The Year I Forgot How to Trust My Gut
The pandemic got me stuck in emergency mode. Here’s how an actual emergency-room visit snapped me out of it.
If you’re not a working parent, let me share a Cliff’s Notes version of what it feels like (to me, anyway) in normal times: You figure out your life down to the minute. You find the best and most convenient childcare you can afford. You arrange your commute around this childcare. You can no longer arrive early or stay late at work, so you stay rigidly on task (burnout-spaciness days aside) and dash for the elevators the moment the clock strikes five. You curse traffic or stalled subway trains and school breaks. You fly into rooms breathlessly apologizing for being late. You pray no one gets sick. Your life is suddenly an intricate design made of dominoes: One wrong move and everything comes tumbling down.
My second child was born in October 2019, and the idea of going back to work with not just one but two small people whose care I had to manage was daunting, to say the least. But by February, I was ready: I’d quit my previous job and was about to start at a new company (Medium!) that, among other things, was more flexible and family-friendly. I bought an excellent breast pump (the Ameda Mya, look it up!). I worked with my husband and my parents, who live nearby, to set up a pickup schedule that didn’t have me on the hook every single day so I could have a little more flexibility. I took a few extra weeks between gigs, with my daughter in daycare, to write a freelance story and reorganize some closets and cross things off my personal to-do list.
During those weeks, though, I started hearing nerve-wracking rumblings about a deadly new virus working its way through Asia and Europe. Some of my friends started to discuss their disaster-preparedness plans. Suddenly my personal to-do list expanded: I was buying beans and ordering water storage tanks and getting lots of cash out of the ATM.
One year ago today, I arrived at the Medium offices to get started in my new role as Elemental’s executive editor. The next day, I took my laptop home at the end of the day and never went back. At the end of the week, both my kids got sick with upper respiratory infections and came home — and stayed there. Preschool closed. Daycare was still open, but we were too scared to send the baby. Suddenly I was in my house all the time, trying to get up to speed on a difficult new job, trying to keep a toddler entertained and breastfeed a baby three times a day, trying to figure out how the hell we were supposed to get groceries, trying to plan for how we would deal if one of us became ill.
Meanwhile, I wasn’t sleeping, because I can never sleep, and because my mom had kindly but firmly insisted on helping us, but she was in her midsixties and I couldn’t stop ruminating about the risk we were putting her in. What would happen if our selfish need for childcare led to her getting sick, or worse. And then it became clear I was going to lose my mind if I couldn’t get full-time support. I scrambled to hire a babysitter, who immediately got a different job, so I scrambled to hire another babysitter. The too-large size of our exposure circle was something I never stopped thinking about, not even for a moment.
Suddenly, the domino design of my life had become even more complex, and precarious.
The baby started eating solid foods and taking fewer, longer naps and sleeping differently at night, which are all very normal baby things but in the midst of a pandemic felt like emergencies that needed my full attention, which was a joke because absolutely nothing had my full attention. I didn’t even have time to worry about whether a 2.5-year-old would be scarred for life by his parents barking at him to stay away from people on the sidewalk, or if he understood germ theory (though I thanked the heavens that he didn’t mind wearing a mask).
Within a couple of months, I was a different person: edgy and jumpy and drinking one glass of wine too many at night to take myself down a few notches before bed. I was always “on:” I added whack-a-mole to the list of fun-sounding but not-actually-fun game metaphors for working-parent life, and the minute one problem was solved, another would pop up that I’d have to deal with immediately, or risk the whole thing falling apart. Suddenly, the domino design had become even more complex, and precarious.
In the summer, when numbers were less scary in our area and the risk felt lower, we quarantined and tested negative and podded up for a week with another family at a beach house. We arrived the day before they did, and as I explored the home I realized the bedroom setup wasn’t actually what I thought it was, and it wasn’t ideal for two families of four. There were a couple of places where the other family could set up their baby’s pack and play, neither of them great. I had a massive panic attack about this in the middle of the night before they arrived, and they came the next day and stuck the baby in the laundry room and everything was fine.
