My husband is a second year pulmonary and critical care fellow. His specialty threads the needle for the coronavirus which (I’m sure you all know by now) attacks the respiratory system. He works in a busy ICU in Pittsburgh. He sees the patients who are at their worst – the ones who need to be ventilated or need EBUS or need lots of other care that seems to involve a lot of acronyms that I frankly don’t understand. Lately, he’s been clocking 70-85 hours of work a week. He comes home exhausted and emotionally drained. He throws his scrubs directly into our washing machine, starts a cycle on extra hot, and goes straight to the shower to wash off any potential remnants of the virus that may have hitchhiked home with him from work. While this daily routine happens, our son Townes crawls towards him in a chasing sort of “tell me hi!” way that is both adorable and heart-wrenching at the same time. He doesn’t understand why his dad can’t hold him.
Being the wife to a healthcare worker always has its challenges. No one goes into a marriage with a physician thinking they will have a spouse who works a typical 9am – 5pm job, but being a wife to a physician on the front lines during a pandemic brings about a whole new set of challenges. There’s something about being in a relationship with someone who is saving people’s lives all day that somehow makes the regular 40hr/wk job of a non-medical spouse seem less important, less valuable, and less difficult. Toss in the weight and stress of a global pandemic and that non-medical spouse now becomes the lifeline at home who keeps the family ecosystem functioning.
For the first six months of the pandemic, the responsibility to keep our home life functioning felt rewarding. Managing the day-to-day concerns of our home and family seemed to give Jason the support he needed to get through the week. I felt as though I was playing a very small, behind the scenes role in helping him not get burned out – in turn helping people get the attention and compassionate care they need from their physician. I was (and always am) so proud of my husband. He has a unique ability to connect to his patients personally, no matter their circumstances or age. We can typically both trudge through tough times with no complaints and pick up each other’s slack when the other is drained.
But now, 10 months into this, I’m worn down and growing increasingly frustrated. There has been a lot to adapt to this year with becoming a new mother, balancing a full-time job at home, and being disconnected from friends and family. Jason’s 70+ hour work week only adds stress to the adaptation. His workload adds a pretty heavy weight on my shoulders that has slowly morphed into my bones for the unforeseeable future. Sometimes, I feel like a single mom on a foreign island, and recently I’ve noticed myself shift into a person who lives with genuine anger, frustration, and fear.
A lot of times, my anger and frustration is directed towards random people whom I barely know – like people on social media who claim this pandemic isn’t real. I’ve found myself recently responding to posts I never would have entertained in the past. I am offended, frustrated, and amazed at how inconsiderate and selfish people’s actions have become. Perhaps one of the more surprising things about all of this is that Jason doesn’t share my frustration. It doesn’t bother him that he works tirelessly to save people’s lives who didn’t believe that this virus was real. It doesn’t affect him to hear people demand medications that have become popular from obscure propaganda and have no scientific backing. He has a sort of natural ability to just continue to help – no matter the circumstances. Meanwhile, I’m in a tireless fit of rage over people broadcasting their feigned knowledge of the situation to the world. At first, I chalked my defense to these claims up as a way to defend my husband’s work, but now I realize they are a bratty plea for someone to see the struggle our little family has gone through. A plea for someone to recognize the individual lives that are shifting and working tirelessly without praise, without support, and without a collective belief in the threat they face daily. This isn’t a hoax, the numbers aren’t inflated, and no one is choosing to live the challenges this pandemic brings for a political agenda.
This isn’t one of those posts that ends with a happy, uplifting tone. I’m in a rough season of life along with so many around the world. I live 18 hours from home. My local support circle is my husband, who is also playing the supportive role to so many patients and their families. I am exhausted. I want to sleep. And I feel so fucking bratty for wanting all of those little luxuries while numerous people around the world are experiencing worse. This post is for solidarity. To tell the other spouses of medical workers that I am with you, and I hope we can all come out of this together with love and compassion.
