This is the only time of year I miss working at my old law firm. I hated the mad rush to meet deadlines–both the arbitrary internal ones and the hard dates set by courts and arbitration panels–and I hated not knowing if I would have to be in the office right up until 5 PM on the 23rd or if there would be pressure to work on Christmas Eve but the office was always a little more sparkly at the end of the year. I loved watching the snow flutter past the window in my office. I loved watching the partners make the rounds delivering annual reviews and bonus news. I loved jetting out at noon on a random Tuesday in mid-December for the company-wide holiday party in the big back room at Maggiano’s. I loved the treats that would show up in the kitchen from vendors and signing holiday cards for clients. I loved giving cash to my assistant and I loved her holiday sweaters. I loved having my husband’s gifts delivered to the office and carrying them home in a duffel bag from the firm. I loved walking to the train in the dark and seeing all the skyscrapers all lit up like Christmas trees.
I quit that job in 2019, so this isn’t the first year I’m missing corporate Christmas, but combined with the loss of my the winter party in my daughter’s classroom and the pageant at church and the Nutcracker and Christkindlmarket downtown, the season has felt decidedly dull. And that’s fine. People are getting evicted this month. People are losing contracts and jobs. They are lining up at food pantries. Thousands of people are still dying every day. If the worst thing I can say about the final month of this year that rocked the world is that it was boring, or depressing, I’ll take it.
It has been depressing, though. Last Thursday, we got some disappointing news right before our daughter’s school closed for winter break. The principal emailed to tell us that the school doesn’t have the capacity for all the families that opted into in-person learning when if they start bringing kids back next semester, and our daughter wasn’t included in the first priority group. I understand and don’t dispute the choice and don’t want to get into the equities of getting back to school in this post. I only want to give you the context so you understand that I went to bed feeling like my family was slipping through the cracks.
The next day started off with a win, albeit a small one: for the first time in a week, my daughter willingly changed into clothes that she hadn’t slept in. Technically, she just put on a different pair of pajamas, but they were clean. Her class was having a winter “party” and she was so excited to play games and watch a movie “with” the rest of her class in the iPad. Her mood put the rest of the household in a festive frame of mind, and the day went up from there.
I put out a call for support re: the social isolation my family is facing and half a dozen good friends responded with kind messages and texts. A few kind people offered to set up video hangouts with my daughter. A good friend invited us over for an outdoor playdate.
A neighbor dropped off a big box of LEGO and books that her kids had outgrown and she thought my daughter might like.
A friend brought donuts.
A package from Harry & David, care of my boss, showed up our doorstep: a gourmet dinner, packed in dry ice, which my husband promptly dumped in a bowl for a good hour’s worth of entertainment.
I saw neighbors on my afternoon walk and stopped to chat.
My husband checked the mail and brought in a stack of cards from friends and family across the country.
I directed money to people who needed it, and started talking to my husband about the charities we’re going to support this year.
We ordered takeout for dinner and watched Bad Santa.
After all that, at the very end of the day, I got another email from the principal. The school will have room for my daughter after all when if they start bringing kids back next semester.
I didn’t need to get that email to feel seen and supported. I came by that feeling over the course of the day, when I looked around me and realized I wasn’t alone. Somehow, my world felt festive. I puzzled and puzzled, how could it be so? It came without parties. It came without flashy clothes. It came without bonuses, airplanes, shopping, or shows. I puzzled and puzzled for how long I’m not sure. Then I thought of one thing more. What if friendship, perhaps, doesn’t look like before?
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.
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’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.
There are some records set in quarantine that are just not that interesting. It’s been nine months since I couldn’t figure out what to do for lunch and ate a Jimmy John’s at my desk. It’s been nine months since I forgot my keys at home and had to ask the receptionist let me into my office. It’s been nine months since I had to scramble to buy a metra pass while the conductor breathed down my neck waiting for me to pull it up on my phone. As the sun’s been dropping earlier so that I’ve been starting my regular afternoon runs at dusk and finishing in the pitch dark, another unremarkable record occurred to me. I checked my Strava to confirm. On March 12, I wrote “Gym is emptying out.” I haven’t been back since, which means it’s been nine months since I’ve worked out at the gym and almost ten since I ran on a treadmill.
The treadmill run is akin to the commute in that it’s not a thing most people miss. Running outdoors, even in poor conditions, is more pleasurable than running on a machine by miles. The treadmill is a chore and a drag and ugh. It’s also incredibly convenient. Access to a treadmill means you don’t need to invest in gear to run in rain and wind and sleet and snow. You don’t need to think about what you’re going to wear the night before and pile on the layers before getting out the door. You don’t need to risk frostbite on the coldest days and dehydration when it’s hot. You don’t need to route long runs by water fountains and bathrooms. You can run hills without having to drive yourself out of your pancake flat hometown. You don’t need to know what your easy pace feels like or use your own effort to make yourself go fast; you just bleep it into the screen.
Unlike a lot of runners I know, I did not have a love/hate relationship with the treadmill. I unabashedly loved it! I loved doing long training runs–sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen miles–and spreading my fuel out on the tray like a buffet. I loved the feel of the belt spinning to a stop under my feet after sixty minutes and immediately smashing the big green “GO” button again. I loved tearing my shirt off when it soaked through with sweat and dropping it on the floor next to me. I being able to stagger to the bathroom to take a shit and making it back in less than two minutes. I loved driving the speed up higher than I knew my legs could move and feeling the machine shake around me. I loved running faster than the person next to me. I loved sticking extra reps into interval workouts and tacking extra miles onto the end of easy runs. I loved finishing a workout and folding myself in half, hands on knees, panting between my legs, feeling on top of the world in a shitty old gym, oblivious to everyone around me. I loved mopping up my sweat from the machine, proof of effort.
