Grocery Shopping Used to Be My Alone Time...Not Anymore illustration
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Grocery Shopping Used to Be My Alone Time … Not Anymore

updated Oct 29, 2020
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What Cara Shultz misses most about her pre-pandemic routine isn’t the bars or parties: It’s the grocery shopping. After dropping off her 4-year-old son, Jack, at preschool, the New Jersey mom and YA author would often head to Trader Joe’s for a few essentials — and a sliver of peace. “They would play ‘80s Madonna and I would leisurely stroll the aisles, checking out the seasonal muffins,” Shultz says. “It was my ‘me time.’”

These days, though, grocery shopping feels like more like a special-ops mission. There’s no sipping free Fair-Trade Bolivian coffee or mindlessly humming along to Friday I’m in Love.  Highly efficient and utterly joyless, the 2020 grocery store trip is about picking up protein and bananas without getting the plague. As Laura Leu, mom of a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, says, “Now I go to the store solo and frantically run in and out as fast as I can to avoid catching a life-threatening disease.”

And that’s if we even physically go grocery shopping at all: People are using Instacart, Fresh Direct, and other digital services to order supermarket hauls in record numbers. Online grocery sales are up about 40 percent in 2020, according to a Coresight Research survey. As a result, many parents are grieving the days when you could escape melting-down kids and catch up on your podcast queue while buying milk and eggs.

We spoke with 10 moms to more deeply understand the mental and physical toll that this pandemic has taken on the ritual of grocery shopping.

(We are well aware that dads grocery shop too, of course! But equating grocery shopping with alone time is an experience that’s predominantly unique to moms.)

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For Many Moms, Grocery Shopping Used to Be a Reprieve

“The disruption of our routines is a huge cause of stress amid the pandemic,” says Lindsay Powers, Brooklyn, NY-based author of You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids. “Most families were hanging on tenuously before the pandemic, and now that our systems have imploded, we’ve learned that it’s literally impossible to ‘have it all’ or ‘do it all.’”

Or to “escape it all.” Powers, who has two boys of her own (Everett, nearly 7, and Otto, 4.5) feels this loss firsthand. “I’m a big believer that grocery shopping shouldn’t be counted as ‘alone time’ — because we deserve something a little bit better! — but as a mom of young kids, it is one of the few moments when I am truly alone. It is one minute when our kids aren’t whining for us, we’re not looking at the mess in our houses, and we’re not multitasking a million things.”

Parents of little ones are particularly noticing the loss. Nicole Yorio Jurick, who has four kids 8 and under, used to tack on a workout to her weekly grocery trip. “There was nothing I loved more than my Saturday morning gym-and-grocery-store routine,” Jurick says. “I would get a coffee, take my sweet old time in the aisles as my husband served the kids Goldfish and dry cereal. I didn’t care what the heck they did because that alone time was glorious. It also gave me time to think through meal planning and I rarely forgot ingredients because I could concentrate,” she says. 

Now that she’s ordering groceries online, the experience is mushed between 18 other tasks. “I always end up forgetting things and end up needing to run to the convenience store for extras I forgot. It’s double the work!”

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When Did Grocery Shopping Turn into Self-Care?

For many, pre-covid grocery trips were one small way to treat themselves. “At the risk of sounding like a total mom-cliché, I miss going to Target by myself because I would pick up groceries we needed and then spend time grabbing things I really didn’t need,” says Marisa Iallonardo, a content creator and mom of a 5- and 3-year-old. She’s gone back to “Tar-jay” during the pandemic, but only to fly through the aisles for essentials.

In the middle of a lockdown, where do we find that fix? Drugstores are a start. “I went to CVS to pick up a prescription and came back with arms full of beauty products. It felt like like cheap, sweet luxury,” says Camille Chatterjee, mom of 2-year-old Ivy.

