I carried my lunch to school in a square plastic box a few years after the other kids had switched to brown paper bags or hot lunch. My mom would make my lunch until I was a senior in high school and skipped lunch altogether so I could get out of school early. It was important to her. Her mom died when she was eleven and making lunches for his three girls was one of the many mom-tasks my grandpa took on after his wife died. My mom got a stepmom when she was sixteen and the stepmom accused my grandpa of spoiling his daughters. With the homemade lunches into their teens, you see. So you see why I couldn’t ask for the $2 to buy a hamburger or a sloppy joe or a crunchy taco from Taco Bell (because there was a Taco Bell inside my high school cafeteria). You see why I couldn’t complain about the warm mayonnaise or the stinky tuna or the slimy carrots or the brown apples the smushed bread or the thermos that smelled like old milk. You see why I couldn’t say anything about the days she wrapped everything in tinfoil because we were out of plastic baggies. You see why I couldn’t ask her to stop tucking little notes into the side of my lunchbox or drawing smiley faces on paper napkins. I wouldn’t have wanted her to stop anyway. The notes made me go all warm inside. Warm like the rest of the lunch, baking in a box in the Arizona sun.
Winter is here. The real winter. The scary kind of winter they kept talking about in Game of Thrones before I quit watching in season three. The scary kind of winter I kept talking about on this blog last fall when I realized COVID wasn’t going anywhere. I’m talking about the bone freezing, finger biting, face slapping stuff. The forecast for last weekend looked like this: 3 degrees, 5 degrees, 4 degrees, and those were the highs, which tell you nothing about sub-zero lows or the the wind howling through alleys, battering trees, and knocking around the trash bins in front of the house, along with anybody unfortunate enough to step outside. There’s a full foot of a snow on the ground that’s not going anywhere and more on the way.
The other day I was achy and running a slight fever, a not infrequent occurrence these days–Lord knows why; nobody in my household goes anywhere or interacts with anyone–and the combination of cold and slight illness kept me inside for three days straight. It’s hard to skip the daily walks that have become more ritual than habit over the last eleven months. If I can walk, I’m not trapped. If I can walk, I see things change. If I can walk, I can get through this. But anyway, it’s too cold to walk. Instead, I stare out the window like a sickly child or a woman pining for something lost. There isn’t much to see. The ground is white, the trees are bare, the sky is low and dull. The birds are either none at all or a murmuration of starlings, looking like pestilence.
On Sunday, a dove landed on the sill outside our draft living room window and just stayed there, shooting my daughter a beady side eye when she drew close to examine its feathers through the glass, but unwilling to give up its proximity to warmth.
On Monday morning, I spotted a small dark mound on the wooded hill behind our house. It looked like a largish rock, but I didn’t think it was a rock. One, I’ve been watching that hill for close to a year now, and I was pretty sure there wasn’t a rock there before. Two, there was no snow on the mound and everything else had a fresh dusting. Three, I could have sworn some of the contours looked like limbs folded in on themselves. I didn’t think I was hallucinating, but I watched the mound for so long that when it didn’t move, I started to hope it was a rock, and not one of the feral cats that prowls around the neighborhood in warmer months.
On Monday afternoon, the mound was gone. Thank god, I thought. I’m no cat lover–I’m highly allergic and dislike anyone that thinks they’re better than me–but it didn’t seem right for a cat to be curled up on top of the snow like that. Also, dead animals are nightmare fuel for my second-grader.
On Tuesday morning, the mound was back. That’s it, I announced to the world. I’m going out there. I planned to go out with a bowl of milk and some food after breakfast to try to lure the cat onto our porch. I wasn’t exactly planning to bring the cat inside–I figured it could leech some heat from the side of the house, like the dove on the windowsill–but I wasn’t exactly planning on not bringing it inside, either. I could see myself nursing it back to health, if it didn’t fight me off first.
Look, I know it was a bad plan, but I’ve been wanting, no yearning, for animal companionship–a familiar, if you will–for so long that I was ready to take whatever scrap heap the universe dropped off behind my house. I was prepared for the critter to be rabid, or vicious, or dead. I was prepared for it to bite or scratch or run away.
I was not prepared for it to be a rabbit. When I went back to the window, after riding the wave of my earth mother daydream, the little mound had popped up onto its hind legs, an eastern cottontail, clear as anything. Was it too cold out for the rabbit? I don’t know. It seemed like it should be hibernating or at least in a burrow somewhere, but as far as I know, rabbits have been surviving Midwestern winters longer than I have. Was the rabbit hungry? Probably. It was eating twigs straight off a tree, which hardly seems satisfying, but it was going at it with gusto. There were a few things I knew for sure: a wild rabbit was not going to wait around for me to trek up a snowy hill and through the brambles; a wild rabbit was not going to let me scoop it into my arms; a wild rabbit was not going to lap milk out of a bowl; a wild rabbit did not need to be “rescued”; this wild rabbit was not going to be a means for me to live out any of my fantasies.
