Everything is fine.

by Catherine Allen-West

It’s week three of virtual school for my 9- and 6-year olds. They’re late … again. School is literally four steps away from their beds and I think we’ve been on time once, maybe twice. I try to apologize to my daughter’s teacher, but it’s useless, because one of the other First graders is deep into a story about his mom’s uncle’s cat or bird or car, it’s hard to tell from his drawing. I decide I’ll just email my excuses to the teachers later.

(Narrator: She didn’t email the teachers and she probably never will.)

That’s when I discover what our youngest has been up to while we were frantically making sure everyone was appropriately dressed from the waist up. She found her sister’s makeup and, wow, does she look … well, see for yourself:

It’s not even 9am yet, and the older kids are already on a break. It’s during that moment I find myself saying things I never thought I would (and parents have to say a lot of weird things):

“You both need to turn your videos OFF and put your pants ON.”
“Your teacher just texted me. Please don’t wear your alien mask to school anymore, it’s scaring your friends.”
“I don’t care what you changed your Zoom name to, I will not call you ShaBob or Tortellini.”
“No, your (baby) sister can not sit in as your decoy for the rest of the day.”

By this time, my coffee is cold and the dog has swiped my breakfast off of the bar. I glance at my calendar and realize I’m late to my own meeting, so there’s no time to replace either. As I run down to my office in the basement to begin my day, I try to leave the baggage of the morning — of the 200 or so other mornings I’ve had just like this since March — behind and start my day.

I’m sharing this with you because, usually, I live for these kinds of mornings. I love the surprises and chaos that our children bring to my life. “Oh, you poured all of the macaroni on the floor to make a noodle construction site? Cool! Bring me a truck.” But, this was pre-pandemic Catherine. Back then, I would have described our household as spirited or bustling, or what some might call VERY LOUD. Back then, I could also go into the office everyday with a renewed, compartmentalized, sense of self and purpose.

But, now it’s different. Now, there’s no work vs. home life. All of the lines are blurred. Pandemic Catherine does not appreciate when you use all of the dish soap on the trampoline because you want to put the hose underneath and make it “mega-extra-super-duper-slippery” for your wrestling match later. The weight of the pandemic has lowered my threshold for enjoying and being inspired by your chaos, for embracing the complexities of life. I mean, I actually growled at my kids this weekend when they woke me up too early. I’m not proud of it, but what’s worse is that I can’t promise it won’t happen again. I’m exhausted and overwhelmed by everything and I’ve never felt more restless. This, my friends, is a very toxic combo of emotions.

But when I’m in my lowest moments, I remember that we’re still here. We’re still healthy and alive, and that means that regaining and improving upon what we had before; our way of living and loving is still possible. I’m privileged to have the means to get through each morning, each day, each month, and I know it. So, when I focus on what I still have, not what I’ve lost, the load feels a little bit lighter. I have to believe that the weight of the pandemic will lift eventually, because it’s that tiny sliver of hope that gets me out of bed every morning. That and coffee, lots and lots of coffee.

Be kind to one another and please reach out if you need someone to talk to or a safe space to scream into the void. #WeAreISR

About the author: Catherine Allen-West (clawest@umich.edu) is Director of Communications at ISR and co-lead (with Abay Israel) of the DEI Staff Working Group. She comes to ISR from Washington, DC where, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from American University, she managed communications at the Association for Psychological Science and the National Academy of Sciences. Catherine lives in Ann Arbor, MI with her wife, three kids, and dog Scout.

This article appeared in ISR’s Bridges newsletter, September 2020