It has been 5 weeks since being told to stay home to keep myself, my family, and others safe. I’m naturally an introvert, so being away from people has honestly been a relief in so many ways. I was starting to feel really burnt out at school emotionally, not because of my students…because of my coworkers. My coworkers whom I love dearly, but who don’t understand my boundaries and made me feel mentally exhausted DAILY because I had to continually explain myself and my decisions and never got time to myself. It honestly felt like I was dealing with another child. I love my coworkers to the moon and back, but it was more than I could take. Being home is good for my mental health in many ways, but it is not easy.
It’s been 5 weeks since I’ve been in front of my students. I went into teaching FOR the students. Not being able to connect with them, see their faces as we laugh and play and sometimes struggle through music activities hurts my heart. The music teachers for my district are collaborating in large groups to create grade level music plans so that we don’t overwhelm anyone-families, students, or ourselves. You see, some teachers would feel totally comfortable recording their own lessons and sending them to students or holding online music classes and others would be overwhelmed and lost. It wouldn’t be equitable for the teachers or the students at various schools in our district. I understand completely why my admin made the choice they did, but it’s still hard. I’m the facilitator of a group of 11 music educators in various stages of our teaching journey and 3 student teachers. That is 14 individuals who have to come together to create, film, and edit 1 20 minute lesson plan a week for 6 weeks. In my group’s case we are creating lessons for 5th grade. We’ve already completed 3 weeks worth of lessons and only have 3 more to go. Collaboration is good and essential, but it is NOT easy. I have an incredible group of thoughtful, kind, and easy-going educators and it’s still not easy. To top that off those of us with student teachers are trying to figure out how to mentor a new teacher without seeing them teach, having them observe us teach, and sharing resources normally. They’re home with struggles and assignments of their own from the university, we are home with our families and our own personal struggles, and we are all trying to do our best for our students and our colleagues. It’s hard. It’s hard as hell. The line that I worked SO HARD to create between my personal and professional life is gone. I am answering emails and texts at all hours of the day every day of the week. I have meetings multiple times a week for varying lengths of time. I am mentally exhausted from trying to keep everything straight, grocery shop without stepping foot in the store OR figuring out what to make when what I originally planned is out of stock at the store, and survive on very little sleep. Lately my brain just won’t stop. I can’t get to sleep and when I finally do sleep, I can only sleep for a few hours at a time before my brain wakes me up and keeps me awake.
Sometimes I binge watch a show while I do laundry or work when I’m awake late at night. Lately that’s been Nashville. I love country music and I love character development, both of which this show handle excellently. The last episode I watched grabbed my attention and made me way too introspective. It featured a mother who mistreated her child because of the mother’s mental health struggles. I’ve never been officially diagnosed with anxiety. I handle my anxiety fairly well. You’d probably call my high-functioning. I have a metaphorical tool box of strategies to use to get my anxiety under control and most of the time those work very well. Sometimes…they don’t. My anxiety manifests itself as anger. It starts small. Maybe I’m feeling overly warm or I haven’t eaten much. Then it grows…I’m feeling irritated because it is warm in the house and then I notice the pile of dishes that needs to be washed, but my son is pulling at me telling me he’s hungry, but I can’t cook anything because the dishes are dirty, but when I try to start doing the dishes I notice my son needs his diaper changed so I have to go deal with that, but he doesn’t want his diaper changed so he is kicking and throwing a typical and age appropriate tantrum to express his feelings and I try to calmly explain that I have to change his diaper to keep him safe and healthy but he isn’t in the right zone of regulation to hear it so he struggles harder and I start to lose control of my thought process. I spiral into a tornado of negative and overwhelming thoughts. I yell and scream but it does no good. I try to gently hold down his arms but he’s struggling so I hold them down tighter and we eventually get through the diaper change. He calms down, I begin to calm down. He’s safe, I haven’t harmed him, but I haven’t been as gentle as I want to be.