It’s 8:00am and I’m listening to The Daily’s new podcast about COVID-19 while you play on your musical mat. The song to your play mat is on repeat. The words change a bit, but it’s got a sort of bouncy beat that always hits on the rhyme. I know the lyrics by heart, but I mix them up a lot because of their bland adaptability.
In case you should every read this and get the urge to jog your infant memory, there’s a lot of singing about animals playing. My favorite line to chime in on is, “Maybe you – could be – a purple monkey in a bubble gum tree.” That line sounds oddly sexual to me?? I can’t understand why, but you know – it’s got that Disney feel to it.
The bouncy beat is a strange contrast to the news Michael Barbaro is reporting on the recent spike in New York City’s death toll and President Trump pulling funding from the World Health Organization.
The world is a crazy place right now. You’re going to hear that phrase a lot as you grow up. It usually comes from people who reminisce on “the good ole’ days” and think every new invention brings humans one step closer to becoming robots. I’m not one of those people, so you can trust me when I say it. 138,487 people across the world have died from COVID-19; 28,593 people have died in the U.S. alone. Women are giving birth without their partners in the room, families are saying their last goodbye to loved ones via FaceTime, morgues are running out of space for dead bodies, and every event everywhere has been canceled (school, March Madness, CHURCH, and even the summer olympics).
Your dad works in a COVID unit at the hospital. He wears a surgical mask when he holds you, and I am forever dousing our apartment down with disinfectant spray. I kept hand sanitizer in every bag, pocket, basket, or crevasse I find. I spend a lot of time reading the news and even more time deciphering infographics about COVID stats. There’s a shortage on toilet paper, of all things, and I can’t buy a packet of yeast even with a million dollars. I go to the store once every two weeks, and when I get home I strip my clothes to shower immediately. Our family can’t visit, and I worry about how you’ll bond with everyone when the Stay Home orders are lifted. It’s a weird time to be a new mother.
Your coos are getting louder now, and your eyes scan the room in a manner that suggests you know a lot more about this place than I do. Your nursery has become a sort of Secret Garden in the midst of this scary pandemic. Soft stuffed bunnies, shelves full of sweet children’s books, and the smell of Dreft are under a constant glow from the thick yellow curtain that hides the flood light outside. I like to think this is how your thoughts look now. I hope you don’t feel my stress or hear me expel the litany of worries I share to friends over the phone.
Anyway, I have to answer emails now. I’m working from home with the rest of the world, so that means I get to hold you in my left arm while I type with my right. It takes a lot longer to get things done this way but the good news is – we’ve got no reason to rush.
When I first started on this journey, I thought deciding to become a mother would be the most difficult part of motherhood. It feels naive to admit to you now, but I couldn’t imagine a version of myself with children. What will I do on Saturdays or after work? Will I keep a job? Will I still be good at my job? Can I travel? Will I have friends? Do I have to join a mom circle? Will my old friends like the new me? Will I grow to love poop jokes and wiping bums? Will I turn into someone who nags their partner and envies their freedom? WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO MY VAGINA?
It was (and still is) a role and experience I couldn’t fully grasp. Sure there are books on parenting and parents who will divulge the gruesome details of delivery you didn’t request, but that information always got jumbled up and stored as various fears in my mind. I was really looking for a clear depiction – a look into the future that showed me exactly how life would be once little kids didn’t just call me “Aunt Cap” but also “Mom”.
I took a deep dive into motherhood research hoping to obtain a better picture. I steered clear of the flowery books that would rave about what a gift you’d be to the world and stuck with the gritty ones like, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. I listened to podcasts about women who regretted becoming mothers, polled all of my close friends on their thoughts on motherhood, and conducted a month long Facebook investigation on every mother in my 1,200+ friend list. The research was futile. I’d only swam a million feet deeper into murkier water.
