I’ve got re-entry anxiety

In the last few days, I’ve seen social media posts from friends in states where restrictions have been lifted. They’re going out for dinner, for cocktails with friends, and I feel envious. But also, nervous. For as much as I crave human contact with people other than my family, I’ve also read too many gut-wrenching articles about overwhelmed emergency rooms. I’ve listened to too many podcasts about respiratory droplets and contact routes. I care about how the virus disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in our society, and I respect the information being disseminated by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control.

So yes: I’m nervous about re-entry because I’m worried about exposure. There’s still so much that we don’t know about this brand-new disease. Does it transmit via surfaces, or is it primarily airborne? Why do tests give so many false negatives? And why are children, initially believed to be less impacted by the virus, now developing Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, a dangerous condition associated with coronavirus?

The first person diagnosed with coronavirus in the U.S. was a Snohomish County man on January 20. The first death was in Kirkland — my city — on February 28. Experts now believe Covid-19 was circulating on the West Coast up to six weeks before governors ordered restrictions. Around that time, there was this weird flu cutting a swath across Western Washington. A bunch of kids at Evan’s elementary school had it. Some of Steve’s co-workers had it. But we were still living normally — going to school, having play dates, going to concerts. I flinch a little bit when I think about it, but back then, we had no idea. 

Being quarantined has sucked, but there’s some relief in it, too. In early March, before Governor Inslee locked it all down, I worried endlessly about whether it was safe to do normal things. My friends and I blew up each others’ phones asking each other whether we should let the kids go to school, to birthday parties. “I’m supposed to fly in two weeks,” I remember texting to one group. “What should I do?” I got a range of answers. Nobody knew. At least when the lockdown happened, there was an answer to the “Can I?” questions. The unequivocal answer, to all of the questions, was “Hell no.”

Trust me: I want to send my kid to sleepaway camp in August. I want to eat a meal and have someone else worry about the cooking and the dishes. I desperately want to visit my family in the Bay Area. But I’m scared. I’ve been duly intimidated by this virus. And it’s not going to be easy for me to fling open the doors and resume life as it was.

We’ve all changed. Or, perhaps I should speak just for my family. We’ve definitely changed. Steve, my even-keeled husband, flies off the handle more often. My second-grader throws toddler-like tantrums. My middle-schooler has gotten used to “seeing” his friends on video games. And I have struggled mightily not to go to the dark place with my eating disorder. The four of us are more anxious, more irritable, and less patient.

Steve used to beat me routinely. How ’bout now?

During this period of quarantine, I’ve become supremely lazy.  Oh sure, I still do my daily workouts, but I spend a lot of time sitting on my ass. I’m trying to coax Evan to write a book review. I’m playing four simultaneous games of ScrabbleGo. I’m binge-watching “On My Block” with Bini. We’re sleeping in until 9 a.m. some days. And why not? There’s no carpool to drive, no commute to the office. For someone who used to be in constant motion, this inaction is weird. I feel drowsy a lot.

It’s not just the sitting around, though. I’ve become accustomed to not interacting with people, period. Grocery delivery? Yes please. Waiting in the parking lot at Total Wine while someone brings my booze order to the trunk? Sounds good. And if I select “contactless delivery” on my lunch delivery order, I don’t even have to look at anyone. I just get a text that my ancient grain bowl has arrived. All of my life, I was sure that I was an extrovert. Now I’m starting to wonder.

I’m also not sure I want things to go completely back to normal. I grieved every social event we erased from our calendar in March, but now it feels kind of good to do nothing. Our family has spent more time on the living room couch in the past 10 weeks than we have in the previous four years combined. We all have our favorite throw blankets, and our usual “spots” on the couch to watch shows. Right now, we’re watching “All American,” which is not at all appropriate for Evan. Ask me if I care. Before coronavirus, the hours between school getting out and bedtime were often frenetic — gotta get dinner on the table, gotta get the kids to bed. This feels better.

