My Kids Are in School, So Why is My Brain Still Broken?

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Sofia Kraushaar for PureWow

While in the thick of my official summer jobs—Sibling Referee, All-Day Buffet Replenisher, Disney Audiobook DJ, and Chauffeur—I started dreaming of the first day of school.

The magical day would signal that my children would maybe/hopefully/puh-leeeeease start a complete, in-person school year for the first time since…well, for the first time in forever. They’re still young enough that they were only in part-time daycare prior to the pandemic. The first day of school meant my children would be taught (by someone else!) and fed (by someone else!) for free (thank you, public schools!).

I didn’t go so far as starting an Advent-style countdown calendar, but with every day that passed, I felt that much closer to freedom. To joy. To being able to work, uninterrupted, for whole minutes at a time.

You see, I thought that on that first day of school, I could instantly Back-to-the-Future myself to being a productive member of society. Like in the Before Times. But the Delta variant reared its ugly head and I panicked. I felt my first-day-freedom shimmering and fading like Marty McFly’s family photo. While my kids started to get anxious about school reopening, I started to get anxious that it wouldn’t.

Thanks to a high community vaccination rate, low community spread and intense school masking and testing policies, the first day of school arrived. Hallelujah! My children semi-willingly entered their school building and my condo was quiet.

Did I twirl like Maria Von Trapp on the mountaintop? You bet your edelweiss I did! I listened not to the sound of music but the sound of silence as I picked up everything from the floor, knowing that I wouldn’t step on a LEGO for five whole hours in a row.

And I purged. Oh, how I purged.

Garbage bags of items for charity and recycling and Facebook Buy Nothing groups went out the door as fast as I could move them. I was not about to enter another northeastern pandemic winter trapped in a two-bedroom condo with two kids, a work-from-home husband and a surplus of outgrown clothes and broken toys.

But then, progress ground to a halt.

I couldn’t rid my condo of all of its metaphorical cobwebs while simultaneously catching up on 18 months of overdue doctors’ appointments and, you know, actually completing the work that I get paid to do. When I would sit down at my laptop to write, my thoughts would spiral. My kids weren’t there to interrupt me, so my brain interrupted me instead. I jumped from scheduling grocery pickup to calling for home repairs to checking the school’s app to make sure there weren’t new messages from the teachers which of course there weren’t because they were actually teaching my children at the time.

I couldn’t focus.

For an entire day, I wandered around the house thinking about the stuff I should be doing, but not doing it. And then feeling guilty for not being productive. I felt like I was the only one failing at returning to “regular” life.

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But as it turns out, it’s not just me.

“I feel scattered constantly,” said Erin Baker of Gilbert, Arizona, a mother of two who works in the aerospace industry. “I feel like I have brain fog sometimes. I am distracted by worrying about my kids’ safety at school in a way I never was before 2020.” She cited her social media accounts as major sources of distraction, but since they’re also a touchpoint for school and community updates, they are a necessary evil.

Stephanie Blair Caranante of Ridgewood, New Jersey, founder of an executive coaching company, said that even with her four-year-old in preschool and a nanny watching her four-month-old baby, her unstructured work hours fly by without much to show for them. She said, “I find the days passing without me hitting my normal productivity norms personally or professionally, and the guilt is real when I cannot accomplish as much as I'd like.”

Gina M. Newton’s work as a holistic lifestyle coach has made her hyperaware of the ways the trauma of the past year and a half has affected women. Even so, this mother of three from North Andover, Massachusetts said, “I share in this inability to focus,” and she has been struggling to compartmentalize her time.

But parents, don’t panic. Experts have assured me that reactions like these are unsurprising.

Silvia M. Dutchevici, founder and president of Critical Therapy Center said, “Your mind is not broken.” Instead, it is “adjusting and responding to our newfound reality.” She added that “high levels of stress can lead to memory impairment and inability to concentrate.” Parents—especially mothers, who did the lion’s share of pandemic childcare—are feeling chronically tired and burned out. “Remote learning added to parents’ work, forcing them to multitask between work and school Zoom supervision for their children,” Dutchevici said.

“Many parents were placed in the position of being the firewall between the panic in the streets and their families, but they had no cover for themselves,” said Colette Brown, a therapist at A Good Place Therapy & Consulting. “We are still living in Covid, reliable information is still elusive, and our brains are still processing so much individual and collective trauma and that is hard to just switch off….We are still chugging away and trying to juggle with precious few emotional resources.”

Both therapists urged parents to ease into the return to “normal.” Brown said, “We may need to take the time now to help ourselves process our experiences over the last 18 months.” Dutchevici added, “It is imperative that we allow ourselves to sit with our feelings, and not judge each other.” It’s all wrapped up in the put-your-oxygen-mask-on-first school of thought. We need to give ourselves the space and the grace to reset and recover. You may even want to ask yourself: “Do I want things to go back to the way they were before?”

Dutchevici said that it might be time to reevaluate our goals: “As we all know, ‘normal,’ meaning working unsuitable hours and trying to have an impossible/unsustainable work-life balance, did not work out for most people. This pandemic is offering all of us an opportunity to rethink and to redefine work and pleasure.”

For example, those of us working remotely might struggle with our lack of a commute. (I know I do.) After all, eliminating the commute also eliminates the buffer between work and home-life that used to provide time to listen to music, read or just sit with our thoughts. In order to give yourself that type of space, Brown suggests work-from-homers walk around the block, try a meditation app, listen to an entertaining podcast or otherwise move their bodies. And whatever you choose to do, “do it without guilt and with joy,” she says.

I’m still working on eliminating this guilt, but I am trying to infuse my day with more joy. I committed to doing a short daily Yoga with Adriene YouTube video. I do a five-minute sweep of the most egregious floor clutter immediately after school drop-off so my home will seem marginally cleanish during work hours...but I leave the rest until after school, so I don’t get sucked into using all of my solo time to clean. And as cliché as it sounds, my new love of taking baths after the kids’ bedtime has truly helped wash away pandemic stress.

Last week, I even went so far as to schedule an entire hour of schooltime to watch the Real Housewives. Thinking about it in advance and adding it to my calendar seemed to legitimize it for me; I was able to sit and watch and enjoy, guilt-free. I was more productive in my non-Housewives school hours, so taking the break didn’t affect my output.

These actions haven’t exactly “cured” my brain of its malaise. The whole will-they/won’t-they dance of quarantines and school closings has affected my mental state more than I ever realized. But at least I’m providing myself with the proper tools—and patience—to grant myself some leeway.

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Freelance PureWow Editor