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Up Close and Personal

My husband and I have been in our home working virtually, and assisting our children’s virtual learning, for just shy of one year. In this phase of our life, we’ve worked hard to see the benefits. Time together, sleeping in a little later, and healthier meals (even if it means I have to—eye roll—cook more). But the biggest gain for me in all this has been learning more about how my husband and children function, realizations that had largely gone unnoticed when we were all rushing off to different places during the day.

Broadly speaking, my husband Jim is always moving—a puppy-like compulsion. My oldest, Lowery, is overly worried about following the rules. And my youngest, London, well, a more free-spirited and emotional person I have not met. (When it comes to assisting in the virtual learning of our children, we are constantly telling our oldest to take a break from her studies, while constantly telling our youngest to stop dancing and please put on some pants.)

These are things I already knew.

But now, after ten months of exhaustive time together, I’ve seen up close what those attributes mean in the context of what’s going on around us. How it manifests in times of strife, or uncertainty, or boredom, or anxiety. Let’s break it down.

Jim: My husband is a thin man. Having watched how he eats during the past decade, I’ve long chalked up his physique to a fortunate genetic trait. And this theory carries most of the weight, except for the fact that the man also never stops moving. Ever. He would also tell me he gets in a lot of steps at work—which, by the way, is in an office; he’s not a letter carrier or a Zumba instructor. But a few years back, when we were both wearing FitBits and competing against one another, I couldn’t believe that by lunchtime every day he had already hit 10,000 steps. I just assumed he was vigorously waving his arms while sitting at his desk, and I frequently challenged his results at the end of the day.

But, since March of last year, Jim and I have been sharing our home office, working side-by-side during the day. And a few months in, I began to realize that his FitBit may have actually been undercounting the man’s movement.

In the beginning, I would get annoyed at how much he would rise from his desk chair and pace around our tiny, shared space, often flicking a pen in his hands as he did. I’d roll my eyes at the number of times he’d walk in and out of the kitchen. I’d sigh (loudly enough for him to hear) every time his right leg bounced up and down in quick spasms under his desk.

What’s perhaps surprising about this is that Jim is a very calm, measured, rational—even serious—man. He’s not what you would call hyper. And yet, watching him the past year, it’s as if his personality and his body live in separate realms. One that can’t move fast enough, and one that needs three years of research before buying a car.

Despite knowing (and loving) this man for 15 years, I feel like in some ways I’m just now seeing him. Or, maybe more accurately, I’m just now seeing how much of this—this constant movement—is who he is. And that lying around on a Sunday morning in his pjs is not the man’s idea of relaxing. But somehow running up and down the stairs in our house for a pen, then paper, then a binder clip (dear god, why can’t he just grab everything he needs on the first trip!!) is as relaxing to him as a deep tissue massage.

But then, when the man lies down—and for him, that’s anything less than a 90-degree angle—he’s out. Like a corpse. Unshakeable. Unwakeable. After a day of constant movement, his long, lean, elegant body falls into such a deep sleep that not even my slaps on his arm to stop his snoring will wake him.

What have I learned about my husband by witnessing him without a break for the past 10 months? Underneath his calm demeanor is boundless energy. And I’m grateful for the momentum he brings to our life together.

Lowery: About three years ago my older daughter turned from a precocious, strong-willed chatterbox into a precocious, strong-willed chatterbox who cares deeply about rules, justice, and responsibility. This sounds like an easy enough—perhaps even subtle—transition. It was anything but. Lowery’s anxiety (a lovely trait she inherited from me) came on in full force when she became aware that rules were in place and that she could be judged (or worse, punished) for not abiding.

For three years—before the pandemic was a thing—Lowery’s anxiety took us all through some of the hardest years we’ve endured together. She would become so concerned for doing things the right way, the best way, that we often couldn’t calm her down the night before a spelling test. Her teachers would note how well-behaved she was in class and what a tremendously good attitude she brought to her learning. But the minute we’d get her home, she’d cave under the pressure of it all and we’d spend most evenings working to calm her down.

One month before the pandemic hit, we had set an appointment with a professional to help Lowery develop better coping skills. That appointment was canceled, for obvious reasons, and suddenly my anxiety skyrocketed to an all-time high. How were we going to help our child, who was clearly struggling? Jim nervously paced.

And then a funny thing happened. It’s as if overnight the anxiety became beneficial. As virtual learning picked up, her anxiety made sure she was logging into Zoom calls without us reminding her. It ensured she got all of her assignments uploaded by the due date. It insisted she study for her quizzes before taking them. Her anxiety seemed to sit beside her—rather than in the driver’s seat—guiding her through the virtual world thrust upon her. And in that, she was suddenly relaxed, laughing, and enjoying herself.