About a month ago, I signed up to support the Hmong flower growers, who were being hit hard by the closure of Pike’s Place Market. Every Friday, I pick up my bunches of tulips, or daffodils, or lately, peonies, and deliver them to friends. I know they’re home, because we’re all home. And my friends are always so happy to see me, happy to chat from a distance. We all need to see a colorist and we’re wearing yesterday’s yoga pants, but it feels intimate to see each other this way. It’s real. It’s spontaneous. And I like it.

So, as we awaken from our forced hibernation, I hope that we don’t crank up too quickly.  Yes to getting back to work, no to clogged freeways. Yes to play dates, but no to double-booked weekends. I don’t know if I have it in me to stuff my day with tasks anymore.

Plus, I’m getting really good at ScrabbleGo.








But, coronavirus

Have you ever done the “in bed” thing with fortune cookies? My friends and I thought it was a riot in our 20s. It’s a simple game: You add “in bed” to whatever fortune your cookie gave you. For example: “You will meet a mysterious stranger … in bed.” Or: “A new adventure awaits … in bed.” Very funny. Har har.

That’s sort of how it feels now with coronavirus. Every time I worry about our relaxed rules, I add that asterisk: But, coronavirus. For example: “I’m drinking a glass (or two) of wine per night. But, coronavirus.” Or: “The kids are sitting in front of screens for 5 hours per day. But, coronavirus.” Or: “The kids are bypassing carrots and hummus to stuff their faces with ice cream. But, coronavirus.”

Maybe you have your own version of this fun game. Whenever I’ve broached the subject with my friends, they admit that they’re succumbing to the Quarantine Slide. They’re making bigger, stiffer drinks than they used to. They’re baking way more cookies than they used to. Their kids are spending way more time on screens than they used to. But come on. Coronavirus!

In the early days of the pandemic (before we were even calling it a pandemic), I reached for these crutches because I was scared. And it was a new kind of scared. No one had any definitive answers about how this wily virus infected, presented, or killed. In the early days, when the virus was primarily in Washington state, the federal government dismissed it as “just a flu,” and something that would just go away. I remember saying to Steve, way back in March: “No one is coming to save us, are they?”

Now, the mood has shifted. We’re all antsy and anxious about being cooped up with our families for two months. It’s not normal for people to be together all the time. We’re worried about the economy. But we’re also, increasingly, really angry. We’re judging each other. We’re railing at the government. We’re looking for theories that confirm our own suspicions. We’re lashing out at teachers and officials that we feel are doing the wrong things. We feel as though we have no control, and that’s emerging as fury. And so, we reach for our calming crutches to take the edge off.

Except, here’s the thing. It’s been over two months for us here in Washington. The coping strategies are becoming habits. And habits are hard to break. By most accounts, this probably won’t be our last quarantine. We’ll emerge for awhile, and then, as cases spike, we’ll withdraw again. I need to find other ways to blur the edges than my nightly glass (or two) of wine.

Here’s my cycle: I wake up with a wine headache, and I vow to abstain. Then, I’ll have a day where doing dishes is a Sisyphean task, where Evan falls dramatically from his chair when asked to do math, and one of the cats pukes on the computer keyboard.  That lovely, velvety glass of Pinot Noir just beckons me. It promises — and delivers — exactly what I “need”: a way to turn down the volume on the irritation and anxiety. Pouring that glass, I feel like failure, but when I sip it, I feel like I’m tumbling back into a pile of fluffy pillows.  And then, I wake up with a wine headache again.

I’m not drinking to excess. Usually, it’s one glass. Sometimes, it turns into two. But that adds up, and I’m concerned. Both about this “need” to find edge-smoothing from alcohol, and the insidious calories my Velvet Friend is delivering to my waistline. If I’m honest, the latter is what makes me most worried. And that’s because my big crutch — which is detestable rather than pleasurable — is my eating disorder.

In times of stress, my decades-long struggle with food and weight pops back up like an unwanted houseguest. It’s a long story, so I’ll give you the Cliff Notes: At 15, I wanted to lose a few pounds. I got positive feedback for that weight loss, so I lost more. And more. Before too long, I was 89 pounds and my dad was weighing me every week. But I was clever: I took some old ankle weights from my figure-skating days, cut off the straps, and stuffed them in my pocket.

