The other day, Adam and I left the kids alone for about seven hours so we could work on a project in Pennsylvania.
We left at 6 a.m. Blankets were folded. The dishes were done. Coats were hung up. All major surfaces were clear of debris.
When we returned, it looked like a bomb exploded. There was foam packaging material torn to tiny bits in every room. Blankets, pillows, coats and towels were piled on the floor. The cupboard was bare of clean dishes and the dirty ones filled the countertops and coffee table.
I’m not sure you could pay a group of children to make a larger mess in such short order.
On days like this, I really wish I lived alone. I dream about an alternate universe where I clean my house and it stays clean. I remember hearing from my single friends when the stay-at-home order was first put in place. They had cleaned out closets and donated items they didn’t use. Their residences were never cleaner. Instagram documented their hard work.
But in the homes of families with small children, the opposite is happening. Our closets have never been messier. Attempts to get rid of old items are met with cries of terror from tiny hoarders.
Sure, even in pre-pandemic days, our place was teeming with children. But in 2020, the kids are always here and our poor house has never been more lived in. At least in pre-pandemic days, there were sleepovers and playdates and 5-day-a-week school schedules. In 2020, it’s all-kids, all-day, all-night, in every nook and cranny of our seemingly shrinking square footage.
And if there’s no kid in said nook or cranny, there’s a dog (or two with an occasional cat who comes out of hiding at snack time).
Because of this, I often get frustrated. This is not my normal frustration, it’s a much deeper feeling of hopelessness and desperation. I long for the days when we would put them on the bus and have a few minutes to clean up messes. But now, with the positive COVID case counts going in the wrong direction, as the fall season wanes and winter sets in, I feel the weight of even more long days in our unharmonious living situation.
I know I could make the kids be more responsible. I do try, but when you are operating out of chaos, with job and family obligations wearing you down, it’s hard to fight all the time.
The only coping mechanism I have that seems to help is imagining how lonely COVID would be if they weren’t here.
Everyone suffers a bit from the belief that the grass is always greener. We believe that our problems would magically disappear if we went someplace else. We look at our partners and think that other mates wouldn’t take us for granted. We assume people in different homes and living situations are getting through this period of isolation without feeling hopeless.
Under our current circumstances, it’s easier than ever to do this. Those of us who haven’t been alone for more than a few minutes since early March are looking for solitude, while many of us who have been in solitude are desperately seeking some company. The thing about COVID is that it reduces our normal circumstances and increases the intensity.
One of our natural family patterns that has intensified is our tendency to split into pairs. I’m not sure how we began this, although Adam theorized it’s a legacy of assigning riding partners at amusement parks. In most all our adventures, we end up with our normal partners.
We have four mostly happy twosomes that make up these smaller units (Mom/Dad, big kids, littles, dogs). Living as dyads is now a normal part of our lives.
A dyad is the smallest form of a social group. According to Wikipedia, “The strength of the relationship is evaluated on the basis of time the individuals spend together, as well as on the emotional intensity of their relationship.” This part of the definition explains why our pairing off is even more noticeable. We are spending a lot of time together and because of this, we’re taking more responsibility than ever for each other’s emotions.
Our youngest children, Sadie and Ozzie, are usually very good about playing together. They occasionally dust-up, but it’s not a big deal. Since the lockdown has increased their time together, their feuds are more brutal than they once were. A minor slight can be combustible enough to cause a massive set of dueling meltdowns. It’s hard for me or Adam to adjudicate these disputes while we’re trying to host a WebEx meeting.
This brings me to the next part of the Wikipedia definition: “A dyad can be unstable because both persons must cooperate to make it work. If one of the two fails to complete their duties, the group would fall apart.” Some days we just don’t want to do our part. This applies to the kids as well as the grown-ups. It’s in these times that we long for distance from each other. A few hours to live like a singleton (a term I learned from Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and have since loved).
From the messy, combative inside of my house, I can’t help but think that those who live in their own space, who can create a harmonious environment, have greener grass. I find myself dreaming about little things like peanut butter without finger marks and visiting with my friends on Zoom without needing to mediate a battle over who should have control of the remote.
There's only one way to make it to the other side of the pandemic, and that is to go through it. Surviving it. There’s no life hack or special trick anyone can use to avoid the journey we’re all on together. And even though we can’t control our current circumstances, it does help to look at your grass from the other side of the fence.
When I long for a few hours of alone time, I try to remember how lucky I am to get good-night snuggles (even from a kid who hasn’t bathed in days). And I hope that reading about my chaos reminds those of you who may be feeling lonely to try and treasure the peace.
— Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor in the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University where she advises student media. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo.