by Sarah Stuteville, columnist
Last month I failed a final project due the same week I lost all childcare. Last week I picked a brutal late-night fight with my husband after an hour spent brooding over #loveinthetimeofcorona Instagram posts. Last night I ate peanut butter, saltines and ice cream for dinner. And the list of quarantine fails goes on. I have yelled “shut up” at my kids, I have lied to my therapist and blown deadlines with two editors. On Sunday I forgot to properly socially distance and scared an elderly woman at the park who yelled “six feet!” at me in a panic as I walked past her, maskless.
Even before this pandemic we lived in a time of highly curated lives and immense pressure to “thrive” (or at least be perceived as thriving) even as systems of support and resources disappeared beneath us. We have grown up in a society that tells us we must always justify our very presence on this earth. This is even more true for people of color, women, LGBTQ and nonbinary people and other marginalized groups — who are often living with the omnipresent stress of existing inside systems explicitly built for others.
And it’s not just that you cannot fail (you cannot), it’s that you must always be improving yourself. Tirelessly hacking your life for maximum productivity, efficiency and outcomes. We are competitive parents, social media posters, co-workers, romantic partners, dieters and travelers.
There are subgroups in the Battle Royale that is American Capitalism. Mine is white-girl-perfectionism. It is a toxic blend of fear that I don’t belong in historically male spaces and racial entitlement that keeps me grasping after ever-diminishing rewards instead of focusing on helping to liberate those oppressive spaces I’m occupying.
This mentality is widespread in what I’ve come to call “Pandemic Productivity Porn.” Maybe it’s just my algorithms, but this seems like a white-lady-of-the-internet specialty right now. Tips on how to use this incredibly traumatic and terrifying time to deep clean your living space, improve your relationship, perfect homeschooling, learn a language or keep your exercise routine fresh. Or there’s my personal favorite, a recent medium article that suggested you use this time to visualize the “ideal person” you’d like to become post-pandemic.
Of course, there is privilege assumptions in these suggestions. They assume you are still able to buy groceries. They assume you are not an “essential worker” risking your life for minimum wage. They assume you are not currently grieving the death of a loved one. But beyond that, there is such a cruel undercurrent in this brutal cheeriness that urges you to combat collective heartbreak with a self-improvement project.
There is a whole crop of creators out there who have been challenging typical measures of American success since before the pandemic. The Nap Ministries, Virgie Tovar and Jessamyn Stanley are just a few who have been on my internet feed for years calling out a culture of productivity and perfectionism for the racist, sexist, capitalist traps they are. And Julio Vincent Gambuto just wrote an incredible piece about the “Gaslighting” American Capitalism is brewing up for us in an attempt to distract us from its failings — during this current crisis, but also long before. Because let’s be honest, things weren’t that great in 2019 either.
As a mental health counselor in training, I am careful not to judge how anyone gets through a crisis. If you need to make detailed to-do lists, keep busy, tire yourself out, or immerse in projects, go for it. If you feel pretty good in this slowed down moment, embrace it. If you’ve never been more romantic, that’s awesome.
But if, like me, you have a lot of days where the opposite is true and you yell at your kids, fight with your partner, disappoint your professors and scare senior citizens with your thoughtlessness, I want you to know that’s understandable too. We are uncomfortable, we are afraid, we feel bad and we will likely continue feeling bad — which makes us feel worse. These responses are part of the natural, even necessary part of living through this moment.
You will be tired, angry and overwhelmed. You may not be inspired to do burpees or have soul-searching conversations. In your distraction, you might fall down on your social distancing game. And if that is the case, I urge you not to troll yourself for failing to “win at quarantine” and instead recognize that you survived another day in this unprecedented mess. And if you find the wherewithal to apologize to your kids for yelling before pulling up Peppa Pig on YouTube. Or you bring your husband a cup of coffee in bed so he can stare at his phone and ignore you and the makeshift preschool in the living room a little longer. Or you make a commitment to keeping your mask on your face (and not in your pocket) when you’re at the park pretending to exercise, then that’s good enough, I’m proud of you and I’m glad you’re here.
Sarah Stuteville is a writer, memoirist, educator, and non-profit media consultant currently pursuing a Masters in Mental Health Counseling at Seattle University. She taught journalism and media production at the University of Washington. Feminism, journalism, motherhood, relationships, and mental health are subjects of Sarah’s writings. Sarah has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. She wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times. Her memoir writing has been published in Mutha where her piece “No One Is Watching” was one of the most read on the site all year. Her piece “Windstorm” won “Honorable Mention” in the Hunger Mountain Nonfiction Writing Contest; “A Girl’s History of Consent” was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Awards. She also helped to co-found The Seattle Globalist, a non-profit journalism organization that trains diverse media makers.
Featured image: Alex Hulsov (Creative Commons licensed image)