I “cured” myself so my parents would get off my back, but by then, the die was cast: Restriction was where I went during times of stress. Sometimes it was food; sometimes it was punishing, hours-long workouts that I disguised as “training” for my many running races and triathlons.

When Bini was 2, I realized that my destructive behavior was incompatible with my efforts to be a decent mother. So I took a year, and did intensive therapy. I worked with a nutritionist. It was a very uncomfortable process. And I did make some progress. But again, I wouldn’t say I was “cured.”

So. It’s 2020, we’re in quarantine. I’m home all the time. People keep bringing me baked goods. There’s always a delicious bottle of wine ready to be uncorked. I’m spending a lot of time in my own head. I’m stressed. I’m anxious. It’s fertile ground for my old nemesis.

But I’m terrible at restricting my food anymore. It’s not very fun. So I’m back to my punishing workouts. I ride my Peloton until I look like a wet cat. I lift heavy weights. I swing kettlebells. Exercise is helping people stay centered, right? But Steve isn’t fooled — he knows what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing.

But, coronavirus.



The kids are not all right

I’ve written previously about how worried I am about this pandemic impacting my kids. They’re physically healthy  —  they’re getting exercise and fresh air, and they’re eating well. It’s their mental health that worries me. Trouble is, there’s no blueprint for dealing with mental health during a pandemic.

I’ve gone looking for advice. But all I find are more unknowns, more questions. Dr. Perri Klass wrote a piece for the New York Times entitled “What’s Scaring the Pediatricians.” And the things scaring doctors are practical issues, like missed immunizations and missed treatments. And also, systemic issues, like poverty, and educational disparity. But the article also quoted pediatricians who are concerned about the developmental impacts social distancing is having on young brains, and the PTSD likely to result from living in households permeated by anxiety. Dr. Klass did a good job identifying the problems, but I’m still bereft of actual strategies to mitigate these ill effects.

Steve and I have another layer to consider with our kids. Adopted kids experience trauma from being separated from their birth parents —  that’s just Adoption 101. Many adopted kids also have the additional trauma from multiple placements, from abuse, from neglect, from institutional care. Our kids’ situations are unique, and not for public sharing, but I’ll just say that both have big emotions stemming from that early trauma. Those emotions, which we call “Big Feelings,” manifest in different ways.

One of the trickiest things about parenting adopted kids is that it’s hard to tell if a phase or a behavior is “normal,”, or if it’s something adoption-related. Steve and I have been unafraid to read the books, do the webinars, and call in experts when we feel out of our depth. (Which is often.) But there is nothing specific about how kids who’ve experienced adoption-related trauma will be impacted by the isolation and the uncertainty of a pandemic.

Every morning, Bini comes downstairs ready to rumble. The lights in the kitchen are too bright. Evan chews too loudly. (That’s actually true.) We bought the wrong kind of cereal. And we’re terrible parents because we’ve run out of orange juice.

“We’re trying to limit our visits to the store,” Steve said this morning.

“NOBODY ELSE is doing that, Dad. People are going to the store EVERY DAY,” Bini countered loudly. (I’m not sure how he knows this, since he hasn’t left our neighborhood in eight weeks. )

IMG_3250Still, Bini at least can pace himself with schoolwork. He sits on his laptop from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and we have to force him to take breaks. At 4:00, after school and chores, we allow the kids to melt their faces off with screens. Bini hops online to play games with his friends. They do FaceTime. They text. And while Bini certainly has his frustrations, he has hours of friend time daily. It seems to help.

Evan has transformed from a happy-go-lucky kid to one who has frequent tantrums. If we take away screen privileges for refusing to do schoolwork, he follows us around and mumbles, “I hate you,” or “I don’t care,” over and over. Or he goes into the playroom and slams the door repeatedly. Or he just flops on the floor like a rolled-up rug and lies there.

At first, we thought the facsimile of togetherness would help. So we set up FaceTime playdates, and everyone got on Messenger. My phone was constantly pinging with stickers and videos from Connor, or Cem, or Will. The boys were thrilled to have a way to connect, and exhilarated that this screen time was so wholeheartedly endorsed by Mom and Dad. The novelty wore off quickly, though. Eight-year-old kids don’t like to chat with their friends. They like to play with their friends.

