Dear Quarantine, Normal called. You accidentally left her on hold. Kindly return her call, keep calm, and carry on.
It was March 13, and I was changing the baby's diaper right before bedtime. My husband, who is usually putting our other three children to bed, had been on the phone with his boss. We had just heard the news about the “shelter at home” mandate. He’s a power-lineman, a necessary part of a city's infrastructure, so there wasn’t much chance that the stay-at-home order would affect his job. Suddenly, he pops his head in the door and says, “We’ve been ordered to stay at home until April.”
There was a long stunned silence between the two of us, then a wide smile spread across my face, and my first thought was: This is the moment I’ve been waiting for!
At first, we thought a sudden mandatory vacation was going to be full of project completions, getting caught up on housework, spending all that quality time with the fam that we never seem to get, and overall relaxing “freedom.”
We quickly discovered that what looks like freedom is actually frustrating, stressful, and unfulfilling.
We quickly discovered that what looks like freedom is actually frustrating, stressful, and unfulfilling. It turns out our daily “boring” work was the most freeing thing we could do for ourselves when we do it with intentionality and gratitude.
Trying To Maintain “Normal” in Not Normal Circumstances
That initial surprised excitement of learning my husband was going to be at home fulltime was followed almost immediately with a sinking feeling.
The kids and I had JUST gotten into a good groove with our daily habits. I’m a homeschooling mom of four kids under seven and adding another adult to the mix at first sounded like a dream come true! But then I remembered my husband’s strengths: exceptional focus, persistence in getting a job done (regardless of meal times, bedtimes, or the sun setting), working and thinking outside the box, and researching things until his keyboard catches fire. His strengths are NOT in everyday household tasks like educating wiggling kindergarteners or patiently enforcing rules for 35 minutes until the two year old hangs up his coat.
After one week of struggling to maintain our “normal” under NOT normal circumstances, we gave in and went on vacation-mode.
However was I going to suddenly fit a spontaneous, fun-loving, adventurer-dad into our structured day-in/day-out routines? Somewhere deep down I knew that if we abandoned all our hard earned cooperation from the kids and our recently settled habits that things would begin to unravel in new and migraine-inducing ways. Nevertheless, after one week of struggling to maintain our “normal” under NOT normal circumstances, we gave in and went on vacation-mode.
My husband and I both had these wonderful ideas of endless quality time, playing with the kids, and keeping the house at a minimum level of functionality. But it’s been four weeks now, and I think my husband and I have spent a grand total of half of ONE day in peaceful quality time.
Ditching our normal routines and jumping into vacation mode got us into several serious situations. To start with, we didn’t meal plan like usual, because vacation. So when we ran out of eggs, milk, bread, and meat, we placed an Instacart order only to discover that, to our horror, it would be FIVE DAYS before it would be here! And we simply did NOT want to venture into the jungle that had become Costco.
Ditching our normal routines and jumping into vacation mode got us into several serious situations.
Secondly, we threw boundaries and discipline for the children out the window because, again, vacation. But the instant we called a timeout on our to do list and declared the first “TV day,” those super smart kids started catching on. Little by little they pushed the limits and, because we had abandoned our normal, we began to allow more and more. Bad idea.
Lastly, my husband and I didn’t communicate our individual expectations for this sudden season. I’m pretty good at spending money, and my husband is super good at saving it. So when the stimulus check hit our bank account — BAM — marital discord. One of the things scheduled into our normal day is an hour in the morning we call “Let’s Talk.” Under normal circumstances, we would have spent several mornings discussing the unique nature of our new circumstances and planning together how to spend or use this stimulus money in great detail. But we were on vacation. So no morning talks…
Discovering the Benefit of Work
In the recent pre-pandemic past, my husband and I found ourselves wishing we had more time, feeling trapped in the humdrum of “go to work, come home, have one hour of family time, go to sleep, and do it all over again tomorrow.” I’m a stay-at-home mom and business owner, and I homeschool our four children. Time and energy are things that are strictly rationed. I would frequently dream of a day when my husband would also work from home and we would clean, cook, parent, and educate together…
But once that dreamy reality was presented to us with the quarantine, we quickly realized that time and energy were NOT what we had been lacking. Being given a six week free pass on normal life had seemed like a great idea, but it only resulted in chaos, conflict, and stress. The reason our staycation didn’t measure up to our expectations is because we were made for meaningful work. As humans, we have a fundamental need and subconscious desire for meaningful and challenging work. Yet we consistently and enthusiastically resist it and the happiness it will bring us!
We need the ability to hold on to a series of habits and routines that transcends any world crisis or health issues.
In this chaotic time, we can take inspiration from the wisdom of monks, who have lived by a “rule of life” throughout the centuries, no matter what was going on in the outside world (famine, plague, war, peace, etc.). This monastic “rule” is simply a system of daily habits and routines, infused with times for work, quiet, prayer, and recreation. The monks can teach us that consistent completion of daily tasks brings us fulfillment. Their systems even included relaxation time! In my own experience, when relaxation feels “earned,” it’s substantially more relaxing. When it’s exclusive, it’s more potent. When it has been “planned” into your average day, the rest of your work seems doable, because you know you have “scheduled” a reward later on.
This is what we’re lacking in our daily lives right now — the discipline and strength to maintain our normal. We need the ability to hold on to a series of habits and routines that transcends any world crisis or health issues. To paraphrase an anonymous Navy Seal, “We rarely rise to the occasion; we simply fall to the level of our training.”
I learned there is a power and a goodness in the faithful completion of simple daily tasks — whether they be dishes, diaper changes, cleaning up job sites, or changing out a transformer. When we abandon our normal work, we fall into discord and confusion, and the freedom we think we’re chasing turns out to be a beast. A beast that is looking to consume our lives with “what if’s” and “if only’s” to distract us from the simple, clear truth: we were made to work and to work with love.
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