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Our COVID-19 Story

Well, hello, there.

Been awhile, hasn’t it?

Like most of the world, we’ve been a bit preoccupied these last few months, and we only just started coming up for air, oh, say, YESTERDAY. (And things are still iffy, if I’m being honest.)

You already know that it’s been a stressful year and a stressful few months.

So why not throw a global pandemic, emergency evacuation, and a BABY on top of it all?

Life During COVID-19

I know a lot of you are here looking for homeschool resources. I know that most of you weren’t planning on homeschooling next year, but find yourselves with zero good options. I feel you. Oh boy, do I feel you. Don’t worry, I have posts coming soon that will help you out.

But for now, I wanted to let you know what’s been going on. The short story goes something like this: professional dreams put on hold, COVID becomes a thing, sudden evacuation to America, mental health break-down, scramble to find lodgings, go past my due date, have a baby, struggle to feed that baby, anddddd SCENE.

Interested in the long story? Then stick around. This post covers the first half of all that.

(In the meantime, check out the 2020 Ultimate Homeschool Bundle. The bundle is just $29.95 and includes dozens of resources for kids at all age and grade levels. The support resources and bonuses are particularly awesome.)

Our life has changed so dramatically since COVID-19 started spreading that I can’t even begin to describe the upheaval. That said, we’re lucky that our family is healthy and we still have a paycheck coming in. We’re incredibly lucky and so grateful to have a roof over our heads and to all have our health. If your family is suffering right now, please know that I sincerely ache for you.

I guess I should start at the beginning, right?

March, Part I – COVID Hits

In March, I eagerly awaited the start of a writer’s retreat at lovely Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. It was a big investment for our family, and it would also be the first time I’d ever been away from my kids for more than a night since they were born. It was A Big Deal.

The whole week leading up to the retreat was busy. I was 27 weeks pregnant and I had been agonizing about whether to have the baby in Guate or whether I should return to the US. I had finally decided to have the baby in Guatemala, and I had spent the week interviewing doulas and finalizing my choice of OB, pediatrician, and back-up childcare for the older kiddos.

A few days before the retreat was supposed to start, the leaders of the retreat emailed to say that they weren’t comfortable flying to Guatemala. And, one by one, the rest of the retreat members pulled out. At the time, I couldn’t believe how wimpy everyone was being.

I won’t lie, I was pretty angry. I had paid good money for this trip! This was supposed to be my big break! And there had been maybe 16 cases in Guatemala by this point, so it all just seemed ridiculous. This was back when we all thought COVID was just a bad flu.

But just a few days later, I would realize how prescient the other retreat participants had been. In all honesty, I cannot remember a time in my life that I would so completely change my mind so quickly.

But at the time, I just felt lucky that there was another retreat running at the same time. The head writer, Joyce Maynard, graciously added me to her group instead.

Because of all the last minute changes, the first 24 hours of the retreat were pretty hectic. Joyce, who is amazing, pulled out all the stops to make the retreat special and comfortable for those of us who chose to come, but the entire event was overshadowed by COVID.

I should mention that I was 27 weeks pregnant at the time, and I was finding the trip to be a little more physically difficult than I had anticipated. Lodgings had fallen through at the last minute, as various Air B&B landlords canceled reservations because of COVID, and poor Joyce was scrambling to house us all. I changed lodgings three times in the 36 hours or so that I was at the lake, eventually ending up on Joyce’s couch on the last night.

I mention all this because it was the immediate precursor to what comes next, so you should have a sense of my state of mind.

The bottom line is that the retreat was a total wash. On the second day, we found out that the Guatemalan president was planning to close the airpsace in two days. Understandably, most of the remaining participants chose to turn right around and head out, since flights were filling up fast as foreigners scrambled to get home before the airspace closed. It all felt very surreal. After all, there were hardly any cases in Guatemala. And even if it did reach Guate, it’s just the flu, right?

I considered staying at the lake, even under the changed circumstances, but I eventually called it quits with most of the remaining participants gone, my original teachers back in the US, and a lot of physical exhaustion from hiking around the lake in the end of my second trimester.

Also, (and this is embarrassing), there was a spider factor — on top of the mental stress, I am chagrined to admit that the enormous, palm-sized spiders crawling around every night meant I had slept on top of the covers with the lights on the night I arrived, and I wasn’t thinking super clearly.

After a fabulous party at Joyce’s house, I found my way upstairs to bed. There were several of those rat-sized spiders ambling about, so I made a snap decision to hitch a ride back to the city in the middle of the night; I knew there was a group of Americans heading to the airport on a 2 am bus. (<— don’t do this, just FYI.) I pulled a rocking chair into the center of the living room, kept one eye on the spiders, and counted the minutes until 2 am.

Sweet Joyce woke up in the middle of the night and saw us all off. I didn’t even call my husband to let him know I was coming; I just rang the doorbell when I got back to Guatemala City at 5:30 am and surprised him. (Side note: he had some words for me after realizing I’d driven across county boundaries in the middle of the night; this is NOT a great idea in case you’re wondering).

I describe all this because I want you to get a sense of how tired and mentally stressed the lead-in week was. My big professional dream had evaporated literally overnight, we were out thousands of non-refundable dollars, I was very pregnant and hormonal, I was stressed out from the travel, and, I mean, SPIDERS.

March Part II — The Evacuation

Just to summarize, all this had happened over just a few days.

The original retreat leaders canceled on Wednesday. I spent Thursday on the phone with the retreat folks, figuring out what to do. On Friday, I was on a bus to Antigua and then onwards to Atitlan. On Saturday, we found out the airpsace was closing. By 5 am Sunday morning, I was home (and exhausted).

Sunday afternoon is when I really started taking all of this seriously. Up until this point, COVID was just an abstract thing happening halfway around the world. It was sad, it was unfortunate, but it didn’t apply to us.

Even though I still wasn’t taking COVID seriously, since I’d just done all this travel and been in contact with several poeple who had recently flown, our family decided to self-isolate for the next 14 days. It seemed like overkill, honestly, but I was trying to be responsible. We called our nanny and housekeeper and told them to stay home (with pay) to keep them from off of public transport.

That evening, the State Department issued a notice announcing a Global Authorized Departure. This basically meant that anyone who was worried about COVID-19 or who had increasd risk factors could request to return to the US.

We spent about 30 seconds discussing it and decided to stay in Guatemala. After all, cases were so low here. Why would we fly and risk exposure in the airports?

The next morning, I got an email from the Health Unit in the embassy saying that they considered me to be high-risk because of my pregnancy and recommending that I should go.

Honestly, I still dismissed the evac notice. In an abundance of caution, I called my Guatemalan OB and asked for her opinion. I was shocked when she concurred and said that she couldn’t promise that hospitals would be in a good place for my June delivery.

And just like that, we decided to go.

The thing was, we didn’t know when we would be going. Monday happened to be my husband’s birthday, and instead of celebrating, we spent the day frantically making calls, trying to get more information.

I did the normal thing I do when facing a huge upheaval — I took on an unnecessary and massive organizing project (in this case, re-organizing the kids’ closets and sorting outgrown clothes). The house was a disaster — stacks of clothes everywhere, my suitcase from the retreat still zipped up, piles of papers to be filed, baby items to be put away in the new nursery…the chaos of the house reflected my mental state.

We didn’t know for sure, but it seemed like we would be on a flight out of Guatemala later that week, likely five or six days away.

On Wednesday morning, I had packed a suitcase for my girls and a suitcase of baby clothes, just in case, but nothing else. Around 10 am, I got an email from the Embassy saying we needed to report for departure in TWO HOURS.

Talk about panic.

I knew that if we got on that plane, I wouldn’t be able to come back until after the baby was born. At 34 weeks, you can no longer fly to post, and that was just a month away. So that meant that I’d be suddenly finishing this pregnancy in the US and needed to plan to have a baby, occupy my older kids, and finish out our homeschool year…with just two suitcases allowed per person (and frankly, this was generous).

The worst part was that my husband couldn’t come with us. He couldn’t just abandon his office like this, certainly not when so many families were in upheaval.

At the time, we were told that the evacuation flights were the ONLY planned flights out the country for the time being. That meant that there was a chance he wouldn’t be able to get out. It was terrifying and I cried so much over those few days.

Kissing my husband goodbye as I loaded our girls onto the bus to the airport, not knowing if he would be there for the birth of our baby, not even knowing where we were going to be living in the US…it was one of the worst days of my entire life. I couldn’t believe that a week earlier, my biggest concerns were packing for my retreat, finding an English-speaking doula for the new baby, and if my girls would miss me while I was away.

I will never forget what it was like to drive through the deserted streets of Guatemala City, the convoy of buses under police escort, the tears streaming from my eyes that I tried to hide from my sweet girls sitting next to me.

March Part IV – Back to America

I can’t count the number of times I said “This is surreal” during the week of our evacuation.

The Guatemalan airport was completely closed, so the only people there were those of us waiting for the chartered humanitarian flight. It was hot, there was no where to buy food or water, and the flight kept getting delayed. My toddler started crying around 2pm and basically didn’t stop for five hours. It was stressful to say the least, but I so appreciated traveling with colleagues and friends from the embassy, and for the way we all banded together to help each other.

One of the many stressful parts of the trip home was that I didn’t have a clear idea of where we were going to stay once back in the US. I had contacted a long-term executive stay company and had a short-term rental lined up in DC, but I was literally calling her from the airport trying to line up accomodations. I still didn’t have any idea of where we would permanently settle, and it felt like a huge decision, since it would mean I’d be having a baby there.

We landed in Miami around midnight and I settled my exhausted kiddos into bed at the airport hotel. The next day, we boarded a flight for DC.

The flight was easy, almost routine except for the fact that the airport was nearly deserted and our flight was mostly empty. Everyone was super helpful to the pregnant lady with two little kids and a mountain of luggage. Kind strangers helped us get luggage and install carseats at the rental car agency. I started to relax — we could do this.

But when we got to our temporary apartment just five minutes from the airport, it was like we entered an alternate universe.

Trying to get the kids, the stroller, and the luggage into the apartment was a nightmare. The stroller started to roll into the road, toddler in tow. My four-year-hold attempted to help with the luggage until a wheel popped off and the entire tower of luggage fell over. The concierge in the apartment building wouldn’t open the office door to hand me keys and attempted to check us in through the glass. Dozens of passers-by saw us struggling to open the door and get inside but didn’t stop. One person shrugged their shoulders and just said, “Sorry, coronavirus.”

Once I finally got us all inside, I realized we had no toilet paper, hand soap, or food. I hopped on to one of the grocery delivery sites, but all the spots were taken. The same thing played out with every delivery service I tried. This is when I started to lose it. How was I supposed to quarantine ourselves, feed my kids, and keep us clean? It felt overwhelming.

I posted a TMI call for help on Facebook and instantly had more offers of help than I could field. Wonderful friends drove over at 10 pm to bring us the essentials. Friends-of-friends connected us with other friends-of-friends who lived nearby, and so complete strangers started dropping off Lysol wipes, extra bleach, and handsoap. Since my toddler was potty-training through all this, I had never been so grateful to see bleach in my life.

Thank you to my husband’s ex-wife, who is a lovely human being, and her husband, who drove over this stash of essentials at 10 pm.

It was still a hard few weeks. I cried a lot. It was a struggle to get dressed most days and there were days when I couldn’t bother to shower. I wasn’t sure where to look for long-term housing, or for how long we’d need to reserve a space. I couldn’t find a midwife who’d accept me in the middle of a pandemic. My husband was trying to get a flight out, but wasn’t sure when it would happen. The days were incredibly long and empty, yet my anxiety was at an all-time high.