Early on in the pandemic, I read an article about a runner, or maybe it was a cyclist, in Australia, or maybe it was New Zealand–forgive me, I’m fuzzier on the details than I thought I would be–who got some blowback for running, or maybe it was cycling, I don’t know how far–around the island, I think?–but it was really far, or maybe just really long, he was on his feet, or his bicycle, for the better part of a day, but not the whole day, which isn’t unreasonable if you’re endurance athlete, but it made people uneasy. They said it was irresponsible to “go to the well” when the public health system was under strain. To be clear, the runner/cyclist was fit to the task and totally fine. Nothing bad happened. He wasn’t even showy about the effort; people got mad after he uploaded the route to a tracking app. This was in March or April. I was in the middle of marathon training, because I was always in the middle of marathon training, and the miles didn’t look like much to me, and what the fuck else were we supposed to do in lockdown? Some people bake bread. Some people learn French. Some people push their bodies to the extreme so they don’t have to feel anything but the blood running under the hood, the thighs shaking themselves free, the lungs burning, proof of health.
I thought the criticism of the runner/cyclist was overwrought. All these months later, I can’t even find the original article because there are so many stories about people running and riding really, really far in the pandemic and that makes sense to me because, really, what better mental and physical training for the marathon that is this pandemic than an actual marathon?
The notion of not taking myself to the well stuck with me, though. It didn’t take long to see that running was more difficult than it used to be. I rely on water fountains April through October but the city never turned them on this year. I use public restrooms but the city never unlocked the doors, and it felt irresponsible–nay, non-essential–to take advantage of the coffee shops and franchise restaurants whose doors were still open. I turn to the treadmill when it’s pushing ninety degrees or when there’s lightning or when it’s slushy and gross outside but this year there were no indoor options. I push myself hard and sometimes my body pushes back; it felt wrong to risk injury or sickness with the hospitals full.
In the end, the challenges of running long in a pandemic–physical, logistical, and emotional–were too much for me. There are people who made it work, and there were probably ways I could have done it, too. I could have pushed myself to go without water and shat behind trees but that would have been decidedly COVID uncool. I could have plotted shorter routes that looped past my house. I could have stashed water along the way. I could have stripped off my wet layers and left them in the bushes to pick up later. I could have overcome the paralyzing anxiety of passing people who might scream at me for daring to be out of my house without a mask or, alternatively, get way too close without masks of their own. I could have pushed through the disabling ennui of running the same routes over and over and over and over. I could have been a different person. I could have spent the last nine months learning French.
I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when I found myself tiring more quickly, I slowed down and scaled back, and that’s when something weird happened: running less made me feel better. Having to do all those miles by myself out in the elements in the middle of a global health crisis made me see that I was not drawing from an endless well. My resources were tapped.
I can’t think of a time since I started my career in 2010 that I have not been overwhelmed. I can’t think of a time since I got pregnant in 2012 that I have not been exhausted. Up until March 2020, I prided myself on how much juice I could squeeze out of a day, from the rigid pre-dawn prayer and meditation routine to the commute to the full day of paid work to the non-profit board position to the community service to the active recovery program to the deep involvement at church to the mom’s nights out to the volunteering at my kid’s school, to the multiple weeknight activities, to the mornings and weekends and evenings of parenting the hell out of my kid, and I was obsessively marathon training on top of all that? No wonder I wasn’t writing. No wonder I was fighting with my husband.
Was I an exercise junkie? Maybe, but I don’t like pathologizing myself when it lets the culture off the hook so easily. I know I’m no more addicted to doing more more more to the point of overwhelm and exhaustion than any other woman I know. Are the men tired, too? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think they’ve been conditioned to believe that their value depends on working themselves into non-existence to the extent women have. On the other hand, men aren’t immune to capitalism, and I suspect the reason I’m not hearing about their burnout is because they aren’t allowed to talk about it.
Since March 2020, I’ve stopped basically all of the above. Some of it, like the commute and the in-person activities, stopped all at once when we were ordered to shelter in place. Other parts, like the early morning routine and the all virtual everythings and the long ass runs, have sloughed off like dead skin over the last nine months. The scales are coming off my eyes, too. Nine months off the treadmill, I can see that the convenience of the machine made it easy to ignore how much I was asking of my body just like the year-end bonuses made me forget I was undervalued all year long just like the ten dollar salads and twenty dollar pastas made me forget my job was grueling just like the free cab rides home made me forget I’d missed dinner with my family just like the year sparkly holiday parties made me forget that this is a time of year for turning in.
Strip away the wellness room and the free coffee and the concept of face time there’s no way I’m staying at work past five. Take away the treadmill and the races and the running clubs and there’s no way I’m running more than four miles before sunrise.
Maybe we’re not supposed to be exhausted.
Since March 2020, I’ve started writing regularly, making art, dating my husband, and hanging out with my kid. I’ve started lounging, at all hours of the day too, not just after I’ve collapsed on the couch at the end of the night. I’ve also been going to therapy and, forgive me for what I’m about to say, feeling my stupid feelings. Sometimes I’m restless and sometimes I’m bored because old habits die hard and also there’s nothing the fuck to do, but I’m becoming convinced that this is a better way to live. For what it’s worth, I am still running, always outside, always in the cold, and often in the dark. On election day I ran an unplanned half marathon because I didn’t know a better way to cope (though in hindsight it would have been more productive to spread those miles out over the next four miserable days). I hope I’m doing it because I want to and not because I need to, but I’m okay if running is a need. It’s served me well and I’ll take the endorphins where I can get them.
In my family growing up, we never put a tree up, hung a strand of lights, or breathed a word of Christmas before December 8. My brother’s birthday is on December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day, yes; we have a few birthdays that coincide with tragedy and loss of international proportions in our family) and my parents never wanted him to feel overlooked. I continued to observe the first week of December as a neutral zone long after I no longer lived with my brother and started celebrating holidays with my own family. We only first put a tree up the first week of December a couple of years ago and I loved it so much for how it stretched out the season and gave me time and space to breathe.