I shook my head and called out to my seven-year-old–the living, breathing, fragile creature in my care. “I’m going downstairs now! What do you want for breakfast, kiddo?”
Last week, I was telling my therapist how it feels before I fly off the handle at my family. “It’s like my threshold for any kind of stressful interaction has dropped so far that all it takes is for my spouse to disagree with my or my kid not to listen and that’s it.” I snap fingers. “I can’t cope, and it all goes down from there.” “Well that sounds like burnout,” she said, like it was obvious. I was surprised. I thought I knew burnout. Burnout is a work thing. Burnout, for me, has been a sports thing. I didn’t realize it could be a family thing. This whole time, I thought if I wasn’t happy at home, if the family wasn’t getting along, the problem was me, the fault somehow mine.
That day in therapy, I was so confident that burnout was not the issue that I bulldozed past the suggestion. It wasn’t until a few days later that–after fighting my kid through a too late, too long, and entirely too tedious bedtime routine and looking around at every toy-covered surface in our house–my therapists words came back to me, and this time they felt true. I got curious and typed the words into my search browser. “Family burnout during COVID.” Oh. It’s a whole thing that people have been writing about since last spring. Kids are feeling it too. I obsess over family dynamics because family dynamics are all there is.I get how I missed it. The symptoms mirror those of depression: exhaustion, lowered mood, poor sleep, addictive behaviors. One of the symptoms is depression. The other big sign is conflict with family members, and that’s the one that’s making me crazy. When we can’t leave the house because the world’s not safe, I need things to be okay at home, and when they’re not, I’m not.
I survived work burnout lowering the absurdly high bar I set for myself as an employee. I thought the standards I held out for myself as a parent were more reasonable. Is it not reasonable to expect that I will be able to meet my child’s physical, mental, social, and emotional need and do it perfectly every time? Is it not reasonable to expect that I’ll never screw it up, never do any harm? I can see that the rope of perfectionism winds its way through every aspect of my life, putting me in a double bind. I can’t make a mistake with my kid. I am going to make mistakes with my kid.
I survived work burnout my redefining what work meant to me; my job is no longer a place I go for identity or validation. I thought it was was reasonable, even admirable, to look for that kind of meaning at home. Is the work I do as a parent and a partner not the most important work I will do in this world? Is home not supposed to be a haven? I can see how that’s a lot of pressure to put on my family. I can see that my understanding of what a home is supposed to feel like needs to evolve now that we are living the entirety of our lives within walls of one small house.
I survived work burnout by expanding my mind. I stopped thinking about work outside of work. I immersed myself in my family life. I prioritized friends. I picked up some fun new hobbies. The problem with burning out on my entire life almost a year into COVID is there are no new inputs. I’ve taken all the walks, baked all the bread, watched all the Netflix, painted all the birds, done all the puzzles, played all the board games. Obviously, I’ve forced more family time than any of us can handle.
This weekend, after I realized what I was dealing with, I slowed waaaaay down. I claimed whole chunks of time in the daylight hours for myself and tried to give myself new inputs. I rowed instead of going for a run. I read a book about weird Mormon history instead of the newspaper. I actually watched the Superbowl, even the football parts. Did it work? I don’t know. It was a pretty peaceful weekend. I didn’t lose my patience or my temper or my mind. I don’t have anything I need to talk about at therapy tomorrow. That feels like a win, or like I’m at least on to something.
This is the post I haven’t wanted to write. I couldn’t stop it, though. It’s been leaking out of me in dribs and drabs–the offhand comment here, the sad self-reflective Instagram caption there–for so long that it’s no secret, but I haven’t been ready to put the words on bones. I thought I’d wait until I could make it into something beautiful–an essay, a whole book of essays–but I haven’t known how to think about it in narrative form and, in the meantime, it’s making me into something ugly.
This is a post about infertility in which I will not use the word infertility because that’s a journey I did not take. This is a post about family that will not make you feel good because I am not grateful for mine and I resent you for yours. This is a post in which I refuse make meaning for you or for me. My only aim is to expel the disease. What I don’t want is to create a record for my beloved only child to find of me wanting any family other than the family we have, of me wanting any child who was not her, but that’s exactly what I have to do.
I come from a big family that didn’t feel big. There were seven of us, two parents, five kids, and it was us against the world. Our extended family was huge–I stopped trying to count cousins when the number hit the forties–but they were scattered and we mostly weren’t close, and our nuclear family felt like it had been blown out to sea. At church, our family didn’t even fill up a pew. I’m talking about the short ones on the side of the chapel. The most righteous families spread their seed end to end across the long benches in the middle of the room, sometimes spilling over into a second row. The most righteous families had big baptismal blowouts with grandparents on grandparents on cousins on uncles on on aunts. We always just had each other.
I was not a girl who dreamed of being a mother. Babysitting anybody who wasn’t directly related to me was annoying and hardly worth the cash. My parents didn’t pay for watching my siblings, so the only thing I got out of it was high on the power trip. I loved my siblings, though, fiercely. My brother and sister, two and four years younger than me, were my main playmates. When my other brother was born, eight years after me, he was the cutest baby I’d ever seen, and the only living thing besides various plants and precious few dogs and my own eventual daughter to ever trip a nurturing instinct in me. He was four when I was twelve and I used to come home from the ego-destroying shitshow that was middle school and entertain him for hours with my own versions of the silly mysteries Steve Burns solved in his green rugby shirt on Blue’s Clues. When my other brother was born, two years after that, I was like what? and why? and okay, I guess but he was a weirdly cute kid too and I liked having him around.
My mom always wanted a sixth baby, a girl named Hannah. It was like she’d already met her.
I only wanted four kids. Four was an even number, an easy number. Four filled two rows of a minivan and left the middle seats open. Four gave everybody someone to sit with on the roller-coaster. Two parents and four kids spaced perfectly around the dining room table without having to jam in a janky plastic school chair that you straight up took from the church. (Actually, I think my parents paid for those chairs). Four kids is enough to feel like a crowd, a party, an accomplishment, but not so many that you look like fundamentalists.
In college I met and fell in love with a man who poked fun at the size my big fat Mormon family even though he had more siblings than I did. There were six of them in total, for a family of eight. His dad had nine sisters and a brother. Catholic, of course. (Lapsed, even more of course.) My love was the baby of his big family so he had a different view on the chaos and only wanted two. It was easy for us to adjust our numbers up and down before we got married and land on three.
Three wasn’t perfect. People said three was the most stressful number of kids to have, enough to outnumber the parents, enough to lose hold of one in a parking lot, enough to need a bigger house and a bigger car, but not enough that you stop counting and start letting them keep tabs on each other. Three seemed like just a little too many in the city we’d decided to make our home, and like not quite enough enough in the western suburbs we fled. Three is odd. We were an unconventional couple, though. We can debate about anything. We never had to argue our way to three, though, so it felt like a good compromise. Three won’t hold up a tabletop, but it can be a stool.
People also said that three is just for spacing out kids. Three years is long enough to get the older one of diapers but not so long that the kid feels like a king kicked off the throne when the new baby comes. That settled it. Three kids, three years apart. I figured I should have the first by the time I turned thirty.
From the beginning, I sensed that it wouldn’t be easy for me to have kids. I don’t really know why. Maybe it was the infertility blogs I inhaled back then because they were sharper and darker and funnier and more interesting than their shiny sisters, the mommy blogs. There had been a few physical signs that gave me concern–a stabbing pain here, a cycle that ticked off its clockwork course there–but mostly it was just a feeling. “It could take up to two years to get pregnant,” I told my husband when I turned twenty-seven. I was knocked up a month later. I couldn’t believe it. It’s not that I didn’t know getting pregnant could be easy. I’d be stupid not to look around at my big family and all the bigger Mormon families around us and all the human families growing up over and over again all over the world and not realize that some women having been falling into pregnancy since the beginning of time. It’s just that I didn’t think it was possible that anything I wanted so badly would come easy to me.
I wanted my daughter badly.
Labor was not easy. I had group strep b so I was tethered to an IV. The doctors used three different methods to induce labor, after stripping the membranes and before breaking the bag of waters with a knitting needle. My daughter’s heartbeat kept dropping. There was meconium in the fluid. I labored for thirty hours and pushed for three and the doctors still had to cut me open. At least four different doctors laid hands on my daughter before I laid eyes and my husband held her while they stitched me up. When a nurse finally put her in my arms I puked from the drugs and they tried to take her back but I wouldn’t let go.
New motherhood was not easy but my daughter was. She screamed like a beast but she also slept like a dream and ate like a champion. Infants are not easy, and babies are not easy, and toddlers are not easy, and preschoolers are not easy, but the first years of my daughter’s life were some of the best of mine.
