In February of this year, before we knew much about Covid-19, the entire family got sick for a month. I had just begun a daily exercise regimen and had plans to do more freelance work. Instead I became a full-time nurse. The girls had fevers for 10 days straight and were out of school for at least two weeks. But poor Thorsten was sickest of all and was in bed for the better part of a month. Amidst everything it was impossible to keep up with exercise or work, so I just stopped. The days and nights were long and I felt like I was walking through molasses. We still wonder if it was an early case of Corona but we don’t know.
The whole experience revealed to me that marriage and motherhood require a lot of service, a lot of serving. It seems that should’ve been obvious, but I got very worried that I just didn’t have it in me. I wanted my husband and children to feel the love of a selfless woman, I just wasn’t convinced that I could manage to be that woman. Not very gracefully I was making it work but at times I felt like a nanny or an actual servant –unappreciated, overlooked, exhausted and kind of bitter. Surely a better woman would’ve relished the opportunity to care for everyone. What was wrong with me?
For a while I tried to be more cheery, but the sickness dragged on and no one seemed to be getting better, especially not Thorsten. Then I was not just exhausted but also worried. The trouble is: I never seem worried when I’m worried. Instead I seem angry and unpleasant. That is usually because I’m afraid. All this added up to a very unconvincing portrayal of a nurse maid. My people were too sick to point this out to me but at least one of them noticed. As a way to make myself feel better, I would make jokes about it. Skyping with my mom I said things like, If I had known that marriage and motherhood required so much serving; I might never have signed up. It felt better to say it out loud and have a good laugh than keep it in and have a good cry.
Even when everybody wasn’t sick, the expected weekly and daily house work made me sure that domestic life and I were a terrible match. I had resented cleaning from the very beginning. Aside from the fact that I’m not a magician with a mop or a wizard with the laundry, I had little interest in learning to become either of those things. I didn’t move to Germany to become a cleaning lady. It’s a thankless, mindless job, I thought. I have a Master’s degree, what has happened to my life? This is the rabbit hole I let my brain go down every time I cleaned the toilet. Embarrassed and sad, I was sure it was a grave indication of the status of my marriage and my heart.
Little by little everyone recovered. I rejoiced that everyone was healthy again and tried to forget my feelings from that month altogether. Then in mid-March the Corona hit and we learned that a quarantine was imminent.
When I first heard the word quarantine, I felt like I might drown. Waves of memories from that month of sickness washed over me and I grasped at any changes I could think of that might make our daily life more survivable. I felt like the girls were just going to run over me from morning to night. Without preschool, I thought, how will I get a break? I felt terrified. But as a result of the terror, my fear of asking too much for myself disappeared. Suddenly it became apparent that if I didn’t put on my own mask before I helped the others I was going to die of asphyxiation.
Shaking my head, I said something like, Well, I’m going to have to find some kind of time… for me, for exercise. Desperate, I imagined various scenarios.
At that moment, Thorsten heard me. He responded, If we don’t have to drive them to preschool, I can take them from 7-9 every morning. My eyes widened. I was only going to ask him for 30 minutes a day and he had offered 2 hours. It was a windfall and I accepted immediately. A big sigh of relief followed and so did the first 35 days of quarantine.
From Day 1, I took those 2 hours that he offered very seriously. Not wanting to miss a minute, I jumped out of bed at 7am every morning. At the end of the first week, I wondered if I should give myself weekends off. Hell no, I realized. I savored those hours and each day was better for it. I spent the time writing, learning to practice meditation and walking the woods. I went right on walking. Every day for what turned out to be 100 days in total.
100 days of staying home with my people changed things significantly for us.
First, it made me seriously appreciate the fact that no one was sick. A quarantine with healthy people is another world compared to caring all day and night for sick ones. It’s amazing how life throws you lemons at just the right moment so that later you can recognize the sweet taste of the lemonade.
Most miraculously, being quarantined changed my attitude about the house work. Suddenly we were really living in our home–Four of us, all 24 hours of everyday. Cleaning became an absolute necessity. I didn’t want the girls playing or walking around in dirt or dust or hairballs. I personally didn’t want to be in a dirty bathroom. I wanted clean, fresh spaces for us. Cleaning became something useful and important in our lives, something that mattered to me. More, it was a real challenge. The pressure to get it done efficiently while juggling activities for the little maniacs, made it difficult but also kind of fun. The clean house became something satisfying and I was the one who made it happen. Suddenly and very weirdly I felt empowered.
The empowerment (as it does) filtered into the other parts of our family life and quarantine time became kind of awesome.
The rhythm we developed in that four months is the rhythm we are still using even though the girls are back in preschool. We have a system in the morning that gets everybody out the door in less than an hour. The other day Thorsten said, Phew I didn’t think we were going to make it this morning. I know, I said in response, but I feel like a pro now! Man, I was so sick of feeling like an amateur.
And that’s the thing–I never considered the fact that it took me a lifetime to become a professional ballerina, a decade to become an effective teacher, years to become a horticulturist. Why did I expect the transition to bi-lingual wife, mother, cleaning lady, house keeper, recipe developer, buyer, travel coordinator, and cook– to be instant?
The 100 days of quarantine functioned like an intensive workshop for finally creating and experiencing a regular home life all together. Experience is what makes a person a pro and experience takes time. The quarantine gave that to me.
When I think about the time before the quarantine, I see a tired woman who didn’t listen to her own voice, who didn’t see that she had choices. It was never that I didn’t love my people. It’s just I think we’ve gotten the wrong message about what selfless love is. Self-less leaves the most important part out. You. To truly love people you can’t be self-less, you have to be self –more. You have to love with your whole self. You can’t disappear to love people. It is clear to me now that it was me who didn’t appreciate me, me who didn’t see me. I see now that to make a home for my family, I needed to make a home for me, to feel at home in my own soul, in my own skin. All the colors of my life came vividly into focus when I took ownership of my time and my space.
I’m not saying I miraculously became a person who likes cleaning but I can say that life doesn’t feel like a service job anymore. The feelings of resentment have disappeared. I don’t feel like the cleaning lady. I feel like the CEO.
Many of us live like we are moons. Only glowing from someone else’s reflection. Things change when you start living like you are the sun. It’s your light that powers the whole production.