When I was working my way up the ladder at a big law firm, I inevitably had massive multi-week trials scheduled to begin in December or January, and it was a fight to flip the switch and make room for Christmas in my work-obsessed mind and overbooked schedule. The cases always settled–year-end has a way of bringing people together, for the shareholders, you see–and I spent meaningful time with my family every holiday season, but I could never count on that and the first few weeks after Thanksgiving always felt like being squeezed. Bringing a tree inside the first week of December was like magicking a whole extra week out of thin air and it helped. In the lights of the tree, I could sit still and see past the next twenty-four hours without holding my breath. I wondered if maybe the Christians, with their four weeks of Advent–a whole season of waiting–were onto something.
If the idea of a month of Christmas makes you anxious, I get it. I get that this month sucks for Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and the millions of Christians who don’t observe Christmas (including Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Churches of Christ). I get that this holiday sucks for people whose lives don’t look like the Hallmark specials. Christmas can suck when you live alone. Christmas can suck when you are estranged from your family, whether you asked for the separation or not. Christmas definitely sucks when you are physically separated–by virtue of work, sickness, disability, immigration status, military service, addiction, or imprisonment–from people you love and with whom you very much want to be. Christmas sucks when you are the one who is sick or addicted. Christmas sucks when your family is in the process of changing shape. Christmas sucks in a pandemic.
I don’t want Christmas to eat the end of the year for people for whom the holiday brings no comfort. And believe me, what I want to draw out for myself is not the hustle bustle or the making merry. I’m not spending the extra week shopping, for Chrissake, or blasting Pentatonix, or slamming nog. I’m staying home with my family. I’m bringing the wild outside in. I’m turning on the lights and turning up the heat. I’m freeing up a weekend day to take my daughter, in better years, to see the Joffrey Ballet perform The Nutcracker downtown.
This year, Thanksgiving came late enough that it made sense for us to get a tree the weekend after, which means we had it up in November. My spouse was cranky about it. Behind his back, I rubbed my hands together, greedy with anticipatory glee, already relishing all the extra time. The tree we picked out had a wonky branch on the bottom, so we lopped it off and wound it in a circle for an Advent wreath. I held off on lighting a candle, though. Surely, it was too early to start waiting in earnest. I didn’t realize my mistake for a few days, when I flipped the calendar to December and counted up the Sundays left before Christmas. We’d missed the first Sunday in Advent, the one where we remember to have hope.
Of course, we could have lit the candle on December 1. There’s no meaningful distinction between Sunday and Tuesday anymore, now that we don’t go to church, and there’s no wrong time for ritual. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, though. When my daughter popped out of bed on December 1, she shouted “Merry Christmas” at the tree, the lights of which are hooked up to a smart plug, which is connected to a smart speaker, which is programmed to play thirty seconds of Deck The Halls followed by a feel-good news story. She ran around the house playing with a plastic figurine of Buddy the Elf that she got out of a cereal box last year. She built Santa’s workshop out of LEGO. No sooner did we have the decorations up than it hit me: I couldn’t come close to matching that energy. Not this year.
When I think about Christmas, I feel overwhelmed. Not by the prospect of shopping or parties or travel–obviously we’re not doing any of that–but by the task of manufacturing Christmas magic on my own in a house that is still reeling from the trauma of this year. I am scraped clean of belief, wonder, and joy. Those feelings are currently inaccessible. I was not a literal believer when the year started, but I found meaning and value in the Jesus story. Now the waiting season is upon us, but it’s been eight months since I set foot in a church and the story has lost all relevance to my life. It’d be going too far to say I’m angry at God, because you can’t get mad at an absence; all the emotion just disappears.
Later in the week, I seized on an upswing in my mental state to light a candle with my daughter and read aloud the devotional materials from the church. They gave us this poem by Maya Angelou, “A Plagued Journey,” and it was so distressing I did a double take. No doubt, I could relate to every miserable turn of phrase (“bone of fear,” “bonds of disconsolation”) but I couldn’t figure out why I was reading it in the first place. The Advent reflections spelled it out for lost readers like me: candles do their best work in the dark. Hope is most valuable when we are utterly without it.
This is a dark time, but that’s okay. We were never meant to walk entirely in the light. Preparation takes time to pay off. Anticipation takes time to build. Hope is a thing we can hope for.
It’s the Sunday after the election and I am walking downtown. I live in a small city next to a big city and downtown usually means in Chicago, but these days a trip to downtown Evanston is a big adventure. It may be ill-advised–cases have been climbing for weeks–but I need to get out of the house and see some some people. I plan to sit outside the coffee shop and futz around on my laptop, maybe do some writing or listen to a lecture for that poetry course I signed up for and then never accessed. I am more after the illusion of work than work itself, just like I am engaging in the illusion of being with people when actually being with people is off limits. The coffee shop is packed, or what passes for packed in a pandemic. The patrons waiting for their orders indoors are less like sardines in a tin than fish loose in a barrel and I wait for fifteen minutes for my Americano trying not to breathe. There are no tables left on the patio so I walk one street over to the community plaza where I know I will find a smattering of rickety metal tables spaced way more than six feet apart.
I turn the corner into the square and the sounds of a street singer strumming on a guitar carry me to a table between a pretty young couple with a baby on one side and a pretty young couple with a baby and a grandma on the other side. The troubadour is playing the chorus of “American Pie Part 2,” which would have been enough to pull me into a seat even if I didn’t have nowhere else to go. That’s the song, after all, played five days earlier when the election results were trickling in, seemingly in Trump’s favor. The red wave turned out to be an illusion, too, but I didn’t know that yet, and music was the only way I knew how to move through that night.