I’m on Evan duty most of the day, since Steve is working, and Bini is mostly self-winding. Starting at 9 (or thereabouts), we slog through the schedule, broken into 30-minute increments. Math. Phonics. Spelling. The much-despised Paragraph of the Week. For P.E., we’ll play Just Dance, or walk to dogs, or I’ll set up an obstacle course in the back alley. During his break times, Evan will still be at my elbow: “Mom, look at this Naruto book. Mom, look at this superhero Lego I built. Mom, can you play with me?”

As I write that, I get teary, because it’s heartbreaking. But it’s also maddening.  Even though we’re all together, all the time, Evan needs either Steve or I to be sitting next to him or he gets panicky. Yesterday, I went to the basement to find a book, and from the floor above, I heard Evan shouting my name. My first reaction was to hide.

I am Evan’s mom. For now, I’m his teacher. And I’m also his only playmate. Sometimes Evan acts silly, and Steve and I (being adults), tell him to knock it off, to focus, and do his goddamned 20 minutes of Edutyping. It hit me this week, some eight weeks into this forced family time, that Evan got his silly time with his peers. They’d play tag with ever-changing rules, and have nonsense conversations that make total sense to a second grader.  I can’t believe it took me this long to figure that out.

I asked my own therapist: Should I try to act more like a kid? Will that help? And she said it’s really not possible to give him what he gets from his peers. We’re his parents. We’re already crossing set boundaries by being his teachers. Ideally, Evan could play with Bini, who is only four years older. Except my kids can’t stand each other.

I am so envious of people with kids who play together. That was true before the quarantine, but it’s all the more poignant now.  Bini has been mad about having a sibling since we adopted Evan five years ago. Trust me when I tell you that we’ve tried everything. But as it stands now, Bini directs his frustrations mainly at his brother (or me). And Evan, who is deeply hurt that his brother doesn’t like him, has learned to cope by teasing Bini for attention.

Still, having each other is better than nothing. So, I decided that the two of them had to play together. Every day. For 30 minutes. This is a Hail Mary on my part, a groundless theory that if we build a habit of togetherness, their relationship might improve.

Bini fought this new edict with his trademark ‘tween indignation. Evan, who was once again hurt by his brother’s rejection, also claimed that he didn’t want to play.  It didn’t matter. On Tuesday, Steve and I marched them into the playroom and set a timer. I stayed downstairs to keep an ear out; Steve went upstairs to work.

At first, I heard nothing. I peeked in and they were in opposite corners. After about ten minutes, I heard some talking: “Evan, do you have the lightsaber Lego?” “Bini, can you hand me a wheel?” Steve got the debrief from Evan later and he said it was stupid. And that he didn’t care.

The next two days of Mandatory Play were rocky. On Wednesday, Evan refused to take part, and had to clean both his room and his brother’s as a consequence. (He did a good job, too.) Yesterday, it went pretty well.  I don’t know if what we’re doing is helpful, or harmful. Maybe there’s no way to fix what they’re experiencing. But I have to try.

‘Mom? Can you slow down?’

This morning, after my Mother’s Day breakfast in bed, I came downstairs and told Steve I really wanted to go for a bike ride. The weather here in Western Washington is unseasonably hot, and after seven months of rehabbing my shoulder post-surgery, I am taking every opportunity to get on my bike. Plus, it’s Mother’s Day, and what I say goes.

Evan was lying on his floor, eyes glued to his iPad. His reaction to the bike ride suggestion was that of vociferous dissent, which is how he reacts to most things these days. Meanwhile, Steve summoned Bini from somewhere, and he agreed to go without complaint. I came downstairs after unsuccessfully trying to pry Evan off his floor to find Bini sitting on the stairs with his shoes on, waiting for me.

This is notable for several reasons, the biggest one being that Bini and I have had a difficult relationship in the last few years. Since we adopted Evan, now that I think about it. So, I guess it’s been five years. Add in adolescent hormones and you’ve got a recipe for lots of eye-rolling, plenty of defiance, and endless arguments. To see him suited up and ready to go on a bike ride with me? That was something.

