One year ago I went into lockdown with my family. It was scary and surreal. Do you remember that part of it? We were afraid to leave the house. We waved at neighbors through the glass. We were afraid to touch things other people had touched. There were long lines and short hours at the grocery store, and we were afraid the food chain would break. Almost everything else was closed. On the anniversary this weekend, I drove north to Lake County and went hiking by myself. I waved at strangers on the trail. I ran my hands on trees and tapped polypores with my feet. I went home and made an elaborate meal for my family. Life is hyperreal. I’m too tired to be scared.
I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks. What I can say about this last year, about what it’s meant to me, about what it’s done to me, about the lessons I’ve learned, and the kind of person I’ve become? I can’t. I can’t even. It’s too much, too big, too messy to write. The pandemic isn’t over. It’s not even almost over, not for me. Not for most people. Vaccines are trickling into my town, but I’m at the bottom of the list. I realize that’s a good thing. It means my life has been easier than most for the last year. It also means I’m still risking my life and trying to survive. I’m still becoming the person the world will spit out when the pandemic ends.
The truest thing I can say about the last year is this: I got older. That’s it! Hardly unexpected, but it’s still hitting me hard. I tiptoed into early middle age in the early days of the pandemic. I didn’t notice it at first, because I’m in the period of life that has been nudged back and stretched out to the point of being nearly unrecognizable as middle age, thanks to the millenials who didn’t want to grow up and the boomers who didn’t want to let go. The generations have more in common than we like to admit. It’s undeniable, though. At 35, I’m squarely in the middle of my life and last week when I saw a video of myself that just didn’t look right. How could a jawline so indistinct sit beneath smile lines that cut so deep? Like someone turned up the contrast on only half my face. The signs have been piling up all year. I’m softer around the middle and my knees screech at me when I pull myself up from crouching on the ground.
Of course, the last year aged us all in more than the usual ways. The number the pandemic did on my body is nothing to what it pulled on my insides. A year ago, I related more immediately to the girl I was when I was five, fifteen, twenty-five than to the grown up in the room I had to be that day. A year ago, parenting my daughter was like re-parenting a version of myself. COVID slammed down like a wall, cleaving my childhood from hers and severing me from the person I used to be. COVID grew me up.
COVID grew me in in relation to my parents. As a once wayward child, my best trick for making them pleased with me was spending too much on plane tickets and showing up on their doorstep with a suitcase in my hand. I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to travel this year, and I had to say no. Is there anything more adult than disappointing your family to protect the life you’ve built?
COVID grew me up at work. I used to feel restless, resentful that I didn’t have precisely the job I wanted, that my career didn’t travel in the direction I had planned. I couldn’t believe it when the city ordered me to move my legal practice into my home, but I had to say yes. It didn’t matter. I was just grateful to have work. Is there anything more adult than suiting up and showing up for the job you’re paid to do?
COVID gew me up in my marriage. We’ve always been good in a crisis, but day-to-day life could be hard on us, a series of battles over who was sacrificing more. In the year that asked the most of both of us, we acted like partners instead of combatants. Is there anything more adult than setting aside your pride?
COVID grew me up in my friendships. I missed the ease of seeing people around town and didn’t know how to sustain anything over a screen. I waited for the group chats and virtual book clubs to materialize or for somebody to at least check in. The loneliness almost did me in, until one day a friend brought donuts to my door and I realized people had been showing up for me all year long: with birthday signs for my daughter, with playdates outside, with plates of food and loaves of bread, with hand-me-down books and toys, with coffee in the front yard, and, yes, with phone calls and texts and “are you okays?” My friendships don’t exist behind screens, and my friends didn’t disappear during the pandemic; I did. They were there all along. I just had to pay attention and put in a little effort. Is there anything more adult than asking what you can give instead of what you can get?
COVID grew me up for my daughter. She needed me more this year than any point since infancy, and the need was so pressing that I had to gather up every part of myself of myself–the daydreamer child, the rebellious teen, the strident feminist, the serious lawyer, the tired wife–and coalesce them into a single being: mom, right here, right now. The presence of mind parenting demands in a pandemic is unlike anything I have ever known. Is there anything more adult than rising to the occasion?
