Animals in captivity often display repetitive functionless behaviours. Watching my six-year-old pace the yard last week I felt a palpable grief for what he is going through. It reminded me of a haggard tiger I once saw in a zoo – not a place I think I’ll ever feel right visiting again after lockdown.
he tiger also paced, it had a funny head-shaking movement and bald patches that further reading makes me think might have been as a result of over-grooming – another example of repetitive functionless behaviour that is often seen in captive animals. Not a problem anyone in my family is experiencing – in pandemic I have embraced under-grooming: keeping my hair in permanent braids and just washing the fringe over the sink. Such a time-saver and a pandemic behaviour I may just bring with me to the world beyond lockdown – whenever and whatever that might be.
Captivity seems like a slightly histrionic word to use for what we’re experiencing right now, but downplaying the trauma and impact of lockdown was me in week five. Me in week 11 has a new plan. I want to haul my demented self and my three wild, pacing, snarling children down to the Dáil and I want to unleash them on our non-government. I relay the plan to my husband.
“I’m going down there and I’m going to get the lads to do their number twos into balloons and then we’re going to hurl them at the building. Like water bombs but they’re shite bombs, see?”
Oh, he sees. It’s hardly a subtle gesture. We give a significant portion of our lunch-break over to troubleshooting the issue of getting feces into balloons. “Ugh whatever,” I eventually sigh, “maybe I’ll just kick Simon Harris in the shins.”
“Why Simon? Poor chap, if anyone needs our sympathy it’s him. He desperately needs his colour done. He’s suffering more than anyone.”
He’s joking but he’s not wrong. With a crisis of such magnitude, there is literally no end to the different genres of suffering that different groups are coping with. At any given moment, from my pit of self-pity, I am imploring myself: think of the essential workers, think of the frontline healthcare providers, think of the old, think of the young, the poor, the employed, the unemployed, the business owners, the homeless, the people with underlying conditions. The various inventive ways this pandemic has annihilated us would be impressive if it were not so devastating.
The comparison game of “At least we’re not (insert dire circumstance here)” is a useful way of shutting many of us up about how acutely difficult this is. However, I look at my little section of society and I have to call it. Families are under a corrosive and damaging pressure right now and I am worried.
During the last recession, “the squeezed middle” became a popular theory. Though originating in the US, here in this country it became synonymous with that section of society that were essentially not doing well enough to actually do well and not doing badly enough to qualify for assistance. There’s many iterations of this. Take, for example, parents of children with special needs who will often dread the “mild” diagnosis, knowing that it will bring reduced service hours and therefore less essential help. Or those who hover around a certain tax bracket. I have a relatively low salary and I know, in terms of tax, it’s better for me to turn down work rather than stray upwards and occupy the lower end of the higher tax bracket. I didn’t even claim state maternity benefit this year because as a freelancer I am required to pay tax on that paltry sum so it made more sense to forgo the free money and just keep working.
Right now, in pandemic the average working family represents the squeezed middle. We are providing a large portion of the workforce, we are providing the entire childcare and education solutions. We are close to breaking and are receiving virtually no concessions in all this. We make up a significant cog in the national “keep the show on the road” machine but I’m worried that the mental wellness of parents and children is under threat.
This week a colleague asked me if I would record a video of my daily life as a working mother in lockdown. I was tempted to just send her the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now. What is family life like in pandemic? The word that keeps coming up is “relentless”. For the first eight weeks, it was chaotic. My husband and I essentially drop-kicked children and laptops and homeschool and scooters and bikes and Lego and phones back and forth at each other all day long. We were constantly one foot in an inbox or Zoom meeting. The only real break was provided by the two hours of respite provided by the film we put on for our kids every day at 4pm. Though calling that respite is a joke as we desperately tried to get on top of our separate jobs and still care for our newborn. Bedtime for the kids meant finally we only had one child to mind – though for me, as the food source for said child, 7pm-10pm is a marathon of fussing, pacing, swaying, rocking, breastfeeding, winding, crying and attempting to watch TV. At 10pm, nothing particularly changes but I relocate to bed to commence the night portion of the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week relentlessness. So yeah, Apocalypse Now but with more screaming.
Finally, we admitted defeat and my husband, using parental leave, has been able to temporarily reduce his work to a three-day week. For the last few weeks, we have divided the week and we each get three full dedicated working days. It has helped somewhat.
Yesterday I Googled “Is it postnatal depression or pandemic?” My youngest child is three months old. Unsurprisingly, the results were not particularly satisfying. It seems, according to one article, pandemic is providing “perfect conditions” for postnatal depression.
In the last three months of pandemic, I never considered that I too have an underlying condition. On and off over the last 13 years I have been treated for my mental illness. It’s always been a knotty thing to name, starting as it did with a bad drug trip in 2007, it has taken many forms from the hallucinatory to the paranoid to the depressed to the delusional. Fun times. An upside of being so mental for so long is that I am very connected with support. My psychiatrist will take my calls, I attend regular group therapy over Zoom, I take my medicine every day. Still I worry.
This next part will (I hope) not to be too familiar to many readers but a toxic crutch that has accompanied some of my more acute bouts of mental illness is self-harm and while I haven’t given in yet, the frequency that the idea of doing it slides into my head provides a very tangible marker for me of how bad this is getting. And I am not alone. Families everywhere are feeling, if not this exactly, then certainly close to kicking someone in the shins.