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.
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.