What it’s like: Always living in a socially-distant- stressful world.
Welcome to my world.
I’m not being sarcastic. I’m welcoming you all, to this socially-distant, monotonous, stressful life, fully cognizant that it is not a joyful greeting. But I’ve been very aware of how, these last few months, suddenly much of the world is living the way I have for the last four years.
The reason I’m here is also why I’m writing anonymously. I have kids with special needs. One has had enough public meltdowns that it wouldn’t be surprising to many to know I wrote this, but his struggles have been so extensive that I refuse to add to his notoriety. Another has had the tendency to implode rather than explode—but that’s not my story to tell, nor my right to expose it without permission. Suffice it to say that it is stressful.
So what does that make me? A mother of five—not all of whom struggle, thankfully—who also suffers from a degree of anxiety that often gets exacerbated by our circumstances. It makes me that woman who rarely goes to shul, because one of my kids couldn’t handle being in that space for too long without constant supervision, which isn’t always feasible with additional small children. It makes me the “director” of “mommy camp” for three summers straight, where we rarely go anywhere because managing five kids by myself, when one of them requires his own supervising adult, is almost an impossibility. Yes, we’ve arranged play dates sometimes, but when all of your kids’ peers go to “real” camp and are often tired out by the end of it, that really only means the occasional weekend. It makes me the stay-at-home-mom and wife who’s never had a cleaning lady and cuts her own kids’ hair, because the medical and therapy bills are constant (on top of yeshiva tuition). It makes me the woman who chose, after Pesach 2019 at my in-laws’ house, to make Pesach at home for 2020 and onwards, because the stress of going away for a week was too much for my children. It makes me the mother who has had to homeschool her child for months, because he couldn’t handle being in a “regular” school.
And suddenly, here you have all joined me, in my emergency homeschooling, camp-free, home-haircuts, endless housework, stressful, lonely world. I wish I could give you some advice, but it looks like most of you figured things out pretty quickly. Color-coded charts don’t really work when you’re already stressed out and don’t need the added time pressure. Finding appropriate activities for all your kids, of multiple ages and needs, to engage in at the same time is like lightning striking. *Getting* your kids to agree to do anything is its own struggle. Opportunities to socialize—for 5 minutes across the street or across your neighbors’ porch—are gifts that cannot be discounted. Finding time to yourself is critical. And sometimes, you just have to get through a week five minutes at a time.
I keep hoping that maybe this situation will help people become more cognizant, or even helpful, towards those of us who struggle quietly. I sometimes see Facebook posts about “silent sufferers” of invisible disabilities and ailments. Usually they’re about physical conditions we cannot see; rarely, they’re about mental health struggles. All are valid. But sometimes those of us who struggle cope by disappearing. We can’t explain why. When it’s not just me, and there’s already a stigma attached, I don’t get to decide whether to expose others. I just have to support them, at whatever cost. And sometimes that means turning into a ghost.
So now you know what it’s like. And while I don’t wish this life on anyone, it is vindicating, a little, that so many who never would have thought about it are suddenly recognizing how *hard* it is. The irony is that the child who’s required me to step away from my community has been doing, thank G-d, better enough that I was preparing myself to gradually re-enter it—and instead of joining you again in shul, as an active participant, here you’ve all come to visit me, while shuls are closed and events are cancelled, or moved to Zoom.
The strangest part is how this gradual shift away from society, as it were, has in so many ways prepared me for what is going on now. I know how lucky I am. Thank G-d, my family is healthy. We didn’t have to make sudden changes to our Pesach plans. We have a backyard, and, this many years in, my kids are used to entertaining themselves or having tons of downtime. Yes, that all too frequently involves screens. But when it comes down to it, my standards are bare-bones. If my kids have eaten, are reasonably clean, have not destroyed themselves or any property, and have made it to their (online) appointments, then I’ve done my job. Any more is a daily struggle, but if I succeed sometimes, then I’m doing pretty well. And every day is a fresh start.
Quarantine has, with all its daily horrors, forced some positive changes that I’ve seen. My own concern for those who have it harder than me has motivated me to reach out more often—to my own benefit as well as (I hope) theirs. My community has transferred many of its functions to Zoom, thus allowing me to participate in social events, communal davening, and shiurim more frequently than I have in years. And people in general are more cognizant of what it takes to raise children with minimal social support, and specifically, how hard it is to do so when your attention is split in so many ways.
I’m not sure what the world will look like when we come out of this. I pray for a refuah shlaimah for all. But I also hope, when we emerge from our cocoons, that everyone takes the time to check who isn’t there. Some of us might still be inside.
But we’ll welcome you if you visit.