When the time came to grow our family, I was still in the thick of it with my first, but I was ready. My body was ready anyway, still not sleeping, still packing pregnancy weight, and still making milk months after my daughter weaned. There was never a question about doing it all over again. Having another baby was the plan, and I wanted to stick to the plan, but I also wanted that baby. I wanted a baby inside me and I wanted her in my arms and I wanted her in a bassinet next to my bed and I wanted her strapped in a wrap to my chest and I wanted her in the back of a double stroller and I wanted her playing on the floor with my daughter and I wanted her in the backseat of the car on family road trips.
I wanted another badly.
We couldn’t settle on a name, but I was partial to Taylor, after my dad’s guitar, not Swift. For a boy, we leaned toward West, but was pretty sure our second would be a girl. My assumption was more lack of imagination than a preternatural mother’s knowing. The girl I had was all I knew of parenthood. Surely, if we tried again it would turn out the same.
That was six years ago. We adjusted our plans up from a three year gap to four then five. We adjusted our plans down from three kids to two, but the second baby never came. We could have gone to the doctor earlier than we did, but life came at us hard and I’m weird about doctors, so we put it off, and by the time I had a clear vision of the next steps toward growing our family, I wasn’t so sure I wanted I wanted to take them. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of my resistance was physical. The battery of tests had been a lot. I wanted a baby, but not the interventions, not even the easy ones. “Clomid is not without its side effects,” the nurse-midwife mentioned when she sent me out the door with an order in my chart. There was also a spiritual component. I’d was deep into a twelve step program rooted in acceptance. I’d thought I was running the show when it came to family planning and it was a relief to admit that maybe I didn’t have to jackhammer my body into making a baby just because I wanted one. Mostly, though, it was a knowing, on par with the inkling I’d had years back that getting pregnant would not be easy. I knew fertility treatments worked miracles in the lives of people who got their babies. I knew they could wreak havoc in the lives of people who didn’t. I knew, regardless of the outcome, it wasn’t a journey I was meant to take. Call it mother’s intuition.
Life went on and my ache for a baby subsided. The gut punch of not getting pregnant turned into a slap and then into a pinch and eventually into cramps and a headache–typical symptoms of PMS. I’d started to see the benefits of a family that looked like mine. After my daughter gave up naps, weekends were for all-day jaunts around the city. We haunted museums and parks and coffee shops and stores and I gave up my pricey jogging stroller because my kid could walk for miles. We never used a babysitter for special occasions because, living with two adults who indulged her palate, she developed a taste for fine food and learned how to sit still in a nice restaurant. She outgrew car seats and cribs but we never outgrew our little red hatchback or our two bedroom townhouse. With only three plane tickets to buy, we could afford to travel. We flew across the country to see grandparents and cousins and road-tripped everywhere we could and started planning our first trip out of the country. With only three schedules to juggle, we put her in every activity she wanted to try. When she started first grade, my husband and I looked at each other and high fived. We’d gotten our baby into full-day school and the world looked like our oyster.
The farther away I got from pregnancy and nursing and diaper bags and nap schedules, the less I wanted to do it all over again. And then there was this: my daughter’s friends and neighbors and classmates all had little siblings by this point and she had figured out that she wanted no part of that. She actively campaigned against a baby. Eventually the pain of not getting pregnant became a relief.
Then COVID hit and the world shut down and all the advantages of having one kid seemed to slip away. The weekend adventures. The family travel. The after-school activities.The free time for the parents. Even worse, we lost our ability to offset the drawbacks of being an only child with playdates and visits with extended family. Confined at home for months on end, our family started to feel really small. Daily, I saw little groups of kids–siblings–playing in their front yards while my daughter sat alone in her bedroom. I saw other families out walking or riding bikes or going on hikes and noticed brothers and sisters laughing or pestering or pointedly ignoring each other while my daughter tried her hardest to match my pace and get me to act more like a kid. I resented the families who stretched across the whole sidewalk for daring to take up so much space. I envied the families who could throw birthday parties while sheltering in place and have more than three people to celebrate. I mentally went off on the people who shamed parents for using the playground or planning outdoor playdates. I hated everybody who told me to just stay home and enjoy my family, like that was so easy, everything about life in the pandemic wasn’t dredging up my deepest insecurities, like they hadn’t just stuck a finger in my oldest wound.
For years, I couldn’t stomach the sight of pregnant women and infants. This year, I found myself turning away from any family bigger than my own. I couldn’t stand to look at school- and teenaged siblings: relationships my daughter would not have. Intellectually, I sympathized with people who had to deal with family planning in a pandemic. Emotionally, I went back to hating pregnant women and their babies, too. I hated anybody who could give their already-existing children what I couldn’t give mine: siblings; family; more people to love and to be loved by.
I keep talking about how lonely I am and I know it confuses people because I have community. I know my neighbors. I have friends. But my chosen family is my actual family and what hurts is that they live in a different state (and if you don’t know what to make of this, then we will not relate).