The pandemic had made my brain totally unreliable. I stopped trusting myself.
I’ll never forget giving my kids some pomegranate seeds to snack on one day in the fall, eating one of the seeds, thinking they tasted a little off, and then being completely unable to decide what to do next: Should I trust my instincts and take the seeds away from the kids, causing two meltdowns but potentially preventing their death by food poisoning? Is my gut completely wrong? Who could tell? I couldn’t hear it anymore.
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Then, one late afternoon in early January, the babysitter — normally the picture of calm competence — shouted for me from the kitchen, panic in her voice. I rushed out to find her holding a paper towel over my daughter’s finger, which she’d stuck inside the sharp grille kickplate at the bottom of our refrigerator and then pulled out, separating a flap of skin. It was bleeding harder than any injury I’ve ever sustained, or even seen in person. It was all I could do not to start sobbing myself; I was so scared and overwhelmed and, admittedly, disgusted. I just wanted it to be okay, to stop bleeding — I was terrified of putting her through the trauma of an ER visit, and anyway, who wants to go to a hospital in the middle of a deadly pandemic? I didn’t know what to do.
We called a doctor we know, who looked at it and said we could get stitches but that it would get better on its own, and if it was his kid he’d probably just keep it clean and bandaged and let it heal. We went with that (again, desperate to avoid the ER), but after a traumatic bandage change before bed, and the bandage coming off in the middle of the night, and blood all over our apartment, I started to wonder: Was my instinct wrong? What even was my instinct: What did I actually think we should do? After months and months of putting out both bonfires and tiny sparks with the same full-pressure hose of emotional energy, I just didn’t have anything left.
The next day, I felt awful: nauseated and distracted and confused. I’d had to deal with kid injuries before, and they’d certainly left me shaken, but nothing like this. I could barely think straight, I was so distraught over the next bandage change. And it started to dawn on me that this — this unsettled, awful, itchy feeling — this was my gut again. My real gut, the one that knows how to blow past the noise and tell me what to brush off and what to take seriously. And here’s what it told me: This isn’t okay right now, but you don’t have to figure it out yourself.
After months and months of putting out both bonfires and tiny sparks with the same full-pressure hose of emotional energy, I just didn’t have anything left.
It sounds so obvious, but I’d been stuck in one-woman emergency mode for so many months that this felt like a revelation. I took the baby to the pediatrician, who said she definitely needed stitches, that he couldn’t do it himself, and that I needed to take her straight to the local pediatric emergency room. As much as I’d wanted to avoid that the night before, I immediately started to feel better. I pushed the stroller to the hospital and was almost peppy trying to explain the situation to the triage nurse over the sound of the baby crying. When the team confirmed she’d need stitches and that a pediatric plastic surgeon — a hand specialist! — was on his way, I breathed more deeply (through my mask, of course) than I had in more than 24 hours. (The procedure went well, and two months later she’s back to normal with just a small scar.)
A handful of folks in the ER weren’t wearing their masks properly, and since the baby is too little to wear a mask and we were in there for several hours, I knew we’d need to stay away from my parents until we were sure the coast was clear. This change of plans would have sent me into an anxiety spiral just weeks before, and though I wasn’t happy about it, it was also just… kind of fine. I knew what to do, and I did it.
Other small (less bloody) emergencies have arisen since then, but I’ve just dealt with them. I figure out what to do, and I do it. Or I ask for guidance or help. I don’t freak out. It’s hard to explain how incredible that feels. I feel like a new person: one who has a still complicated but overall very nice life, and very sweet children, and who can manage problems without everything blowing up.
In a way, it feels so silly to even talk about this — my cute little triumph over my cute little privileged anxiety issue — given how much more difficult, traumatizing, and devastating other people’s years have been. And certainly, too many have encountered trauma and anxiety this year from which they may never recover. I’m fine, and my family is fine, and I have resources and a therapist and it’s all going to be okay.
Still, part of me finds hope and even relief at reaching the one-year mark of this, the most challenging time of my life. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I feel hopeful that things will get better, and relieved that whatever happens, I know I can trust myself to figure out how to handle it.