Having a newborn during the coronavirus pandemic has made me rethink my need to be productive
The warm afternoon sun filters through the living room window as I cautiously creep towards the couch. Silently, I reach for my laptop, holding my breath as I quietly open it up and begin to type. Excitement mounts with each keystroke: I’m finally going to get some work done! That’s when I hear it—a loud cry emanating from the bassinet in the corner of the room. The crying intensifies in both volume and desperation; my newborn daughter has just woken up, and by the sounds of it, she is not happy.
With our country essentially on lockdown, and with no choice but to stay home, I should have ample time to work. However, my efforts at productivity are consistently foiled by my 1-month-old. The moment I sit down to a blank Word document and begin typing, I immediately hear the ominous sounds that signal a diaper blowout, or urgent screams that remind me it is time to feed her. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love being a mom. It is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I just thought that I’d be able to be a mom and be productive.The fact that I have nothing but time now because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has only highlighted my inability to get anything done and to set a routine.
The decision to stay home with my daughter was easy to make after I realized that my meager salary as a middle school teacher would barely cover the astronomical cost of child care. More importantly, I wanted to be there for my daughter from day one, the way my own mother had been there for me. Frankly, I didn’t think twice about putting my teaching career on hold for a couple of years. Though sacrificing my salary would require some readjustments to my husband’s and my lifestyle, I looked forward to being home with my baby while also filling my newly free schedule with projects and hobbies I enjoy. Finally, I thought to myself, I’ll have time to pursue freelance writing, get serious about my yoga practice, and get more laundry and cleaning done. I couldn’t wait to try all the New York Times recipes I’d been saving on Instagram with the vague notion that I would cook them once the baby was born.
I envisioned myself as some sort of zen Martha Stewart, calmly baking complex dishes in a spotless kitchen with a cherubic baby perched on my hip. That has not been the case.
From the moment my daughter was born, my life and schedule have been ruled by this demanding, albeit adorable, tyrant. She seems blissfully unaware of the fact that she should be following the feeding schedule suggested by the pediatrician and prefers to eat at irregular (and frankly, inconvenient) intervals. If she could, she would laugh at the idea of staying in her bassinet for the entire night. She has an uncanny ability to sense when I am about to put her down for a nap, and her reaction to this perceived treachery is to loudly scream until I pick her up and rock her back to sleep.
Needless to say, my daughter’s demands are at odds with the action-packed schedule I had planned for myself. Instead of waltzing around a gleaming home, pulling scones out of the oven while brainstorming my next piece of writing, I’ve been wandering around the house bleary-eyed, frantically searching for my cup of coffee while the baby cries on my shoulder. Since she was born, a stack of laundry has leaned drunkenly against the couch, while a sink full of dishes has regarded me with an accusatory glare. If it wasn’t for my husband managing grocery runs and handling all the cooking, my diet would consist of stale Cool Ranch Doritos. To say that I feel completely unproductive is a gross understatement. And just when I thought things couldn’t get more out of control, our lives were upended by the pandemic.
The fact that my daughter was born in the middle of a global pandemic that has kept us under quarantine since the beginning of her short lifehas compounded my frustrations over my lack of productivity. As she took her first breaths in late February, the coronavirus was sweeping across Europe, and by the time we took her home from the hospital, coronavirus had caused its first death in the United States.
What was at first a minor blip on my radar was, all of a sudden, a very real and scary risk, one that could possibly harm my newborn. I worried that this strange and potentially deadly disease would threaten the fragile life of my tiny baby.
Initially, being encouraged to social distance and stay inside didn’t feel too different from my postpartum recovery; we stayed home as much as possible and limited the number of visitors who came over as my husband and I eased into life with a baby. We encouraged extended family and friends who had traveled recently to meet our daughter via FaceTime to mitigate our family’s risk of exposure to coronavirus and other illnesses. Even though children with the virus reportedly show milder symptoms than adults, I was still worried about my daughter’s health and took the CDC’s recommendations seriously. I never imagined that, within a few short weeks, we would be self-isolating indefinitely. By the time I felt ready to leave the house and venture to my favorite coffee shop with baby in tow, I discovered that it was no longer a possibility—the Atlanta mayor had issued a “Shelter in Place” order that made every destination other than public parks and grocery stores off-limits.
