The day my life was put on hold, I was five-months pregnant and running through the hospital, trying to make it on time for a routine ultrasound. I was boiling hot — partly from the pregnancy, but mostly from the tall, suede Stuart Weitzman boots I was wearing, a new staple to upgrade my limited maternity wardrobe. After the appointment, a doctor I had never met before sought me out. “Let’s find a private place where we can talk,” she said.
When we sat down, she looked me directly in the eye and said that the ultrasound results were worrying. I could go into early labour any day. “If that happens, the baby has an 80% chance of surviving,” the doctor said. “But he will have,” she paused, a bit uncomfortably, “complications.” Bed rest, she added, was the only way to lower the risk.
Five minutes earlier, I was a healthy, high-functioning working mom. Now, I was yanked out of my life, suede boots and all. I couldn’t work, exercise, go outside, or lift anything heavier than my phone. I couldn’t even walk more than a few steps each day.
After months of this strange, limited existence, my doctor gave me the green light to start going outside again. (I was finally close enough to my due date.) That same week, I watched the prime minister tell all Canadians to stay home because of COVID-19. The life disruption and uncertainty that had felt so personal to me is now the reality of an entire country. Some experts say these measures may continue for months. It’s a long time to be putting parts of our lives on hold. How do we even begin to cope? Here are three of the biggest lessons I learned during my months of isolation.
Stay Connected As Possible
Social-distancing is not easy. My bed rest lasted three long months, first in the hospital, then in my Toronto home. I couldn't go outside, except to jump in an Uber to see my doctor.
Being stuck indoors, while boring, snapped me out of the minutiae of daily life. It brought me clarity and perspective. All of a sudden, every visit and FaceTime call that interrupted my hours of alone time became extra-special. I felt grateful for a long hug from my mom, for the daily unwavering support of my husband, for a stream of messages from friends. COVID-19 has only made these feelings stronger. As isolating as social-distancing feels, it is also bonding in the most profound way: We are all in it together.
Bed rest also forced me to find new ways to connect to people at the tech company where I work. I spent a few weeks working remotely to wrap things up at the office before disappearing on early mat leave. I genuinely like my co-workers and seeing their faces on group video calls made me smile. I was also surprised that simply putting on work clothes (above the waist anyway), a dab of mascara and lip gloss, made me feel less stir crazy. It brought back some of the routines I had before my life changed so much, and somehow reinforced that things would eventually return to normal.
Recently, my office of nearly 400 people went remote because of COVID-19. Even though I’m still off, I’ve been watching the bonding happening at work: the Slack shares, the Netflix parties, the shared Spotify playlists, the after-work drinks via Google Hangouts. I get a peek into everyone’s homes. I’ve learned about their pets, kids, hobbies, and ways of coping with stress. In this new pandemic world, all the shares feel much more genuine and unfiltered. Snapped out of the hamster wheel of daily office life, my co-workers have come into focus as vulnerable and human.
Practise Serious Self-Care
Every day of my bed rest, I lived with the possibility of something horrible happening. My husband and I were told that there was a very low likelihood that I would carry the baby to term. If he was born early, doctors said, he would have a high chance of physical and mental disabilities. I was stuck at home, with only my laptop, phone, and this information to keep me company. Yet day-to-day, nothing was actually wrong. I felt fine. I soon realized that my biggest challenge was to control the narrative inside my own head, this one big worry looming over everything else.
I made the decision to avoid googling anything about premature babies. I stayed away from forums. Instead, I watched a lot of stupid, feel-good stuff (I might be the only fan remaining of the BBC’s six-part Pride and Prejudice series from the '90s). To counteract the sensory deprivation from all the things I couldn’t do, I brought small treats into my life. I asked my husband to get fresh flowers for the house. I dabbed Aveda Shampure oil on my wrists, splurged on some Diptyque candles, and used up my insurance coverage to get weekly at-home massages.
One night, I tallied up my worst fears and made drawings of the exact opposite of that. I drew our future family taking walks in the park together, our not-yet born son playing soccer with his big brother (I also have a four year old) or doing well in school. I looked at those drawings every night before bed. My husband drew one too, and I pulled it up on my phone whenever I needed a pick-me-up. I still do.
Meditation became another lifeline. Starting from my first scary days at the hospital, I listened to a 20-minute guided meditation every night. I made a conscious effort to actually make my body relax and be aware of my breath. This practice has helped me more recently, during the nights when I stay up worrying about the unprecedented scale and impact of COVID-19.
It’s been much harder to resist the pull of doomsurfing when it comes to coronavirus. News coverage has been addictive in the past weeks, as governments take unprecedented actions and stock markets nosedive. I did manage to ditch the habit of starting and ending my day reading the New York Times. Above all, I try hard to focus on the positive side of the statistics I hear. Like the outcome of any coin toss, all I can do is hope the odds will fall in my favour.
Learn To Embrace The Empty Times
“You’ve been given the gift of time,” my boss told me before I went on mat leave. The empty hours stretching in front of me every morning were unusual, luxurious, and a little scary. At first, nothing seemed important enough to do. I did not want to check industry blogs, start a side gig, or even see too many people. I had a strong urge to pause and sit with my feelings. I woke up and went to sleep with no agenda for weeks, a privilege I haven’t had since the summer after middle school.
Eventually I felt ready to focus my energy on something. I worked on a design project from our tiny home office. I’ve been meaning to get to it for years, so it made me feel excited and added a sense of purpose to my days. I also focused on our house. I snatched a cool new bed set on West Elm online clearance, invested in shelf organizers, wiped off dust from our neglected giant snakeskin plant.
With the coronavirus pandemic, some parts of our lives have similarly been wiped clean. There is no commute, no dinners out, no travel, no concerts, no blind dates or parties to go to. There is an initial shock and sense of loss. There is also the looming fear of how everything will unfold in the months to come. I know these feelings well. But, as I sit here, once again confined to my home, but this time counting down until I meet my son, I wonder, what if the best thing to do with these new blocks of free time is treat them as a gift? What if you try to simply sit with whatever arises in you in this new silence and see where it takes you? You might be surprised.