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Back-to-School Blues and Our Rush to Return to Normal

I have diagnosed myself with kindergarten-triggered anxiety disorder. I’m up to my ears in various calming gummies and supplements, all because my son has started elementary school. In the mornings, my husband and I split up, one of us pushing the baby’s stroller north to preschool and the other boarding the train south with our newly-minted “big kid.” We line up behind other parents and deposit our respective offspring on the other side of a fence, because of Covid. Then we turn to our days. 

Every morning my heart hits my throat and I ask myself when this is going to feel easy. If the weather forecast includes rain, I wring my hands over how we’re going to manage the dropoff, and whether my kids have the right layers. And in the afternoons, as school ends and the logistical dance of getting both kids home begins, I tense up again, primed for something–a disaster, a conflict–that hasn’t happened yet.  

After a slog through lockdown and quarantine, my oldest kid has made it to kindergarten–that crucial childhood milestone–at a school that’s great, and nearby. He’s adjusting as well as we expected, which is to say there are bumps, but not insurmountable ones. We’re supposed to be doing a victory dance.

But I’m just a nervous wreck.

Of course the kindergarten transition is never easy (just read Rivka Galchen’s epic essay on the subject) but this year, it is fraught on a whole other level. After all the trauma (three years straight for us, because right before the pandemic, my husband had cancer, while I was pregnant, while we were between apartments), we’ve stumbled into far more normalness than we’re accustomed to. Subway commutes. Birthday parties. PTA events. Playdates and scheduling conflicts to resolve. Party favors and presents to buy. Cups of coffee splashing onto our jackets on the elevator up to the office.

Normalness, but not normalcy. I often feel like I’ve been dropped on another planet. Each day still in some ways feels like that first morning of school orientation, when I stared at the forty-nine other families assembled on the steps in the courtyard (because no one is allowed in the building) and wondered about them, and wondered what they were wondering about me. Maybe: aha, there’s a down-to-earth looking mom with pleasantly frizzy hair or perhaps: ugh get a flat-iron, lady, pandemic’s over.  I imagined they were licking their wounds too, because everyone has wounds from the last year and a half: traumatic childbirth during lockdown. Careers set back. Health marred by Covid. Mourning people they lost.

So when we ask each other, “How’s it going?” what exactly are we supposed to reply?

I watch our kids enter the building, standing with the other parents–some, my new friends. It’s nice to have new friends, but even watching my child enter a building after a year of keeping him outdoors at all costs, feels off. I know the worries buzzing inside me about his learning, listening, eating enough, are so much more mundane than the worries I’ve had for years (Will my family be responsible for killing someone by infecting them with Covid? Who will watch my kids if I am too sick to move?)

But like many of us, I don’t know how to handle small worries anymore. For so many days, so many endless days, each choice felt like a matter of life and death. Our systems are now wired to go from 0 to 100 with the slightest spike in adrenaline. I’ve begun overanalyzing tiny ups and downs like I’m 13 years old, looking back over my texts, wondering whether I’m being too friendly or not friendly enough or somehow putting my foot in my mouth. When I arrive at a birthday party, I, like my child, swing back and forth from eager to please all the way to rebellious, even a little antisocial (Covid cave syndrome, perhaps).

Now that I have to present myself in public I’ve started to wonder who I am even supposed to be. All year I embodied Pandemic Mom and no one else: she was beleaguered in her pragmatic warm leggings, schlepping her kids  to the playground with their snacks, their layers, their sunscreen, their masks and hand sanitizer and diapers, then sitting on a bench and emailing colleagues about work or taking a Zoom call while hoping no small people toppled off the slide. Every few days, I would fire off a snarky tweet about how insane my existence had become, and all my parent friends would immediately send hearts, and my non-parent friends would worry deeply about me. I kept saying that I missed myself, but I remain unsure just what to do now that I’m reunited with that self. Just pick up where I left off in 2018? Can I incorporate the pandemic-purchased leggings and tie-dye clothing into my new look, or is it inappropriate for my age and station?  

This transition has made me realize how wonderfully curated my life before Covid was. I spent the better part of two decades cultivating a social world of pals who were feminist like me, who were bookish like me–who weren’t joiners, who didn’t sign up for the all-female co-working space when it was the cool thing to do, who got married (if they bothered) in small, nonreligious ceremonies, who say things like “abortion” or “queer family” or “craft” a lot, the latter referring to art and writing, not beer. I have missed them terribly. So it feels masochistic to now use my limited social time to try to present myself as a nice normal mom who likes normal things like soccer and sweater-blazers.

All these swirling anxieties may seem, may very well be, quite trivial. But they are emerging in the wake of this loss, and they are emerging because of the loss. We never paused. We never spent a week sleeping, and weeping, and remembering. We never silenced ourselves for the hundreds of thousands who died of Covid, and the people who died of other causes without the final visits as they deserved.

We never even really mourned or contemplated the lost chance to let our kids show other kids their toys, their beds, or the lost chance to stand in an indoor space with other human beings and think: life is terribly painful, but at least we can experience this art together, and feel awe.

But worst of all, we are now operating in a world where there is not even a faint hope that society might rise to a terrible occasion instead of doing what it did last year: failing everyone. Failing families. We will re-open society, it now looks like, without parental leave. It’s all so gaping, and raw, and it resonates and echoes in myriad ways: in our group texts and our clothing choices. In our thudding hearts as we walk down the stairs to the subway, our confusion as we try to answer the question of how it’s going.

I’m happy to report that things are getting easier, for both me and my kid: we’re a little calmer and more comfortable. Surely there will be more drama, more setbacks. But we are trying to reenter this new life with meaning and to give ourselves some grace. A few weeks ago, on the way home from pickup, we stopped on a grassy field in Central Park and sat down. The early autumn sun blanketed us in warmth, but there was a breeze. Everything was golden; bigger kids ran by in their sports uniforms, laughing. I squeezed myself tight to suppress the anxious memories that welled up  in me––like being awkward at soccer practice––and to remember instead the joy of being a kid running after a ball on fall afternoons.

I looked at him and said: “Remember this moment, because we’ll have hard days, but this is a beautiful afternoon. Let’s put it in a bottle, or at least try.” And I did try. I really did. We sat there for a while. And then we walked home.