Waking, sleeping, keeping up

As a parent and a writer, I’m learning to cope with life in quarantine

5 minute read
Hitting a home office first thing in the morning is part of what keeps this writer mom going. (Photo by Cass Lewis Slattery.)
Hitting a home office first thing in the morning is part of what keeps this writer mom going. (Photo by Cass Lewis Slattery.)

Again, I’d risen at 5am, and in the darkness I’d thrown on my favorite T-shirt, unaware that it had apparently been attacked by an eclipse of moths. But this discovery wasn’t as embarrassing as it could have been if I weren’t existing within a quarantined environment. Only my five-year-old daughter was around to notice the pale constellation of my stomach against the purple sky of fabric.

Scarce time, scarce sleep

I trained myself to be an early riser when my daughter was a newborn. She refused to be a conventional sleeper. Naps were a joke and stopped before she turned two. She has always had a mind of her own and never wanted to miss anything by going to sleep. Bedtime is its own nightly melodrama. The only way I could keep up with my writing was if I awoke before she did.

Since time was scarce and I was sacrificing sleep in order to work, I became more disciplined with the limited time I had. I got right to work and didn’t stop until my daughter was awake. There was no social media or falling down the addictive rabbit-hole of news and research. At least, not in the mornings. Emails were read and responded to much later in the day, when I could discreetly thumb-type responses on my phone while my daughter was engaged in a structured activity.

I was always exhausted, but my mood and emotional outlook improved. If I started the day with at least two hours of solid writing time, I could face anything else thrown my way. Then I worked for another two to three hours after my husband returned home from his job. On the weekends, I worked 10 to 20 hours, depending on my deadlines.

That was my schedule until September 2019, when my daughter started kindergarten and was at school for most of the day. I was spoiled then. During the mornings between September and February, I let myself sleep until 6am, and since I was able to complete most of my work during the time she was at school, I was finally free to engage in more family and social activities during the weekends. As a result, I took a less frantic approach to my work. I managed to achieve a happy balance.

Is this real?

But now, facing this unprecedented pandemic, with some of my freelance work canceled, schools closed, and my husband working longer hours, I have to find a new way to fulfill the competing obligations of writing and parenthood.

I’ve gone back to my 5am wakeup routine, but I find myself more exhausted in the evenings than before. Part of this is due to the fact that my daughter is older and needs more engagement and my husband arrives home haggard from his job at a hunger-relief organization, now swamped with COVID-19 hardships. He still treasures his evening time with our daughter, but he often falls asleep before she does.

By the end of the day, I am stunned by anxiety. I find it almost impossible to write anything of significance. I’m bracing myself for an era of coronavirus plays—if we’re fortunate enough to ever visit the inside of a theater again. As a playwright, I keep thinking about how people—friends or family or both—confined in one mundane setting would make a compelling dramatic premise. I find myself thinking that I’m in a play. None of this is real. Inside my head, I’m narrating things like: She walks to the counter, picks up a knife, and slices an apple. Riveting, I know.

Some evenings I’m able to edit, but mostly, I lose myself in books. I crave inspiration, escape, a way to cope. I’ve been spending most of my energy trying to stay positive and not letting my anxiety spill over into my daughter’s experience.

What I’ll keep doing

We’ve survived more than six weeks of homeschooling, which is actually way more enjoyable than I'd expected. I’m bonding with my daughter. On a recent weekend, instead of retreating into my work and catching up on lost hours, I went on a hike with my family. The fresh air and getting to spend time together were invigorating. I found myself actually living in the moment and savoring every detail despite the macabre fear that this could be our very last hike together.

Protecting my daughter from what has become reality is helping me manage the foreboding feeling whenever I read the news. In fact, just as I’ve set limits on how much tablet time my daughter can have each day, I’ve set limits for how much I can read about the novel coronavirus.

I remind myself that I’m used to isolation. I’m a hermit who finally has an excuse not to go out. But there is no way to put a positive spin on this tragedy. The uncertainty about who will live and who will die and who faces financial ruin compounded with the lack of intelligent and stable leadership on the national level is terrifying.

This is obviously much bigger than balancing schedules or writing projects. But the optimistic side of me wants to try to channel this sense of urgency into action, even if it’s just the act of turning my favorite T-shirt into masks. So, I will continue waking up early to write and continue learning how to be better mom. I won’t be as productive as before, but at least I’m still trying.

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