I admit it: There are two different versions of me when it comes to being a parent. One of them is the version I like the world to see: funny, calm and creative — the mom who throws together a mini-production of “Les Miserables,” using an old red beret and broom, followed by hot chocolate, croissants, and a kid-level talk about why 19th-century France sucked.
But there’s another mom within. Let’s call her … Mommy Dearest. Mommy is one of those people who are very, very nice, until she’s very, very not. She’s given to grinding her teeth in frustration and yelling. So if I have two distinct parenting personalities — nice and uh-oh — which one will win out while I am stuck at home with three kids and no break for what is starting to feel like forever?
As the world waits out COVID-19, unemployment numbers are at historic highs and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. I get the seriousness. I get that as I sit here with food in the fridge and toilet paper in the bathroom, things could be much worse.
But staying in my house ALL day and ALL night means the people I love most — my husband and my three daughters, ages 15, 14 and 8 — will inevitably be on the receiving end of my good and bad moods, my embarrassing Dr. Jekyll-to-Mr. Hyde personality flip (without the murderous subplot, just so you know).
As a writer who’s working on a master’s degree, I’m now also expected to run a home school with three grade levels. That’s a lot for someone like me because of the unrealistic expectations I set for myself. Even in better times, I always found school breaks hard because I exhaust myself with my own plans.
The expectations I have for a week off involve activities both fun and educational: Hitting the art museum one day, with drawing practice afterward and baking a gorgeous red velvet cake from scratch the next, featuring a unit on measuring, plus a video on how wheat is milled into flour.
Meanwhile, cut to me and the girls at the museum. My inner Hulk starts to steam as they complain about being the only kids looking at Egyptian art on a sunny morning. That baking thing? What really happens is someone spills the flour before wandering off, and I get mad. Then, I feel crappy about acting out and ruining childhoods galore. And we never even got to that milling video.
I’m not proud of this pattern. It’s taken deep searching, including professional help, to realize that I wasn’t raised in a conventional family, and I absorbed dysfunctional behaviors. So if I don’t get a break, it’s not a matter of IF I melt down, it’s WHEN.
And I’ve gotten better at realizing what’s behind my misbehavior — a feeling that my passionate parenting is not being appreciated (because, duh, that “thank you” comes at least a decade later). Right before coronavirus, I was able to catch myself getting riled, and make a break for Starbucks. After a therapeutic Grande Almond Milk Mocha and a few moments of peace and quiet, I could return home chilled out and ready to parent.
That’s not the case today. My carpet is strewn with my younger kid’s puzzle pieces and my teens’ dystopian novels. Normally, I would force everyone to clean up. But these aren’t regular times. And I can’t go relax at Starbucks — I drove by, but chairs were stacked up on tables, a green sign proclaiming, “Closed Until Further Notice.”
I’ve had another revelation: I truly adore my family, but I don’t reserve my sweetest words for them. In fact, it’s the reverse: Those who share my last name can be the victims of my harshest criticism. I should have been quarantined with someone I don’t know well — maybe a second cousin? That might be easier in some ways because I am not responsible for making sure my second cousin gets good at floor puzzles or becomes an upstanding citizen who doesn’t think the only career out there is “TikTok millionaire.”
If you’re like me, self-care and lowering expectations need to be at the top of your t0-do list right now. Professionally-frothed drinks are hard to come by at the moment, but I CAN take my coffee mug and go use my newly-installed meditation app. Even three minutes alone with my brain seems like a long time, so I’ve been using Ten Percent Happier, which takes a skeptic’s approach to all the sitting and breathing.
Recently, my older girls organized a princess party for dinner. They researched exactly what kind of dinner Beauty shared with the Beast, which was such a silly endeavor, we all started giggling. We determined that princesses typically do not eat packaged food, so we narrowed in on chicken, roast potatoes, veggies and a homemade cake.
We all cooked together, and the girls set the table with the fancy china and the few remaining fresh flowers we could find. We added handmade place cards for a flourish. It sounds amazing, right? But then, a riot broke out over the dirty dishes. Did I mention our dishwasher just broke? I mean, seriously.
Instead of yelling, I walked away and gave myself a cute pedicure with orange polish. I thought about the Greatest Generation: The teens and twentysomethings of World War II, who stormed foreign beaches or worked in factories at home, all without whining. If they could give up their youth to save the world, can I stay home without being a jerk? It sounds ridiculous, considering the modern perks (Amazon Prime, Hulu, Instacart—just to name a few) we have that our ancestors certainly didn’t have.
When I returned downstairs, everyone was watching a Disney movie, and half the kitchen was clean. To me, that felt like a good-enough compromise.
Full disclosure: Screen time rules and limits do not apply in a pandemic. Old, overachieving me would have an electronics-induced heart attack from all of the TV my kids are watching, but Rachel 6.0 realizes Netflix actually has a lot of historical films for my teens. (Later, I traded them access to a horror movie for agreeing to watch a black-and-white classic.)
Listen, I know I’m going to lose my cool from time to time during this pandemic. But I can at least commit to trying to stay calm and doing the best with the tools I’ve learned. I can watch something escapist, like “Outlander,” instead of freaking out that my second grader’s math won’t load on the 17 different portals the school uses. I can breathe. I can pet the dog.
I’ve developed some coping strategies over the last several months, and if you’re a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mom like me, you may find them helpful as well.
Create a ritual that’s just for you—don’t even include your spouse (and definitely not your kids!). This could be something simple like lighting a candle and pouring a glass of wine after the kids are asleep. Knowing that a small break is coming your way at night can help you get through yet another long day cooped up with kids.
Revise your expectations of what you can accomplish right now. Lots of crafty parents are posting photos on social media of projects they’ve taken on in quarantine, from redoing playrooms with their own toolkits to learning to knit. That is great for them — and don’t forget there may have been plenty of expletives and bickering before that Pinterest-perfect photo was taken.
Rather than comparing, set a modest goal for yourself. For me, it’s reading just one chapter a night from “How to Raise an Adult,” the parenting book that’s been sitting on my nightstand since 2017. Rather than beat myself up for not reading it sooner, I’ve decided that now’s the perfect time to finally finish it!
A lot of families have started baking while they’re staying at home. But for some of us, sugar heightens stress reactions. If you’re like me, consider cutting back on desserts and make baking a weekend activity to look forward to, instead of the daily cookies we were making at the beginning of quarantine.
And for now, I definitely won’t be attempting from-scratch red velvet cakes because we all know how that turned out last time!