the screeching halt


Sheltering in place brought my hamster wheel to a screeching halt. Until it stopped, I never understood quite how exhausted I was. I was a stay-at-home mom with four children, and a writer, and I inadvertently built a life that depleted me. In theory, coordinating our comings and goings, shopping for what we needed, driving kids to school and sports, making meals, fixing broken things, and managing summer plans all sounded great. But I realize now it didn't feel great. It left me highly wired and deeply tired, with a fractured attention span and a frayed nervous system. Worst of all, it shut down the best parts of myself.

Being forced to shelter at home has been a gift. Two months in, I feel five years younger-- deeply rested, simply happy, calm as a cow in a pasture. The slower pace, it turns out, suits my nature so much better than the life I was living. I rarely go out. Because my older kids have stepped up, I have been to grocery store maybe four times in ten weeks, when I might usually have gone a dozen or more times in the same period. I cook four nights a week instead of seven. The kids are fixing broken things, helping clean, taking things off my list, lightening the load. For the first time as a family we are living in actual community, the way it ought to be, where everyone’s load is manageable, because everyone is doing their part.

It didn’t used to be this way. We used to look like a big barn of a family, but we lived in very separate silos. My husband woke in the icy dawn and drove to the station, where he got on a packed train and subway, and walked to an office where he worked 10 hours before reversing that commute in the icy night. He would return exhausted, eat dinner, and try his best to be emotionally available, desperate to go to sleep. The weekends weren’t much better. He could take a son to his basketball game, but when you own your own business there is always more work to do to stay afloat. There was really no way we could expect him to attend to much more than financial support. The kids lived on their own hamster wheels of academic and extracurricular stress too, running as fast as they could to get into college and succeed. So I did everything else, desperately trying to knit our silos together into a “happy family.” This turned me into a martyred Mary Poppins who had a vodka every night to soothe her nerves, to calm her creeping sense of dis-ease, her growing knowledge that something, or maybe everything, just wasn’t right.


My husband and I now sleep until we wake up, since he no longer has to make a train, and I no longer have to get our youngest up for the school bus. The joy of this cannot be overstated. Nor can the fact that there is nothing on my schedule, not one thing-- nowhere to go, nothing to sign up for, nothing to buy. For me, this is an utter delight, every day a Christmas morning. The world feels spacious and new. I can breath again. I am reading again. I am writing a lot. When I look back on my old life, Pre-Covid, I see the walking dead. I never want to go back.

Only today, I felt like it was coming for me. The pediatrician emailed. Then my dentist. They will both be opening soon, and they would like us to come in. The sight of my inbox filling up again fills me with dread. It makes my head feel heavy in a familiar way, that old way that it used to feel all the time, back when I was always so busy being busy, doing what I mostly didn’t ever want to do.



© 2020 Sarah Balsley 

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