I have debated long and hard about posting this. I wasn’t going to until today when post after post, signal after signal, message after message, seemed to be pushing me towards expression here.
A wonderful IG post the other day perfectly expressed that those who say, “Oh gosh, you’re so lucky not to have kids! You don’t have to do the lockdown homeschooling thing” are being supremely insensitive. They have no comprehension behind the choice of someone to be childless, or the fact that it so often is not a choice.
But simply not making offensive comments about another’s aloneness or childlessness actually isn’t enough. Those who are struggling with the stresses of intensified family life maybe don’t realise is that the stress of too much noise may be preferable to the stress of aloneness. Especially if that aloneness is something that was already a source of discomfort – as it is for so many.
Speaking personally: as it was/is for me.
The acuteness of aloneness is amplified during lockdown. Anyone who is doing this alone is likely to have noticed this. We don’t have distraction techniques – even, for me in South Africa, of going for a walk. Now we are on a ‘lesser’ version of lockdown I’m allowed to walk: but between 6-9am in the morning, which for women means 7:30am (once the sun has come up). To be honest, I don’t need to distract myself then – it’s throughout the day when the lack of human connection gets too much.
Those who are doing this alone also don’t have the luxury of surrounding ourselves with the hubbub of a social spaces which allow us to feel connected. I’ve always ‘worked from home’, my work life hasn’t changed AT ALL. And yet, it’s all I have now.
Those who are alone don’t have the privilege of hugging someone when we feel disconnected and need the reassurance of physical touch. At a time when we need to be held, supported and helped to feel safe – the four walls of our solitude are a kind of prison. We yearn for the dramas of those who are doing this in their family units.
And sure, I know that there are distresses there. Please don’t come at me with examples of ‘family units’ where domestic violence is rife, or child abuse, or where people are on the precipice of divorce. I know people are struggling. But support for those suffering abuse and trauma is being funded by governments: there are whole helplines to recognise and support those suffering this devastating reality. I am not countering this at all.
I am merely lending a voice to something that is getting less press, less attention. Whilst this is perhaps as it should be, and those who are in immediate danger need to know there is an escape, to not recognise the danger of loneliness, and the serious impact on short- and long- term health, is to be very shortsighted indeed.
And there is a stark contrast between being childless and having children during this time. Suddenly social media is rife with hilarious shots of failed attempts at ‘homeschooling’ that end in some version of chaos. These genuinely make me giggle so, so hard. There are beautiful and touching stories of ‘lockdown babies’ and the trials of the parents around whether dads were allowed in maternity wards (a postcode lottery, it seems). The tiny bundles of joy that emerge seem like miracles; beacons of light in a very oppressive time.
There are posts from parents which speak of how luxurious and lucky it is to get these moments of such togetherness, and those which – touchingly – share the frustration of attempting to work from home with a child yelling for play time. There is the subtle undertone throughout where you get the sense that most parents would rather actually just play with the kids. They’d love for that to be their ‘real life’.
I love every single one of these posts.
Now, I’m sure it’s not all blissful. I’m sure it doesn’t always look like the hilarity of the chaotic social media stories. I’m sure that those giggles frequently turn to tantrums and the lack of routine results in sleepless nights, disrupted days and a sense of weird suspended reality where no-one’s really grasped it’s already May. I am sure that there are fears of how school-age children are going to adapt when suddenly they’re forced to return to class, or when adults are going to be forced to leave the home and commute again to an office, leaving children at home. With the other parent. Perhaps even with a caregiver that isn’t either parent. The level of disruption in the energy of children may be significant as we move out of this state.
But these are problems people will tackle together. Even single parents. You will tackle this WITH your child/children. You will embark upon our future with your little one. And your bond will have been forever changed by this year. In positive and beneficial ways.
These are challenges which someone like me would love to have ahead of me.
Instead, in lockdown, literally the volume, the frequency, the timbre and resonance of what I hear on a daily basis has totally changed in the last few months. In lockdown I am not speaking to humans. Each voice I hear is an abstraction synthesised through a device. Slightly pixellated, each person I see is through a screen – a 2-dimensional and distant view where I can’t see their bottom half, or the back of their head. They’re probably delighted – they undoubtedly aren’t wearing good shoes and are hating their lockdown hairdo. But I’m not engaging with energy any more – just varying qualities of blobs on screens and sometimes-scratchy speakers.
In this acuteness of making do with what you have around you – from the food in the supermarkets to the services available in your country – it becomes so apparent to those who live alone, without children, that they don’t have people around them. And, sometimes, this makes it feel like we don’t “have” a lot.