But beyond school, I noticed her anxiety manifesting as responsibility in other spaces. For one, she suddenly wanted to take full responsibility for the dogs. She’d feed them, play with them, even brush their hair at night. And she was suddenly concerned with keeping her room organized and her bed made each morning. She was the one who reminded us all to grab our masks before leaving the house. She reminded her younger sister to wash her hands. She’d even get on to us when she felt we weren’t getting enough time outside each day.

For a few months I couldn’t quite understand it. She used to be in the throes of panic attacks and now she was humming while she vacuumed the living room rug. But what I realized was happening, is that without the added pressure of other people’s expectations, she was free to set and meet her own. And that seemed to give her great relief.

And it dramatically changed my relationship with her. It was as if we became equals—able to talk about our anxiety as if we were lamenting the burden of brushing our teeth. Further, I really began to enjoy her. Not to say I didn’t before, but I was just so immersed in helping her, working with her, holding her, consoling her, that the idea of just soaking her up never even occurred to me as something I would one day experience. And yet here I am, enjoying the hell out of my 9-year-old daughter, who seems to have grabbed hold of her biggest struggle, wrestled it to the ground and said, “I’m in charge now.”

What have I learned about Lowery by witnessing her without a break for the past 10 months? Her anxiety isn’t something that needs fixing—it’s the best part about her. And I’m grateful to get to share this aspect of myself with her.

London: My younger daughter emerged from me—as all siblings do—so much different than her older sister. Calmer, quieter, much more easy-going. As she grew, we began to see that she was also quite introverted. Her sister needed (and still needs) constant communication. But from a very early age, London could play quietly by herself for hours. As a baby, when she was able to sit up, she’d push her toys to the corner of the room and sit with her back to us and play. This was a gift when we were so deep into working with Lowery’s anxiety. London was also a much sillier kid—clever, funny, animated. As if the burdens of the world, those that had always pulled her sister down, would never burden her.

But then the pandemic hit and the dynamic shifted.

And with it, London went from calm to practically electrified. Suddenly, instead of being her usual easygoing self, she was anything but. With Lowery feeling calmer, more confident, secure, and even self-satisfied, London seemed to be completely inconsolable. Everything made her cry—scream even—and she seemed so angry, so full of rage, that I barely recognized her.

Jim and I became consumed—depressed even—by her fits. We would often hug each other before we called her down for dinner as an act of solidarity for the rage we knew was coming. Everything made her mad: wearing a mask, washing her hands, eating dinner, bedtime, blinking. Everything we said or asked her to do was a personal insult. I could not figure out what was happening or how to make it stop.

Last week, I was at my desk having a good cry while reading about the current events in our country. I assumed the girls were busy with school and therefore I had some level of privacy, but London had wandered into our office and saw me with my head in my hands. She came and stood close to me and put her hand on my back and rested her head on my shoulder. When I had calmed myself, and raised my head to meet her gaze, I realized she was crying, too. Why hadn’t I realized this before? The kid is an empath through and through. Her disappearing into her room (or scooting into the corner) to play by herself may not have been as much a sign of introversion as much as it was a coping mechanism. It made sense; she did it the most when Lowery was deep in her anxiety. The pandemic, then, was the worst situation for London—tensions, fear, and worry are at an all-time high, and we are trapped together with nowhere for her to escape it.

And while I didn’t have a clue the best way to handle this, I did have a hunch. I began telling her every feeling I had. My fear, my worry, my happiness, my boredom. I named them and insisted we all do the same. I explained that feeling all kinds of feelings, even the super sad and uncomfortable feelings, is a good thing. And while I can’t say that just naming emotions is always enough for London to feel better, it has changed things around here. I have noticed that once we name our emotions, discuss them, and accept them, they seem to hang in the air, rather than on the shoulders of my littlest. And when her shoulders are light, you can find her jumping around in her room to her prized Greatest Showman soundtrack—without pants on—and singing at the top of her lungs.

What have I learned about London by witnessing her without a break for the past 10 months? London’s free spirit is only truly free when the burdens of her emotions are lifted. And I’m grateful to be someone who can make her feel lighter.

Not every lesson is easy to learn, of course. Nor is knowledge always welcome. But in the cases of the three people whom I love the most, I’m grateful for the lessons and the knowledge. I sometimes wonder what they’ve observed in me during all this. Were they aware how much I talk to myself when I’m working? Are they surprised by how easily I cry? Did they know I use the bathroom this much?

Hopefully there is at least one thing they’ve learned about me by witnessing me without a break for the past 10 months:

I can’t take my eyes off of them.


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