COVID, My Kid, and a Conference

“One way that I know I am a writer is that either I am writing, or I’m wishing that I was.”
-Jericho Brown, Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, 2022

As I reflect on this in the wake of the conference, it occurs to me that this is also one way that I know I am a mom.

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference was an absolute delight this year. The weather in Homer was flawless, the faculty phenomenal, and the conversation among the attendees was a much-needed jolt in the doldrums of the pandemic.

Yet, amidst the sun and soft breeze, a small, dark cloud hung over me and still hangs over me, keeping the memory of those four days from perfection: missing my kid.

During the conference, with masks optional for attendees and airline passengers, I isolated from my kid, husband, and parents, forgoing the comforts of our camper, and instead sleeping in the back of my car. In the little time I had with my daughter on lunch or in the evenings, I watched her play or shared meals from a distance, always outdoors and masked as appropriate. I write this from the confines of a self-inflicted, post-conference quarantine in my parents’ guest room, waiting to find out if I got sick or am in the clear to return home and finally snuggle my panik.

So many—certainly the government, virtually all businesses, and most people—are starting to view the pandemic as a thing of the past, forgetting or blissfully ignorant that there are still 18 million children under 5 in the United States who are ineligible for vaccination.

As I reconnected with writers I knew before the age of COVID and connected with some for the first time in person, many inquired as to the state of my daughter, who recently turned four years old. I explained our situation with a longing ache. One friend was particularly kind and told me I was a great mother, a salve on my constant questioning if I’m doing the right thing keeping her isolated. She’s had three of her birthdays in the pandemic. She barely remembers playing indoors with other children, eating in restaurants, or visiting the homes of others. She talks longingly of all the things she’ll get to do and people she will visit with, “When I get my shot!”

Still, she thrives, and most importantly, she is healthy. She is one of the estimated 25 percent or so of kids who haven’t caught COVID, at least not yet. “We don’t want to trip at the finish line,” I keep saying, but that finish line keeps moving further away, and nobody seems to hear the pleas of parents to expedite the approval process. Delay after delay dash my hopes, and I am tired. So, so tired. I want my kid safe.

Selfishly, I want to go back to real life, too. Those four days of the conference, masked and anxious though I was, were the closest four days to “normal” I’ve had in more than two years. Despite my little dark cloud, I was invigorated, happy, reassured that I knew who my people were. I dreaded coming home to Anchorage, back to the environment that slowly eats away at my extroverted personality, poisons my mind into depression, separates me from so many and so much that I love.

I am a writer, because either I am writing or I’m wishing that I was. Right now, I am writing, but wishing I was momming. Sometime soon, I’ll be momming and wishing I was writing.

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.