Over the Rainbow - The Impact of Fun on Relationships and Mental Health

During the pandemic, my marriage has suffered more than at any other time in our nearly 10 years of matrimony. That isn’t to say that before March 2020 Fat Papa and I hadn’t had our ups and downs. In fact, we are no strangers to couples therapy and in 2018 worked extensively on strengthening our marriage.


Thank goodness we had, otherwise I’m not sure we would have had the tools to make it through the dumpster fire that was 2020 and the year of false hope that was 2021!


I’ve been trying to use the Wizard of Oz as an analogy for the last few years. Sure, our plots don't exactly match up. Our disaster of the pandemic feels more like Dorthey's grey Kansas before the twister. Oz and Dorthey's big technicolor adventure feels more like coming out of lockdown. I'll let you decide who the wicked which of the west and flying monkeys are. But still, there are great analogies between this classic tale, what we have been, and still are, going through.



Now that we are slowly, very slowly coming out of the pandemic, we, like Dorothy, have to decide what to take from our experience in Oz. We must decide what lessons we will apply to our lives back in Kansas. Thank you, Auntie Em (Joe Biden) and Professor Marvel (Democrats), yup, I think this analogy holds water.


Feeling Like Dorothy Stuck On The Farm


I can’t tell you how many times during the pandemic I felt like Dorothy stuck in a grey, humdrum life lacking the change and excitement I had been used to prior to lockdown. I too wanted to fly over the rainbow into a life of color and change and excitement and new things. New things. That was what I missed the most. New things.


Pre-pandemic, even if our daily or weekly routines were the same, every day and week still brought something new. Even if it was just because of chance and circumstance, new things happened all the time, even if my routine wasn’t changing. Sure, every day I would wake up, get Starbucks, go to work, pick up Itsy Bitsy from daycare and drive home. But every day offered little differences.

Mail I got at work and shared with Fat Papa (Oct. 2018).

Maybe Starbucks was out of my favorite flavored syrup, and I was forced to try something new. Maybe Itsy Bitsy had a funny story to share about her day. Maybe the fire department was doing their yearly fundraiser and those very attractive men and women were out in uniform holding up fire boots asking for donations. Maybe, maybe, maybe…


The point is, even if life was routine, the experiences were not. Every day there were dozens of small differences that were so fun to come home and share. BUT that was the key. We CAME HOME to share. We didn’t experience them all, together, every, day.


Now that Fat Papa, Itsy Bitsy and I have spent more than 18 months all together, every day, we don’t just have cracks showing through our relationships. I feel like the paint is peeling, the roof is sagging, and if we aren’t careful the foundation is going to begin cracking.

I love cooking with Itsy Bitsy (March 2019)

But why is this happening? I love to sit at home with my family watching our favorite movies and TV shows. We love hanging out together and cooking, doing kid science, building projects, and other stuff. But those are great on the weekends. Those are fun bonding activities.


Itsy Bitsy didn’t go back to school until Fall 2021 as a kindergartener. Fat Papa and I had to try and figure out a balance between both of us working full time remotely and providing full-time in-home care for Itsy Bitsy. Even when we EVENTUALLY found a part-time nanny to come in (and that was only the last 6 months before Itsy Bitsy started kindergarten), Itsy Bitsy knew we were in the house and still wanted our attention.

Even running errands with friends was easier pre-COVID (July 2019)

Somehow balancing everything … work, daycare, laundry, errands, our marriage, being a good mom, family fun … was so much easier pre-pandemic when we were “busier” and had “less time” due to commutes and not working from home. Fat Papa is by far my best friend, and even when I can’t stand to look at his face or hear his voice anymore, I still can’t think of my life without him. But OH MY GOD has the pandemic tested that.



Still, I kept asking myself why. Why is this so hard? While I like to travel, I am also a homebody. While we are having a hard time balancing our schedules, I also have an extremely caring and supportive partner in Fat Papa. While Itsy Bitsy is going through her Three-nager, Fuck-You-Four, and Five-Know-Everything years in relative isolation, she has adjusted remarkably well. So … Why the PEKIGN DUCK is this so CLUCKING hard?


While my therapist and I have been discussing this very question for months (both one-on-one and in couples counseling), this last weekend I got to fly over the rainbow for just a bit and fully understand why the last 18 months plus have been so difficult and soul sucking. And while there is no ONE reason … one answer goes a long way in addressing many of the reasons …


Fun.


We have not been able to have fun.


“But wait, that’s not true!” you might say, dear reader. “I’ve been reading about tons of fun you have had during the pandemic. You’ve been to Kauai, Wisconsin, Santa Barbara, Yosemite, and more! Wasn’t that all fun?” And to that I say sure, but it was a different kind of fun.

