Reflections On A New Normal
We have heard a lot of talk recently about getting back to normal. I am deeply grateful to be among the living at this point in our pandemic history, and while I would love if COVID-19 were no longer a global threat, I’m not so sure that going back to normal is ever possible.
I certainly don’t want to go back to the “normal” when I rushed through the workweek to get to the weekend that never lasted long enough to rush through the school months to get to a holiday break that became my catch-up-on-work time. Catch your breath yet? That kind of normal had me stressed out and tired most days—physically and mentally.
The pandemic has taken so much from so many, and I want us to be on the other side of it, as a fully vaccinated public protected from the coronavirus and its variants, where we can be out with family and friends without fearing for our lives. I am not in a rush, however, to get back to my old normal. And normal will never be the same for me because of two very important lessons I learned about mothering during this pandemic.
First, after repeated failed attempts -- emphasis on repeated and failed -- to “help” my son through his academic struggles, I received some advice from my partner that brought clarity and relief, and because the advice concerned school, my area of expertise in the house, I almost didn’t listen. But I was desperate. I had become a hyper-controlling monitor of school work and an anxious mess every time I opened the online gradebook. [Think of me as the in-school suspension teacher.]
The advice was simple and painful at the same time. I had become a teacher to Nicholas, and what he needed during these difficult times was his mom. For many months, my thirteen-year-old son lived at the inconsolable intersection of sadness and anger about being only one of two virtual learners in his seventh grade class. Instead of sitting with him and his pain, I shifted my attention to something I felt I could control. I wanted him to do all things concerning school exactly the way I told him to do things. I was the teaching expert, after all.
COVID-19 was the tipping point I needed to learn that what is best for my son is that he has to write his own educational story. I had to stop writing it for him. His successes needed to be his and his failures too (though this one is still very much a work in progress).
To let go in this way and be fully present, no matter the emotional experience, takes a great deal of energy, which brings me to the second important lesson.
I didn’t learn this second lesson for the first time because of the pandemic, but the pandemic definitely emphasized its importance. I have only so much energy, and good health is a necessary prerequisite for my emotional tank. My son deserves more than a part-time mom running on empty most days. Institutions are not set up to see women faculty who mother as fully human, and though administrators may remind us to take care, they rarely, if ever, create the conditions for us to do so.
Yes, I will continue to speak up about structural realities that sap our energy and make us sick, but without institutional change or enough collective resistance on behalf of it, I have learned (thanks again, Audre Lorde) that the most radical action I can take up as a justice scholar is to care for my (Black) self. And my Black son.
The intersection of my economic privilege and accommodations to work from home during the pandemic provided some more time for prioritizing my health. I’m up to one hour of exercise each weekday. Yes, you heard me right. I can confirm that COVID-19 miracles are indeed possible. This from the same person who said definitively that exercise kills people.
I begin each workday with 1.5 miles of fast walking/slow jogging, 20 minutes of simple yoga, and 10 minutes of some kind of soulful mindfulness practice (shout out to Dr. Shelly Harrell’s Year of Wisdom and Healing Program).
I took Roxanne’s advice -- based on psychological science research, of course -- to pair something I hate (exercise) with something I loved (reading for pleasure), but never found time to do since my son was born, which was more than 13 years ago. So, I now listen to audiobooks while I workout.
Technically, I’m still not reading for pleasure, but I have listened to quite a few exquisitely written novels and memoirs (shout out to Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, Colson Whitehead, and Tressie McMillan Cottom) while cursing my way through my 50 minutes of exercise.
I see a connection between my focus on health and my ability to provide the emotional support my son needs as he figures out how to navigate schools without my training wheels. I don’t think I could have fully done one without fully doing the other.
I am headed back to normal (still masked up in public) very gradually and carefully, carrying forward these two very important lessons. I do so accepting that we may never return to normal again. And that’s totally fine with me.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy, including the Mothering in Color series for WellAcademic. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life.