Too Many Hats: Struggling to Create in the Age of COVID

Often I speak of my various roles in terms of hats.

My favorite hat is my mom hat. I imagine it’s the kind a Musketeer would wear, in a rich purple with gold feathers. It’s playful and flashy, but maybe the ends of the feathers are a bit frayed. It’s well-loved and ready for an imaginative adventure, but it also signifies a duty.

My second favorite hat is my writer hat. I imagine this as a stylish beanie. Dark green, my favorite color. Perfect for a cold night in with a London Fog, or a literary event at my local cafe.

My student hat looks exactly like my writer hat on the outside, but underneath there hides a tiny professor nagging me to work on my thesis.

There’s my wife hat. I imagine it’s a baseball cap, like my husband wears daily. It’s probably a bit wrinkled and a little faded, but still ready to whip out for a picnic at the park, a day on the lake, or a ball game.

The last major hat is my day-job hat. It’s black—not for mourning, but just for practicality. It’s necessary, and it might look great on someone else, but on me it’s a bit awkward. Too big, maybe.

There are other minor hats. My chef’s hat. My daughter hat. My sister hat. My dog mom hat. (I worry what that would look like).

Before the looming threat of COVID-19 transitioned me to working from home, the pressure of “owning” all of those hats was stressful. Four days a week I would drop off my daughter at her Aaka and Aapa’s house. I’d whip off my mom hat and settle into my day job hat for a few hours. Then back to the mom hat. Chef’s hat. Grocery shopping hat. Student hat. Once in a while I’d get to wear the writer hat and attend a reading or write whatever I wanted.

Working, being a mom, running a household, and doing a Master’s degree is a lot of hard work.

Boy, do I miss that level of stress.

The thing is, so many of us parents who work from home are now having to wear two or three or five hats at once. My pre-COVID life was tiring, but it was also compartmentalized.

At the end of 2019, I started tracking my writing on a daily goals app. Some days I managed only a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, but if I succeeded in writing, I got a check mark for the day. I wrote for over three months straight. I was proud of myself: I’d finally succeeded in balancing my life enough to write daily.

Then our first COVID-19 case hit Alaska. Red X’s started stacking up on my goal tracker app.

That flashy purple mom-hat may be my favorite, but it’s also big, meaning it doesn’t leave too much room for anything else. My toddler is like most toddlers—high energy, needs constant stimulation, and used to having attention. But, somehow, I’m supposed to continue with my job (which has a whole new set of hurdles being online, by the way), and being a student, running my household with all of the extra steps social isolation creates. Add onto those things a whole new level of anxiety; take away any sort of support system. My mental health was in the toilet. I was always stressed, usually anxious, and often depressed.

I was wearing too many hats. Where was there time left to be creative? I didn’t have time or energy to pick up that writer beanie. The student one was pretty neglected, too.

But I’ve since realized I needed that hat. I needed it to dig my way out of the dark hole of bad mental health where creativity goes to die.

It wasn’t easy, but now I have three weeks back on the writing wagon. Here’s how I did it:

Step 1: Forgive yourself. Right now, we’re all in some state of coping, and however we handle that is okay. Maybe you won’t be as creative (or maybe you’re one of the luckier ones who is cranking out art as your own coping mechanism). Maybe you’ll come up with a new schedule that works for you. Maybe you’ll eat a ton of junk food and sleep 10 hours. Whatever happens, don’t beat yourself up about any red X’s that might be on your own calendar. I also had to let go of trying to be perfect at my job. Fortunately, my coworkers and boss are decent human beings who understand that I, too, am a human being. They’re going through many of the same things. The big problem was me being too hard on myself.

Step 2: Focus on your core needs first. Often, I would snowball into a bad day (or days) because I felt crappy physically, which made me more anxious, which made it harder to sleep, which made me feel crappier, etc. I realized I could turn this around in my favor. Start small. Drink a glass of water. Eat a small, healthy snack (yes, I know I said earlier junk food was a coping mechanism, but it can’t be ALL the time). Take a walk. Take a nap. Play. If your job will allow it, take a day off.

Step 3: Start small. Write whatever. Write one line. One paragraph. One stanza. Draw one sketch. Five minutes. Be creative for five minutes. Often, once I started, I found I could keep going longer. I needed to keep going longer. Remember to forgive yourself if that’s all you can manage, though. Writing or making art in the in-between moments of life is better than not at all.

Step 4: Find ways to re-compartmentalize your work and non-work life. Some hats (like me and my parent hat), you might need to wear all or most of the time. But when you can, you need to be able to set some hats aside. For me, this means working in one room and writing in another. Sometimes I do the latter outside, if the weather cooperates. I live in a duplex that’s just over 900 square feet, so options are limited, but being on my laptop 8-10 hours a day is more bearable if the scenery changes. The different room is associated with a different part of my brain. Compartmentalization also means creating firm work/non-work hours. I try not to answer work-related messages outside of work hours. I don’t have my work email on my cell phone or have notifications on my laptop outside of work hours. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but setting boundaries with my job is essential for me.

Step 5: Get help if you need it. I started seeing a therapist a few weeks ago via video conference. I got a ton of great coping mechanisms for my anxiety and depression. Some people might not need a therapist, or might not have access to one, but you need to talk to someone. Make sure you’re doing those phone calls and video chats with your friends and family. And make sure you’re talking to other creatives, too! Keep that fire lit. I don’t live with any creatives (though my daughter’s crayon scribbles are showing great potential), so I have to get that fix elsewhere.

Your hats might be very different from mine, but remember that the most important thing right now is to be safe and take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself and others. Wash your damned hands.