Steve’s bike is busted, and Evan was still buried under his blanket fort watching “Naruto,” so Bini and I set off for our mid-morning ride. We pedaled through the neighborhood and caught the trail that runs across our city. We turned north, and I, happy to see the sun-dappled gravel road so empty, picked up my pace.

“Mom?” Bini called from behind me. “Can you slow down? You always go so fast.”

A simple request, about biking. But it’s not just about biking. It’s about everything.

I move too fast. I am brisk, efficient, and I do not suffer fools. I was a deadline journalist for years, and I still have that mindset: There is work to be done, boxes to be checked, goals to be met. There are always crumbs to be wiped from the counter, there is always laundry to be done. I’m like a great white shark: I’m afraid that if I stop moving, I’ll die.

When I became a mom 11 years ago (Bini was just a year old when we adopted him), I kept waiting for that switch to flip. The one that would transform me from a fast-moving great white shark into the type of person lionized on Mother’s Day cards. Moms like Carol Brady, and Mrs. Cunningham, from “Happy Days.” Moms like my own mom, who are kind, and patient, selfless and gentle. That transformation never really happened for me. I’ve softened my hard edges, relaxed some of my sky-high standards. But my kids still have to remind me not to leave them behind on bike rides.

This morning, I got all kinds of lovely text messages from fellow mom friends. From my own mom, from my mother-in-law. My husband got me flowers, and there’s gifts and what I’m sure will be a sweet card later. I appreciate people telling me I “deserve” to be spoiled by my boys. But I don’t believe it.

Can I be real? Raising kids from hard places is HARD. During my best times, I’m still prone to yelling. Sometimes, I criticize the person, rather than the behavior. I don’t always count to 10 before responding. I have said things I regret. And during these quarantine times? I’m trying, I’m really trying, so, so hard. And there have been bonding opportunities that I’ve seized, nights where I went to bed scared about the economy, and the front-line workers, but also, with a full heart because I connected with my kids. Still, there are just as many nights when I feel like an abject failure, like I’m not the mom that they both need — right now, or ever.

Bini and I cycled about three miles, and then hit an intersection. “Can we turn around here?” he asked. I fought the urge to prod him further — just another mile, buddy! Come on, you can do it! I swallowed that urge to do more because the voice in my heart overrode the voice in my head. We stopped, we sipped some water. And Bini led the way home.

The Stages of Quarantine Grief

When I’m out walking my dogs — which happens more frequently than it used to — I look at the houses in my neighborhood. And I wonder: What’s going on in there? And in there? Is there a drama playing out in that house around the corner? A comedy? Or some combination thereof? Is it like my house, with adults trading kid duty like batons in a relay race? Are there piles of Legos, random art projects, and discarded snack wrappers scattered all over the kitchen table? How many people have lost their shit today?

The phases of quarantine grief look something like the Kübler Ross stages of grief. But there are some notable differences. Instead of denial, my first stage of quarantine grief was panic. For about 10 days following the report of the first COVID-19 death in my city,  I had acute, throat-closing moments of terror. I wanted to understand, to research, to gather as much information as I could about a virus that no one had a grasp on yet. Steve and I devoured every news story, every model, every chart in an attempt to fit the puzzle pieces of our life into this new reality. There were rumors about the National Guard marching toward Washington state, ready to close the borders. At one time, it would have sounded absurd, but we didn’t discount it. At that moment, it actually seemed plausible.

The second stage was the “We’re All In This Together” phase. How liberating to not have to get up and hustle out the door every morning! Let’s sleep in, eat breakfast when we feel like it, and work (occasionally) in our loungewear! We looked for ways to continue some semblance of our normal lives, through Zoom get-togethers, birthday party parades, and “walk-bys,” where friends plan to “accidentally” be outside when the other is out for their zillionth walk of the day. I got all caught up in doing these donation collection drives, propping myself up by doing for others. It felt euphoric at times, like we were all … you know. In this together.

