It’s the First Day of (Pandemic) School and I’m an Untethered Balloon

This post was originally written in the fall of 2021, when the kids went back to in-person school during the pandemic. Vaccines were not yet offered to children. I forgot that I wrote it, until today. Here ya go.

It’s here: the first day of school. Pandemic school.

I haven’t been away from them in a year and half*. It physically hurts to be away from them. Can I feel it in my belly? Their absence? Am I imagining this? It feels like when they were born, lifted off my body during that nearly-deadly c-section, when I was finally able to take my first deep breath in nine months. It felt so good when they lifted 15 pounds of baby out of my body, that huge influx of air and freedom I’d been waiting for. It was shocking. Sudden. I was lighter. Breathing on my own was amazing. And then, before that first big beautiful breath was even exhaled all the way, I was desperate for my babies to be reunited with me. I needed them in my arms. I couldn’t bear the weightlessness. It felt so good, but so wrong. I felt like an untethered balloon. I was going to float away if they didn’t place my babies against my chest. It hurt, but in a whole new way. Fifteen pounds of baby in a uterus was terribly painful, but being separated also physically hurt. 

When they got on the bus today, it felt like that again. I could breathe because I had a break from them, but I couldn’t breathe because I was separated from them. I could breathe but I couldn’t breathe.

During the pandemic, I had been so desperate for a break, but now that it’s here, I want them home. I want to scoop them all up in my arms – even though I can’t even lift even one of them – and run into the woods, off the grid, forever. I want to protect them and keep them away from the world… this new world. This new world with viruses that behave like nothing we’ve ever seen, and racism, and extremism, and school shootings and lockdown drills, and hurricanes, and kids with phones with the entire internet of the entire world in their pockets. The world is on fire. Literally. 

We’re trying to raise kids the way we were raised, except the world that we grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. How do we do this? My husband says we do this one day at a time. I’m trying to raise them by accidentally thinking about their entire life every day… but I can’t sustain that level of vigilance. It’s pointless. 

So, trying to live one day at a time but failing, I put the (yet-to-be-vaccinated) kids on the bus for the first time in a year and a half this morning. Like a normal mother. My oldest had left school suddenly in the middle of fourth grade, and now he’s a middle schooler. The twins had left school in the middle of first grade, and now they’re third graders. Those are some monumental jumps. Those are some huge percentages of their lives, just SKIPPED. Just GONE. Look where living one day at a time got us.

After the kids got on the bus, I asked my husband, “So how was my acting? Wasn’t I convincingly calm?” His affirmative answer made me smile. Made me believe for one minute that I’m not screwing up my kids or passing my panic along to them. 

And so, it’s here:  an empty house, alone time, back to “normal”. All kids in school. It’s a mother’s dream, right? Except that it’s a damn global pandemic and I feel like I just marched my (yet-to-be-vaccinated) kids off to their deaths. No big deal. I have to remind myself that 97% of our county sent their kids back to in-person school, even as the Delta variant is raging worse than ever, so I’m not alone in my insanity. My best friend kept her kids home, though, and that makes me second-guess myself. I asked another friend if she was nervous about sending her kids to school, and she said, “Nah, the school will shut down again in a few days anyway.” I had to both laugh and panic at her answer. 

The other years when I sent my kids off to their first day of school – which wasn’t many before covid hit – I was able to talk myself into relaxing. Eventually. I reminded myself of all the normal things: the kids are safe in school; the doors are locked/ they are locked in; their teachers will love them and take care of them; my kids are smart and resilient; going to school is a normal thing and doesn’t harm kids; wearing shoes all day is okay; no, they won’t have enough exercise but they will be okay when they get home and can play in the woods; I didn’t invent school and make them go (it’s just the way it is); they’ll get a free hot lunch and I won’t have to fix it! When I repeated these things in my mind, I would eventually calm down and act like a normal person. 

But this year is not the same at all. This year has never been done before. This year is … incomprehensible. Dangerous. I cannot believe our school supply shopping list included crayons, markers, new backpacks, AND MASKS. When we were kids, I don’t think that even the doctors and dentists and nurses actually wore masks all the time. Now my CHILDREN have to cover their mouths and noses for eight hours straight just to be allowed in their school building. (And they are adjusting beautifully, I might add. It’s the adults who are whining.) There is just no possible way to tell a mom not to worry while sending her (yet-to-be-vaccinated) children off in a pandemic. None of my old ways of talking myself out of worry will help now.