Oh and while the king was looking down The jester stole his thorny crown The courtroom was adjourned No verdict was returned
I played some other songs too. “White Man’s World” by Jason Isbell:
I’m a white man living in a white man’s world Under our roof is a baby girl I thought this world could be hers one day But her mama knew better
“Society” by Eddie Vedder:
Society, you’re a crazy breed I hope you’re not lonely without me
Today we have a verdict. God, today is such a good day. Seventy degrees, cotton ball clouds blowing across a brilliant blue sky. The promise of a new administration. A rational, national science-based COVID response. A generous refugee policy. No more babies in cages. Reinstitution of protections for transgender people in healthcare. I still cry behind my mask and sunglasses awhile. It’s been too long since I listened to live music, since I sat with strangers, since I existed in my city. I open my wallet looking for a one or a five to drop in the singer’s tip jar and zip it back up when I see I only have a $20. I zip it back open when I remember I found that $20 on the ground earlier in the week. It wasn’t mine to begin with. None of this was ever mine.
I haven’t been sitting long when a person without a mask slow-charges me, coming within a foot of my table. “Too close, sir!” I call out, too late to stop the panic from rising up but before before I see the silver earrings hanging from her lobes. No response, and she wobbles when she passes my table. I don’t even know if she saw me. I try to dredge up some anger but find I’ve been scraped clean. I don’t have anything left for anyone who’s worse off than me. Besides, it’s not like I need to be out here in public, trying to figure if there’s any benefit left to living in a city. There is, by the way. The live music is worth the risk, as is the privilege of being with dozens of people who don’t look at the world like I do.
The singer sets down his guitar and lays hands on the keyboard spread out in front of him. “Piano Man.” Of course. Somebody I can’t see lights a cigar. A young dad eats ice cream with his little son. A hipster couple goes off on their bikes. Three university students eat Chinese food. Is it racist to go out of my way to describe food and family makeup and ignore everybody’s race and ethnicity? The singer is Asian. The couple with the baby are white. The couple with the baby and the grandma are Middle Eastern. The dad and the little boy are white. The hipster couple is white. The students are Asian. I look around and found the man with the cigar across the street and confirm he is white. There are also in the plaza two girls, Asian, a young man, Asian, a couple, white and maybe Latinx, a young man, white. Earlier there was a Black man with a slouchy hat, listening intently to the music and writing in a notebook, like me. There are three Latinx girls. There is a Black family. A white lady with a bike helmet walks up to the singer. An older Black man with a cane walks by. The lady who came at me was white, old, and unwell. I’m white. Supposedly, there is COVID everywhere. I mean, there definitely is COVID everywhere, but it is windy out and people are moving in and out of my peripheral vision faster than I can write them down.
Last week I realized I won’t see my family for the rest of this year. When winter was still on the horizon, when cases were dropping, a quick trip at the end of the year seemed feasible. People went on vacations this summer, didn’t they? People saw their families for birthdays and backyard visits? I know they did because I saw the proof on Facebook. The mayor asked us to cancel Thanksgiving, but people are going home for that, too, aren’t they? I know they are because they told me. I know they exist but I don’t know anyone else who hasn’t seen their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews in as long as I have, their grandparents and cousins in as long as my daughter has. People keep telling me to just get on a plane and go already. Flying is reasonably safe. I could quarantine before and after and take a test before I go. I put the decision off until after the election. “If Arizona goes for Trump, I won’t want to be anywhere near the state,” I joked. Of course, Arizona went blue and and I cried when I realized I still couldn’t go home.
Another young couple walks by. The boy is Asian and the girl is white. The girl is holding a stuffed shark. All the couples I’ve seen today have been straight. Two teenage boys tear through the square on a skateboard and a BMX bike. A pair of scruffy white college students sit down with food. A group of Black men and women walk by with Target bags dangling from their wrists. A white lady holds a big toddler on her hip. I pull a sweater on against the breeze. It’s warmer than it should be, but the sun is setting already. The lady drops the toddler on top of a concrete block and lets him dance. He bounces extravagantly and clutches a yellow sucker in his hand. The mom grins and him and holds one arm out to stop him falling off. Of course I’m crying again. But why am I crying? The beautiful thing is happening right in front of me, right now, still. The beautiful thing is almost too much to bear.
The pianist starts banging out “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” and now I’m tapping my feet like the toddler and bopping my head and grinning like the mom behind my mask. I’m thinking of the time my friend Caitlin crooned this song to a pretty waitress in the Ozarks on our long drive across the country to see our families out west. Is the lost year worth this moment in time?
Are 200,000+ American lives lost worth ousting Trump from the White House?
Are Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daniel Prude in 2020 alone worth Kamala Harris as Vice President?
The questions are stunning because the answer is an obvious, resounding no.
If it was always going to play out like this, would I give up my part? Would I do any of it differently?
These are questions I can only answer by carrying on. I’m not fighting on the front lines, but I’m not sitting on the sidelines, either. I’m fucking in it, just like you.
I can’t believe it lasted this long. Not the pandemic in general, I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about the public health restrictions. I feel every one of the 233 days since my town ordered us to shelter-in-place. What I can’t believe is that it took me this long to work up enough feeling about masks to take to my blog with a petty politicized invective. Is this even a COVID diary if I don’t defend my masking choices by slamming someone else’s? I mask up in accordance with local mandate, which means I wear one in public indoor spaces and outside when I can’t maintain six feet of distance between myself and others. I haven’t written about this because it is eminently reasonable and thus utterly boring.
I’ve had thoughts about masks, of course, but they haven’t been all that interesting. I’ve had opinions about masks, obviously, but they haven’t been especially charged. In the spring I wondered why so many runners bothered with pulling a neck gaiter up over their noses when they are made of sweat wicking material specifically designed to pull water droplets through and out. Later, I felt validated when I saw the (misleading) reports about that study that supposedly showed that neck gaiters are worse than no mask at all but also sad when I saw people use those articles to shame parents who put their kids in gaiters because they were the only masks their kids would keep on. In the summer I felt frustrated trying to find and buy masks after holding off on buying them all spring because I thought they were in short supply. Later, I felt embarrassed and ashamed when I realized that the valved N95s that my husband managed to track down did not filter air going out and were, in fact, worse than no mask at all. I’ve felt like a badass in a bandana but afraid people would judge me for not having a more protective mask. I’ve worried that the cheap masks from Target are too thin. I’ve worried that the stretchy masks from Costco are exacerbating the eczema behind my kid’s ears. I’ve worried about the big wet spot that appears on the front from her constant tonguing of the fabric. I’ve felt cute and political in my ankara print mask from Akese Stylelines and also worried that I was appropriating. I’ve worried that basically all the masks gap too much around my jaw because it turns out that I have a small face on the front of my large head. I’ve flipped out when I catch my daughter outside without her mask on and tugged it up over her nose when we’re in public. I’ve given my husband the wild eyed look with palms turned up in the air that means “. . . MASK???? . . .” when he steps into the common area in front of our townhouse without one.
