• Laura El Alam

I'm a mom and I'm regressing during the pandemic, too

By Laura El Alam

July 8, 2020

A quick Google search of “children regressing during the pandemic” will uncover dozens of articles from doctors and psychologists who reassure us that our kids’ volatile emotions and behaviors are totally normal during this time of uncertainty and upheaval. If our children are having trouble sleeping, using the potty, controlling their anger, or communicating at an age-appropriate level, all of these behaviors are understandable, right now, and should be dealt with compassionately.

But what if it’s the parent who is regressing? What if it’s a 45-year-old mother who starts acting like a 15 year-old? Is that normal, too? And if so, can I get some compassion? Or at least an amen?

I doubt I’m the only parent who feels like while I’m supposed to be the mature one holding down the fort, I actually feel like tearing it down board by board with my bare hands and escaping to a child-free sanctuary for the rest of eternity.

Running away isn’t an option, though. So I’m sticking around, upholding my parental duties, trying my best. But I’m also displaying some unusual tendencies, lately, that remind me of my angst-ridden teen years. The fact is, I’m regressing during the pandemic, too. Here are some of the ways:

Pump up the Volume

Recently a friend sent me a gift card, and with it, I bought myself a pair of wireless earbuds. “These will be great for exercise,” I thought, and they were. But I also started wearing them at random times and far too often, like every time I washed the never-ending mountain of dirty dishes that has been reproducing like rabbits in our sink ever since the lockdown started.

I quickly realized that when my music was loud enough, I couldn’t hear my youngest three bickering in the next room. Nor could I hear the persistent background noise of their current favorite computer game, or their nonstop requests that I watch their latest gymnastics “routine” (imagine lopsided cartwheels and somersaults into hard furniture), or their insistence that I mediate their latest argument. I discovered that loud music > household chaos.

In addition, with earbuds on blast, I suddenly had a convenient excuse to ignore my two restless, quarantined teens and even occasionally my husband -- all of whom are constantly (unwillingly) underfoot lately. They come to me frequently with expectant faces; inevitably, they want something from me. I stand there at the sink, elbow-deep in suds and ears full of noise. I am bone tired of being the fixer, the finder, the solver, the listener. The demands on mothers and wives are multitudinous and never ending, particularly during the quarantine. Like so many women, I feel completely overextended these days. Many times I’m convinced that if I hear my name called one more time, I will explode.

I’ve discovered something, though. If I point to my earbuds and shake my head as if turning off the music is a physical impossibility, my family usually leaves me alone. I have no idea why this works, since even our youngest child understands that earbuds can be removed and music can be paused. Nothing else in the whole world dissuades my family from demanding my attention. Mom’s in the bathroom? No problem! Just yell through the door! Mom’s working on the computer? Feel free to interrupt! On a phone call? Just tap her arm repeatedly! But the earbuds/ headshake combo seems to work, for some unknown and mystical reason. Who am I to question magic? So I plug them in and make my mental escape.

In a charming example of role reversal, my teenage daughter has told me twice, sternly, “If your music is so loud that you can’t even hear what someone next to you is saying, it’s too loud.” My parents told me the same thing 30 years ago. I ignored them, too.

So like the teenage rebel that I apparently am, I shrug, press “play,” and defiantly resume blasting Dermot Kennedy into my ears. It feels far too loud and utterly glorious. I know I’m revisiting familiar teenage strategies. All I can say in my defense is that at least I’ve upgraded from my Def-Leppard-cassette-tape-shoved-into-a-Walkman days.

Quarantined within the Quarantine

Like an adolescent who, seemingly overnight, transforms into a hermit, I have started holing myself up in my bedroom (or even, in a pinch, the bathroom) for as many minutes as I can manage each day. After four months of lockdown with my beloved family, I find myself absolutely desperate for alone time.

The demands of homeschooling a first and a third grader for three months left me completely drained, but that was not the end of the COVID fun! Now it’s summer vacation, but there’s absolutely nothing vacation-y to enjoy. All of the sports, camps, classes, and activities that our kids normally do in the summer were cancelled, so it’s primarily up to me to fill the endless days while my husband works full time from home. My youngest three girls and I play board games, hike on trails, ride bikes, and read books. And of course I let them watch TV and play computer games because I also have a part-time job and a part-time life and I value what little sanity I have left.

But here’s the thing. The constant demands of my kids wear me down -- have been wearing me down since mid-March -- and I find myself craving nothing in this whole world more than solitude. I can hardly bear to think ahead to September when a new school year will start, and I will likely have no choice but to “remotely school” three children. How will I carve out the time for that? And more importantly, where on earth will I find the necessary patience?! When will I have time to invest in my own needs, career, interests, and health? The thoughts race around my head constantly, and the feeling of powerlessness overwhelms me. So whenever I can, I hide in my room with a book or a laptop or a prayer rug and I savor the feeling of not being pulled into 200 pieces.

Emotional Rollercoaster

The combination of teens’ developing brains and raging hormones make for very tumultuous years. A young person can be laughing hysterically with friends one minute and sobbing the next, and we expect this behavior in teens, to a certain extent; they’re going through so much. But what is my excuse? The pandemic has found me reaching highs and lows that I haven’t felt for years. Granted, we women are subject to hormonal upheavals throughout most of our lives. But the stress of the pandemic has added another level of imbalance to my life. One minute I’m determined to make the most of this situation and to find all the blessings within our forced quarantine. The next minute I’m wallowing in a deep swamp of longing and hopelessness. It’s like being a teen all over again, except everyone expects me to handle it with maturity and composure.

My friends (and phone) are my lifeline

Back in my teen years, I spent several hours on the phone every day, talking with my friends. We didn’t have text messages, social media, Facetime, or even email in our early teen years, but we did have landlines and long stretchy phone cords. My girlfriends were absolutely fundamental to my mental health back then, listening, consoling, advising. We were a balm for each other, even with our inexperience and immaturity. We supported one another because the adults clearly didn’t understand anything.

Nowadays I can’t meet face to face with most of my friends, other than occasional masked- and -six-feet-apart gatherings with the few who live nearby. But my BFFs and I can video chat, text, or even (so retro!) have a phone conversation, and once again, the phone is saving my sanity. It helps so much to hear that someone else is going through what you are. Yes! My five year old is also suddenly rejecting all the foods she used to eat! Yes! My nine year old is also being angry and argumentative! Yes! My teens are also acting like caged tigers! In a time when we are so isolated from others, it helps to not feel so alone.

So, I’m going to keep riding out this pandemic with whatever coping mechanisms I can muster. If you see me with my earbuds, don’t try talking to me. If it appears that I’m looking slightly hysterical, it’s because I am. Just give me a room and a phone and a tiny bit of space to breathe, I will make it through this somehow. Adolescence doesn’t last forever.

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