Like everyone else, our lives slowed down considerably. My husband began working from home, we canceled plans, and we limited our social interactions to the dimensions of our iPhones. Unlike most people I see on my social media feed, though, I haven’t been using this time at home to master a new talent or tackle a home organization project. I’m not even binge-watching Tiger King. I’m trying to figure out how to rock a colicky baby to sleep while functioning on three hours of sleep myself.
For a task-oriented person, my new normal has been difficult to accept. Instead of blowing through my to-do list and feeling the satisfaction of ticking items off, I finish most days with the feeling that I have accomplished nothing. Even with the help of my husband, I have struggled to do more than keep our daughter happy and fed.
Being restricted to my home makes the situation even more trying, since I can’t count on help from extended family and friends. I also can’t go on outings to break up the monotony of my days. When reaching out to other stay-at-home moms, I discovered I’m very much not alone in my feelings of being confined and unproductive.
Boston-based stay-at-home mom Sofia R. tells HelloGiggles, “My day-to-day hasn’t changed a whole lot […] The fact that we can’t see our friends and run errands really does take a toll on both me and the baby, and that has deeply affected my productivity.” Alabama mom of two Elaine A. also says the quarantine has disrupted her routine, saying, “We are not going to the park or going out to the stores, and my daughter doesn’t understand why we can’t go outside.” She adds that the quarantine has negatively affected her productivity since it has changed her and her children’s sleep schedules.
Like these moms, the quarantine has impacted my ability to create some sort of routine for myself or for my baby. There’s no Mommy and Me yoga, no coffee dates with other moms, no visits to elderly relatives. My sister, who is a healthcare worker at the local children’s hospital, hasn’t been able to come over to play with her niece. Instead, my husband and I rely almost exclusively on each other to care for our daughter, often eating and showering in shifts.
Scanning through social media and seeing how other stay-at-home moms seamlessly balance caring for children and chores in the midst of a pandemic—while also managing to change out of their pajamas—makes me feel like even more of a failure. Viewing “Mommy Blogger” content while at home has been even worse for me; gazing at perfectly curated “quarantine” posts featuring clean and cheerful children quietly playing in a gorgeous farmhouse while their blonde and toned mother looks on has provoked such intense feelings of guilt that I decided to unfollow several accounts. If it weren’t for my parents pitching in, we would have no reprieve from the exhausting task of caring for a colicky baby while under quarantine.
Frustrated by my inability to get things done, I FaceTimed my mom, struggling to hold back tears as I vented about my feelings of inadequacy and uselessness. Why couldn’t I juggle my mommy duties, chores, and my side hustle? Why did simple things like showering and doing the dishes seem out of my grasp?
My mom listened quietly, then softly told me, “Maybe it’s okay to not have everything together. Maybe it’s enough to just be Mom right now.”
As I let my mom’s words sink in, I thought of what it truly meant to “be a mom,” especially in the context of a pandemic. Maybe this period of quarantine is an opportunity to discover who I am as a mother, to give myself the space to chart unknown territory, and allow myself to learn and make mistakes. Instead of judging myself, I could give myself and my baby some grace, and be okay with not having a schedule or a routine. This could be a chance for my husband and me to bond with our daughter without the external distractions of normal life.
I realized that I had been putting an emphasis on doing—on completing chores, tackling projects, and checking off tasks—rather than simply being. Gazing at my precious baby, I finally understood that she didn’t expect me to have a perfectly clean house or a perfectly coordinated schedule; she needed me because of who I am, not what I do. Her need for me was one that no one else could fulfill, and it didn’t matter that I didn’t know exactly how to fulfill it or that a pandemic was throwing our fragile routine into a tailspin. What mattered was the simple act of being present.