With all my trying to get it right, I’ve had a hard time getting worked up over whether and how other people mask. Would I prefer people to wear masks in semi-crowded public spaces? Sure. But the way I see it is, I don’t have to be in those spaces. I don’t have to run on the lakefront trail. I don’t have to walk downtown. I don’t have to go to the apple orchard or the coffee shop. When I choose to venture out of my bubble I assume the risk of running into someone who interprets the guidance differently than I do or left their mask at home or just doesn’t care.
Living in a state that responded to COVID with strict public health measures, it can be easy to judge the rest of the country. When my family camped in Michigan this summer, we drove out to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park for a day at the beach. When we got out of the car I immediately thought, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” The beach was crammed and nobody was wearing masks. We considered leaving, but we’d driven a long way, and wanted to try to make it work. Our friends, who have mastered the art of staying calm in stressful situations, found a shady patch of grass up on a hill away from the crowds and spread out a few blankets and we spent a happy afternoon playing frisbee in the sand and swimming in the lake, which was rocky, frigid, and mostly empty. Before that, though, when we were walking up and down the beach looking for a spot, I wore a mask, and I wore a mask when I took my daughter to the bathroom and made her tie a bandana around her face, too. On our way back from the bathroom, two park employees stopped to thank us. “We’ve seen over five hundred people over the course of two days and only five in masks,” is what they said. Well that made me feel pretty virtuous, and I felt damn near holy when the cashier at the camp store thanked me for complying with the “mask, please” sign hanging on the door after dealing with another customer who had gotten grumpy after being asked to leave. The afterglow dissipated when the friends we were camping with–Michiganders, but the kind who wear masks, not the kind who plot to kidnap their governor–pointed out that all those hundreds of people at the beach weren’t out of bounds with the law or a single park rule. If the park wanted people to wear masks on park grounds, it should make people wear masks on park grounds. If it wanted to cap admissions, it should start counting and kicking people out. But the National Parks don’t require masks and, at the time, Michigan didn’t either.
I heard from a friend that lives in a college town that students aren’t getting tested when they have COVID symptoms because they don’t want to be responsible for their friends, roommates, classmates, and teammates having to quarantine. I know, I know, college students are so stupid and short-sighted, right? Generation Z, the worst. But here’s another take: why are we asking eighteen-year-olds to make these decisions and then getting mad when they act like their frontal cortex isn’t fully developed? It’s not entirely different from the absurdity of asking essential workers who get sick to choose between a paycheck and protecting the health of the public and expecting that the vast majority of them won’t choose to feed their own families. These are not decisions people should have to make on their own.
I’m not willing to hold citizens accountable for failures of leadership. Do I think it’s dumb dumb dumb to run around Target without a mask on? Of course I do, but if you’re in a state or a city that permits it, I understand how a person might think it’s okay. That’s not to say my approach to masking is solely grounded in what’s legal. I wore a mask when we camped with my family in Michigan and when we went apple picking in McHenry County last week. I like to think I’d wear one if I lived in a state where it wasn’t required, but the truth is, I have no idea. It’s easy to be out of step with the people around you for an afternoon or a week. It’s harder to be vigilant over the long haul, especially when the people around you seem to be having more fun and not getting sick.
If I lived in another state, or worked in a job that required me to interface with the public, I might have a less charitable view. It must be infuriating to be doing your part to get cases down and see people flaunting their disregard for other people. It must be genuinely scary to be forced to deal with people who post a direct threat to the health of you and your loved ones. Earlier this week, I was talking to my sister who lives in Trumpland. We were on the phone and I was walking around my neighborhood. It was a cold, cloudy day and I saw maybe five people in ninety minutes. I gave them all a wide berth, as I always do when I’m not wearing a mask. My sister was telling me about people who refuse to wear masks to church. She was frustrated, and rightfully so. I was in the middle of telling her how different it is where I live when a man stuck his head out of a storefront I was walking by and screamed, “Put your mask on!” Well, damn. I guess different isn’t always better.
I didn’t respond because I was absorbed in my phone call, and I was glad I didn’t because there’s no easy comeback to that kind of calling out. I’ve known there are people in my town who think you should don a mask every time you step outside. I know it because I’ve watched them go at it in all caps on the local groups on Facebook and Nextdoor before I got off those apps for mental health. In this man’s mind, and probably a lot of people’s minds, he was right. He was the good person, expressing the righteous view. I was complying with our (relatively strict!) local ordinance, I was outside with nobody else around (he opened his door just to yell at me!), but he was the only one wearing a mask in a pandemic.
I had a hard time shaking the encounter. It made me angry, frankly. I’m comfortable with the approach I’ve taken to masking. It’s legal and reasonable and, I think, respectful of others. I thought I was okay with the fact that people disagree with me, but apparently my okayness was more in theory than practice. The truth is I want people to approve of my choices. Of course, that’s functionally impossible when it comes to an issue as polarizing as COVID in a country as polarized as the United States. If I lived in my parents’ America the mask I wear most of the time would invite a suspicious side eye or worse. In my town, the mask I leave in my pocket on a life-saving mid-day walk around my quiet neighborhood invites open condemnation. This makes me want to hate both states and both sides, but I know this is a failure of leadership, too. People shouldn’t have to bear a disproportionate shares of the burden of protecting the public health based on where they live and their tendencies toward perfectionism.
