“I don’t think I can do this,” I squeaked out to my husband as we were three days away from packing our bags and making the usual trip west to see his family. I thought of the 12-hour car ride with my exuberant 6-year-old and our geriatric dog, and my chest tightened.
This was not my typical response. I am usually the first one in the passenger seat, with my out-of-office reply on, ready for a break and some distance. That distance doesn’t exist anymore.
As a clinical social worker specializing in maternal mental health who has worked in this field for over 15 years, I now always have one ear on the news and politics, listening for how the world is going to affect me and my clients. It’s been a hard time for women caring for their families and for mental health workers, who have seen an increase in distress in their offices. Three years into this pandemic/post-pandemic, it is not quieting down. It is ramping up.
What my clients and myself have been up against for this extended period of time is bringing me to my knees. For my clients, taking the plunge into parenting can be a crisis in itself, and then you add COVID, formula shortages, limited reproductive rights, chronic illness and medication shortages, and you get a crisis on top of a crisis.
I have had clients who have had to travel miles for an abortion. I have clients waiting patiently to become parents who have to wait months to see a specialist. A father who had to drive over an hour to pick up antibiotics for his chronically ill child. A mother grieving a stillbirth who had to conduct her telehealth appointment from her car, as she is home again with her sick oldest child. Women who have only experienced parenthood under the umbrella of this pandemic with limited support and resources. I truly feel for these families because this is not how you should start this already challenging road of parenting. The dam is breaking. We can take only so much.
And then there are the ones who are the helpers of this crisis. The doctors, nurses, teachers and mental health professionals who have been supporting as they walk the same road as their patients. The ones who said, “I’ll take care of myself later when things get better,” but the later is not happening.
We have doubled our staff at our practice, and the phone keeps ringing. We are in a mental health crisis at a time when providers are still depleted. We have let our own needs go far too long.
Earlier during COVID, I was worried about my clients. Now I am worried about us. We have to make decisions that benefit our mental health now or we won’t make it. And as I thought about our impending family vacation, I knew what I needed was space, silence and to not be responsible for anyone else’s needs.
So despite feeling selfish and guilty, I made a decision that would benefit me, give me a reprieve. I helped pack the bags, waved goodbye to my boys and had a quiet house to myself.
I’m aware, of course, that it is an immense privilege to be able to do this, to have a partner who can and will share the childcare, to be able to take time away from my work and to be able to send my family away on vacation at all.
What did I do with this precious time? I popped into a yoga class, where I ended up hanging out in child’s pose the whole time because that’s what I needed. I took long walks and binge-watched “Emily in Paris.” I connected to my people who understand the need for my quiet. I reached out to family who didn’t judge my decision but gave me permission. I googled “therapists who see therapists.” I did absolutely nothing.
I contemplated how I can have some control in my world, of my own time, when the outside will more than likely stay the same. I had the brain space to write this little piece for you out there who might feel the same. I chose myself for my family.
Did I feel selfish and guilty? Yep, sure did. Did I worry about my son needing and missing me? Of course, but I needed to be OK more. I also know these feelings of selfishness and guilt are irrational. My son will be fine without me. My husband is willing and up for the task. I come from the “suck it up” generation, and I tend to just grit my teeth and get through it. But I have been gritting my teeth so long that my jaw is breaking. It’s not working for me anymore. I love my profession too much to put it at risk.
I know also that even having this time off is a privilege. Everyone should be able to step away from their work, but not everyone can. Not everyone has a partner, or one who shares the load. Not everyone can send their child away on a vacation when they are feeling depleted.
Even for me, a few days aren’t going to solve the problem. I need to keep doing this for more than one week out of the year so I can be present in my roles for the long haul. I need to put out the fire every day with more simple, doable, recharging tasks, to continue to set boundaries with my inner self-critic who says there is more to do.
And I must give myself grace in parenting my child during these stressful times, despite grieving for what working and parenting looked like in the Before.
I can be utterly grateful to get this time in the first place and still ask for more of it. Over and over again. And I can continue to help pack up that 6-year-old as my husband heads west, maybe every year.
The dog and I will be happy at home.