I remember the early months of motherhood being full of uncertainty and judgment. Every decision about sleeping and feeding and vaccinations was highly charged and bursting with potential failure. As a new mom I was determined not to deny my daughter any of her physical or emotional needs and I felt so utterly and exclusively responsible for not screwing up. I knew a lot about attachment parenting and I knew a lot about the ways in which my own childhood missed the mark and I was absolutely committed to doing this mothering thing really, really well. Yes, this is the stuff of perfectionism and shame and loss - the trifecta of early motherhood that we see so often in the new moms we treat at Family Tree Wellness.
As I stumbled through all my troubled decision making, I took good care of my baby, but my own health really suffered. I didn’t know how to take good care of both of us, and in the early months I always chose her wellness over my own, out of fear of failing her in any way. I knew something was dangerously unbalanced and I wanted so badly to have guidance from a mentor, but I also couldn’t find anyone I deeply trusted who would be bold enough to give me all the answers. The people who were willing to tell me how I should mother didn’t share my values. The people who shared my values told me I was going to have to find my own way. That was devastating. With no better choice, my own way was slowly forged, hour by hour and over time I did learn to trust myself and my mothering, recognizing what worked for me and for my little one. But it was incredibly difficult and lonely.
I’m feeling some of those same feelings now as I’m facing decision making for my family around phasing out of sheltering in place. Like many other Americans, we played it very safe for more than 10 weeks. And then the tension began to feel unbearable, as the world started opening up again and the sense of direction and clear leadership fizzled. Our school age kids began to get so uncomfortable without any activities and without real contact with their friends, and that made us, their parents, very sad and anxious and edgy. Where’s the rulebook for this pandemic? I’ve read a thousand articles trying to parse out the real risks, how to stay safe and when to break out of this weird bubble we’ve been hunkering down in. I’m overwhelmed with information but there is no consensus and no clear path that both keeps us safe and reconnects us with life outside. Once again, the people who are willing to tell me how I should proceed don’t necessarily share my values. And the people who share my values don’t have clear direction themselves.
Should we start experimenting with outdoor playdates? When? With masks? How far apart should the kids sit? What if the kids are members of families who aren’t being as careful as we are? What if they forget and take their masks off? Should we watch over them while they play, just to be certain? How fun does that sound?!
I noticed that friends who were less cautious than us found our concern to be clunky and difficult, and the difference between us began to feel full of something like their judgment and my shame or embarrassment. Its very awkward to ask your good friends NOT to come inside, or to please put on their masks, or to say “no, sorry, we can’t come over for dinner” when they seem to feel it’s all still very reasonable. And it’s so hard for our kids when their friends are having a freer, less restrictive, less anxious experience of life. I felt like a wet blanket and a worry-wart and a sourpuss. And I was scared of viruses and death and more than anything did not want to set anyone up for getting sick. I want to be a good citizen and I want to keep my family safe. But not everyone is playing by the same rules! And my kids were starting to fall apart. So I sat with all those feelings of shame, embarrassment, isolation, anger and grief and stewed and meditated and cried and talked and decided to have some outdoor playdates.
And we did.
And I feel the judgment and the shame/embarrassment again, but now it’s coming from people who are more careful than me, who think I’m the one being cavalier. I get it. I was you. You’re kind of right.
The shelter-in-place order gave me a clear mandate and though it was hard, I kind of knew what to do. But with the world opening back up I no longer feel sure about my path. And I have no trustworthy mentor because we’re all figuring this out in real time, with the same confusion and uncertainty. I have to find my own way again and the stakes are high. I recognize that we will be in uncertain times for a long period ahead and I know it is not sustainable for me to keep my family 100% safe at home in perpetuity. That makes me sad and worried. We have ventured out into the risky world and I miss the security of our old lives sheltering in place, when I had a greater sense of control. I sacrificed the control and security for some ease and relief. And I notice that we are continuing to explore and expand those boundaries, with awareness, but also with risk. I fear the judgment of my cautious friends, whose boundaries I will always regard with the utmost respect. I don't want to be written off as irresponsible or offensive. I’m experimenting because I couldn’t stay where I was - and I felt something shift inside that made it WORSE to stay safe than it was to be anxious. And I feel the relief of allowing a taste of normalcy and seeing my family restored to their more familiar states of excitement and laughter and physical energy. It’s a trade-off. It’s risky and there’s loss. Once again I’m having to find my own way as a parent, hour by hour and I feel the loneliness creep in as I write new rules and take new risks that separate me from some of my favorite people.
These are serious, weighty decisions, that are so highly charged. My heart is tender with uncertainty. No matter what decisions you make, I know you’re likely wading through fear and judgment too; I feel for you.
Just like in early motherhood, compassion and kindness for ourselves and for each other is the healing salve. While we navigate this wild new territory, we are all still connected by our shared vulnerability and our need for safety. And we have to find our own way.
Written by Jessica Sorci, LMFT