If I can’t make everybody happy, I at least want people to understand my choices, the way I try to do for them. My therapist asked me what I would have liked to say to the man who had yelled at me if I hadn’t been on the phone, and the best I could come up with was an annoyed “ugh” combined with pointed gestures up and around at all the fresh air and many feet of distance between us. It wouldn’t have been satisfying, though. It wouldn’t have communicated a fraction of what I wanted to say. What I want people to know is that I read the federal, state, and local guidelines and try to follow them. What I want people to know is that my daughter won’t go back to school before the end of the calendar year and probably not before the end of the school year. What I want people to know is that I haven’t seen my family in almost a year and probably won’t see them for another full year after that. What I want people to know is that I haven’t set foot in another person’s home or eaten in a restaurant or worshipped in public or worked in an office or worked out in a gym or shopped for groceries in person or flown on a plane or done all kinds of things that have been technically allowed for a long time (at least until my town reinstated restrictions last week). What I want people to know is that I’m doing my part to stop community spread. What I want is a stamp of approval from the progressive community whose validation I value and whose judgment fear. What I want is a verdict in my favor: I am not the asshole. The alternative is too upsetting to contemplate–is it possible that everything I’ve done is not enough?–until I spy the failure of leadership. If following every applicable law, regulation, and order is not enough, we need new guidance and somebody besides the loudest lady on Facebook to enforce it.
I know there’s an easier way to get what I want than writing this screed that will mainly be read by my out-of-state family. I could just wear a mask, like, all the time. Am I an asshole if I acknowledge here that masks work to stop the virus from spreading but they are also highly effective as a virtue signal? Once I ran a little ways down the lakefront trail after it opened back up in the city until I got to a sign that said “Please wear face coverings.” I stopped and pulled the stretchy headband I’d been using to keep the sweat out of my eyes over my mouth. Running with a mask is terribly unpleasant so I turned around and ran back to the street, pushing the headband back up as soon as I got off the trail, but not before I snapped a picture of myself making a peace sign with my face all covered up.
I wrote most of this post last week, when I was simmering in judgment, resentment, and anger. I was mad at the guy who yelled at me. I was mad about people in my community passing around that viral Facebook post from a mom who said she was “over” hearing people complain about how much their kids had lost during the pandemic. I was mad at every house with a “We’re in this together sign” hanging in the window. When I saw those houses, I fumed. “We’re not in shit together. All I know the fuck about you is that you live in a million dollar house and aren’t afraid to stake out safe political positions with your yard signs. You don’t know I exist.”
In twelve step recovery they say that resentments will kill us faster than a drink, but I didn’t hate that agitated state. Anger, in doses, is easier to live with than depression. Anger is fire. Depression is a heavy bog. Anger is something to talk about. Depression is a closed mouth. Anger moves up and out. Depression is here to stay. Anger is. Depression is a lack. Anger is dangerous–I might hurt someone I know, or someone I don’t. Depression is dangerous too, except it only hurts me. I should have tried rage ages ago. Honestly, I’d like a little credit for the fact that I didn’t.
I’ve mostly cooled off now. Halloween was a gorgeous sunny, blustery day and my neighborhood were perfectly wonderful. Shockingly, the city let people trick-or-treat. I took my daughter out with a few friends, masked and socially distanced. Lots of families turned their porch lights off and celebrated at home but the people that opted to participate in a community Halloween pulled out all stops to make the night safe and festive with homemade staircase candy chutes, jury-rigged pulley systems, elaborate tables, Mardi Gras-style balcony drops, treats delivered by fishing net and lacrosse stick and pushed across a shuffleboard table, and candy-lined fences and graveyards. A few houses used chalk and tape to mark socially-distanced paths up to the porches, but they didn’t need to. Kids know the drill now and when they forgot, their parents screamed it for the neighbors’ benefit: “OLIVER/CHARLOTTE/LIAM/OLIVIA! BACK UP! WAIT YOUR TURN! GIVE THEM SPACE!” I had to scream at my kid a few times, too. “HOLD UP! SAY THANK YOU! GO STAND OVER THERE IF YOU WANT TO EAT A PIECE OF CANDY!”
There was one time I wanted to scream and didn’t. At the end of the night another family started riding up on us. I looked back, startled and annoyed. It was a weirdly attractive couple, a mom and dad with three kids, one in a stroller but two definitely school-aged. None of them were wearing masks. It took everything I had not to scream in their faces, “PUT YOUR MASK ON!”
I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. My presence at home distracts my daughter from e-learning and throws them off their routine. When I come up for coffee or walnuts or cheesy puffs she looks up from whatever screen is working best today and says, “Hey guess what?” and then we chat over her teacher and he has to redirect her when I leave. When I join them for lunch, he says she’s like a whole different kid. When he’s being whatever, she looks to me as if to say, “see what I’m dealing with all day?” and I give her a look that says, “tell me about it.” I get to be the fun mom and he is serious business dad. I don’t think he likes that.
The downstairs room where I work and he works out is a mess of cords. I have work laptop and another work laptop and the tablet where I do my writing and last week I brought out the space heater. I keep talking about how I want to tell my firm to stop paying rent downtown and bring all my office furniture home. We could put the futon in storage, or just throw it away (it’s not like anyone’s coming to stay) and move is $$$ stationary bike into the garage. He really doesn’t like that.
I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. But I used to eat cans of soup for lunch and now I eat roasted vegetables and pasta. I used to scour discount shoe retailers for boots sturdy enough to stand up to several miles of sloshing through the snow, professional enough to stand up in court, and sleek enough to withstand the withering stares of ladies who lunch and now I wear slouchy socks all day. I used to get sexually harassed when I changed into leggings to go for a run and now I know the freedom of almost nobody looking at me at all.
I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. But, look, I tried to go back in June and the man on the other side of the wall was coughing into a phone while hawking his gluten free bread products and the other man with whom I was once locked in a silent battle over the thermostat in my office was sweating buckets at his desk and the receptionist was walking around with her mask dangling from one ear and every month or so I get an email that there’s been a positive test in the building.
