Quarantine caterpillars

I read an essay by another mother reflecting on the endless munching which accompanies days in this life lately, and her use of the main character from everyone’s favorite baby book as metaphor was apt.

Hungry little caterpillars paw at my side asking for more snacks; their voices fill the air between 6 am and 9 pm every day. They don’t take weekends off, because weekends are only a construct now.

Time is passing, but time is fluid.

I measure the progress of days by the dwindling supply of eggs and milk in the fridge. During the frantic month of March and the endless string of days that was April, eggs were particularly hard to find. When I’d stumble upon the treasure of a previous sneered-upon 5 dozen super pack, stuffed with suspiciously flavorless white orbs, I’d pounce. 1 per customer, but technically that ginormous box of eggs counted as a single item. I’d roll my cart towards checkout crossing my fingers that nobody looked too long or too closely, because when you’re grocery shopping once a week for 8 people, you’re going to look like a hoarder. No way around it. Try explaining 12 boxes of pasta as anything other than insane.

We eat more shelf stable foods now, dipping into childhood treasures long buried as I tentatively at first, and then with reckless abandon, dole out lucky charms at breakfast, slather peanut butter with sugar in it on white gluten full lunch bread. What is readily available, especially in those early weeks of April, is processed, and it tastes delicious. The kids high five each other at lunchtime that mommy buys fun food now, fresh produce being temporarily furloughed for canned and frozen varieties. I count our blessings that we can buy produce, period. I have at least a dozen grocery stores in 5 square miles of my house. Other families in other locations are not so lucky.

Recently we began visiting the parking lot of our local public elementary school, three times a week at 10:23 am, precisely. The public school system is giving out free lunches and breakfasts for all children residing in the district under the age of 18, period. Our food budget breathes a little easier even as I tug at my collar in embarrassment, telling a masked lunch lady that yes, I actually have 6 kids, but only 5 are old enough to eat what’s inside the brown bags she’s handing out. Other seemingly “normal” suburban moms and kids make a ragged, spaced out line in the parking lot where the bus pulls up. I make no assumptions anymore; we each have our reasons for showing up.

I bring home the bounty and the kids pounce on the now-familiar big brown bags with glee. “Sloppy Joes!” my eldest child proclaimed one day, I kid you not, elated by that previously unknown cafeteria-tray staple. They marvel over individual boxes of orange juice and Little Debbies snack cakes and they leave a pile of trash in the center of the table, along with the earnestly included vegetable crudités. Some days I rescue the veggies and incorporate them into the dinner menu. Some days I toss them, like the bagged cauliflower florets that did, in fact, according to my 6-year-old and also in reality, smell like bags of farts.

I count up the calories we consume in a day and I’m dumbstruck. Entire loaves of bread and gallons of milk disappear in hours. A bag of tortilla chips is now the accompaniment to a single dinner, and not a thing I can expect to find in the pantry 24 hours later. As I sit here typing, a little after 9 am, we’ve already knocked back a box of Kix, a dozen eggs, a half gallon of milk, a pint of blueberries, and 2 slices of leftover pizza. Very hungry caterpillars indeed.

I can see them growing almost before my eyes. Maybe it’s literally before my eyes, because we’re together all the time now. My 9 year olds shoulders stretch and strain at the sleeves and neck of his shrinking t-shirts. Somebody needs the next size up in underwear, someone else outgrew every pair of swim trunks in the house.

I begin having darker thoughts than usual. The days blur together and the goalposts move incrementally down the field. It was no surprise when school was cancelled for the year. When May dawned, warm and promising longer days and more time spent outside, something inside me cracked. “Who knows what the summer will bring?” well intentioned voices asked. Maybe we’d be allowed back into a restaurant or inside of a gym; maybe the kids would be able to see their cousins again. Maybe we’d have some childcare soon. Maybe rec league sports will start up, after all.

As we filtered back to Mass for Mother’s Day weekend, I should have been elated. Instead I was anxious and frantic, panting behind a too-tight mask and diving after errant toddlers in folding chairs on the blacktop where our socially distanced outdoor liturgy was taking place. I whisper screamed admonishments to my preschooler, enraged when he insisted on a bathroom trip which meant daddy was gone for a 20 minute round trip to the “emergencies only” and now single use restrooms back on the other side of the campus inside the church. I sweated and squirmed under the Colorado sun, jostling the baby in one arm while pulling the 8 year old’s mask back down again. And again. I was filled with a terrible dark rage that caused me to question whether I could receive the Eucharist at all. I went forward reluctantly, plucking Jesus off the palm of my hand after more than a decade of receiving Him on my tongue. I wish I can say I wept in ecstasy.

I should have have been thrilled. I should have been grateful.

Earlier that week, I’d confessed some of the very dark thoughts. To my husband, to a friend. Later in the week, to my doctor, then formally, to a priest. The interplay between mental health and moral culpability is tricky. Having the thoughts is not sinful; entertaining them or acting on them can be. I’m diagnosed with severe PPD, again, Surprising perhaps nobody except myself.

