Anxiety, Working, and Parenting in the Wake of COVID-19
The first time I saw a reference to the novel Coronavirus was during the haze of the first days of January. I was lying in bed reading headlines, savoring the last of “holiday” before it would be time to get swept back up into work. I had three business trips planned in the four weeks of January — CES, a team offsite, and in the last week, São Paulo.
By the time I landed in São Paulo, I had started following a Twitter List with official reports on the virus and pinned it to the top of my timeline so I could easily keep up with the news. I was significantly concerned that I wouldn’t get back to my wife and two small children in San Francisco. I got an email tied to my corporate travel profile saying that SFO would be among those globally screening entrants for fevers. Reports of the virus had creeped into two leadership meetings that week, specific to symptoms and not just the economic impact creeping across our APAC business.
But this was the last week of January, and I did get home. As the cases spiked, so did my anxiety. I skirted a trip to New York two weeks later, where I should have represented my team in a cross-functional offsite. I didn’t want to be in any airports. I didn’t realize then that I wouldn’t be traveling anywhere for a very long time.
San Francisco started shelter-in-place on Tuesday, March 17. That meant my wife, a partner in her engineering firm, and I would be working from our 1300-square-foot apartment together. With our 3-year-old and 1.5-year-old.
Our 3-year-old had just moved up from a toddler program in his Montessori school to a preschool program, where he joined kids up to age 6. When school closed, we tried their virtual learning program. But he was barely 3, and he hardly knew this teacher and these classmates. It hasn’t worked out.
Our 1.5-year-old is typically in a nanny share. Our wonderful nanny is now home with her own family across town.
So that leaves my wife and me, providing the full time care for our toddlers that we (still) pay an extraordinary, San Francisco amount for. And doing our jobs full time.
We have it very, very good by comparison to the majority of people in the world. We have as much job security as anyone can have in this climate. We like each other. We also have a small backyard, the envy of city dwellers everywhere. Just two months ago, we serendipitously flattened out the terraces to make space for all four kids in our building to play.
But this is still hard. For pretty much everyone. And I’ll tell you why, in addition to full time working and parenting, that it’s hard for me.
When I was eight, I came home from school and told my mom that I had AIDS, having just learned about Magic Johnson in school. I have no recollection of this at all, but she said my demeanor changed, and I kept crying until she told me our doctor had tested me and I was negative.
When I was ten, I learned about head lice and the same fear gripped me. But I didn’t have lice, said the kindly friend of my family who cut my hair.
Those were the early manifestations of my now lifelong battle with anxiety. The worst of it came in terrifying panic attacks in high school when first I thought I might be gay, my mom rushing me, mute with tears streaming down my face, to the doctor; similar to 10 years later when I actually decided to deal with it and come out of the closet. It can be magnified with trauma, like when I was assaulted in college and had my first, short stint with Lexapro, or by nothing at all, like six years ago when I couldn’t sleep thinking someone was breaking into our apartment and finally went on Lexapro for good.
Back to now. When I first learned my son’s school was closed, I panicked. I felt like the walls were closing in. I told my closest friends in a group text that I couldn’t do this. That I needed to have space from my kids to be my best self at work.
My best friend responded simply, “You have to.”
And I did. We juggled schedules, my kids joined my conference calls because my nightstand doubles as our family desk and there’s no way to lock our bedroom door.
But the next Tuesday, March 22, I woke up with a horrible sore throat. It got worse the next morning, and I developed a cough. I emailed my doctor. We did a video visit. I had seen him just weeks before for a check up, but this time was different. He was head-to-toe in scrubs, and serious. He made sure I didn’t have a fever. He said there was no way to be tested since I wasn’t in an at-risk group or needing to be hospitalized. He said if I didn’t get better, to start antibiotics on Friday.
My throat and cough were worse by Friday. I hadn’t been quarantined yet for two weeks, and I was the one going for groceries and to walk the dog in our family. I had picked up bleach and superglue (toddler life) from our local hardware store. I started the antibiotics.
The sheer volume of COVID-19 information was overwhelming. At every free moment, I was frantically scouring the internet to understand if I could have it. At the time, it looked like 80%+ confirmed cases had fevers. I didn’t have a fever (or even body aches, I was still working and parenting). It looked like very few cases had sore throats. But my cough. Did I have it? I was sure I had it.
I read Dr. Sunita Puri’s piece in the New York Times titled “It’s Time To Talk About Death” while walking my dog.
I spiraled some more.