I keep talking about how lonely I’m afraid my daughter is and I know it confuses people because she has me and she has has her dad and we’re trying to give her everything she needs and shouldn’t that be enough? And the thing is, I am trying. I am trying to give her everything I never had: a hometown; a house she remembers growing up in; a faith community that will accept her for who she is; a community that is wider than her immediate family. It kills me, though, that I can’t give her the thing that sustains me: a small army of people who love her unconditionally, the kind who of people who will risk infection to bubble up during a pandemic or at least make an effort to keep in touch, the kind who will still be around when this thing is through.
EXT. MASON PARK, CENTRAL EVANSTON — EARLY EVENING
The playground is open but still as empty as it was when the pandemic shut everything down in March. A leaf bug skitters up an empty slide. A hot wind blows a leaf across the mulch. A few boys bounce a basketball on the court way on the other side of the park but we can’t hear them. We can’t hear anything. A MOM AND HER YOUNG DAUGHTER are sitting on separate spring rockers about 50 feet apart. GIRL, 7, faces away from MOM, 35, and hurls herself violently back on a plastic motorcycle. The metal spring screams as GIRL tips all the way back, body parallel to the ground, golden curls dragging in the dirt. MOM sits backward on a submarine, legs splayed, heels digging into the ground, staring into the middle distance and refusing to rock.
Out of nowhere, GIRL whips around.
MAMA! I caught you! I caught you red handed!
Mom jerks her head up, visibly startled.
Huh? Caught me doing what?
I caught you not. having. fun.
Today was the last day of school, for my daughter and for my husband who was conscripted into being a homeschooling parent. All three of us are feeling the absence of fanfare that ordinarily comes from the school. There was no fun run or field day or end-of-year picnic or class party. It’s bittersweet to watch my daughter try to navigate the transition by creating her own rituals: specifically, a special meal, a party with confetti and balloons, posed pictures, and a certificate for her favorite stuffed dog, who totally coincidentally “graduated from obedience school” the same week that she finished first grade. “Golden is so excited to be done with school!” she’s been saying all week, over and over again.Last night before bed, she got quiet and I wondered if she was feeling sad that her dad and I weren’t making a big a deal of her last day of school. “Hey, D,” I said as I tucked her into bed, “What do you want for your special dinner tomorrow? Pizza? Burgers? Sushi?” “I don’t know,” she mumbled. A moment later, she burst into tears “I’m just going to miss having papa as my teacher.” I didn’t even know what to say. I’ve been so worried that she is sick of her parents and suffering from the absence of any meaningful interaction with other adults and kids that it didn’t occur to me that this time has been as much a gift for her as it is for us. I thought about pointing out that she has a long summer ahead of her at home with no camps and the decent odds that she won’t get to go back to school in the fall, but thought better of it. Rites of passage exist for a reason; the least I can do is not yank her through them just because I’m uncomfortable. “You and papa had a really special time together, didn’t you? You’re a pretty lucky kid.” My words were cold comfort. After I left the room, I stood outside her door and listened to her cry herself to sleep.Somehow, even without having set foot in a classroom for almost three months or a clear idea of what summer will like this year, she woke up today as exuberant any other kid the last day of school. She put on a pretty summer dress without any parental pleading to please change out of her pajamas already. She picked out all the letters to spell out “D’s last day of first grade” lightening fast. Oddly (or not) She put on her backpack, the one that’s been hanging empty by the front door since March, and wore it while she skipped and jumped around the neighborhood on our morning walk. At least a dozen times I told her, “I’m so proud of you” and every time she responded, “I know. I’m proud of me too.”Her dad and I did try to import a little ritual into the day. He printed out a certificate and presented it to her while I played pomp and circumstance on YouTube and clapped. We took pictures and she posed with a real smile. We did order a special dinner (pizza). The best part of the day was wholly impromptu, though. After dinner, we headed outside with a soccer ball and some candy and found a bunch of kids from the neighborhood running around, all buzzy from being cooped up for so many months and the prospect of being released for the summer. We stayed outside, playing near enough but not-quite-next-to other families for an hour and a half. I chatted with the other parents, asking everybody, “What are your plans this summer?” and nodding as all of them answered in the same way. “None. Nothing. We’ll be here.” I wondered if, against all odds and expectations, if this could be the best summer ever, for a kid at least, with nothing to do and nowhere to go and a bunch of neighborhood kids in the same boat.