I cry into my pillow that night and shake my fist metaphorically at the heavens. This was the time I going to get new motherhood right, dammit. I had preemptively quit breastfeeding, lined up childcare, perfected daytime routines which included time for prayer and self care. Sure, the emergency c-section threw me for a loop. And the baby’s hospitalization back in January when he had RSV. Looking back, that’s probably when the cracks first started to appear.

Enter global pandemic.

It’s nobody’s fault, and my pain isn’t bigger than anybody else’s. Maybe if I had been breastfeeding, even more sleep deprived, already depressed…maybe I would be even less okay. I shudder as I think it. I push away darker thoughts, snapping and screaming at the kids and sobbing intermittently throughout the day.

We trial a new medication, one with fewer side effects, and it may work or it may not, it’s too soon to tell. The aftereffects from the previous med, the one that worked for years until it…didn’t, is brutal.

Brain zaps and whole body aches, flulike fatigue. Punishing headaches. Wait, could it be Covid? I can still taste things, it’s probably run of the mill SSRI discontinuation syndrome.

We’re not out of the woods yet. I’m still probably operating at 50%. The hungry caterpillars munch away at every scrap of food we bring into the house, so today I’ll get off the couch, I’ll drive down the road, and I’ll pick up those brown bagged lunches that have become something symbolic not of failure, but of God’s provision. It doesn’t look anything like what I would have wished for, but He isn’t absent, either.

Spring will come, has come, is coming. Caterpillars do become butterflies, eventually, bursting forth from too-tight and breaking down cocoons that keep them safe until, constricted and uncomfortable, they must burst and give way to the next phase, to a new life. I’m guessing it’s painful. I’m almost certain it is.


  • Callie

    Thank you for writing, Jenny. Every few days I check to see if you’ve posted something. I can’t say anything that will make it better, but I’m hoping that better days will come. I am praying for you and your lovely family. ❤️

    • Carole

      Hang in there, Jenny! I know from experience that it is so hard. All of the uncontrollable circumstances that you described (beautifully, articulately) are so so very difficult. Not to mention with PPD. I’m about a month away from delivering another baby and I am scared of the mental aftermath, especially since I have had some personal sufferings going on this past year. Lower expectations and take things one hour at a time. And pray pray pray. I will pray for you. God will not forsake us.

  • Carolyn Astfalk

    Measuring the days by what’s left in the fridge is how it’s going here too! And, oh, the dishes. So. many. dirty. dishes.

    Prayers for you in a difficult time made more difficult time by PPD. Sometimes spring is late, but it never fails.

  • Karen

    I was so happy to see you posted something! I loved your Palm Sunday post-hilarious.
    What beautiful symbolism of the hungry caterpillars that turn into butterflies. Yes-my four hungry caterpillars thrive on sugary cereal and buttery noodles in quarantine. I was laughing tears at your social distancing mass experience. I love your faith and I know Jesus does too.
    Thank you for being brave and sharing your PPD struggles. Your story helps others. SSRIs helped me with PPD. Prayers for the cloud to be lifted. Keep fighting the good fight Jenny and keep letting your light shine through your writing.

  • Annette

    I’m so sorry you’re feeling dark. Been there many, many times. Be careful if you’re starting on Nortripiline, it can cause suicidal thoughts.

    My butterfly did bust the scene two years ago. She said, “You knew this day would come.” And hurt. But she is successful, living nearby.

    Per your state, could you see friends or have 1 or 2 over now? It might help.

    We’re trying to get Mr. Champ/Also Disobedient wrestled through school. Preteen. Whadda we expect?
    Kudos and hugs if appropriate. Take care.

  • Fiona

    Have you come across the Sisters of Life podcast? Their most recent episode is about suffering and your final paragraph about the butterfly reminded me of it. I’ve found their podcast to be tremendously thought-provoking and consoling the past couple months.

  • Anna

    Dear Jenny,
    If it means anything from an internet stranger, I have been praying for you these past months. I have known the crushing weight of PPD as well.
    Going back to Mass has been harder than I expected- I hope you won’t feel badly about not being elated. Even without PPD in the mix, I think there is a lot of grief surrounding Mass still. It hurts to have been away for so many weeks, and to return under such limited, and frankly, very inconvenient conditions, especially with children in tow. It’s hard to go when so many people can’t yet. It’s hard to see only a few of my fellow parishioners instead of a packed church. I miss singing.
    Even so, I know that the Mass is such a great gift, and that Jesus in His mercy wants us in all our grief, all our confusion or annoyances, and all the bigger sufferings of mental illness.
    Praying for a good treatment for you and that you find consolation in His tender care for you.

  • Britney

    I’ve been thinking about you and your family. I will be sure to do that in prayer more often. Hang in there. I suffer from anxiety; it will get better. Blessed Mary, pray for Jenny and all mothers.