My husband definitely wants me to go back to the office. But, like, would you go back before there’s a vaccine? Would you ever go back at all?
My neighborhood has loved spooky season as long as I’ve been here. There’s this house on the corner with a raggedy ghoul that they usually fix in a tree in their front yard such a way that it seems to be looming over the whole block and our first few Halloweens here I had to walk with my daughter on the other side of the street and distract her from the actual scariest image she’d ever seen. The ghoul is gone this year, though those neighbors still have an eight-foot spider inflatable on the porch, so I’m wondering if maybe they retired the ghoul for being just a little much for a neighborhood that’s crawling with small children. I hope that’s not the case, in part because in recent years my daughter has developed a weird affection for ghouls and now she misses it, and also because the rest of the neighborhood is so terrifying that one less creature of the night hasn’t made a whit of difference. The neighborhood–like much of America, I suspect–is hitting Halloween extra hard this year. COVID can take away fall festivals and trick-or-treat and parties, but it can’t kill the deep-seated human tradition of conjuring up spooks and spirits as a way of coping with the real-life horrors tapping on our doors, pulling up a chair inside our homes, rooting down inside our hearts.
My daughter loves Halloween as much as anyone and picked out our first legitimately creepy decoration this year: a strand of grimy looking skeletons from the Dollar Store that she asked me to put up above the dining table so she can see it when she is “at school.” Though her burgeoning love of skeletons, ghouls, and ghosts makes walks around the neighborhood easier this year, she still hates severed limbs and blood, a not unreasonable position for a seven-year-old, and closes her eyes when we walk past the butcher’s tree and the house with the foot hanging from the doorknob. She also has a severe fear of werewolves–irrational only because she loves big, vicious-looking dogs–but it’s bad enough that she straight up refuses to go down a street that I’m dying to show her with a ten foot skeleton and a motion-activated werewolf with huge feet and a ripped up red plaid shirt. She’s gets what we’re trying to do with Halloween this year, though, how we’re making the monsters beautiful before they eat us in our sleep. This week, when she popped her eyes open after the bloody tree and found herself staring right at Ghostface, she took it in stride. Her voice went up an octave and she squealed, to the delight of the woman sitting on Ghostface’s porch, “Ohhhhh look at that cute little ghoul! I LOVVVVVE HIM. He has PUPPY dog eyes!” So, no, we’re not in denial at all over here, folks.
Four fat tan doves sitting in a tree. Four gnarly coyotes prowling down the street. Husky robins churning up the dirt right in front of our door. A muted cardinal practically ringing the bell. October rabbits running underfoot. Daytime raccoons trashing it up. Dozens of unleashed dogs and not one wagging finger. This is the rewilding.
I wore lingerie for date night for the first time in I don’t know and as I rifled through the drawer I dangled a bra between two fingers like, “What is this? What is it good for? How long am I going to let it stick around?” I was loathe to peel off the layers now that it’s getting cold, sweatshirt, t-shirt, leggings, all thick cotton, armor against the elements and acceptance of the life I now live. After kid bedtime and before adult dinner I considered a swipe of lipstick, some drama around my eyes, but then I’d have to wash my face against and I already did that in the morning. This is the rewilding.
My daughter is playing with the neighbor girls and their dad is watching over. I’m just back from a run with dinner to make and my kid is the only one without a mask. I make the right noises, put a mask in her hands, and disappear in side my house without so much as a wave at anyone outside my family. Other neighbors stop to talk about the weather. It was so nice until it wasn’t. Their dog, one of the difficult ones, reactive toward animals and children, lunges on his leash and I bolt like an October rabbit. This is the rewilding.
My mom asks if I’m coming to Arizona. No. A lady from church isn’t so sure about Black Lives Matter. No. A lady I don’t know tells me to call her after this meeting is over. No. Another lady offers to be my sponsor. No. A woman I know well offers to take me to a good meeting. No. A friend invites me to come back to Sunday School. No. Another mom asks I have the link to children’s chapel. No. The pastor asks me to join a small group. No. The school asks me to join the PTA. No. The PTA asks me to chalk the walk. No. The district asks me if I feel well-informed. No. My doctor asks me to start a course of physical therapy. No. A friend asks if I’m coming back to running club. No. Three people text in an hour to ask me to phone bank for Biden. No.
I’m still mostly civil. I got my flu shot. I smile behind my mask, force my mouth and cheeks up so it shows in my eyes. I try where it matters–at home, at work–but even there I’m saying yes less and less. My daughter asks if we can go to family swim at the Y. No. My daughter asks if we are going apple picking. No. My daughter asks me to get out of bed before my alarm to look for a missing toy. No. My husband asks me to put nuts in the brownies. No. Are you okay? No.
Last week I drew the strength card reversed. The lion was on top and the woman, brawny and beautiful, hung upside down, hands reaching up. The card said, Maybe you can do this alone, tap that well til it runs dry, but nobody ever said you had to. I put my hand up because, um, excuse me, yeah they did.
I didn’t ask to isolate and I don’t like it, which is only hard to believe because it comes so easily to me. The world asked this of me. In my scrupulosity I said yes and because I said yes I started saying no. This is not the rewilding. This is the disappearing of the lonely from public life, from any semblance of a life at all.
For the first few years of my daughter’s life my mind and my newsfeed were consumed by stories of women leaving the workforce. That wasn’t an option for me but I was obsessed with the idea that my life would be better if I’d at least had the choice, as well as with the idea that everybody was doing it better than me whether they hired a nanny or quit their jobs to stay home or never went into the workforce in the first place, and I sought out story after story to test my highly self-centered and ultimately fear-based theories. When my daughter went off to school and I started peeking over the other side of early childhood parenting, I want to shake all the women having and raising babies with with men by the shoulders and implore them:
If any part of you wants to work, find a way to make it happen. It doesn’t matter if childcare eats up your whole salary* a significant chunk of your combined household income. If you can afford it and you want to work even a little bit make it happen. Early childhood is over fast unless you’re having a million babies and before you know it all your kids will be out of the house for 6+ hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about what to do with this next phase of your life you’ll be solidly into your career and thanking all the ladies who who showed you that life can be so good.
