The pressure is getting to me.
In early March, when word of social distancing and working from home began to spread but before official plans were put into place, I was terrified and filled with anxiety. I knew exactly what it meant for me. While some in my community rejoiced for the time away and their ability to pause, reflect, and regroup, I dreaded the thought of cohabitating, and saw my path to enlightenment in my ability to communicate 24/7 with the man I divorced, with whom I co-parent two children.
Career-wise 2019 was a big year for me. After working from home since my daughter was born in 2012, I began a new job. I went from being a work-at-home mom, freelance producer, and photographer to a full-time line producer at the Public Theater. Just before I began the job, I was the recipient of the first PAAL Childcare Grant for a mother of color artist. This marked my entrance into a new community I have been grateful to be part of. Overnight I went from being home with my children, picking them up from school, talking with the moms on the walk back, and making impromptu play dates to hiring a sitter for after school, taking peak hour trains, going to openings and awards, and speaking at events, like Women’s Day on Broadway. I began to feel this excitement and grounding in my new position, having been finally thrust into the next level of a world I first dreamed of participating in while home with my kids, freelancing, running a reading series, and hustling my way to an Obie award as part of Harlem9 in 2014, a week before giving birth to my son on the sidewalk. The PAAL grant enabled me to afford the childcare I now needed my first few weeks at work in my new life. Working full-time outside of the house again was one of the most exhausting yet empowering times. After years of being put down as “less than” in my marriage, I had found other like-minded parents in the theatre world who made me feel less alone.
Then, a month into this new life, my ex-husband lost his job and moved back in full-time, and I became the sole provider for my family while he was home with the kids. This was new for all of us. I felt an even heavier weight because my income and what I needed to make it work were still not enough. I had a good job but I was and still am acutely aware of how to get insufficient funds fees reversed from my bank.
Now getting through each day is a battle. I juggle my responsibilities at home and working-from-home to find time for myself. Long before social distancing, I had been craving a retreat from the major shifts, grief, and heartbreak that had been outside of the career wins of 2019. My pre-COVID-19 outlet was the simple act of going to work. That has been my refuge since he moved back 13 months ago. I’ll admit that I had even developed a bad habit of staying late when I was out of a tech-and-preview show schedule because I just didn’t want the interaction. It wasn’t always intentional, but on the nights I didn’t have to be at work past 6 p.m., I noticed that I took longer, and somehow found myself home after my kids were asleep, sitting on the edge of their bed or covering them up just a little more so that their sleeping souls would know I’d said goodnight in their dreams.
The shutdown of the city I witnessed on those last nights in mid-March was nothing compared to what it is now. The feeling of loneliness that began to creep in as I contemplated this new era of social distancing, and not being able to see or hug my friends, moved me to order a weighted blanket almost immediately. My kids’ hugs remain constant and many, but what I’ve been missing is a partner, someone to let go with who lives in my home. Nothing about social distancing is easy, and all marriages and committed relationships are being put to the test right now. But the feeling of starting out emotionally alone has stayed with me. I desire and deserve someone on my team to face the bitter and challenging isolation together. Our children deserve better than to witness the incongruence of their parents’ behavior, which already existed at full volume before our divorce in 2018.
Am I lucky that their father helps with homework, cooks, puts them to bed and can handle this all without any input from me? Of course. That only feeds into the complexity of the situation, because the tradeoff is my self-esteem. In the maze of mind-blowing back-and-forth that happens in our verbal tennis, all aspects of my character feel struck. My children shouldn’t have to hear that, and yet they have grown accustomed to the sound, even making a joke of it at times, running around amid an argument, drowning in the cacophony of our voices over one another. Everyone is fighting to be heard, yet no one is.
What if I stepped back and gave him their education? Gave in to my status as a boarder in my own house? Closing the door and ignoring the world outside my room likely means I interact less with my children. I could do that, right? Until now, I had been a floater in my own home: out in the morning, back at night, meals alone. All so we didn’t have to interact—until I hear something I don’t agree with, or I’m tired of the kids staring at an iPad when I think they should be working but he feels they have worked enough. The truth is, I haven’t been around the last year and he has. This leads to some regrets—of things outside my control, like my inability to do all the schooling, give them all the love, and do a job that I love. But my biggest regret is that I didn’t choose a partner who sees me—who values me. No matter how I have grown, every day I am reminded how little I knew about or truly cared for myself when I decided this was the person I wanted to marry. I regret putting my children through it.
The financial pressure I feel isn’t going anywhere, being stuck in quarantine at a time when working in the arts in an audience-related industry is challenged by a virus that mandates we gather in smaller crowds than can occupy a theatre. Parenting in the time of corona calls for making adjustments, sacrifice, and major uncertainty I cannot run away from at home by staying late at the office. The inevitable tension as I begin each day is a drain on me.
During the many dark times, I lean on my support system of friends, I lean on my support system through PAAL, I lean on the meanings of my name: Warrior & God dwells in me, which are reminders when I step away from the fury and the loneliness that is all so hard to escape.
Our children love both their parents. This is something I have decided to remind myself when times are tough. Our children love both their parents. Will repeating that daily allow me or any of the other parents in similarly complex situations to take a breath and be bigger than our anger and bigger than our pride? I am reminded that “children will listen,” and as the weeks continue, we are forced to come to terms with the fact that none of this is about us individually. Our unique challenges bring us together, alongside the ways we heal the pain we take in around us. Our children are watching. I want them to see us go through something difficult and succeed.
Garlia Cornelia Jones is a writer, producer, and photographer.