Katie Drake and her son Nolan pose for a picture.

by Katie Drake

Dinner table conversations cover a lot of ground.

Your day, family, friends, school, work, activities, where you want to go out to dinner on Friday, a funny story, or sometimes minor or even serious health issues. Our lives (pre-COVID) were filled with plenty of other distractions and topics of conversation.

Whether you are working, retired, a social person, or an introvert, a parent, a child, a college student, a teacher, an essential worker, a grandparent, a friend, or a neighbor you are not alone. COVID-19 has had an effect on every single one of us and continues to affect our daily lives.

It has disrupted structure, routines, where we go, and who we see. It has changed how we work, how we learn, and how we play. It makes us wash our hands a whole hell of a lot more. Business handshakes have turned into elbow or fist bumps. Many people lost their jobs and more families in US history than ever before are facing food insecurity. People everywhere are struggling in different ways to navigate through the overused and vastly understated term “unprecedented time.”

How are you really?

It’s what we’re NOT talking about at the dinner table that is the point here. We ask things every day like, “How are you?” And we take the, “I’m good, you?” response as, yes, I care, but I’ve checked that box. What we aren’t asking is, “How are you really?” or “How are you dealing with all of this?”

Let’s face it, our mental health is rarely a topic at the dinner table. It is not fun. It is ugly. And most people who are fortunate to have never faced depression, often don’t understand it. It is so much easier to say, “I’m fine” and move on to something else.

It is easy to say, “I’m going crazy” instead of saying “I’m struggling, I’m sad”, or “I’m depressed.” To admit you are having a hard time is to show vulnerability and let’s be honest here, vulnerability sucks. It’s much easier to talk about something else than talk about your feelings and your struggles. I know I am guilty.

Brené Brown is an American professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host. She is all about vulnerability and how it makes us grow. If you aren’t familiar with her – check her out – she’s awesome.  She says, “Vulnerability is basically uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” But my favorite most relevant quote for today is, “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing you’ll ever do.”

Well, Brené, we’ve never met but I’m going to take your advice lady. I’m going to move WAY outside my comfort zone and share my story in the hope it helps inspire you to ask, listen, and share with your loved ones.

I thought I knew what exhaustion felt like

Almost exactly one year ago today, I thought I knew what exhaustion felt like.

I’d been working very, very hard at work for months to set every member of my team up for a successful year. At night I’d work on the nursery, making sure I’d thought of everything to prepare for the birth of our son. The days were long and the nights were longer. I’d lay awake and rack my brain to make sure I had everything handled. We made wills, set up a trust, I even wrote a letter to Chris and Nolan just in case I had complications and didn’t make it through birth. I really tried to think of everything.

They weren’t kidding when they said you’ll never really be ready for a baby. It’s never the perfect time, you never have enough money, and you just cannot prepare yourself for what it will be like. I read so many books, apps, articles, and lists about anything and everything baby-related. I read product reviews and talked to my mom, my sisters, and my mom’s friends. I thought I was as ready as I could be.

I have been very fortunate to have many life experiences. But nothing prepared me for meeting my son for the first time. It is an indescribable feeling to meet this tiny human – your tiny human, for the first time. Everything I’ve read says it is completely normal for moms not to bond with their baby right away, but I was lucky and fell in love at first sight. My labor was a pretty easy one, and we gave birth to a healthy, happy baby on February 24, 2020.

The first few weeks were a blur. No sleep. Complaining about only getting four hours of sleep a couple of months ago had changed to bragging that I got four WHOLE hours of sleep in a row! Family and friends visited. Days and nights were consumed with feedings every three hours and diaper changes.

When Nolan was three weeks old, COVID became a thing, and it felt like someone had kicked over the beautiful sand castle I had been working so hard to build.

All new parents and mothers in particular experience major sleep deprivation. That alone is so hard. I was experiencing some post-partum depression which is very normal and also challenging to navigate through. Breastfeeding, the change in your body, and a new baby is a lot. And then COVID. It was a lot. I struggled, hard.