For Lauren Smith Brody, work-family advocate and author of The Fifth Trimester, carefully picking produce was almost a form of meditation. “Finding perfectly ripe organic tomatoes felt like … I don’t know, like I was adulting in the loveliest way possible; supporting a farm; being, like, 1% European; taking a moment away from work and kids; remembering the tomatoes my mom would grow in our garden surrounded by pie pans to keep the birds away,” she says.

“I know it’s ridiculous but I’m sentimental and yes, choosing produce was really all that. This one relatively thankless domestic task had some satisfaction to it that made my feminist soul a little more okay with the to-do-ness of it.”

Brody, who is married to an essential worker, now orders everything online. “While I miss the sensory experience of it all, at the end of the day, I’m just happy to have a tomato. And then I feel bad for ever maligning a delivery tomato, because we have so much and are so lucky.“ 

We’re also grieving the loss of connection we’d find filling our cart. “Before the pandemic, I used to go grocery shopping with a girlfriend,” Powers says. “We’d have a beer on the rooftop of Whole Foods, and then split up and pick up our groceries before meeting up and driving home together. It was the best example of hitting two birds with one stone.” 

It’s the spontaneous supermarket stop-and-chats that Cordelia Derhammer-Hill, a mom of two teen daughters, longs for most. “I miss running into everyone I like but hadn’t seen lately,” she says.

Leu, for one, pines for the pre-pandemic trips shopping with her little one. “I miss bringing my little guy to Trader Joe’s because it was his favorite place (he requested to go there more than the playground!) and we always had fun together,” she says. “He would pound samples and search for ‘Percy the Parrot’ while I leisurely read labels and added pumpkin-flavored everything to my cart. I miss the simpler days!”

For Dawn Yanek, founder of Momsanity, loading up on food for her family of four was her time to think. “I realize this is a sad commentary on just how little time moms get to themselves even when there isn’t a pandemic, but that tiny little bit of grocery time helped me figure out things I was stuck on at work. I also didn’t feel guilty about taking the time to do it because, hey, everybody needed to eat!”

Some experts, like Kate Rope, author of Strong as a Mother, point out that we need a better support system so that moms don’t have to get their mental-health break doing chores for their family. (See Powers’ note from above about how we all deserve something better when it comes to self-care!) “It’s a sad indictment of the state of motherhood in America and the state of parenting and the inequity of it all, which is really hitting me as the pandemic takes women’s careers out left and right, and puts such emotional and logistical burdens on them.”

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Other Ways to Find Alone Time (That Aren’t Grocery Shopping)

The pandemic has radically changed the self-care landscape, rendering free time almost non-existent. For most moms, self-care simply cannot happen while homebound during waking hours with children (without some serious tag-teaming from partners or other support systems). Regardless, there’s a critical need for a reset.

Rope prioritizes the kind of self-care that really helps her mental health — exercise, for instance — and builds it in around virtual schooling and work deadlines. She exercises early in the morning before anyone is awake and takes a bath after her two daughters, who are 13 and 8, are in bed. She lights candles, finds “spa relaxation music” on YouTube, and then soaks and reads escapist fiction on her Kindle before slipping into bed. 

If your kids are older, considering doing what Catherine Gilbert, a mom of five, does: Enlist their help. “I got my older daughter to do online grocery shopping and then I just review, make changes, and order,” she says. While your kid does the online ordering, you can have a moment to yourself.

Powers recommends that parents put up boundaries to find breathing space. “For me, this means taking mini breaks, such as a longer shower. I also like to buy books and sit on the couch and read while my kids play. It’s a nice mental break for me, and it also models reading — a habit I want my kids to love as much as I do.” If you have a partner, communicate openly about what you need, she recommends.

Don’t forget that simply by getting through each day in the midst of this global crisis, you’re doing great. “There is literally nothing wrong with turning on a TV show for your kids so you can have a moment of peace,” Powers adds. “I guarantee there’s no way you’ll look back on this time in 10 years and say, ‘I really wish my kids watched less Paw Patrol during that global pandemic!’”

Are you mourning grocery shopping pre-pandemic? Let us know in the comments below.