I hesitate to admit it, but I’m possibly more depressed about ending lockdown than I was about starting it.
Some necessary background: I live in Germany. I am a working mom of two teenagers and an autistic tween. I live in a house with a yard. My family is healthy. We are the lucky ones.
As a New Yorker both by birth and allegiance, I’m even more ashamed to express my reluctance to leave our ‘cocoon’ while my friends and family in New York are still experiencing what feels like a far more sinister and urgent sheltering from this brutal virus or must work themselves to the bone to fight it.
As we begin to emerge from twelve weeks of distanced learning and working, the closure of all non-essential activities, businesses, and gatherings; we are prepared to do so while diligently maintaining physical distance and wearing facemasks. Our new reality includes the ongoing threat of illness and the distinct possibility of renewed retreat, should infection rates at any time exceed 1.1 transmissions per capita – reflecting the maximum capacity of our medical system.
In the face of all the hardship
My kids take public buses to school, transferring at the busy main train station, and will share desks, bathrooms and cafeterias with 1000 other kids over the course of a day. My two older kids have asthma and my autistic son doesn’t do well with completely new routines. I don’t love our odds.
If I’m honest, however, there are other reasons I don’t feel ready to emerge from our cocoon. I’ve really enjoyed the involuntary intensity of spending this time with my family. For once, it wasn’t the demands of a holiday or a needy parent that got us to share meals, stories, laughter, chores, and lots and lots of time together. The executive order to shelter in place welded us with a heady mixture of fear, resolve, love, and team spirit. My inner momma bear was on fire and the kids cozied up to it.
But then there is the least noble of reasons I’m not ready to leave our cocoon. A reason so shameful in the face of all the hardship and loss COVID-19 has brought, that I’ve not even zoomed my closest friends about it: I hate that I won’t be emerging from my cocoon a beautiful butterfly.
Let’s face it, between helping to teach the kids, keeping up with the endless housework, attempting to keep up with my own professional work, and running through the financial scenarios of coping with our drastically reduced income– I did not ‘glow up.’
I don’t just mean physically – we all skipped a few of our regular beauty routines and baked carbs like there was no tomorrow. No, I feel I’ve failed to use this time to meaningfully improve myself in other ways. Is this just a German thing? I’m not sure. Our key Corona export, YouTube fitness video icon Pamela Reif has helped set a high bar for home fitness globally; yet, at the end of most days, I was not alone in having a Stanley Tucci inspired happy hour drink rather than sweating through a 15-minute six-pack challenge.
The real problem is that in eight weeks of lockdown, I did not complete any of the online classes I’d optimistically purchased at the beginning. I have read one book, written none of my own. My guitar still sits in the same dusty corner, un-played. And while I’m pretty sure that my recipe-exchanging mom-friends also won’t be emerging with six-packs or bestseller novels, their Instagram posts suggest a modicum of self-improvement that makes me want to curl up in my bear cave wearing sweats forever. Living in Germany, however, openly admitting to this feels like the ultimate declaration of defeat.
Germany has been duly lauded for its success in handling COVID-19. Death rates have been low, hospitals have stayed so far below capacity they opened their doors to patients in neighboring countries, and even sent extra ventilators across closed borders to help other struggling European nations. We’ve used our economic reserves to tide over those hit hardest by income-loss and will be resuming productivity more promptly than any other nation this size. We’re winning and we’ve made it to the very slim good news portion of international COVID-19 reporting. How did we do it?
While so much has changed in German society since the end of the Second World War, self-discipline has remained a core value and celebrated virtue. It should be noted that there are three types of Germans today: Those with their ducks in a row; those without ducks their ducks in a row; and those who can’t help that they don’t have their ducks in a row. The social safety net is financed by the former and meant to help the latter –
presumably the newly arrived immigrant, starving artist, or disabled members of our society. The middle group receives scathing disdain because this country was rebuilt on solidarity, hard work, and iron-core self-discipline. They are presumed to willingly fall short in the expectation of these.
The judgment-free zone
It had been my assumption that our COVID-19 lockdown would allow us all to drop the ball, relax a bit, and even promote the broader acceptance of athleisure wear. German designer Karl Lagerfeld famously criticized the wearing of sweats outside the gym as a sign of defeat. It now appears, this was a more deeply ingrained and widely held attitude than I realized, so my hopes were totally off the mark. It almost seems that the extenuating circumstances provoked an even tighter grasp onto precious trappings of self-discipline – which is why lockdown in Germany was a fully bra’d, belted, and a decidedly not-defeated success.
To be fair, the many perks to life in Germany can only be maintained with consistent work and discipline. Universal access to free public education from pre-K to a professional degree are paired with universal healthcare, paid medical and maternity/paternity leave, care for the elderly, disabled and temporarily disabled, mandatory six weeks paid vacation, and a mid-60s retirement age with basic pension plan. This was not vacation. This was crisis management. It meant that all hands were on deck, but behind closed doors – where the exact format was, unusually, left to everyone’s own discretion.
So now I’m not quite ready to leave the judgment-free zone that I’ve enjoyed with my sweats wearing, only occasionally showering kids and husband for the past few weeks. I will miss the intimacy of this time – the lack of pretension and less tightly scheduled pace, but more than anything, the break from the burdens of expectation.
Today, as I gather the empty wine bottles to be recycled in our neighborhood bins and iron the few clothes that still fit my diligently happy hour’d frame, I ponder on what I would have done differently with this time. Guiltily, I listen to reports that postulate on a second lockdown mid-summer or even in the fall, during flu season. I even allow myself to fantasize about the online classes and seasonal cocktails I might enjoy then, during Lockdown 2.0.