After nine months of anticipation, all I wanted was to show my beautiful little boy to everyone in the world and show the whole world to my beautiful little boy.

I cried every day multiple times a day

Nolan was one month old. We weren’t allowing any visitors and there was nowhere safe to go. It was still winter, much too cold for a newborn to be outside, even to take a walk. Since Chris was deemed essential, he still needed to go to work and since he was already exposed to lots of people working every day, he even did the grocery shopping to minimize the risk to our new family.

I didn’t leave the house for seven weeks. That’s 49 days. I cried every day multiple times a day. I was having a really, really hard time. 49 days. I was a brand-new first-time mom trying to figure out how to be a mom and a human at the same time.

No visitors, no family, no friends, I had never in my life felt so alone. I began to sink into a very dark place. As a very positive person, it was incredibly hard to admit that I was struggling.

It’s hard to describe what it felt like to have a sweet little baby with you all day but at the same time, feel so alone. It was much easier to muster the energy to text things like “I’m okay” or “I’m doing fine” or even make a joke about lack of sleep than tell anyone how I was really feeling.

Family, friends called to check-in, but I just didn’t have it in me to answer. Sometimes it would take me days to be able to pull it together enough to be able to call someone back. It seemed too much to try and mold back into the shell of my positive and funny self for even a half-hour. I was so afraid to FaceTime because I didn’t want people to see it in my face. Even texting was hard because I just didn’t have much to say. I felt like life was slipping away without me.

I was out of work on maternity leave, something I will always be eternally grateful for – all that precious time with Nolan.  I also really missed work, which I loved.  The work, my colleagues, clients, just seeing people.  Just months ago I was running strategic planning meetings with clients, coaching discussions with my team, and presenting data and research in high-level business meetings. I was creative, smart, and funny. I could own the room.  Now, I felt so incredibly irrelevant because the only thing I had to talk about was my baby.

Get over it and CALL

The bright side is almost everyone just wants to talk about the baby. That was easy. He is sweet and super cute and I could muster up a good poop story for distraction. (Most people don’t want to call and “bother you” or “wake the baby”. Get over it and CALL. New moms need to talk.)

Meanwhile, I was feeling horrible inside. I was struggling with the new mom thing, feelings of depression, the not working thing, and especially the no socialization thing. As an extrovert, the lack of socialization and collaboration was crushing for me.

Every day, I got up and gave it everything I could. Because when you are a mom, you just do. It’s hard and it’s not pretty. And it can be so very lonely sometimes.

Thank you to Chris who did the best he knew how.  To Nolan for learning how to smile early, which gave me so much hope.  And to my family, and my good friends for not giving up on me.  I am so thankful for you. Thank you for calling me, even though I didn’t answer because I was crying too hard. For the texts, it sometimes took me days to answer, because I didn’t know what to say. And thank you to my sister, who was the person whom I finally mustered the courage to answer the phone and the only words I could get out is “I’m having a hard time.”

You are not alone, you are not crazy.

Finally admitting to her that I was struggling was really hard for me, but I’m so thankful I did. Just talking about it lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. I started talking about it to other people. I did some journaling and writing about my feelings and I found a way to manage and improve.

That’s my story. I have worked through my struggles and I am in a good place. COVID challenges haven’t ended there for our family and I continue to work hard to embrace my feelings. I am thankful for so much, especially Nolan who lights up our lives with laughter and mischief. We just celebrated his first birthday last week.

My only motive for sharing this vulnerable, personal story is to inspire anyone struggling to open up, be brave, be vulnerable and share. If you have a child in school, a retired friend, or you know a new mom please call and check on them. Next time you are sitting around the dinner table ask. Really ask. Not just the ‘How are ya?” but have a real and vulnerable conversation with the people you love. Then listen. Talking about it is the first step. Talking about it helps.

You are not alone, you are not crazy. We are all struggling through this in different ways.

Part II of this story will continue the conversation with Andre Cuda, LCSW-R.  We’ll discuss COVID’s mental barriers and challenges from his perspective along with the physical and mental symptoms you may be experiencing with tips of do’s and don’ts to help us with some tools to navigate through this challenging time.