My stay-at-home order came nine years ago.
I feel for all of you that are experiencing what I did nine years ago as a mom of a newborn but I didn’t have a pandemic to fear as we do now. I was struggling with postpartum depression that I realized was mostly the warzone of having a baby with colic who would scream for four to six hours a day. A baby that feared others and would cry if the wind touched her face or if the light was too bright. She didn’t want to be held by others and was difficult to soothe.
I didn’t need a pandemic to inform me that I would be homebound from that point on and I remember the shock of it all too well. So I extend my sympathies to all of you trying to cope. It’s one thing to choose to stay-at-home and be able to afford to do so. It’s something entirely different to have that decision placed upon you and your income slashed in half or to nothing. I remember all too well the pain of losing my job due to my pregnancy and then, after her birth, the realization that my daughter needed me to an extent I couldn’t have anticipated and that there was no going back.
All it took was a succession of moments seven years ago this month to convince me of this reality. I haven’t thought about that time in detail until this past week as I began a writing project. I’ve taken my anxiety over this pandemic and redirected it into my writing. I’ve been capturing all the stories I want my children to someday know about me and collecting them in this lovely book, “A Mother’s Journal”, that has writing prompts and questions. It’s a way of assuring myself that even if something happens to me, if I fall sick from COVID-19, that part of my memories will be left for my children within the book. (Hell, that’s why I started writing this blog for them almost ten years ago now.)
First, it was the fateful storytime that I realized she didn’t want to play with the other kids. All the other parents would set their baby down in the middle of the ring we had made on the floor after the librarian had read a book and had us join in songs. I would spend a good chunk of the time chasing my daughter down and trying to retrieve her from playing with electrical cords, digging into others’ bags, or trying to escape the room. Every time I set her down with the other babies and aimed her towards the toys she would circle back and climb into my lap or head straight for the door. One day, a well-intentioned father, held the door open as she was crawling out and then stepped into the room with his child and blocked my path on accident. I had to scramble past him to get to her in time. She was going to crawl right onto the open elevator and I swooped her up at the last second and rolled my ankle in the process.
I gathered her up and barely could feel my legs as I made it to my car. She cried the whole way home. Confused as to why she had been whisked away from the lovely elevator or my shocked silence. I asked friends, asked my husband, and mentioned my concerns but they were laughed away as just a phase or her quirkiness. They would point out how wonderful that she was the tidiest baby they’d ever seen who didn’t spill a drop of food from her highchair and could even sit at a restaurant table to eat off a regular plate. To this day, her baby clothes are impeccable with rarely a stain. She began dressing herself at 18 months yet she didn’t want to talk to other children. She couldn’t talk to others. She only played with a specific few with very few words exchanged. She adored her friend Evie and to this day speaks more to her than most people (other than myself).
We kept trying. I was reticent to take a hiatus from outings for my own sanity and I worried about her not having enough socialization with other children. She was fond of a performer who hosted kid shows, Mo Phillips, and we attended regularly until one day she was cornered by another child and it frightened her. After that, she was done. Every attempt would elicit a meltdown and the final straw was when she attempted to elope out onto a busy street, North Williams, and I had to put her over my shoulder kicking and screaming to keep her out of traffic.
Storytimes, playgroups, kid venues, playdates – I’m not sure how many times we left with her in tears but I do know I was so elated by the few times she wasn’t crying by the end of an outing that I began a tradition of taking her photo smiling up from her car seat, the very one she hated, on those occasions. The first two years of her life I had to drive with my left hand on the wheel while my right was wrenched behind my back to rest my hand on her face unless I wanted to listen to screaming the entire car ride.
Then, at two years old, there was the first attempt at daycare. I received four phone calls from our daughter’s daycare within the first two hours of us dropping her off. Her father had to drop her off because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get out the door after leaving her without her being distraught. This was after a month of attempting to take her twice a week and not being able to leave. Every call I could hear her screaming and I hung up weeping before scrambling over there. We brought her home bereft and exhausted. The owner tried to reassure us but I knew deep down there was something unique about our daughter and something definitely amiss with the daycare. We searched elsewhere and told ourselves maybe a different placement would be the trick. It was but not completely. She took to the place but still had extreme anxiety and “drop off” was a long, slow goodbye even a year in. The teachers reassured us but I knew that I needed to search for answers.
That time, “those years” is what I call them to myself, 2011 to 2018. I was incredibly lonely but rarely alone.
Outings became more difficult. I didn’t know the term “elopement” but I understood it all too well. Friends tried to understand but couldn’t relate. Their child was neurotypical and didn’t break into a sprint when there was a sudden noise, a crowd, or a breeze. They would try to offer solutions but what I needed was someone to help me understand my child. Then I had my son and my isolation doubled. They ran off in separate directions, screamed in tandem, refused to sleep, and I stopped leaving the house with them unless I had another adult with me to chase my daughter down and then eventually because my children ran in different directions. It was for their safety. People stopped inviting me because I was the mom that always had to leave early with her crying kids. I felt more alone during those years than I ever did when I was single.
The diagnosis of autism for my husband and children saved my sanity and empowered me with access to resources and knowledge that has strengthened my ability to support them and parent them. It has taught me lessons I never sought but I’m grateful to have received.
This pandemic is teaching us all, I dearly hope, a greater sense of empathy for others and what heartache means at a level that some of us have never encountered. This will affect all of us globally and that alone is a rare, generation-defining, event. Don’t turn away from the difficult lessons but embrace them even when it is painful.
The loneliness of “those years” taught me invaluable lessons of resilience and resourcefulness. It pushed me to become a person I never thought possible of being and transformed me into a staunch advocate for my children and those that are neurodivergent. Take these difficulties and find the humor, find the lessons, and show yourself compassion. It’s ok to be lonely and angry at the injustice of this situation but we’re sacrificing for the greater good of all of us by staying at home and I understand all too well what you’re going through and giving up.
We started a dream board on one of our walls. I’ve been printing out pictures of what we miss and hanging them up for the kids and myself. When I first started to hang them, they both became upset, and my son ran from the room and my daughter stood crying.
“Not yet,” she said. It was too painful for them. It became a ritual that every tearful moment of missing something or someone that we find the picture and print out to honor that memory and remind ourselves that someday we hope to visit it again or hug them once more. For now, they sit in a stack waiting to be placed on the wall but not yet.
So from us to all of you, thank you for staying home to make that possible for everyone. Every hour of our sacrifice is an untold heroic act of keeping this virus at bay and saving someone’s life. Find a way to redirect your frustration and anxiety and remind yourself that we’re all in this together even though we’re apart. Give when you can, thank those that are risking their health to help us all and try to remember that this will end someday. Sooner than we think if we all do our part to stay home but know that you’re not alone in feeling lonely and that it will pass just like this virus will pass as long as we stay home.