Our daughter didn’t cry the day we gave our rescue dog back. We were expecting tears, had been bracing for them for over a month, since the day the dog bit a family friend and we knew that we might not be able to keep him. We only kept Study for six months, but that half year was huge to our four-year-old, almost as big as “forever” which is how long we thought we thought he’d be part of her family. Heartbreak doesn’t always look the way we expect it to, though. Our daughter was crushed, but she didn’t cry. Instead, she quickly constructed a vaguely dog-shaped structure using pieces from a magnetic building set and cradled it in her arms. I admired her creativity and complimented her skill and tried, urgently, to get her to put the “dog” down before her dad returned from delivering the dog back to the family that fostered him. Of course she refused, and I spent the next few hours trying to turn my own heartbreak into comedy. “It’s so weird,” I told anybody who would listen. “The dog is made of magnetic tiles. It’s not even soft, and it falls to pieces if you handle it wrong, but she won’t stop loving on it. We really fucked up.”
It’s been a few years now, and our daughter still adores critters and creatures don’t love her back, can’t even emote. She set up a sprawling “slug garden” on our back porch and begged us to let her spend her own money on a second basil plant intended exclusively to attract and feed slugs. Her goal this summer is to see a snail. She cradles rolly polly potato bugs and admires spiders. She even likes centipedes. We can’t take a walk in the rain without staging a worm rescue operation; it stresses her out to see them inching along in the wrong direction, away from mud, or toward a sewer, and she likes to pick them up and put them back in the dirt. And just last week, I walked in on a Zoom session with her class just in time to hear her announce, “I have a tamagotchi, which is kind of like a brother! And these are my stuffed dogs, which are kind of like pets!”
A month ago, we stopped to watch a worm work its way across the sidewalk for a solid fifteen minutes. It was raining hard and the worm looked pretty ordinary to me, but my daughter was smitten. She bent down low and cooed things like, “It’s such a cuuuuutttieeee” and “What a cutie lil’ adorable lil’ worm.” On the outside, I melt. She’s such an adorable little weirdo, and I love her. Inside I recoil, as I always do at shows of affection that put my failings on display, that make me relive the day with the Magformer dog and curse myself for not giving her something better to love.
Needing new eyes, I pull out my phone to take a video. At first I focus on my daughter, and then I zoom in close on the worm. The worm is taking me for a ride, too, and the journey is compelling. The longer we stand there, the closer I get to seeing what my daughter sees, which is, of course, a life. It occurs to me, for the first time, that maybe the trauma of loving a difficult pet and then having it taking away under even more difficult circumstances gave my daughter something good–a tremendous capacity for love and empathy.
I turn this over in my mind for a few weeks, meaning to write about it but not knowing how. I don’t know how to articulate my deepest fear in a way that’s respectful of my daughter, in a way that’s meaningful to others, in a way that’s more palatable than the truth: I’m afraid I will fuck it all up. I’m afraid I already did. I want to write about it, though, because the worm the depth of my daughter’s love for the worm gives me hope that she will be okay.
The worm gives me hope, too, that the trauma of COVID-19 will leave its own gifts behind. Perhaps, having had half a year or more of life as she knows it stolen away, being forced to shelter at home with her crazy parents, won’t fuck my daughter up. Maybe she will emerge into the world so ready to engage that she never knows my social anxiety, my reluctance to participate, my reliance on substances for connection. Maybe the looseness of schooling at home, of playing with Lego bricks for hours at a time, of staying up late dancing around the living room and hitting a balloon back and forth will free her to become the person she was meant to be. Maybe bearing witness to so much suffering at such a young age will buttress that tremendous capacity for love and empathy.
Please don’t take this as a long-winded way of saying everything happens for a reason, that other people died so we could thrive. If I could give my daughter back her dog I would. If I could go back in time and wipe out coronavirus I would. What I’m saying is that I’ve lived my whole life waiting for the other shoe to drop. Is that a Mormon thing? A religious thing? A human thing? What I’m saying is when I find myself with entire swaths of time with nothing to do but watch my girl tenderly care for creepy crawlies that make me want to run and hide I wonder if maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. Maybe we will be okay.
The first thing I wrote yesterday morning was “Today the rain is falling, as it did all night and as it promises to do all day.” The rain did come down all day yesterday, in buckets, dumping all over everything. I didn’t mind it so much in the morning, waking up to the sound of it splattering against my bedroom window, feeling safe from the gray of it around the kitchen table with my family and a stack of waffles and the crossword. I got out once for a walk during a lull in the early afternoon, but I stayed out too long and came back drenched. “Why did you go so far?” my husband asked? “I read you the minutecast.” It’s true, he did tell me that the rain would be back in precisely twenty-three minutes, and I’d chirped, “Perfect!” like that was all I needed. It’s true, too, that twenty-three minutes is enough time for a walk. But what’s truer than true is that I needed more time. I wanted to stay out longer, walk farther, and feel freer, and I thought that the wanting and the acting on the waniting would be enough to hold the rain at bay until I made it back home. It wasn’t, and I got wet. It was a warm rain, though, and I arrived home to a warm home and dry clothes and my family already snuggled on the couch waiting for me with snack bowls and blankets and Toy Story all cued up. These were the high points of a hilly day.