One of the stages of grief is anger, and I’ve definitely started seeing that recently. I am more prone to emotional outbursts — hell, aren’t we all? I may have shoved my beloved in the chest today when he disagreed with my discipline style. I may have yelled “Go away for a minute! I need space!” to my second grader, who has regressed to a toddler’s level of independence. Seething anger is what’s driving the protests against government restrictions, and singular acts of defiance, like refusing to wear a mask at a store, or wiping one’s nose on a grocery worker.

Toby can’t figure out how to go under the blankets, and down the stairs.

One stage that we’re experiencing here is something I’ll call isolation insanity. Evan, for instance, made a fort out of some blankets and the linen closet at the top of the stairs. You don’t have to be a therapist to figure out that the kid is desperately trying to create a room of his own, as Virginia Woolf would say. And while I appreciate his attempt at self-care, our dog is afraid to go under the blankets and just sits there, looking confused.

This guy parked outside my house for about an hour. For some reason, it incensed me.


I’m not the only one feeling territorial about my space, though. Yesterday,  there was a guy in a convertible BMW parked in front of our house. He had his window down, and was having a loud conversation. It irritated me, so I put my Bluetooth speaker in my open window and cranked Pantera. All that did was make him roll up his window. So I enlisted Evan in a scheme to drive him away. “Go get your really loud whistle,” I told him. “We’re gonna play outside.” Evan is no dummy. He knows I hate that whistle, so I outlined my plan to make BMW Guy move. “Isn’t that kind of mean?” Evan asked, reasonably. “Yes,” I said. “But that’s where I am right now.” Way to model good behavior, Mom!

Depression, of course, is a part of pandemic quarantine. For me, it switches off with anger. I no longer feel like we’re all in this together. Stories of selflessness and generosity no longer have the power to lacquer my day with glowy goodness. I might feel better for a moment, but the feeling has no legs. I don’t want to have Zoom happy hours anymore. I don’t bound out of the house when I see people I know walk past. I don’t want to talk about the latest infection model, or reopening scenarios.

My kids are definitely feeling down — and why wouldn’t they? They miss their friends, they miss school, they miss going and doing the things that defined our family: socializing, exploring, and traveling. They loathe doing online school — especially Evan. For a kid that loves screens as much as he does, he fights like a confined tiger when it’s time for his online Mandarin class, or his 30 minutes of DreamBox. “I hate this!” he says over and over. “I do too,” I reply. But there’s no choice. There is where we are. 

In Kübler Ross’ grief stages, acceptance is the final one. For quarantine grief, I’d characterize it more as resignation. Acceptance is a place of hard-fought peace. That’s not where I am.  I can’t accept that we’ll be doing this forever, but I am resigned to the fact that I can’t get my hair cut, or go to a restaurant, or go see my family for weeks yet. I cannot accept that summer camps might be canceled, and I’ll be at home for a total of FIVE MONTHS with my increasingly de-socialized kids.

Evan and I were outside this morning, half-heartedly flinging a basketball toward the hoop when our new neighbor and her son walked by. Her son is the same age as Evan, but he goes to a different school. She and I exchanged pleasantries, and marveled at how many similar interests the two boys have. But the two boys? They hid behind us, or stood with their backs to each other, and whined, “I’m bored.” What the hell is that? I can’t accept that. In just two months of isolation, my son has forgotten how to talk to people?

I did my graduate school interview on Tuesday, for acceptance into a master’s program for couple and family therapy. One of the faculty members monitoring our breakout group asked if we had any questions. And I, being a longtime reporter, had written a long list of them. I asked what it was like to teach during a pandemic. And also, whether this shared trauma we were all experiencing would make its way into coursework.

The curricula, he told me, was driven by research, and theories that arise from that research. Still, he predicted that the emotional fallout from the pandemic would be profound. “We are going to have epic levels of suicide, drug addiction — you name it. And Americans are touch-phobic anyway, so this lack of human contact? It will be devastating,” he said.

“That’s true,” said the other faculty member, a woman. “But therapists must fundamentally believe in the power of human change. You cannot go into this field as a pessimist. You won’t survive.”

So maybe that’s the final stage of pandemic grief: Hope. To survive, you have to have to believe that things will get better — or at the very least, that you’ll be able to leave your house someday. I’m not there yet. Maybe tomorrow.