Updated: Sep 14
Read this excerpt from Vanessa Corcoran's new book It's A Marathon, Not A Sprint, discussing mothering during the pandemic.
Vanessa Corcoran is an advising dean at Georgetown College. During her time at Georgetown, Vanessa has helped hundreds of students balance their intellectual, social, and activist careers at the University.
In It’s A Marathon, Not A Sprint, as author Alexi Pappas says, "Vanessa's story is exactly what we need more of in the world today: it's a personal, honest, and brave account of struggling with - and overcoming - depression, and will surely inspire others to embrace their own mental health growth."
In this excerpt, she offers an account of mothering during Covid; her daughter, Lucy, was born at the beginning of the pandemic.
"Waiting for the Sun"
So much of being a new parent became wrapped up in the isolation of the pandemic. I had anticipated that being a new mom would feel lonely, but the mandatory confinement was painful. I FaceTimed with my parents every day: they could see their granddaughter and I could have some adult interaction while Pat was at work.
I had too much time on my own to think and wonder about what life would be like without the pandemic. I had imagined that during maternity leave, I’d take Lucy to the library for storytime or to a petting zoo to see the animals. Reading Lucy a book about zoo animals brought tears to my eyes: I felt like all of the dreams I had for her first year were lost to the pandemic. I had to remind myself that those early experiences were more for me as a parent, and that Lucy would have no memory of them (nor miss their absence). Moreover, Lucy was such a happy baby and delighted in being read to, looking out the window, and laughing at our dog. Her ability to find joy in the little things gave me optimism for our larger (and often scarier) world.
In the first few months of Lucy’s life, I witnessed both the best and worst in people. Even though they couldn’t provide us with in-person support when Lucy was born, our friends and family sent food, baby supplies, clothes: anything to keep us afloat. Then there were others who acted like it was an enormous burden to wear a piece of cloth to protect themselves and others. When my sole responsibility was to protect this fragile newborn, it angered me to see so many people acting recklessly in the face of the virus. If, when I was out on a walk with Lucy and saw an unmasked group of people, I tried to steer the stroller in a different direction. Even though the likelihood of a short encounter like that was unlikely going to give me or Lucy Covid, I didn’t want to risk it.
One evening, I was walking with Lucy, and an unmasked man came up beside our stroller. “Cute baby,” he remarked, as I tried to push the stroller faster. I muttered a quick “thanks,” and then to my alarm, he bent over to peek into the stroller, his uncovered face hovering too close to my baby girl. “You’re not wearing a mask, please give us some space,” I asked, the urgency rising in my voice. He stormed off, yelling “I don’t fucking care about a mask!” Rationally, I knew that the brief encounter was not going to lead to us contracting Covid, but I was furious. And I was worn out: parenting a newborn during the pandemic was exhausting.
Kathleen, who had provided sisterly guidance and support my entire adult life, called regularly to check in. A mom herself to two young girls, her memories of new motherhood remained vivid. During one of our conversations, Kathleen asked how Lucy was sleeping. I couldn’t get any words out. I kept swallowing the lumps in my throat. I felt so lonely and vulnerable. The space between us on the phone felt both non-existent and enormous. “It’s so hard, Kathleen,” I cried. “She doesn’t sleep. I love her so much, but I’m so tired.”
She always knew the right thing to say: “This is really hard, Vanessa. It is incredibly exhausting to be a parent. You are doing a great job. And you are doing this during a freaking pandemic. Even though Pat is there, the two of you are mainly doing this on your own - it’s not meant to be like that. You’re a great mom to Lucy - you know that, right?” I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. As they had been for over twenty years, those phone calls were a lifeline when I needed it the most. With each call, I got a bit of a lift. I wasn’t the only one who was burned out because of the pandemic, and that things would improve as Lucy got older, especially with the promise of the vaccine. I clung to that hope. Even so, it often wasn’t enough to assuage my fears that I wasn’t taking the best care of my baby.