Down in the valleys, I did battle with my character defects. In a low moment, I gave voice to my shrieking insecurity in the presence of my daughter and then desperately tried to claw it back, because there’s nothing I want more than for her baggage to be all her own. In another low moment, I gave airtime to my selfishness, begging everybody to just be quiet so that I could sit on the couch for an hour and read. The things I do in the valleys make me feel like a bad mom, and that’s a feeling that I drag with me all day. It doesn’t matter how high I get. I could be walking on clouds and I’d still hate the mom from down the hill.
Bedtime rolled around and I cracked. I cried and cried, buckets dumping all over everything. I saw my daughter’s lower lip shake because there’s nothing sadder than watching mama cry, and then I cried some more because there’s nothing sadder than watching your kid watching her mama cry. I pulled myself together, pulled her into my lap, and rubbed her arms and told what I’ve told her hundreds of times, “It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.” When it felt like she might be starting to believe me, I asked her what she wanted for a bedtime story, and she told me that tonight she would read to me. We settled on the floor, her with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in her lap, and me curled up on my side, arms wrapped around myself, willing myself to believe the promises I keep making.
This is the time of year my husband runs the holiday gauntlet: Easter, daughter’s birthday, mother’s day, and my birthday all crammed into a three week period, each special day involving gifts and elaborate meals and tender feelings. This year, husband was a little nervous about mother’s day. He apologized preemptively. “I’m sorry,” he said, “we can’t do any of the things you like the most.” He was right. Illinois is still under lockdown until May 30 and mother’s day was slated to be 40 degrees and rainy. I told him it didn’t matter, I didn’t care, I understand the logistical and emotional challenges of making a day feel special when every day is the same.
On Sunday, husband and daughter let me sleep in before waking me up with breakfast in bed–a smashed cinnamon roll concoction with macerated strawberries, bacon, and coffee–flowers, homemade cards, and gifts. You know, the usual. Okay, maybe not quite the usual. Daughter drew me a picture of my favorite things: us taking a walk, chatting up a stranger, while it rained cheetos, beets roasted in a mysterious outdoor oven, and two narwhals (mama and baby) hovered in the sky. She also gave me a double-sided paper cutout of a whippet (inexplicably her favorite dog, not mine, never mine) and a polaroid picture of a plastic dog house from the animated series Puppy Dog Pals (a recent birthday present and her new favorite toy). Husband gave me a jar of melatonin gummies, a tin of sardines with lemon, a bright yellow cotton dress, and a polaroid of me and daughter he’d snapped a moment earlier. I ate in bed and red The Times and read a book to daughter and when I finally got up I thanked them profusely for my gifts, an embarrassment of riches. I had no idea the real gifts were yet to come.
The first of these gifts arrived the moment I stepped out of bed, when husband informed me that he had planned the day so I could “watch” virtual church services or not, whichever I preferred. I come from a world where the security and stability hinge on religious sameness. Religious differences block whole families from being formed, and changed beliefs upend families ties that have stood for generations. God forbid you lose your belief; you might just lose your whole family. The gift that made my family possible, that saves my family every day, is probably the gift I most often overlook: the freedom to believe what I want, and the freedom to change my mind. I opted to go to church, if you’re curious. My weekends need the structure these days.
The next gift came when church services wrapped up, and husband asked if I wanted to go for a walk or a drive. It was drizzling pretty hard, so I chose drive. When I climbed into the passenger seat, I saw two bags of David’s sunflower seeds in the middle console and, at my feet, two cases of CDs, 96 sleeves each, the same two cases I hauled around for for all of high school, college, and law school as I drove thousands and thousands of miles on Arizona highways and cross-country road trips. We popped in the first mix that husband ever made me fifteen years ago in 2005. We popped shells in our mouths. We wound our way up the north shore and tried to explain to daughter what it was like to live in a time when you had to work to hear the music that you loved. This is the most thoughtful gift of quarantine: the gift of being known.
The next gift came the moment we got home, when husband handed me a bag of cheetos and a bottle of sparkling craft tea and told me I had an hour to do whatever I wanted, because he and daughter were leaving. He didn’t tell me where they were going and I didn’t ask. I haven’t been home alone in over eight weeks. I read. I called my mom. I ate half the bag. Later, I found out that husband and daughter spent the hour sitting in the car in the parking lot of Home Depot watching episodes of Puppy Dog Pals on husband’s phone. This is the most precious gift of quarantine: the gift of being alone.
I won’t bore you with the details from the rest of my day except to say that it continued to be beautiful and delicious and relaxing in every way. Did daughter start to lose her mind from the boredom of being cooped up with her parents and the pressure of having to be on her best behavior for mother’s day and the struggle of missing her routine and the emotional turmoil of being seven years old? Obviously. But that’s when I got the greatest gift of all, the one husband doesn’t even know he gave me because he does it every day, and that is the gift of being an infinitely loving and incredibly capable co-parent in the best and worst of times.
The last gift was a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, which we ate after the tarts we shared with our daughter earlier in the night and after she went to bed, while binge-watching Fleabag. This is the gift of second dessert.
My daughter has always been a kid that preferred the company of adults, or at least the company of me, to that of other kids. Typical oldest daughter, maybe. Maybe a typical only child. Of course, nothing about our own children ever feels typical. Most days, our bond feels special. I love how clearly she prefers me when it looks the way I want love to feel: sweet and easy. I’m talking mama-daughter dates at the museum, sushi dinners, and endless walks around the neighborhood. I worry and chafe when her attachment demands what love actually requires, which is to say, patience and sacrifice. When the neighborhood kids graduated from their parents’ arms to side-by-side play to careening around outside in a big, bonded pack, I longed to send her off with them so I could talk freely with the other moms. All through preschool, my girl stayed glued to my side, whined when I paid more attention to other adults than her, and cried when other kids came too close, touched her toys, or asked me a question.
When she started kindergarten, her world exploded. I was still her sun, but now she was crossing paths with dozens of other little planets. The planets were other kids, and she resisted their pull. She puzzled over their varied atmospheres, their rings, their moons, always too many or too few, their very existence. By the time she realized she might actually like the other planets, they were all spinning in time and she didn’t know how to sync up. We spent a lot of time at parks, her surreptitiously watching other kids play, me gently encouraging her to join, and both of us pretending we didn’t care when it didn’t happen.
Last summer, in the grassy common area between our houses, one of my more brutally honest friends put me on the spot: “Why doesn’t D play with the other kids?” Inside, I jerked at the pain of being found out. Outside, I answered honestly, nonchalantly: “She has a hard time working up the courage to join them. She is waiting for them to invite her in.” My friend dropped her chin and looked at me in disbelief, like I was asking for the moon. “But…kids don’t do that. They just…play.” “I know,” I shrugged. “She’ll figure it out.”
In the fall, my daughter started first grade in a new classroom, at a new school, and her world blew open again, and this time the pieces landed just right. After just a few weeks of trepidation about being the new kid, she settled into her new orbit, and she thrived. She ran around with a pack of kids on the playground, led a friendly war against the boys in her classroom, and came home everyday bubbling over with stories about her day. When she told me her favorite subject at school was recess I about died with pride and relief at the normalcy of it all. Kids without friends never like recess.
By the time winter rolled around, she was planning her own playdates and I breathed another sigh of relief. My only child would not be lonely. The playdates did not go perfectly smoothly. She would have a terrific time for two, three, even four hour stretches, but when it was time to go home, she would break down, devastated that the fun had to end. It was like preschool social interactions in reverse: she cried when I came too close, touched her arm, or asked a question. If I tried to grab her hand, or nudge her toward the door, she’d go alternately boneless or stiff as a board. Eventually we’d make it out the front door, but she’d be inconsolable the whole way home.
After a few of these scenes, I figured out what was going on. Having friends was still so new to her, she didn’t know if she could count on it to last. On our way home from a classmates’ house one evening, I tried to reassure her: “Honey, this is just the beginning. You’re going to get to play with M again.” She wasn’t so sure. She sniffed and tearfully asked, “Do you promise?” I take promises seriously, so I took my time before responding. When I felt sure, I said, “Of course. You’re going to have lots of playdates with lots of friends. I cannot think of any reason in the world you wouldn’t play with M again. We’ll invite her over next week. I promise.”
That was Monday, March 9. By Thursday, school was cancelled through April 12. On March 31, the district announced that schools were closed through April 30. On April 17, we got notice that schools are closed through the end of the year.
We hung D’s class picture on the wall next to the kitchen table where she does her schoolwork now. The first week of quarantine, I’d catch her staring at it throughout the day. Sometimes she’d climb up on her knees in the middle of a meal and start reading her classmates names out loud. Sometimes she’d touch their faces. Six weeks in, she’s hardened. She’s still willing to admit that she misses school and church and choir and swim, but when I ask her who she misses, she says “No one.”