Everything Helping Me in Home Isolation I Learned from Having a Newborn

published Mar 23, 2020
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Hand holding an infant baby with dark hair
Credit: Faith Durand

We’re all dealing with home isolation in our own ways, as we sit out this massive, world-spanning crisis alone together in our homes. My family of four went into strict isolation early, as I wasn’t feeling well and we had been traveling in high-risk areas. I immediately felt an eerie deja vu as my days took on a familiar pattern. When I stopped to think about it, I realized something a little funny: home isolation reminded me of when I was a brand-new mom with a newborn.

Of course living in isolation with my family is not just like having a newborn, because for most of us there’s no tiny, joyful package at home, and the circumstances of being locked in are rather more grim. But we could all do worse than to think of ourselves as both parent and tiny baby, in need of care, patience, and reduced expectations. 

The first two months of my daughters’ lives (they’re now 4 and 2) feel both fresh in my memory and blessedly in the past, but remembering those days and their emotional patterns and lessons is giving me some fresh tools to live a little bit smarter while in isolation. Here they are, in case they’re helpful to you too. 

Your emotional energy is a resource to be rationed and replenished just like anything else (food, money, toilet paper…). If you keep feeling energy draining away, or emotions flipping from fine to not fine in the space of a moment or two, remember that your emotional energy is a finite resource. It is the engine that powers your decision-making, your ability to get out of bed, and your capacity to cook dinner. Things are overwhelming right now, especially if your livelihood is being affected by this crisis. Do what you can to turn off the news, put on your own oxygen mask, give yourself permission to shut down and steward your emotional energy. This looks like it will be a long-haul crisis.

End your days early. The ultimate hallmark of new parenthood, of course, is just how little sleep you get. Home isolation probably doesn’t involve 2am wake-ups, but it does have a similar emotional pattern. We are living in a time of enormous uncertainty and crisis affecting all of us in ways large and small, whether you are tucked up at home all day on Zoom, or working outside the home trying to preserve your physical distance from others. This takes a toll. You need sleep to recover. Like in the days when my daughters were newborns, I start my days feeling fresh and relatively energized, but I am absolutely sapped by 4pm. Cut your losses. Call it quits. Go to bed. Your body needs more sleep than ever. It’s not a waste to just end your day and get extra sleep.

Hand washing is everything. (But take care of your hands too.) Hand washing is our first defense and an important step after grocery shopping and delivery. This reminded me so much of having a new baby; when my first daughter was little, I actually had a terrible case of eczema from all the extra hand washing. Wash your hands and don’t let up. But care for your hands too; a little vitamin E oil has been the best treatment for me personally and also for my kids when their skin gets dry.

Eat what is easy. (But do try to make fruits and vegetables easy.) I loathe the unrealistic expectations our culture puts on new moms to “bounce back” (BLEH) and eat “healthy” (aka low calorie). In the very early days of parenthood, especially with your first baby, just getting enough food feels like a herculean task, and I so appreciated those who brought meals and cared for us. I had a huge craving for carbs, especially high-fiber ones like oatmeal and oat cookies. (These nutty, oaty thumbprint cookies fueled many nights of nursing.) The emotional and financial stress of our current crisis has parallels; putting more pressure on ourselves to keep to a diet or eat healthfully may be the last thing you need. It’s so good to stress-bake and take comfort in the ice cream in the freezer.

It’s also a time to turn to the meals that take precious little of our emotional or mental energy. Some of my go-tos: Using up pantry basics like coconut milk and chickpeas by simmering them with curry spices or simmer sauce and serving over rice. Opening boxed chicken broth and heating it up with frozen spinach, lemon, and orzo. Cooking frozen chicken thighs in the Instant Pot with tomatoes and taco seasoning for easy tacos.

But also, when I was a brand-new mom I appreciated people who made it easy for me to eat fresh produce, and I make it a point now to include peeled clementines and cut-up strawberries when I take meals to new parents. You can do the same for yourself: buy produce, cut it up, wash it, make it easy on yourself to eat something fresh. (And yes, it’s safe to buy fresh produce, but do wash it.)

Beware the impulse Amazon delivery purchase (especially after midnight). These days of on-demand delivery are both a blessing and a hazard for new parents, desperate for a new swaddle or a nose suction device in the middle of the night. I was glad to be able to shop from my nursing chair but I also bought things I certainly didn’t need. Right now without the stimulation of friends, work, and other activities, there is a temptation to shop recreationally. If you do need something, by all means buy it, but beware shopping as a proxy for security or reassurance. (And if you do get delivery, tip lavishly.)

Get sunshine when you can. Go outdoors, stand in your doorway, take a walk up the street and back. You don’t need to be running three miles or hitting your previous workout goals. Like the early days of parenthood, just leaving the house can be a major accomplishment. Give yourself a high five, and turn your face into the sun. (Unlike everything else, spring is not canceled.)

Beware Dr. Google. Every new parent has had the experience of desperately Googling new baby symptoms and habits in the middle of the night, and getting just a little too worked up over the what if and worst case scenarios. Global pandemics are no different and this one is especially fraught, given how fast it is moving and how difficult it has been to find one reliable voice to tell us what to do. Look for a voice you trust, whether that is your state or city authorities, and try to filter out the rest as much as you can. (It’s tough, I know.)

Sometimes gentle TV is the best choice. In early days of motherhood, I couldn’t bear to watch violence or much suspense at all. You are creeping through life, with this crumpled soft person you just produced from your body, that could, you know, stop breathing at any minute. The last thing you want is to be reminded of life’s brutality. I fled to shows like The Great British Bakeoff. This may not relate to you now (I feel like our entire social circle is binge-watching The Walking Dead); but honestly, it can be self-protective to pop on a little garden party escapism in the form of GBBO or Ina Garten.

This is a period of time that feels like forever, but it will end. Time is weird in the early days of parenthood. Your days feel packed, just surviving. But they also feel endless, like you’ve fallen into a time warp with its own rules. This feeling, maybe more than any other, is common to our current crisis, as we lose our usual markers of work, school, social activities. But like an unbroken chain of nights without enough sleep, this time will end. All is temporary and it is good to remind ourselves of that every day; someday in the hopefully not too distant future, we will feel like ourselves again.

My girls are so far past those early days and (thank God) mostly sleeping through the night. But the raw vulnerability of having a newborn, locked inside at home, cautious about health, craving interaction and still exhausted, taken by surprise by my emotions all the time — these all feel like part of my present moment and perhaps they do for you too. So be gentle to yourself, bake some cookies, and ask for help if you need it. And when in doubt, a little Mary Berry is a wonderful place to turn.