Over the next two years there were lots of little moments that started to help build a picture of motherhood in my mind. One of them I remember most was Christmas Day 2018. Your dad and I stayed in New York for the holiday. We had a lazy morning drinking mimosas and opening gifts. Then we went ice skating in Central Park and ate a fancy dinner at Augustine in Lower Manhattan. Sitting next to us at dinner was a family with two girls. One seemed to be about eleven or twelve years old and the other around eight. The eight year old’s name was Cleo, and she was dead set on ordering steak for dinner. Her mother offered to split the steak with her, and Cleo refused. She wanted the whole thing to herself.
I looked at your dad with an eye roll locked and loaded thinking, I would never let my eight year old order a $50 steak. But Cleo’s parents said, “Okay, how do you want it cooked?” She answered in a very sophisticated manner and knew both the temperature she’d like her steak and the side dish she’d like to go with it. My eye roll faded, and I fell in love with Cleo’s independence and ability to make decisions that differed from her parents. I’m sure this may sound a bit crazy to you (and btw you cannot order a $50 steak), but I realized then that children are not just the outcome of their parents’ successes and/or flaws. You have the ability to be autonomous.
Who you are, what you like, who you decide to be, and what you decide to do is up to you – not me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to shunt the responsibility of parenting onto you while you’re still in utero. I only mean to say that I realized it’s not all up to me. We can steer the ship together, which makes the idea of motherhood sound more like a fun adventure than a solo task filled with guilt and regret.
The trouble is now – after I tackled the decision to become a mother – I realized the fears and challenges of motherhood don’t stop. You quickly grew from an idea, into a heartbeat, and now a baby that kicks and makes themselves known, and the more you become you the more I realize deciding to become a mother was the easiest part of all.
Three years ago I finally cut the crap and set a real New Year’s resolution:
Do what you’re too afraid to say out loud.
In 2015, I realized I kept tacking on trite goals of weight loss and clean eating habits instead offocusing on what I needed to improve. I get it, a new year gives motivation to restart or erase bad habits, but why did I keep seeing the earth’s move around the sun as a clean slate for my body mass? A new year is a continuation of life’s progress, a building block, a stepping stone to the rest of your life. Why would I tether each step forward with a bitchy list of restrictions?
Here’s a look at my resolutions through the years:
2009: Cut out soda
2010: No more processed foods
2011: Eat red meat once a month
2012: No more white carbs
2013: Throw away the scale, but also cut out carbs, sugar and food in general
2015: Food is not the enemy
I’m not saying weight loss isn’t a valid goal for a new year, but I am questioning why it matters. For me, the years of body-centered resolutions became my own way of putting off what I was too afraid to go after:
I can’t be a writer right now, but I can refuse this ham sandwich and eat kale.
I read an article years ago that said, “If you want to be a runner, start telling people you are a runner.” Sure, that seems like a simple enough concept now, but at the time – the line came packaged with its own group of white doves and a dramatic omniscient melody. That shit registered in my head. Was this guy saying I could just say what I wanted to do?
Voicing my dream aloud provided some weird power (aka peer pressure, motivation, public humiliation) to actually fight for it, but more than anything – it let me see that the dream was real. That somewhere, behind all the list of things I thought might make me
I’m nearing the end of my graduate program. Life is hectic, my mind is fuzzy, and my brain seems to work in reverse. I mix up numbers and letters, I put milk in the cabinet instead of the refrigerator, and every three to four months I catch myself crying in public from a song on the radio or a bird in the sky. Bright lights make my head pound, I can’t handle people walking behind me, and I’ve convinced myself there is a recorder in my apartment transmitting information into instagram ads.
My mom is starting to worry, “Do you have schizophrenia?” She asks earnestly.
“I just need to sleep.”
“Are you on drugs?”
“I just need to sleep.”
I believe I’ve grown immensely as a student; but for some reason, transcribing what is in my head onto paper (or onto a keypad) remains the most difficult task for me. This is bold to say, but my trouble with writing isn’t geared around fear. What people think of my work, or the weird sense of pride I must have to feel it is important enough prose to share, no longer haunts me. Instead, I’ve replaced that fear with a bigger one.
An indefatigable thought that asks: What are you saying?