A mother’s need for control in a pandemic

Zoom call with coffee mug next to laptop

By Laura G. Owens

This past April after my Florida governor issued a state lockdown, my college daughter Taylor came home for four months. An introvert, Taylor wasn’t worried about inevitable boredom. She rarely complained about the monotony of her online classes or not seeing friends. True to Taylor’s nature, she made peace with what she couldn’t control.

And yet I found myself panicked for no reason. Nowhere was my life about to radically change, at least in the wrenching ways it did for millions who grieved loved ones, lost their livelihood or tried to manage stir-crazy kids while working from home.

My husband and I were already used to working at home and were, for the most part, able to conduct business as usual. Long before our only child left for college our life was relatively low key: the gym, bike riding, binge watching Netflix, a weekly date night. Some days the only person I saw was my husband.

Before the pandemic, I moved into and out of the world by degrees of my own choosing, balancing time with friends and long hours of voluntary solitude.

But as the stay-at-home order went into effect, without thought I crammed my calendar with four social Zooms a week, three times more than I, a self-proclaimed ambivert (50% extrovert, 50% introvert) would have socialized on any given week. Panic set in, not because of COVID-19, a virus I fully respected for its deadly reach but didn’t personally fear, but rather from anxiety about feeling isolated.

As the unsettling near dystopian world of COVID took over our collective psyche, I found myself obsessed with thinking out loud with friends and family. Everything felt upside down and uncertain. In the early months I saw shoppers tear past terrified seniors and grab the last of anything left on shelves. Some, I noticed, even went out of their way to avoid eye contact, afraid perhaps that I might get too close and start up a conversation.

Getting on Zoom a few times a week with loved ones helped me process the strange new reality we all found ourselves. I imagined as well that Taylor might need to connect with friends beyond her usual texting. But when I repeatedly suggested she Zoom or FaceTime more often because “It’s healthy to see people even if it’s only virtual,” she got annoyed.

“Mom, I know what I need. You don’t always need to tell me.”

Such is the pattern of my mothering. I prescribe steps for my daughter’s happiness by insisting she do as I do—happiness 101 and the mountain of self-empowerment teachings I devoured for 20 years in an attempt to fix myself. I sometimes parent as if my daughter and I are one person with the same anxieties and needs. And yet Taylor is a thousand times more self-aware than I was at her age. 

I recall the first day of middle school when two of her closest friends throughout elementary didn’t sit with her on the bus. I only knew because I asked, not because Taylor said a word. For the next few minutes I ranted about the tragedy of the whole thing and that those “mean” girls had no right to hurt her feelings. “Mom it’s fine. Someone sat with me,” she said. “And I don’t mind sitting by myself. I’m not friends with those girls anymore. You don’t need to be upset if I’m not.” 

She was right of course, but neutrality is impossible for any parent, especially one prone, as I sometimes am, to projecting her younger tortured self on to her child. In moments of my own regressive insecurity, I assume Taylor isn’t okay because at every age she reaches, I certainly wasn’t.

It struck me recently that my daughter is handling the uncertainty of the pandemic much better than I am. She accepts not knowing exactly when the world might return to normal. When we won’t need masks and hugging will be safe again. She makes peace with the unknowns while I feel simmering anxiety over a pandemic with no clear end in sight. “Mom you just have to deal with it,” she tells me over and over. “You can’t control when things will change.” 

I envy Taylor’s ability to let go of the invisible strings of control while I grasp for them. I suspect this flows from my childhood when I craved stability during constant family turmoil. My mother abandoned us when I was five, two years later I had a new stepmom and two stepbrothers who my other three brothers, emotionally scarred, viciously battled. I recall family therapy, lots of screaming and in the end, another divorce. While I always knew my stepmom and father loved me, I also had the sense that any minute my foundation might crumble. Chaos felt inevitable and entirely out of my hands.

That’s a little how the world feels right now. Barely hanging on. Just on the brink of good news until the next day when there isn’t any. Taylor reminds me to be patient, and that now that we have a COVID vaccine life will inch back to normal. She doesn’t reach for definitives, perhaps because chaos doesn’t feel permanent to her as it has for me.

Lately I find myself careful about the amount of news I absorb. I can feel when I need to escape the mounting pandemic-related deaths and the rabid political fighting breaking down our collective spirit and destroying our closest relationships. Like many people right now, my emotions are all over the place: sad, angry, anxious, hopeful, overwhelmed. Mostly my coping mechanism is to go numb.

I grab the reigns of control wherever I can, which for me lately means strengthening my immune system with an obscene number of daily supplements. I exercise, play with my dog, watch hours of funny shows and drink too much wine. I’m waiting for the world to re-balance so it won’t feel like its spinning off its axis. I’m waiting for the uncertainty to stop. I just wish I knew when that might happen because the nation feels broken right now, and with it, sometimes so do I.

Laura G. Owens is a writer based in Orlando, FL. Her focus is mind & body wellness, speaking personal truth and shattering societal shame. She continues to find herself concerned about the strange new world of the pandemic. Wondering from here on, what will become each person’s new normal? You can find her at Laura-Owens.com as well as @LauraGOwens on Twitter and Facebook. 

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