I didn’t want to die alone. I couldn’t die alone. I couldn’t be one of these people who died alone. How could I die without getting to say goodbye to my wife, my kids, my parents, my sister, my friends? What if I was hospitalized in a room with hundreds of people? What if I ended up in a mass grave, my family unable to say goodbye?
I cried. During the kids’ naptime, I painstakingly typed out how I would want to die, who I would want to speak with, what songs I would want to hear to bring me comfort. I emailed it to my wife. And my wife, my rock, a woman with no anxiety, high energy, compassion, and a drive to succeed (really tailor-made for this pandemic), cried.
And then on Day 2 of antibiotics, my throat stopped hurting. My cough went away. I had already dealt with my new fear of dying alone, and I was cleansed! I felt like a new person. It was week three of work-from-home, and my productivity skyrocketed. I could do this, I WOULD do this. I had social video chats with my amazing co-workers while watching my kids play. I spewed silver linings and gratitude. I listened to my favorite podcasts. I laughed at memes. I texted and video chatted with family and friends.
And then, this past Wednesday, I woke up with a fever of 100.4, a cough, and tightness in my chest. Cue the rising panic. I immediately scheduled a video call with my doctor. There were tests now, and I could go that afternoon.
I cleared my calendar. I let my two closest coworkers know that I wouldn’t be online. And I went for the test.
They had turned a local One Medical office close by into a respiratory clinic. I was greeted by two people in full protective gear. One was the nurse who would be administering my test. She was amazing. She treated me like a human, with compassion and dignity, not like someone who could give her a deadly disease. She ushered me into a room where she took my vitals. My lungs were clear. My oxygen level was fine. I didn’t have a fever then. I had a normal EKG. But in addition to my deep cough, I had slightly low blood pressure, fluid behind my ear, and a red throat. My nurse gently told me she thought I probably had COVID-19, and she’d send me resources on how to cope with it. I endured the infamous nose-swab-into-throat, and I went home.
I floated through the next two days feeling sick and anxious, laying down when I could, joining calls when I needed to, and texting with friends and colleagues who have or had the virus. I anticipated that my symptoms would worsen, but they didn’t. By Friday morning, I only recorded a 99.4 fever once. By Friday afternoon, I received a message that I tested negative.
I let my family know I didn’t have it. They were thrilled.
I should have been, too, but I’ll be honest: I wasn’t. Because at that point, I had again gone through the mental experience of having it. I told myself I had a mild case where I would get better quickly. I wanted my family to be asymptomatic, and I wanted to have the antibody so we could move on with our lives.
And I still felt sick, and I wanted a break. A break from expectations. A break from this new, scary reality.
But today I feel much, much better. No fever. Minimum fatigue. Minimum chest tightness, and my cough is less deep. And today I think I can take it.
I will go through this again, because, let’s be honest, I live in a city where there are cases and I will probably get it. I’ve been quarantined a long time, and it will be longer. My grey hair is showing; I’ve worn yoga pants for 4 weeks straight. My son and daughter will continue to burst into my conference calls, and I’ll continue to look forward to their naps and bedtime every single day so that I can have some space.
I’m exhausted, because I’m doing two full time jobs, and because I now know that success for me really does hinge on childcare and my physical and mental health. Those are all intertwined now, in this new world. And if one of the three wavers, so do I; I’m not my best self. I’m not the best wife, the best mom, the best daughter, the best sister, the best friend, the best manager or coworker. But I am grateful to have the opportunity to try to be these things for all of the people in my life that I care about, deeply.
This yo-yo is my experience with anxiety. But it isn’t everyone’s experience with anxiety, and I’m not asking for extra sympathy. Every single person is dealing with their own challenges related to this pandemic. As Brene Brown aptly says in her new podcast “Unlocking Us,” you can’t minimize your own struggles by simply comparing them to those of others who have it “worse” than you. Put your own oxygen mask on first.
I’m sharing my experience because writing has always been my oxygen mask. I’ve let it slip with marriage, work, friendships, and kids, but here I am and these words on the screen help me breathe. I’m also sharing my experience in the hope that we can de-stigmatize anxiety in this climate. If we can’t now, then when?
A humble suggestion: Start your next call, your next conversation with your neighbor, by asking the other person, sincerely, if they are okay. And giving them the space not to be. And either way, offer a simple, “I see you.”
I see you, fellow humans. Everyone is going through this. This is hard for me, and probably hard for you.
— Laura King @LK (Guest Writer)