*Don’t measure the cost of childcare as coming entirely out of your salary. Your partner is paying for and benefits from childcare too.
It may have been un-nuanced, unsolicited, and unwanted, but that was my advice from Before Times and I thought it was pretty damn good. Now, another wave is here and it’s even bigger than the one that washed over my life when it felt like everyone in my orbit was having babies. 800,000 women dropped out of the workforce. One in four are considering leaving or at least scaling back. I don’t have that option but I understand why women would take it if they did. A mom of a kid in my daughter’s school works full time out of the house and does e-learning late into the night with her second-grader. A partner at a law firm is on the verge of quitting her job. A colleague is working double time to pay her kid’s tuition at his dream school that could close any week. My sister launched her second book and wrote and pitched a third with her three kids running wild at home and an essential worker husband working longer hours than ever. More friends than I can count have had to trust that their kids will be safe at daycare or bring caretakers into their already overcrowded homes, and are paying a premium to do it. Even more are running themselves ragged running e-learning themselves at home while also working full-time. Quitting, if it’s an option, must feel like the only one. Of course, the stay-at-home moms don’t have it any easier. My sister–in-law wrangled five kids entirely on her own while her medical resident husband finished out a three month rotation in another city. A friend who was supposed to go back to teaching this year is homeschooling her two kids instead. An acquaintance who was supposed to go back to school herself and figure out what kind of career she wanted when her youngest went back to kindergarten this year is instead watching herself disappear.
I don’t have a speech for these women who are raising children with men. I don’t have any idea what they should do. It’s not fair that the burden of all the extra childcare and attendant emotional labor is falling on women but I understand why they are the ones picking it up. I understand how it is easier to let even the most carefully constructed egalitarian marriage fall to pieces than to try to keep that wobbly tower upright in harrowing times.
Last week, when I was complaining yet again about how impossible it feels to raise a happy, healthy kid at this moment in time, my therapist gently suggested that some women might be envious of my situation. She’s not wrong. I don’t know a whole lot of women whose lives haven’t been made immeasurably harder by the pandemic, but when it comes to work/life balance–that ever elusive, always illusory, annoying buzzword–my life got easier.
In March I realized my long-held dream of eliminating my commute and working from home. I sleep in an hour later every morning and eat a full breakfast with my family. When my husband stands up to clear the table for school and my daughter starts fussing about brushing her teeth, that’s my cue to head off to “work”–i.e., a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. By the time I make it back and set up my computer in the office downstairs, I can hear my daughter in her first video call of the day. I work for a few hours, come up for a quick lunch with my family, and disappear back downstairs for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes sounds of my daughter’s cries or my husband’s mounting frustration drift down the stairs. My heart breaks and I put on a pair of headphones. I try to finish work early so I can exercise and then call my mom as soon as she finishes up her shift at a school where the kids been back for months. I come upstairs at the end of the day to dinner on the table.
The evening shift with our daughter is mine. It’s not always easy but it’s usually fun. We dance wildly to Parry Gripp and read Harry Potter and throw balls inside the house and play card games and go for walks and draw with sidewalk chalk. I used to try to look at her school work in the evenings but now I don’t bother because allowing her to maintain some sense of separation between school and home seems more important than proving I’m as involved as moms who don’t work. I used to shuttle her to and from activities in the evenings but now they’re mostly cancelled and I refuse to put her in front of a screen more than she needs to be. We eat dessert every night. We unload the dishwasher and put away a few toys and then it’s off to bed. After a bath and jammies and a few chapters and a few songs, she’s down and the night is mine again. My husband cleans the kitchen. He charges the devices for school the next day. I burn incense and read and meditate and play music and then sit on the couch to watch TV with a bag of candy corn on my lap. I go to sleep before he does.
The weekends are all different, but the balance is there. This weekend, I put in the emotional labor to plan a playdate for our daughter, but my husband cleaned the house on the off chance anybody might need to come inside to use the bathroom. I supervised the kids playing outside but my husband brought out the snacks. We both played for hours with our daughter and did chores and took a few hours for ourselves both days of the weekend. Our dryer that has been on the fritz for months finally gave up the ghost and instead of freaking out I let my husband order and arrange install of a new one while celebrated a week off of laundry duty.
I don’t have any advice for women trying to sustain an egalitarian heterosexual marriage with kids in a pandemic. What I do have is advice for constructing a marriage that will rise to the occasion when crisis hits:
Get yourself a stay-at-home husband. Switch the traditional roles so completely and shift them so far out that the seesaw hits the ground on the other side and you’re sitting up high legs swinging in the air. Make your income indispensable. You will feel the weight of responsibility but there will be no question your job comes first. Understand that everything that needs to happen in the home is also a job, and it’s not yours. Let your husband make the appointments and the beds or let them go unmade. You will feel the pain when it’s not done right but there will be no question whose job it is. Undoing all the cultural programming and fighting your way into social structures that weren’t built for families like yours will hurt like hell but one day life as you know it will fall apart and your kids will be home for 24 hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about how to keep all the balls in the air you’ll go off to work and leave your husband to deal with this fresh new hell and you’ll thank me for telling you that life can be so good.
It feels unfair, how much harder my husband’s life got this year while mine got easier. It is unfair. But it’s not like it was fair before, when the bar I was working so hard to clear was set to Perfect Mom instead of Pretty Good Dad. It’s not like the scales are perfectly balanced today. I probably still do too much, way more than my dad ever did, more than my husband would do if our roles were reversed. Luckily for our marriage, I’m not aiming for fairness; I’m playing the long game of self-actualization. The pandemic might have set me back, put me into survival mode. It might have destroyed my marriage. The only reason it didn’t is because we had someone at home to track down toilet paper and masks and wait in line at Trader Joe’s and take over our daughter’s early elementary education and that someone was someone other than me.