We're still here
Somehow, another pandemic holiday season is upon us.
At my last full-time job, we had a monthly tradition of acknowledging employees’ birthdays and work anniversaries. When birthdays were announced, everyone would shout, “Happy!” When someone’s work anniversary was shared, the group would exclaim, “Still here!”
I was fascinated by how differently everyone would say “still here.” The coworkers that, presumably, were content in their jobs shouted it with glee. The folks that I assumed to be less happy said it with a bit of resignation. When an especially big work anniversary was announced—15, 20, 25 years of employment—the collective response hovered somewhere between awe and dread.
As of today, we are one year, eight months, and 19 days into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Billy, baby, and I are still here.
In many ways, Billy and I are still living our lives like we did in the early days of the pandemic. Except now, there’s a little less anxiety, a little more knowledge, and a little new person whom our lives revolve around. There are also vaccines, which protect me and Billy but aren’t yet available for said little person. In hopes of shielding her from the virus, we keep doing the things we’ve done since March 2020—getting grocery pickup orders, dining only outside, and opting not to travel long distances or be in large groups of people.
While both Billy and I feel good about our choices, we are also suffering the consequences of remaining extra cautious. We’re less connected to friends. Our house feels especially small. Time and again, we wonder whether we’re overreacting or underreacting in any given situation. We also wonder when we’ll finally feel like we can relax a little and interact with the world again.
For us, like many couples who have gotten pregnant and given birth during this period, it’s impossible to separate our experience of parenthood from our experience of the pandemic. Are we lonely because of COVID or because it’s hard to socialize with a little one? Are we anxious because of the virus or because we’re now responsible for a vulnerable child? We know we've become different people, but it’s unclear how much we’ve changed as a result of the pandemic or parenthood. I’m not even sure whether the distinction matters.
One year, eight months, and 19 days is a long time. I’m really feeling it right now.
We are officially in the midst of another pandemic holiday season—and all of the confusing risk assessments that come with it. Once again, we have to weigh the likelihood of virus exposure; determine what boundaries we want to set with others (and how to maintain those boundaries); and navigate the new logistics of things like traveling, testing, and simply being out in the world.
It’s a lot.
This is a tender subject, one that can be challenging to discuss with others. It’s hard to talk about COVID risk assessments and personal choices without coming across as defensive or judgmental. It’s even harder to approach this topic with someone who vehemently disagrees with your views—someone who is anti-vaxx or anti-mask or angry at the world for whatever reason.
I hesitated before writing this essay for fear of sounding like our approach to the pandemic is somehow superior or safer than others. That’s not at all the case. There are plenty of times that Billy and I wonder whether we’re being too cautious. There are other times we question if we’re being cautious enough.
We’ve been through a lot over the past year-plus. We had a baby, made a house into a home, and have done what we can to feel safe and sane. We’ve experienced many milestones, the majority of which we haven’t been able to properly celebrate and share with others.
We’ve missed out on a lot, too. We haven’t traveled anywhere. We attempted one disastrous evening out, and haven’t gone on a date night since. We’ve seen only a handful of friends. Our daughter, now 13 months old, has never been inside a retail store, restaurant, or museum.
The constant calculating of risks and turning down of invitations is exhausting. The isolation can be overwhelming. And, as yet another variant emerges, the future can seem grim. It’s hard to imagine doing this for much longer. By this point, though, it’s also hard to imagine not doing this.
I’m not writing to ask for or offer advice. I’m not looking for reassurance about COVID case rates or risk levels. I’m sharing this because there’s a chance that someone on the other side of the screen may also be feeling frustrated or anxious about upcoming holiday gatherings. I’m extending a (freshly sanitized) hand to anyone else who is feeling isolated and exhausted.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the times when we need advice versus needing to be heard. Right now, I want to be heard. I want to commiserate with other people in similar situations to mine and connect with those who are in a different reality, without fear or judgment or defensiveness. I want to be honest about the loneliness and exhaustion I’m feeling.
We’re still here. All of us are still here. Your version of still here undoubtedly looks different than mine, but I bet parts of it feel the same. I’m feeling tired, wary, and frustrated. You might be feeling that way, too.
And yet, I keep thinking back to my former coworkers and the different ways they’d shout those two words. Still here is also a declaration of resilience, of gratitude, of awe. We are still here. Can you believe it?
p.s. Remember when I invited you all to fill out this survey? In this Friday’s subscriber-only issue, I’m going to share some of the feedback I received along with a sneak preview of how this newsletter will change in 2022. Curious? Become a subscriber to get all the details!
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Catherine is one of those readers that every writer dreams of. She is encouraging and thoughtful, and is eager to offer her own perspective and stories in response to various topics. I’ve learned so much from her this year!
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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who is also, amazingly, still here—thanks to the strength she finds in her family and friends. Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash.