It’s been an interesting two months of living the isolationist lifestyle at home with my husband. The first was my ninth month of pregnancy. The second was our first month of life with a newborn. To top it off, my husband, who works as a sound engineer for Broadway musicals, has watched his entire industry take an indefinite hiatus.
This probably seems like a recipe for severe marital stress and disaster. But here we are — 60 days in — and so far, nobody has gotten hurt. And since both of us had time to shower and eat breakfast this morning (and it’s only 7 a.m.), I thought I’d share some of the tips we’ve stumbled upon to help us get here.
Resetting Our Operating Mode
Before this pandemic took hold, my husband and I had planned on a very different sort of parental leave experience. (You know, one that included access to family, friends, and local establishments.) We’re both first-time parents, but we’d talked to enough seasoned gurus to know that the first few weeks of newborn life can really suck. When this all vanished overnight, we knew the deck was stacked against us from the get-go.
To compensate for these losses, we’ve attempted to create a new version of normal for ourselves in at-home quarantine mode with a newborn. This transition has been easier said than done, and it’s involved a lot of communication, empathy, and new at-home behaviors for both of us. Here’s what we’ve come up with:
7 Ways We’re Managing Quarantine Life with a Newborn
#1: Look at it like a video game.
One of the partners at USV, Albert Wenger, thinks about running a business like “leveling up” in a video game. At each growth stage, you must acquire a new skill to overcome a new obstacle. When you advance to the next level, you must apply that new skill and learn the next one. We took on this same mindset in quarantine life.
In one sense, we lucked out: Our baby arrived after a month we got used to stepping all over each other at home. By then, we’d already established some semblance of a new routine that included mask-wearing, grocery shopping, and respecting each other’s personal space. When we added a new human to the mix, we needed to keep doing all of that, plus a little more — essentially “leveling up” our skills incrementally. By looking at it as a game, rather than a debilitating set of circumstances, it’s helped our frame of mind stay happy and healthy along the way.
#2: Be explicit about each other’s goals.
It’s easier than ever to fall into a rut. Every day feels the same — particularly when neither of us is working full time. But while our options may be severely limited, it’s important that we still feel some sense of agency over our lives. That’s why, to start each day, we ask each other: “What would you like to accomplish today?”
When we understand each other’s goals, then we can work together to make them happen. One note: These don’t need to be lofty goals. In fact, it’s almost better if they aren’t. (It makes them more achievable.) In our case, he might want time to go for a run, or I might just want to take a shower. It’s been an incredible mood lift when we each accomplish just one basic thing for ourselves.
#3: Troubleshoot problems like a technician.
One of my favorite parts about being married to a sound engineer is that he treats every problem like troubleshooting a piece of audio equipment. That’s to say — there’s a fixed set of steps you can take to test why a speaker isn’t working properly. Technicians are better at their jobs the faster they move through those options. And there’s no emotion involved: It either works or it doesn’t.
I’ve learned to adopt this same approach when dealing with things on the home front. Everything from crying babies to dirty dishes in the sink can be isolated as its own form of troubleshooting. By reminding ourselves to decouple the emotional reaction (ie: “If he leaves dirty dishes in the sink one more time, I’m going to kill him!”) from the problem-solving process (“Hey, what reminders can we set for ourselves to remember to empty the dishwasher?”), we’ve been able to move toward solutions (“How about every night before we go to bed, we turn on the dishwasher?”). It’s also a great way to remember that we’re part of the same team.
#4: Check in at the end of each day.
I’m notoriously a big fan of the weekly check-in for relationships, which is a recurring chance to touch base on the good and not-so-good moments together. But with times as hectic as they are, weekly check-ins aren’t good enough. I noticed that I’d wrap up just a single afternoon of baby duty on the verge of tears, with rising resentment and bitterness seconds from bursting out of my face. Not good.
After a catastrophic meltdown happened the first time, I asked my husband to debrief with me at the end of the day and talk it over. Now, we’ve been doing this every day, and it’s been a great way to reset. After dinner, we ask each other, “How did things go today?” While this can sometimes be a time to vent a little (“I spent all morning trying to get this baby to nap — and she just refused!”), they have been most helpful when we make decisions about what to change for the next day. Since implementing these check-ins, we’ve already created a few new at-home policies that really help to ease the tension, such as shortening how long we spend cooking so we can spend more time together, and creating a way for me to let him know when it’s a “bad nap day” for our baby so he can give me an hour-long reprieve in the afternoon.
#5: Make weekends stand out from weekdays.
When we’re stuck at home all day, every day, life can start to feel like a bit more of a drag. It’s also hard to know what to look forward to in any given week. When I realized that weekends weren’t feeling much different from weekdays (and this was bumming me out) I suggested that we come up with a few “weekend only” rules for our household.
With a quick, 10-minute brainstorm, we came up with a bunch of new ideas that we’ve already put in place. To be clear, none of these are monumental or game-changing. We decided for instance that, on weekends, my husband doesn’t spend time in “work mode” during the days, that we do at least one activity all together, and that we watch movies vs. our regular TV programming. We also decided to seek out one new cultural activity to participate in each week — from browsing a museum online to listening in on a symphony performance. Again, we’re going easy on ourselves here: Our first “cultural” activity was watching the 10 all-time most watched YouTube videos.
#6: Acknowledge each other’s shifting roles.
Without being able to invite anyone else into our lives in person, we’ve needed to stretch the roles we play in our relationship. We’re not just husband and wife, but playing so many different parts: Friends, family, colleagues, baby-sitters, chefs. Since each of us is the other’s only form of real, human interaction, I’ve found it to be most helpful when we act with generosity and encouragement toward each other.
When I notice my husband is in “work mode,” I try to respect that by not interrupting incessantly when he’s at his computer. If he has a work question, I answer it like I might address a colleague. But when he’s on a break — even though he might be sitting in the exact same place — then we pick back up on our couple’s banter. One other thing that’s gone a long way for both of us has been to acknowledge things we appreciate, such as when the other helps take out the trash or clear out the fridge.
#7: Find ways to add a little levity.
In planning for life at home with a newborn, we both anticipated plenty of unproductive conversations, fights, and baby meltdowns. To hedge against this inevitability, we decided to create an “escape hatch” that would take us both out of the craziest moments, and just give us a minute to catch our breaths.
So, in the weeks leading up to our baby’s birth, we each wrote down dozens of shared jokes, stories, and fun memories together on little scraps of paper, then mixed them up and tossed them into a jar in our living room. This “emergency memory jar” has been a game-changer. Whenever one of us is feeling really down, the other person can essentially “pause” the insanity by reaching into the jar and reading one of the random memories. Does this change the fact that our baby has morphed into a red-faced, angry “Jack Jack mode” (see: The Incredibles) caricature of herself? Absolutely not. But it gives us a second to think back to something happy, to breathe, and to remember that we’re in this as a team. Sometimes that’s all it takes to reset in that moment.
With two months down (and likely many more to go), we’ll keep iterating on this new at-home operating mode. But I hope some of these ground rules inspire you and your partners, families, roommates, and even pets to make the most of the quarantine times.
Also published on Medium.