I’m being hyper-vigilant and it’s making me crazy. Every tiny comment and symptom and behavior is scrutinized. Twin A said he was dizzy when reading in bed. Covid! My oldest didn’t have a very big appetite even when eating salmon. Covid! Twin B is tired. Covid! My throat hurts. Covid! My husband looks pale. Covid! The dog barked. Covid! The power went out. Covid! I have to make dinner. Covid! 

My husband says to me, on repeat as needed, “If it happens, we’ll deal with it then.” I logically know that there is no way to prepare for my children to catch covid. I mean, I prepared by making sure our home is stocked with sanitizer, bleach, gatorade, motrin, inhalers and prescriptions and nebulizers…. But there is no way to mentally prepare for illness. Thinking about it will not help. Ruminating will not help. Going in circles inside my head will not prevent covid or change the outcome. I know this. But that doesn’t mean I can stop. 

I’m a fairly reasonable person. I’m well-educated (I think). I am careful about my news sources. I go to therapy. I do all the things. But also, my insurance company says I have generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, PMDD, and chronic PTSD. Why don’t YOU try balancing those diagnoses while sending three small (yet-to-be-vaccinated) children to school (one with learning disabilities and serious asthma, another with incontinence – yes, incontinence) during a global pandemic?! It takes all my effort not to just start screaming and never stop. I am exhausted from the battles raging in my brain. The amount of effort it takes to talk myself down from eternal screaming and panic thoughts – and to at least look normal on the outside – is exhausting. 

My husband calmly reminds me that we have to expect that they will probably get sick. I think about his verbiage: future conditional tense.

If they get sick, we will deal with it then.

If they get sick, they will be okay.

If they get sick, we will deal with it together. 

Future conditional tense: “If” and “will”. Not present – there is nothing I can do now, in the present tense. Conditional – it may or may not happen; there’s an “if” clause. 

I say “Parenting during a pandemic is tough.” Invariably, the older generations reply, “Parenting anytime is tough.” No, not like this. Not like this. They have no idea. How can they? Yes, they worry about their grandchildren. But they’re not dealing with the day-to-day life of raising children in this new world. They don’t see the endless emails from teachers, principals, and superintendents about precaution guidelines and case numbers. They don’t scan Amazon for hours searching for a mask that will fit a child with speech disabilities, and different sized kid faces. They don’t lie awake staring at the ceiling until 3am, wondering….

I have to calm down. I HAVE TO. Get it together, woman. I sing a Black Keys line in my head for an hour: 

“You gotta get yourself together, babe,

try to play it cool…

You gotta get yourself together, babe, 

keep your motor clean…”

We WILL deal with it together, IF it happens. 

IF it happens, we WILL deal with it then.

Overthinking will not prevent anything – but that’s not what Anxiety with a capital “A” tells you. Anxiety with a capital “A” whispers and then screams the lies in your ears: if you just think hard enough and long enough, you can keep everyone safe.

The day passes, both quickly and slowly. I repeat mantras (i.e., just the logical things my husband has said in his calming deep voice). I try to breathe deeply, alone, with no babies in my belly, on my chest, or in my arms. I can breathe! But I can’t breathe. It hurts. 

Just act calm. Just pretend. Pretend for them.

They get home at 5:00 – an hour late – because there’s apparently a national bus driver shortage. Momma, just pretend for them. Try to play it cool. You gotta get yourself together, babe, try to play it cool. “So, how was it?”

“Great!”

“Fine.”

“Okay.”

They run right past me, to greet the dog  with squeals and let him lick them and knock them down. Backpacks and shoes and masks are flying, discarded everywhere. I can breathe again. They are not in my arms, but they are here, and they are okay. They are okay for now. They are okay TODAY. Today. That’s what I have. Present tense. 

If it happens, we will deal with it then. Future conditional tense. 

If it happens, we will deal with it then. I make dinner. I do all the things. If. When. Together. 

I can breathe. But I can’t, you know? 

* with the exception of grandparent visits, which are amazing, but those don’t count, because I knew the kids were safe and happy with people they know and love. Grandparents are an extension of us. THey are not the outside world.

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