I moved us to another temporary apartment. It was dark and dirty, and I struggled to occupy my kids through the long empty days when I was barely holding it together myself. We’d watch hours of TV and then I’d make an effort to do a craft or put together a puzzle, but I’d quickly run out of steam. At this point, I’d slept in six different beds (and one rocking chair) in less than a week.

It continued to be impossible to find grocery delivery, so I’d have to haul the kids to the grocery store every few days. Everyone else in America had had weeks to start stockpiling, so the empty shelves were a big problem for us because we had literally nothing. There was one particularly bad day when we legitimately ran out of toilet paper. I went from store to store with my kids in the stroller, my toddler reeking from a poop accident that happened somewhere between CVS and Whole Foods, begging store clerks to check just one more time for toilet paper because I swear I’m not hoarding, I just need to clean my kid’s bum.

Thank goodness I could still get Girl Scout Cookies amid all of this

There were a lot of low points over the next few weeks, but slowly, slowly, slowly, we started to put our world back together.

I found us a place to live close to my parents, a few hours drive from DC. It’s rural and cases were low in the county, meaning we could safely go outside without masks.

My husband found a flight out. It was canceled. He sat on the couch, wondering what in the world to do when he suddenly got a call — come to the airport right now. He made the flight out and we were finally reunited after two of the longest weeks of my life.

We moved into our new short/long-term apartment. I set up a little homeschooling station. We borrowed kitchen supplies from my parents and I spent too much money on Amazon filling in the gaps for the rest.

Homeschooling in a Pandemic

Can you believe all of what I just described covers just two weeks in March? So yea, it took me a little while to get my shizzle together and even think about homeschooling.

But this was the one silver lining — I already knew how to educate my kids. I didn’t have to worry about Zoom preschool or figuring out another teacher’s math curriculum.

Sure, I didn’t have my stash of art supplies or my home library. I had to leave behind all our books and special materials. I brought just a few workbooks and a very small cache of art supplies.

When I was ready, I started incorporating daily art. A few weeks later, I brought in our phonics lessons a few days a week. Then math.

And I wasn’t afraid to take a day off when the weather was good. We spent a lot of time outside hunting for snails and building dams and blowing dandelions. We spent a lot of time just healing from the trauma of the sudden upheaval.

Before we knew it, we’d finished the pre-k curriculum. There was no fanfare or graduation ceremony. Just, all of a sudden…we were done. And the kids were okay.

Finding a New Normal

Life got a lot better as the weeks and months passed. We celebrated several birthdays in our temporary quarters. We did Easter egg hunts and I had a virtual baby shower. We made due.

We were incredibly lucky to land on our feet near my parents, who live on a big spread of land next to a river. After a two-week quarantine, we escaped our temp apartment for their house nearly every day.

I can honestly say that those first weeks and months during the COVID-19 crisis were the most challenging and frightening of my entire life.

The uncertainty on both a personal and a global level, the growing realization that this wasn’t going to end any time soon, worry about my kids social and emotional development, worry for my parents’ health, worry about the effects the stress were having on my pregnancy, worry about the financial impact, worry about giving birth in an unfamiliar hospital with a new provider…I could go on and on. And I knew we were lucky in the grand scheme of things, but still…it was hard.

It’s been almost five full months since we boarded a plane with just a few hours’ notice and a couple of suitcases. And I can honestly say…we’re okay. We still don’t know when we’ll be able to go home or what the new normal will look like, but for now, we’re okay.

Sure, there’s still too much screen time and more take-out than our life normally involves. We miss our friends. I really, really miss our nanny and housekeeper back in Guatemala! (Don’t worry, they’re safe and we left them with five months of salary plus a bonus before we left to make sure they’d have a cushion during all the uncertainty of the pandemic.)

I don’t know where or what we’ll be doing in a month’s time. But for now, we’re reading lots of books (thank you curb-side pickup at the library!) We eat dinner together as a family every night. We go outside as much as we can (although muggy Maryland summers sure make that harder).

We’re okay.

We’re going to be okay.

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