Going to Disneyland right as Delta variant hit made the "happiest place on earth" less than pleasant (July 2021)

Thus far during the pandemic the fun we have had has come in two forms.

  1. Manufactured around the house or neighborhood fun where we are “finding” things to do; otherwise, we will go absolutely stir crazy and allow depression to take over (which happened for a while).

  2. Scary, I’m going to suspend my belief in reality for a while fun because I have to break out of our daily lives and breathe new air or else depression IS 100% going to set in and I’m going to spend ANOTHER 6 weeks playing video games (that did happen, it wasn’t fun).

Itsy Bitsy enjoyed science during COVID (March 2020)

Basically, during the pandemic before Itsy Bitsy started school, I was manufacturing fun for us. I planned daily crafts, science experiments, or cooking projects that would take up hours of the day and keep both of us entertained. This was fun, like the stay at home fun we had before the pandemic. So why did it feel so different and soul crushing?


I think because unlike the normal stay at home activities, these had such strict parameters. We couldn’t really be spontaneous. I couldn’t just pop to the shop and pick up whatever random supplies we needed for an afternoon activity. We couldn’t go stretch our legs and minds at the local playground. I couldn’t go with the flow.


Everything had to be planned meticulously and well in advance due to lockdown. This made typical stay at home activities so difficult. The normal joy I got out of being the fun spontaneous parent who could just say ”yes” because going and shopping for the science project supplies was part of the learning process no longer existed. There was no more spontaneous fun and learning in our lives … or at least, very little.


Eventually, as the CDC, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Fabby, and others began to discuss safe ways to travel and start to live again, we started to venture outside of our pod. Then with the introduction of the vaccine for adults, we really started to breathe a sigh of relief and even went to Disneyland!


Flying, seeing family, being in crowds was great, but it was still dangerous. Fat Papa and I both have multiple comorbidities that, though we were vaccinated, still left us at higher risk IF we did catch COVID. Also, Itsy Bitsy wasn’t vaccinated. As a 5-year-old, she was still running the risk of catching COVID (or more precisely, we were choosing to risk her health).



So really, while we were taking all the precautions we could against COVID, we were still choosing to suspend our belief in reality a bit and pretend that we would be immune and not be susceptible if we washed our hands, wore masks, and used hand sanitizer. Because really the only way to 100% NOT catch COVID is to not leave the house and to have no contact with anyone.


Thus, even this fun was stressful because at all times in the back of my head was the fear that my unvaccinated child would become a statistic or that myself or my husband with multiple comorbidities would develop a breakthrough case. Or that we would pass something to our vaccinated but older, also with comorbidities, parents. It’s hard to really have fun with that in the back of your head.


Before Settling Down on the Farm


I don’t think Dorothy always found her life to lack color and fun. As we all know, by the end of the movie (or book if you prefer), she comes to appreciate her Kansas life. Though I like to think it’s because she has the intention of applying all she learned in Oz to her real life and plans to improve her circumstances. I’m trying to do the same. I’ve been reflecting a ton on life, not just pre-COVID but even pre-Itsy Bitsy.

Road trips are a family favorite; with pets, Itsy Bitsy or just the two of us Fat Papa and I love to drive (March 2018)

Before Itsy Bitsy was born, even before Fat Papa and I were married, one of our favorite things to do was to take road trips for weekend getaways. Living in the Bay Area, there are TONS of places nearby that make great weekend getaway spots, including Tahoe, Sonoma, Monterey, Carmel, Half Moon Bay, San Francisco, and Big Sur. But, I’ve always enjoyed playing blackjack and Fat Papa enjoys a good long road trip, so Reno and Las Vegas quickly became our favorite getaway locations.


Reno was particularly perfect because it was between a 4-6 hour drive, depending on traffic, so we could leave after work on a Friday, get in late, have all day Saturday, wake up late on Sunday, and be back around dinner time and get a good night of sleep before going to work on Monday.

My biggest Pia Gow win to date, a royal straight flush while playing the bonus, so fun (March 2019)

Also, by always staying at one casino, the GSR, and becoming members of their loyalty program, we almost never paid for our rooms. On the rare occasion when we did pay for the room, it was greatly discounted. We also always got some sort of comped deal like a free dinner, entrance into a blackjack tournament, or free chips or free slot play.


Fat Mama Tip: If there is a particular location you find yourself traveling to regularly, be it a casino, winery, spa, resort, or attraction, I highly recommend enrolling in their loyalty program … especially if it is free. Most hotels and casinos have some form of loyalty program where you can earn points or experiences the more you stay (with casinos you earn more stuff faster because they have more incentive to bring you back in).


