Once my kids were out of diapers, I had no interest in revisiting the roller coaster that is the first few months of parenthood. But that’s exactly what the pandemic was like.
Though my postpartum years were certainly filled with milk-drunk smiles and adorable baby snuggles, they’re not a time I wanted to revisit once my kids were out of diapers. But that’s exactly what happened to me—and not because I had another baby. It’s because I’ve realized that parenting through pandemic times was like going through the roller coaster of postpartum all over again. Here’s how I think pandemic parenting was like an 18-month-long experience of déjà vu for me, and for so many of the other parents I know.
For me, pandemic parenting was a jarring reorientation to the realities of 24/7 caregiving—kind of like how pre-kids, I had all the physical and emotional autonomy in the world, and then the next day I brought my first baby home, I realized how much I had come to rely on and value the schoolteachers and friends and babysitters who bore some of the caregiving load so that I could go to the bathroom by myself every so often, or do what I needed to do to bring in a paycheque.
Just like in the early days of parenting a newborn, I had to reckon with the fact that I simply couldn’t accomplish as much as I usually did, and find a way to be OK with it. I had to start lowering my standards and saying no a lot more in order to stay sane. Honestly, it’s probably something I should have done long before “The Rona” was a household term.
Homeschooling and working full-time meant that I had to carefully consider what was most important to me—often on an hour-by-hour basis—because I couldn’t do it all and be OK. Some days, that meant I cancelled everything and took my kids for a hike instead. Other days, it meant sneaking away to work from my “oceanfront writing studio” for a few hours (that is, the Goldfish-encrusted backseat of my minivan, parked by the beach near my house because the café I normally escaped to was closed because of the pandemic). Every day felt like it brought opportunities to better understand my values, make choices about safety, and decide what works best for my family, and that’s exactly what happened to me when I first had my kids. Every decision—cloth diapers or disposable; breastmilk or formula; co-sleep or sleep train—felt like it asked me to examine what mattered most to me, and choose it, again and again.
In the early days postpartum, I remember learning everything I could about my babies, like how they liked to be held or which silly faces they responded to most. Similarly, spending so much time with my kids over the last 18 months, I learned about them—their strengths and their challenges—in a way I never would have otherwise. I realized, for example, in classic mom-of-a-second-child fashion, that my kindergartener had never really been taught to hold a pencilproperly. It was something, I’ll admit, I probably subconsciously assumed he would learn in school. Once I got over the guilt of never having noticed a lot of these things before in the hustle of everyday life, I was able to understand my kids and support them so much better.
Just like those confronting times we all face when we first have our children, being at home with my kids awakened me to some pretty gnarly truths about myself. The most poignant, for me, were moments when my daughter was clearly showing signs of being totally done with school for the day. Ruthless thoughts would immediately spring up inside my head: I’m not raising quitters! How will I teach her grit and resolve if I just let her give up? These thoughts quickly revealed themselves to be more telling about me and my fraught relationship with achievement, rest and self-compassion than they were ever about my daughter.
Physical and emotional healing in the postpartum period is all-consuming and necessary, despite all the steep learning curves and sleepless nights. The same was true for pandemic parenting life: I needed to recognize and advocate for my needs more than ever if I was going to survive this time. Sometimes, I managed it. Often, I didn’t. I went unshowered more than I’d like to admit, but I slowly became a devotee of what I call “micro self-care,” like remembering to drink water and brush my teeth. Eventually I found a way, at least for the time being, to let that be enough.
I still remember when my daughter first found her hands, marvelling at them as she clasped them in front of her. As the pandemic stretched from weeks into months, on the days that I decided we’d play hooky, build a blanket fort or go for a walk in the woods, I got to feel that same sense of enchantment that kids give us access to, if only we’ll slow down long enough to see it. It’s one of the little gifts of living alongside a tiny human that I had often missed when we were deep in the throes of “normal life.”
Starting to see the parallels between pandemic life and postpartum life allowed me to reflect on 2020 and 2021 with just a little more self-compassion. Just like new parenthood, it’s all been so very both/and. I know, like I did in those early months with my babies, that I have some processing to do, and some healing to do, too.
But what I didn’t know back then—that I can see clearly now—is this: Things will never be the same again, and that might actually be a good thing.
Jessie Harrold is a doula and motherhood coach in Nova Scotia. She is the author of the upcoming book, Mothershift: Reclaiming Motherhood as a Rite of Passage.