When she was about two months old, Lucy’s sleep began to lengthen. Being able to sleep for more than two or three hours in a row was amazing. A few weeks later, she began to sleep for eight hours consecutively. We felt like we broke through the cycle of sleeplessness and could breathe again. I could put Lucy down at 10 p.m., have her wake up between 5-6 a.m., nurse her back to sleep, and then have a few hours to myself before Pat went to work. This was perfect timing, as I was getting ready to go back to work myself.
Even though I knew that going back to work remotely was going to present its challenges, I was also eager to return to work to break up the monotony. There was little to no variation in my day, and while I enjoyed all of the time with Lucy, I needed at least some semblance of engagement with people on a regular basis, even if it was only over Zoom.
I went back to work when Lucy was ten weeks old. Those first few months, she wasn’t very mobile and was often just happy to be held on my lap. Sitting on the couch, I Zoomed with students, offering guidance on how to plan their fall schedules, sign up for internships, and other academic advice. As long as I nursed her beforehand (I was also grateful that I had the ability to turn off my laptop camera if I needed to nurse on demand), Lucy contently sat through my meetings. Work kept me busy and the weeks started to go by quickly.
When she turned five months old, I started to run with Lucy in the stroller. Even though my heart pounded from pushing the extra weight up the hills in our neighborhood, the runs were so fun. As the world whizzed by her, I felt at peace because I knew she was safe, getting fresh air, and enjoying herself. A few days a week, Pat came home from work early enough so I could run before sunset, but being able to take Lucy out on my own time provided a new sense of flexibility and freedom, instead of waiting around for Pat to relieve me. Wrapped in a fleece blanket that kept Lucy warm all winter, I was able to run almost every day. Those runs were the happiest, easiest hour of parenting each day. They provided me with something to look forward to, which was so important as our contact with the outside world remained limited.
Thankfully, my parents came for monthly visits in the fall. I was grateful that they were willing to limit their socialization with others so that we could know that their visits were safe. They carefully planned their seven-hour car trips: strategizing how to limit their stops and reduce exposure. Each visit, it felt as if the final day was filled with a bit of desperation, emotion. Hugs were a lot longer, because we weren’t sure when we’d see each other again. I monitored the D.C. Covid case count daily, which also listed the ages of any residents who died. Seeing the numbers of people who died from it in their 50s and 60s had me concerned - was this visit going to kill my parents? I desperately wanted them to be an important part of Lucy’s life, but also worried that it was selfish to have them visit. It was a lot to worry about, and though I had a lot more stability and support than many during the pandemic, my anxiety was picking up again.
One thing that was challenging about working from home with Lucy was all of the alone time in my head. I was always grateful when I had Zoom meetings scheduled, as it gave me an opportunity to feel connected with others. But in the moments when I was sitting on the floor with Lucy, playing with her, it was easy for my worries about work, Lucy, and the pandemic to run rampant again, especially once she stopped sleeping through the night.
Not only did Lucy stop sleeping through the night in November, she was waking up every few hours like when she was a newborn. How were we back to this? I had read about the different sleep regressions that babies often experience. This one never seemed to end. Those middle of the night crying jags were one of the worst parts of parenting a baby. Lucy cried inconsolably: her face turned red, and no matter what we tried, Pat and I couldn’t calm her down. Seeing our child in distress without any sense of what was causing her such misery was painful. I cried too - I couldn’t bear to see her like that. Pat would jump in, able to put up emotional guardrails when I couldn’t. When she finally fell asleep, I continued to sob - I hated feeling helpless and unable to soothe her.
I felt worse than I did when she was first born, because now she was active during the day and not sleeping well during the night. It was one thing to be up at 4 a.m. and not have to work the next day. It was another to be waking up every few hours, knowing that work awaited me too. Pat was suffering too. This was miserable.