HOWEVER, beware of any loyalty program that requires more than a nominal payment for you to join. Hotel “vacation clubs” are almost NEVER worth it. Make sure to run the numbers and guarantee that you frequent a place enough to actually get your money's worth before EVER paying for a membership. Do the math by yourself, away from the “customer” representative, and after you have had a few hours to think about the promotion pricing they are offering. I have yet to find a vacation membership worth the price once I have run all the numbers.


We always enjoy walking the strip in Vegas (Jan. 2019)

Fat Papa and I used our trips to Reno as a way to relax, blow off steam, reconnect to one another, and just have silly, grown up, fun! There was one year where we were both working 80+ hour weeks, didn’t have time to take real vacations, and ended up going to Reno about once a month. We even made friends with dealers and cocktail waitresses who knew us, our drink orders, and our games of choice by heart. Years later, even after Itsy Bitsy was born and our visits had dwindled to once or twice a year, a few people still recognized us and would ask to see photos of our daughter.


Now, I’m not suggesting to anyone that they make monthly trips to Reno, Vegas, Atlantic City, or any other casino towns. That was a particularly stressful year for us, and those road trips were our primary stress reliever and we stuck to very strict budgets on those trips. But it does show how much of Fat Papa’s and my relationship is built on getting out and doing stuff together.


The type of fun Fat Papa and I like to have is predicated on the fact that we live very busy, very separate lives. That is not to say we are not involved in each other’s day-to-day lives; we are, especially since Itsy Bitsy has been born. But Fat Papa is a software engineer while I, before the pandemic, was an entrepreneur in the educational services space. Two VERY different career paths.


We are so good together because our interests are vastly different. We both find each other’s work fascinating and engaging, but it’s outside of our own comfort zones. However, our core values around family, relationships, and our future are the same, so we’ve been able to grow together. Our therapist likes to tell us that she rarely sees two people so compatible even when we feel like we are worlds apart.


Fat Papa raking it in at a slot machine (March 2019)

The road trips to Reno were awesome because it was 4-6 hours where we just talked or listened to a book on Audible (we both love fantasy and sci-fi). It was our time to just be carefree, responsibility-free, worry-free adults for one weekend. We had silly traditions like getting a Taco Bell 12-pack, having lunch on Saturday at the Johnny Rockets in the GSR’s lower level (there is a reason we are fat), or taking guesses about the snow levels, or the fact that no matter who chose the slot machines, Fat Papa ALWAYS won the mini-jackpots UNLESS it was a promotion by the casino, then I usually won.


We haven’t had any of that since before the pandemic started.


Our last “adult trip” or weekend getaway was for a Sharks away game in Vegas at the end of September 2019. That was the last real, adult, without a kid in tow, time to reconnect, no stress, fun. That means Fat Papa and I have not had time to just be us, us without worries, us without threat of illness, us without real fears for more than 2 years now.


Leaving Oz Behind


But mid-November Itsy Bitsy got her first vaccine. And November 20th Fat Papa and I had our first night away without fear. We went up to San Francisco and stayed at the Hilton Union Square. We went to a nice dinner, sat outside, and enjoyed great drinks and food at the Matador. Then ended the night with VIP tickets to the Randy Rainbow Pink Glasses Tour at the Masonic Center.

This was the perfect show as a coming out after COVID (Nov. 2021)

It was the most carefree, adult, unworried, reconnecting, fun thing I have done with my husband in 2 years! It was also the first time I participated in a public event where I was not terrified of bringing home a disease to my wholly unprotected child.


Fat Papa and I have both received our third booster shots, Itsy Bitsy gets her second shot in a week, and we are all at peak immunity. I am finally able to leave my house, be in a crowd, and participate in public events without fearing for my life or that of my loved ones.


Fun is starting to come back into the picture and suddenly I feel like I can fly over the rainbow and experience a life full of color once again. Okay, I guess this is where my analogy kind of falls apart. I’m actually excited to get back to grey Kansas, pre-pandemic, but who wants to think of their life as lacking color? But at the same time, I look forward to the lack of sensory overload that was the daily/hourly COVID updates, shifting lockdown orders, media hyperventilating that has been the past 2 years.


Anyway… you get what I’m getting at.

Eating, outside, in a big city like San Francisco for the first time in 2 years was so nice (Nov. 2021)

Fun is what has been missing from my life. The lack of worry-free fun is what has made the pandemic so hard. The inability to get away and reconnect with Fat Papa as people, adults, as partners, without our child has been a bigger strain on our marriage and relationship, and our mental health than I ever thought possible. I never understood how important having fun is until this weekend.


Fun is vital. But more importantly, it can’t be manufactured fun. I mean, yes plan events and activities. Research great places to stay and amazing restaurants to eat at but ENJOY the spontaneity of the little things. Say yes to the available room upgrade. Say Y