“I don’t want to go back to the way it was before,” I heard myself saying to my therapist a couple of days ago. I said it quietly, in the rare case that anyone walking by my house would hear me through the walls, or a family member would hear me through the door. Initially, I felt ashamed of my words. Guilt poured down on me like a flood and I felt as though I would drown in it. Here in Texas, my family and I have been social distancing and staying at home for seven weeks now. Most people I know (especially parents of young children like me) are going stir-crazy. They are exhausted by the constant fight that homeschooling their children engages them in at all waking hours of the day. They are tired from staying up late finishing their own work, housework and the thousands of tasks they could not accomplish during the day when the children were awake. Most people I know long for the way things were before the virus. Why not me?
I am an extrovert and a very social person. I am a pastor and I love my job. I love my church, and the staff I work with. I miss seeing my family and my friends. My current circumstances are not ideal for our family of five. My husband and I both work full time and trying to homeschool our three non-compliant children is certainly not pleasant all the time. There are many stressful moments and certainly hard days where I want to scream at everyone to go away.
But if I am being honest, I don’t want to go back to the way things were before the pandemic.
In life before the pandemic, my husband and I woke up early every week-day morning in order to get lunches packed, breakfast fixed and the house in order before the kids got up. He would leave before 8:00AM to rush our oldest son to school. Then between 8:00-9:00AM, I would rush to get the kitchen cleaned up from breakfast, myself ready for work and the two little ones ready for school. Then I drove way too fast to get the two little ones to school on time. I left there frantically to get to work. Once at the office, I rushed to get my work done so I had less to do that night. Then I rushed to pick my kids up from school so I didn’t get charged for being late (yes, that’s a thing), then rushed home to get homework done, get dinner ready and spend “quality time” together. Every day and all day long, I felt as though I ran about five minutes behind a very tight schedule with zero margin for error. Before working from home, my husband would commute to work and therefore didn’t return home until the kids bedtime. Once he arrived home, we would rush to get the kids bathed and in bed so they are not exhausted the next day. If he was a minute late, this would throw off dinner, bath and bedtime routines. After the kids were in bed, we would finally collapse on the couch for a few minutes until, typically, we would both start work again. And then we would fall asleep.
Due to the nature of our jobs, the majority of parenting responsibilities falls on me during the week even though my work can be very demanding as well. We lack any quality family time during the week, and this wears on me. All week long, I feel as though I am a balloon and air is slowly being released from me. By Friday, I am completely deflated. And then it all starts over again on Monday. Don’t get me wrong, this is the life that we have chosen because of the options that privilege has afforded us. Nonetheless, during this pandemic, I have realized that the life I have chosen has become unmanageable. And that feels really scary to say out loud. Which is why I whispered it, to my therapist, a couple of days ago.
My story is not unique. Many families in America find themselves in a similar situation. Many women find themselves carrying more of the burden of parenting than what they can bear. And many men find themselves carrying more of the financial burden that comes with parenting than what they can bear (I acknowledge that in some families, these roles are reversed. I am speaking about the majority here.) Many families find themselves unable to manage working outside the home, picking up kids at 3:00PM, making it on time to 5:00PM extra-curricular activities, on top of hobbies, church activities and increasingly high demands from schools. As a whole, the American family is overworked, highly stressed and barely surviving a regular work week. The factors that make this a reality involve dozens of things such as school start and end times, access to after-care opportunities, employer and industry demands, and a variety of family needs as children grow up. These challenges are part of complex systems. To name them as challenges (or problems) can feel scary because it threatens the foundation on which we have built our lives. But here, in the midst of a global pandemic, I am allowing myself to call these realities problematic. Problematic because of the lack of quality family time, problematic because of the stress and busyness, problematic because of the numbing behaviors we have to engage in to keep living this life. These problems are complex and they will require complex solutions. There are no easy answers.
The good news is that global pandemics (and the like) are almost always how complex solutions are born. Societies, cultures and human-kind are forced to evolve when things fall apart. Consider the access to higher quality food in the aftermath of the “Black Death” plague that began in the 14th century. Consider the 20th century AIDS crisis that led to medication that now slows the disease. Consider the maximum hours and minimum wage guidelines developed after the Great Depression.
I don’t know what post COVID-19 guidelines or systematic changes will come, but I know this: systems don’t change unless the problems are exposed. There are systemic, cultural and societal problems that are currently being exposed. I wonder what complex solutions we will find to solve these problems.
In the meantime, I invite you to join me as I am looking at my own schedule, work life and family system and asking “What complex problems has this pandemic exposed?” And then, “What new and complex solutions might emerge from this?”