For some, this is a direct choice. For others, this is an accidental choice: a happenstance of a career-focus which left starting a family for the back burner, perhaps. For others still, this is not something they chose but it is just a fact of their life that they are living through.
Personally, I am somewhere between the latter two categories. My life has meant that focusing on relationships wasn’t the point. Focusing on being healthy enough to have relationships was. It was definitely the right prioritisation. But it means that being here now is more challenging than I think people realise.
This month I will do a series on Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome on my Instagram. The topic I probably won’t cover – because it’s too sensitive for too many people (myself included) – is children. Those with my set of ‘diagnoses’ are perfectly fertile (though if you know my history, you will also know that fertility was something I fought for 13 ½ years to get back). But it’s not always ‘sensible’ for women with EDS to carry children – for hormone, laxity and other reasons to do with the physical challenges inherent in carrying a child. Many of my older female patients today deal with complications which began during pregnancies.
This means that the frequency during lockdown with which I am being shown a window into others’ worlds, with their children and their family life, is doubly hard. Being childless – now, and potentially forever – is not a choice I have made (I mean literally, I haven’t decided yet… I think it’s not sensible, but I genuinely have no idea what I want to do).
And now I am witnessing all the joy, the angst, the elation, the connection, the sorrow, the intensity of the highs and lows, and, to be honest, the challenges of being a parent in today’s modern world – especially with a global pandemic. For me, as I am sure is the case for many others, I go through moments where I feel completely transported by these sharings – allowed to enter the private family life of another unit, and delight in their idiosyncrasies and deep connection. But then, the post ends. And I yearn for it to still be there. More specifically, I wish I had a version of that family reality all of my own.
All of this is a sanguine reminder that even though we are being taught by authorities bringing us news about this pandemic to fear touch and to avoid contact – actual connection is the most fundamental of human rights. Being able to hold another human conveys more within that touch than any words even Shakespeare could write. Touch carries information, it is currency, it is an expression of love. The touch of your family and the unconditional love that emerges out of the bonds with those such as your chosen life partner, or your own flesh and blood… these are like supercharged healing vibrations that I wish we could bottle.
But we cannot. And, really, we wouldn’t want to. They mean more when they emanate from the connection with someone real, tangible, similar but different.
And to be without touch, to be without a family unit, to be without the infrastructure of support during this time is something that I would like to highlight. Lack of connection is a serious deficiency – much worse than nutritional ones, I’d wager. And it is something that we (as healthcare professionals, and humans) should pay more attention to.
This is NOT a blog to ask parents to share less: please don’t. Your joy and process through this is just as valid as ours. But ours is valid too. Our struggle may not be the steep learning curve of homeschooling or the drain of being parent, teacher, arbitrator, cook AND counsellor. All in an hour.
But the childless honestly envy your challenge. We’d revel in feeling like we were failing in being good parents during this crisis. I’d long to be epically challenged by parenthood right now, I promise you.
But our struggle is that we are locked down, isolated, alone. And I doubt that anyone who is battling with their children during this time would – truly and deep down – envy that battle. And the other harsh and yet perceptible reality is that every day we stay in this hinterland of lockdown status it is possible to feel like our future – the one which contains all the connections we have dreamed of, and potentially the one that contains having children – is simply moving further away. For some, this year cannot afford to be a write-off.
If you know me, or are a patient, please don’t ‘worry’ about this post. If you truly know me you will know how I move through life with complete acceptance and delight in what is. What is, for me, through this, is an acceleration and deepening of something that was there before this started. I am perfectly content being honest about it, but it does not need fixing. It does not need those of you who know me and have a family to change or to pay more attention to my situation. Honestly. And I am not at all diminishing the hardships you are facing either.
To those reading this who are alone and childless through this lockdown process, my message is super simple. If this process has made you aware of something you are missing, make your own post-lockdown roadmap. Screw the opening of industry or whether we’re wearing masks when we go back into the world… write your own route out of lockdown. The one that determines your ‘route to connections’.
If you want a partner but have been too scared to download a dating app – maybe do that? If you want a child… I mean, my mum is convinced I need to just get a sperm donor and “do it yourself”, for example. This is so totally not happening, not even if she wants grandchild number 3. But if you want that – go DO IT. Don’t think that you are finding your partner (or a child!) to ‘complete’ you. You aren’t. You likely never were. You are doing it because human connection is everything, and this process has deeply and profoundly highlighted that fact… for us all.