“Where is your mask?  Where the hell is your mask?!!!”

Those were the words I shouted at my 10-year-old son as we got ready to walk out the door for school day number two this fall.  My son stared up at me, trying to maintain eye contact while wiping the tears out from under his smudged glasses. Shaking with anger, I stomped through the house, found a back-up mask and thrust it at him. I then marched out the door, furiously filling out our school’s wellness screening on my phone while angrily walking down the block with him trailing behind. 

I am a monster.  After six months out of the regular school routine, my poor kid was trying to get through his first week of school in the Covid reality— cohorts and staggered schedules, walking four miles to school and back every day and hopefully catching glimpses of old friends along the way.  Smiling and jolly about his new teachers, (mostly) upbeat about the trek to school, compliant with temperature checks and new classroom configurations, he was coping so well. Could I possibly throw him a bone about misplacing his mask?  Nope. Apparently I couldn’t.  Instead, I ripped him to shreds at 7:30am because he left his mask by the bathroom sink while brushing his teeth (which in itself was a minor miracle.) What was wrong with me?!!!

The following morning, as I drove my freshman son to school and he too had forgotten his mask, I was about to lose it with him, when divine intervention occurred in the form of David Bowie and Freddy Mercury on the car radio:

Pressure pushing down on me

Pressing down on you, no man ask for

Under pressure that burns a building down

Splits a family in two

Puts people on streets

The opening notes of Under Pressure pulled me back from the brink of losing my cool with another one of my children, as if released from an evil spell. When I heard the actual words “under pressure” uttered in the song, I felt something inside of me come loose.  Oh my God.  My anger, my short fuse, my impatience. The song was naming for me what I was feeling — I was feeling under pressure, tremendous pressure.  The start of the school year is always brutal but particularly in this time of totally bizarre school beginnings, the pressure felt unbearable. And I was struggling.

Through the summer up until the start of school this fall, our Covid life was strange, but it was strange in a quiet and slow way.  We weren’t rushing anywhere with our kids, we had no plans, our daily schedules were like molasses, quietly creeping past us as if someone had slowed the clocks in our house. The stressors through the summer revolved around trying to find something to do with our kids while we worked, somewhere for them to go that didn’t involve lying on the couch with iPads, coming up with a reason why they needed to go to bed at a certain hour or wake up at a particular time.  But with the return of in-person school, the stressors of our old life were back, the rush to get to school on time, making sure homework assignments were done and bedtime was held to.  Except now there were even more stressors, masks and wellness checks and urgent school updates and confusing arrivals and dismissals.  And possibly the most existential stressors of all — will our lives shut down again and will we stay safe?

When Under Pressure came on the car radio I realized I had been holding my breath for days waiting for the next unexpected change, the next set of bad news, the next unpredictable life change.  As a parent, normally when I am under pressure I tend to do two things: one, bottle up my stress so that I can put on a brave face for my kids and two, shout at my kids because I have bottled up my stress and it has nowhere to go.  The other morning, not only did I NOT put on a brave face in the face of pressure, I also managed to make my kid feel crummy about making a small mistake like forgetting his mask.  (Side note, I fully reserve the right to shout at my kids for irresponsible actions, disrespect to me, unkindness to their siblings or generally major screw-ups where they really should have known better.)

The lyrics to Under Pressure reverberated in the chambers of my heart, naming line by line what I was facing.

It’s the terror of knowing what the world is about

Watching some good friends screaming

“Let me out!”

Pray tomorrow gets me higher

Pressure on people, people on streets

With gratitude to this song, literally naming my hardest emotions that had been simmering beneath the surface of my skin, what could I do next?  Because I knew now that the spell was lifted, I couldn’t continue on in the same vein.

First, I took a moment — I listened and I drove, my older son sitting next to me, newly borrowed mask in his hand, knowing this was one of those time where you don’t talk to mom during a song.  Second, I vowed I would apologize to my younger son for unfairly shouting at him for a small mistake — I am trying really hard to run a mistake-friendly home even though I don’t always succeed.  Third, I recognized that my kids needed help figuring out how to incorporate the new responsibilities like wearing masks and carrying ID cards into their new daily routines — I couldn’t expect them to work it all out on their own.  Fourth, I realized that I needed to openly name in front of my kids how much pressure I was under, how stressful this time was feeling to me and how hard the transition back to school was this year. And finally, I acknowledged to myself that as much as I wanted to be, I didn’t need to be a super hero; I didn’t need to be stoic; I didn’t need to put on a brave face. (Let’s be honest, it’s not like I was fooling anyone with my attempts anyway.) I needed to be honest with my kids because whatever I was feeling, whatever I was finally articulating for myself with the help of Under Pressure, most likely they too needed help articulating.

That evening, I apologized to my 10 year old for shouting.  I spent some time with each of my kids working out how to manage the new routines in their daily lives.  I described over dinner how much pressure I was feeling at the start of this weird school year. I promised I would try my best not to shout as much, but would likely shout a lot more before the school year was out.  We got up the next morning, walked to school and a block from school I realized that my 10-year-old had forgotten his ID card.  I took a deep breath, I pictured David Bowie and Freddy Mercury and together, my son and I came up with a plan.

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