If there’s an upside to being cooped at home with your loved-ones 24/7 for the best part of a year, it’s that the enforced closeness may bring real emotional closeness. Apparently, for 61 percent of Brits, lockdown has filled them with the heartwarming realisation that their relationships are the most important thing. For some couples at the early stages of their relationships, lockdown has even “turbocharged” their love-lives and fuelled intimacy.
Not to be a killjoy, but no. Just no. As much as I love my family, the end of lockdown heralds freedom. The freedom to breathe freely without having to pick up dirty cups and plates, sweet wrappers and apple cores from every nook and cranny in the house – all day long. The freedom to go to the loo without being called, without a family drama kicking off, or sudden screams from bickering kids. Not only that. I’m fantasizing about when I can flee. Go on holiday with similarly pandemic- and family-worn women friends of my age, or even just on my own.
The joys of the first lockdown
Actually, this is unfair of me. Lockdown 1 was bonding. In the sunny novelty days of the loveliest spring in England on record, spending whole days with my husband and kids, it dawned on me that I was lucky. We all were. As a family we got on – not everyone did. We not only loved each other, but we genuinely liked each other and enjoyed doing things together.
When I think of Lockdown 1 it evokes a certain strange nostalgia. I seemed to have blanked out the horrible bits of the early pandemic – the TV images of crammed, chaotic hospitals worldwide, people dying of Covid at home alone, shoppers fighting over loo rolls in the supermarket, and the utter confusion and fear that ran through the country. Perhaps it’s the mind’s capacity for hanging onto the good things, but instead I remember family walks in Epping Forest spying shy deer in slanting sunbeams, or baby rabbits at the cavernous roots of ancient trees; strolls in the park “bumping” into half a dozen acquaintances at a distance; and when it was permitted, family picnics with friends over chilled wine and homemade falafels. There was also a feeling then, that this was just a temporary blip. Be good, follow the rules, and it will all be over soon.
Lockdown 2 came and went
Lockdown 2 barely registered with me as the kids were back at school, allowing me and my partner some breathing space, and giving our teen and tween the social life and outside stimulation they needed.
Coping with the lockdown that changed everything
Fast-forward to January 2021, and what a contrast. Lockdown 3 has been a gruelling, unremitting marathon of domestic drudgery. It’s brought me to my knees – psychologically, relationship-wise and financially. And I can’t help thinking that the reasons for that are embedded in my roles as woman in midlife – a wife, a mother, a friend and a self-employed worker. The sheer weight of responsibility has at times felt overwhelming, and is not something my husband has experienced to the same extent. And that inequality has done our relationship no favours. Far from bringing us closer, the last lockdown brought out tensions, caused rows and ground us down as a family.
Why was coping with Lockdown 3 the straw that broke the camel’s back? Was it the cumulative fatigue of a year of lockdowns? Was it the miserable weather? The short winter days? All of the above. But for me, the real clincher was the closure of schools coupled with the government’s unhelpfully ambiguous messaging this time round of “Stay at home…” unless, er…you can’t. This meant unlike the first lockdown where he worked from home, my husband was physically called into work four long days a week.
Employers in the private sector – so understanding and flexible the first time – were back to business-as-usual in their thinking. Gone was the humanity, the “hope you’re doing okay” attitude of Lockdown 1, back was the presenteeism. No slack was given for struggling families. In fact, my husband felt pressurised to get results, and that he and other colleagues who were parents were being scrutinised the way non-parents weren’t. All this meant I had to take the load off him at home, and put my own work and needs to the back of the queue. In short, I turned into a 1950s housewife.
There was a cold beer waiting in the fridge, a home-cooked dinner on the table and clean house to return to every night. Kids homeschooled, fed and watered, walked in the park for daily exercise, by the time he returned. Still, all this was do-able, if frustrating and tiring. But the real crunch point, the real heart-stopping stress and anxiety for me, was the worrying changes in the kids’ behaviour that I felt I had to manage alone.
The change in my children
Both kids became subdued. Our nine-year-old daughter, normally the kind-hearted joker of the family, became withdrawn and angry. My days were spent calming her down as the slightest, most unpredictable thing – a watermark on her fork, her favourite top in the wash, could provoke a full-blown, half hour tantrum. “I hate you!” became her hourly mantra. And although I might expect something like this (although not so often) in her teenage years, I didn’t expect it now.
The normal discipline I might have employed fell away – how could I take away screen time when she had to go online for school? Or when her playing on the iPad gave me a precious window in which to cook dinner? I was also painfully aware of how unsettled my daughter was. How scary it must have felt to her to have all the parameters of her world – school, friends, clubs, stripped away so suddenly; and where adults, even those in authority, appeared to have no control over events. I knew I had to meet her anger with firm boundaries set with nothing but love and empathy. But to remain calm when I was exhausted and anxious myself, took every ounce of remaining strength I had.
From bad to worse
As the weeks wore on, things only got worse. My daughter refused to do online school lessons. She started to develop a phobia of imagined bugs. It took hours to get her to stay in her bed every night as every speck threw her into panicked tears that there were strange insects in her room.
My teenage son, unable to air his own worries with the level of high drama in the house, withdrew to his room and stoically got on with his schooling. He stopped communicating with friends online. He seemed to have given up.
The one person in charge
I felt all this was on my shoulders while my husband escaped to work. I became a teary nervous wreck. Throughout the lockdowns, I’d have regular Zooms, or walks with friends when permitted. Even though I’d realised how wonderfully restorative and nurturing some of my friendships were – and even had new friendships blossom in the pandemic, I no longer had the energy to talk, text or email anybody. Instead I worried about friends too, those struggling with children or elderly parents, or living alone.
And then – just like that, it lifted. As schools in England reopened on 8 March, a family pressure valve released. Within a week my children were themselves again. A peace has been restored in the house. The lockdown highlighted the gender inequalities in my marriage, and we’re still recovering from its effects. But we are recovering. It has focused my mind in terms of getting what I need from life. I need to get out of the house. Have a holiday. Get a job that isn’t working from home all the time. See friends. Take time for myself. To enjoy and cherish the good bits of my relationships: my daughter’s restored gentleness and sense of fun, my teenager’s newfound chattiness; my husband’s thoughtful kindnesses – the gorgeous surprise cocktails he brings me when I’m on Zooms with friends – a legacy of his lockdown hobby.
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