If I’m being honest, sometimes my anger worries me. It’s a wildfire that comes dangerously close to consuming me if I don’t take care of myself. In the show the mother would get angry or worked up and physically and verbally harm her child. She would call her names and grab her arm or neck way too tight and pinch her. I have students with parents like that. I have NEVER intentionally harmed my child. I work hard to physically step away from him when I feel myself losing control and often leave the room to cool down (if possible, sometimes in the middle of a poop diaper change or a public place where he’s not safe being left alone that’s just not feasible). Though I have raised my voice, I work hard to talk to him after the fact and make sure he knows it isn’t his fault, that I lost control and it’s something I need to work on. I have, like most parents I’m sure, pulled him along a little too roughly when we needed to get going or held him a little too tightly when I’m trying to brush his teeth and he just won’t open his mouth. I feel guilty when I unintentionally cause my child any amount of pain, no matter how minimal and no matter whether it leaves marks or not. I work hard to be in control of myself so that I can show my son the love and care that he deserves. He deserves to be treated with respect, physically, verbally, and emotionally. I will make mistakes, but I work hard to make sure those mistakes are not irreversible. My Little Avocado is 2.5 years old and he doesn’t understand that my anger isn’t his fault unless I explain it. He doesn’t understand that I walk away out of love and respect for him unless I explain it. He doesn’t understand that I struggle to keep calm like he does unless I explain it. When I do explain it, I try to use words and phrases that he will understand. I remind him that I love him and because I love him I need to take some time to myself to get calm. He understands this because I work with him to calm himself down when he’s worked into a frenzy. We take deep breaths together. We focus on what’s happening around us, what we can control.
I struggle with my anxiety and my anger, but I’m a good mother. I provide a safe home for my child. I provide his basic needs and more. I demonstrate coping mechanisms and work hard to make things right when I have broken his trust or let my emotions control me. I could so easily become the mom in that episode of Nashville, any of us could. It’s all about recognizing that we are struggling, getting help, and getting tools to use to prevent from being consumed by our illness or our struggles. For some, it’s medication. For others, it’s talk therapy. For some it’s a combination. We are parents, we aren’t invincible. We aren’t above reproach. We are human. We have big feelings that can be overwhelming if we also struggle with depression or anxiety, add in caring for another human (or multiple humans) with big emotions and no way to regulate them and it can add to disaster. That’s not necessarily a failure on the part of the parent. Some parents simply don’t have access to the resources necessary to help them take care of themselves so that they can properly and lovingly care for their children.
I guess all I’m saying is, it’s good and scary to see what I COULD be. It’s humbling to know that although you love your child more than life itself, sometimes your internal struggles or demons can override that and cause irreparable damage and trauma to yourself or others or both. No one is immune. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of those you love. I know I’m working EXTRA hard during this pandemic to make sure my needs are met as well as my son’s. Sometimes that means eating an extra snack when it’s not snack time for him or plopping my very independent son in the stroller so that I can take a walk and have 20 minutes of not having to chase him around or worry about his safety as he refuses to hold my hand and insists on running we walk along the street. Sometimes that means putting on a movie and laying on the couch to answer emails and deal with work because anything else is too overwhelming to try and deal with and you can’t fathom trying to multitask for one more second. I don’t always succeed. I had a day this past week where I almost lost it when my son was repeating “I’m done” OVER and OVER and OVER as I was trying to finish my breakfast and answer emails and texts for work and I had already yelled at him earlier over some stupid reason like trying to drink the dish water while we were washing dishes or something. I could feel myself getting angrier and angrier and I caught myself, threw the shirt I was struggling to take off him onto the table, exclaimed that I was exhausted, and collapsed into a heap on the floor-sobbing. I was proud of myself for not directing my anger at him, but disappointed that I let it get to the point where it was overwhelming at all. As much as I’d like to say I’m handling this time like a pro, I’m not okay…and I think it’s alright to be not okay right now. I’m human. I’m doing my best. I’m keeping my son safe and myself safe during this insane and trauma inducing time for everyone…And that’s enough for right now.