining, when I’m doing some of those “normal” things that I’ve been missing so dearly these last 15 months. But it just hits different now. I’ve seen too much of the darkness, and I don’t know how to find the light anymore.
I’m trying to have grace and patience for myself. I don’t have to pretend I’m the same person I was 15 months ago. It’s hard not to feel defeated by all that still feels uncertain. But one thing I know for sure is that I will never stop trying to be the best person and mom I can be. And I believe that, someday and somehow, I’ll find my way back to the spark of joy in motherhood again.