We then tried to do sleep training, where we didn’t pick up Lucy and just rubbed her back while she cried in the crib. Our little baby looked at us, distraught while we rubbed her back to try to soothe her for hours. In the beginning, I tried to be optimistic at the start of each night: maybe this was the night that she would sleep longer. When it was time to put Lucy in the crib, I silently uttered a “Hail Mary” prayer, hoping that the Virgin Mary’s intercession could induce a night of peaceful sleep. Again and again, Lucy only cried. Even if it wasn’t my turn to be the one to soothe her, it was impossible to drown out the noise. Her crying wrenched my heart open. I could not provide comfort to my own child and I felt like a terrible mom.
Not only were the nights difficult, but there were times when Lucy only napped for ten to twenty minutes in the crib before waking up crying. This brought me to tears too - every time she woke up, she was crying: a plaintive wail that rang through the house, like a fire engine siren, again and again until she was picked up.
Part of what was hard was that Lucy was such a happy baby when she was awake. She spent her wake periods giggling and smiling all of the time. How could this be the same baby?
Pat and I were stumbling through work exhausted and miserable. Three weeks into sleep training, at 6 a.m., I started to bring her in the bed with me. I couldn’t see trying to soothe her back asleep again. Cradling her in one arm, I’d grab my laptop from my nightstand and start working on emails. After a few mornings of quiet, combined with nights where we were lucky to string together a couple of hours of sleep, I started to wonder if she should sleep in our bed.
I called Kathleen for advice, as I remembered that she co-slept with both of her daughters years before. “Vanessa, I know there are risks, but there are also risks to you not sleeping. I have no regrets about it. I was at a breaking point and once we did, she was sleeping better. I was relieved. You will be too.” After Pat and I had a lengthy conversation about it, ultimately deciding that the upsides (our sanity) outweighed the risks, we started bedsharing with Lucy. She’d always start off in the crib, but once she woke up, she went to bed with us.
If you had told me even two months prior that we’d be bed-sharing, I wouldn’t have believed it. I was always adamant we’d never do it - too many risks! I had never publicly shamed anyone for doing it, but I know I silently judged them. But the sleepless nights made me feel like I was losing my mind. I had never switched so fast from one side of a parenting debate to the other.
Lucy did not magically start to sleep through the night. Still, her wakeup periods grew fewer and shorter. I could nurse her for a few minutes, and then we’d all drift back to sleep. The tension started to dissipate. Bedtime was no longer dreaded, and I felt more relaxed. I knew it was a temporary fix to a larger issue. It gave us a chance to breathe and enjoy our time with Lucy: both day and night. We all became happier. Even though it was a pandemic, even though the world felt upside down, the fact that we all slept a little better gave us the opportunity to enjoy the day-to-day moments of raising our baby.
I was surprised that even the pediatrician supported our decision. When Dr. Farrish asked at Lucy’s nine-month check-up, “has sleep improved at all,” knowing that we had been going through a rough patch, I nervously responded, “yes, but that’s because we’ve been bringing her in the bed. We’ve been taking as many precautions as possible,” I said hastily. “Vanessa, you have to pick your battles. You can try again in a few months, but you all need sleep.” I breathed a sigh of relief. We were sleeping better and thus more able to enjoy all of the wonderful moments with Lucy during the day, instead of feeling exhausted and resentful. We were turning a corner.
As things started to improve with Lucy, it felt like the larger world was turning a corner. After the horrifying insurrection on the Capitol, we collectively exhaled when President Biden was safely inaugurated, bringing about an end to the nightmare of the Trump administration. As an essential member of the State Department, Pat got vaccinated early, which was a relief since he was in the office every day. My parents also got vaccinated early: they could come visit without worry. When I got my first shot in April, tears of joy streamed down my face. Because I was still breastfeeding Lucy, she was also going to get some of the antibodies for the vaccine. I was grateful I could give her this protection.
I knew things were improving as my journal entries to Lucy were becoming more joyful.