  • Elizabeth

    I am thankful you are writing and so sorry you are suffering. My mom wrestled with severe depression all through my childhood and adolescence. I know she has many regrets, but looking back as an adult, I am filled with gratitude. I am grateful she kept breathing, kept going, kept trying. She is the definition of patient endurance and she taught me how to suffer well. I couldn’t ask for more. I am praying for you!
    ““Have patience with all things but first with yourself. Never confuse your mistakes with your value as a human being. You are perfectly valuable, creative, worthwhile person simply because you exist. And no amount of triumphs or tribulations can ever change that.” – St. Francis de Sales

    • Sarah

      Elizabeth, I am a fellow soldier battling depression and anxiety on the daily. I have tears streaming down my cheeks right now after reading your comment. You cannot know what a gift it is to hear that not only are you not wounded or scarred from your mother’s depression but that you admire her for it. I have the absolute sweetest angel of a ten year old girl and I am constantly terrified that my mental health struggles are a dark shadow on her childhood. I hope one day she’s able to see how hard I fought for her. Thank you for sharing.

  • Anne

    Thank you for your honesty and openness. I find your passion for NFP in conjunction with the struggles you face after pregnancy inspiring. As a mom getting to welcome our sixth soon in the midst of high risk pregnancies every time, the world likes to tell us differently. You and Dave are in our prayers. I feel like some of your other posts have pointed to your being an avid reader. If you are looking for some reads, I found Lauraine Snelling’s The Blessing Series to be so good for the soul. Peace be with you and your crew.

  • jeanette

    “This was the time I going to get new motherhood right, dammit.”

    Well, Jenny, you said yes to having your baby, didn’t you? That’s all that is required to get it right. The rest is just life, and we have to adjust our expectations. Tell yourself you are doing fine, because you are, and most of the things that are not fine are temporary. Some might not be, and you just have to turn them all over to God and allow Him to be part of everything. You are just human and weak and are working hard to put your trust in God, not to do your will, but to do His. You are doing it, day by day, step by step. The fact that it is hard can only serve to remind you how very much you want to have God’s care and assistance. Seek it daily, hourly, minute by minute.

    Gratitude in your heart that you received holy communion is the right disposition to have, the only one that matters. Ecstasy is not. If you didn’t feel gratitude at that moment of receiving Jesus into your hand and not on your tongue, outside and not in a church, with a million new distractions surrounding you, it is because you were having to adjust to receiving Our Lord in the strangest of circumstances. It’s not that you were not really grateful, it’s that the circumstance got in the way of it, making it hard to be present to Him in that moment. In reflection, though, you are grateful.

    He wants to come to you, you want to come to Him. You did, He did. It’s a beautiful encounter that has awkwardness smeared all over it, not by you, but by the circumstances. So, receive the gift in the quiet of your soul, in those imperfect circumstances, like the imperfect circumstances of our Lord’s birth, which did not in any way ruin His actual arrival among us.

    Make an act of thanksgiving in the moment when you actually can recollect yourself. He knows the circumstances under which you received Him are difficult for all of us. He’s waiting for you in that quiet place where you will be thinking of Him, remembering what He has given to you. Even if He has to wait longer than usual, He’s very patient and understanding.

    You are right, many of us are still unable to receive Holy Communion. And you know what? It makes us extremely happy to know that other Catholics are able to do so. Next time you receive communion, be mindful of those who cannot, and receive our Lord on behalf of many, and your heart can be raised up with that thought that you can actually share what you receive in this most intimate moment with our Lord, filled with a sense of being connected with the rest of us who are still unable to receive Him. We share what we have with those who have not, and if you do that within your heart when you receive our Lord. we will be there with you in your heart, dwelling together with our Lord, united in love.

    God bless you with peace in your heart, and lift the darkness of depression that envelops you. Turn to St. Michael the Archangel often in your day. Consecrate yourself to his care. Here is a special prayer for you:


  • Abby

    Jenny, I’m so sorry you’ve been struggling these past few months and so appreciate your candor and vulnerability about it here in this space. You’ve been in my prayers ever since I first read this post, and I keep checking back regularly for updates. I notice that you’ve stepped away from social media (totally understandable – things are crazy out there!), but just want you to know you’ve been on my mind (and I’m even a bit worried). Virtual hugs to you!

  • Kayla Sanmiguel

    Mrs Uebbing, I have long appreciated your content and insights, though I have been too scared to read your latest posts. My husband died suddenly and violently nine months ago I was scared that reminders of what troubled me before that day would be too painful and jealousy-inducing. But I was wrong. I want you to know that your struggles-the hell of those moments that are too dark to communicate and too scary to endure-have and are truly helping another mama trudging through her own hell. I don’t mean to imply some sick “glad you’re miserable too,” but merely let you know that your pain has touched me, the solidarity in suffering is a tangible comfort, and I will get through this day with your recovery and health the object of my offerings. May God get us both and all these kiddos to the end of the pilgrimage.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      Oh Sweet Jesus hold this mama and her family in your Sacred Heart.

      I don’t read it as sick or twisted at all, I am, rather, deeply humbled that any small shred of my suffering could be a comfort to you. I am so grateful for your sharing this with me. I will pray for the repose of his soul and for you and your family today, and offer up a long travel day with kids tomorrow. Thank you so much.

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