That’s my anniversary post. It’s been a year. I got older, and so did you. I’m not complaining. When the thing we’ve spent the last year hiding from his death, another year is the most we can ask for. It’s more than what lots of us got.
This week I realized that people acknowledge the anniversary of the pandemic on different days: the day the WHO declared a pandemic, the day the US descended into a state of emergency, the day your town imposed stay-at-home orders, assuming you were ever subject to the them, the day the kids came home from school or, if it was spring break, the day they didn’t go back. The multiplicity of anniversaries is one more marker of the the pandemic’s differentiating effect. It his us at different times, in different ways, and to different degrees. The variances aren’t insignificant. They are overwhelming in their unfairness. My household will be acknowledging one year of sheltering in place with ice cream, because that’s what we stayed up late eating when we needed something that felt soft and good. Other households will be offering prayers over their dead.
Today marks the anniversary of the last time I took my daughter to church. We were there for choir practice. I sat in the back and listened to a friend whose wife is a teacher whisper that their district was having meetings where they were saying they were getting ready to close. A Catholic school on the Northshore had already shuttered, but this was the first I’d heard about public schools. I wasn’t worried, though. Their district was different than ours. Smaller. Wealthier. Whiter. I made my eyes big at her and, against medical advice, put my hands on my face. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” She had a son in first grade and a preschooler at home. “I can’t imagine that will happen in Evanston, though. People don’t have the resources. All that childcare.”
On the way out of the church, my daughter stopped in front of a person-sized poster standing in the foyer. There was a picture of a cell phone and on the screen it said “God calling.” My daughter ran over to the poster and put her hand on the big green button. “Aw, good girl, you’re picking up.” “She doesn’t really have a choice,” our pastor pointed out from where she was standing nearby. There were two buttons on the phone, and both were green.
Today is also the anniversary of the last time we ate inside a restaurant. My daughter and I went out every week after choir practice. It was our decadent tradition, but it wasn’t sitting right with me. I knew people were panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and I’d been reading about something called “social distancing” in the news the last few days, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I texted my husband.
Me: “Is it a good idea to take D to a restaurant tonight? Maybe we should just get takeout.”
Him: “We can’t change our whole lives.”
I took my daughter to Tsim Sha Tsu for hot pot and picked a table in the corner, away from the other guests. The dining room was tiny, but making the effort made me feel responsible. Was this social distancing? The other thing I’d been hearing a lot about was racist discrimination against Asians. A lot of it was coming from the mouth of our then-President, but it was also playing out in the streets. It seemed more important to keep eat inside a Chinese restaurant than to change my mind about eating inside a Chinese restaurant.
A year ago today I was in the shadows but not in the dark. I knew some, but not enough, and I didn’t know what to do with what I knew.
A year ago I was weeks away from covering my face and months away from buying proper masks for me and my daughter.
A year ago I was slammed at work.
A year ago I was in the best physical shape of my life.
A year ago I was spending my nights writing my life story because it wouldn’t stop screaming at me and I knew I needed to write it down or it would destroy me from the inside out.
A year ago I was in the middle of Lent. I think I gave up Instagram.
This year I gave up giving things up.
The pandemic took too much.
A year ago tomorrow I left work early to hunt down groceries and couldn’t find any. That’s when the pandemic became real; when I thought we might not eat. We ordered local takeout twice a week for a year and I traded meals and loaves of bread with my friends from Taiwan and Korea but that didn’t stop the restaurants from closing down or the violent hate crimes against Asians.
In two days we’ll mourn a full year of in-person education, lost. The pandemic came to Evanston and it came for our public schools, resources or not. When people assured me my daughter would be fine because of all that we have–an at-home parent, a steady internet connection and extra tablet, time to invest in helping her learn–I nodded and said, “You’re right.” When things started to break down at home and people suggested we just pull her out for a year, to even out the achievement gap, I rolled my eyes kept but my mouth shut. I wasn’t sticking her in front of a screen all day for the education. I wrote that off as lost a long time ago. Virtual school was the only interaction with other kids my daughter was having. The system was non-functional, but she’d be non-functional without it. When people came for the superintendent for saying he would take an equitable approach to reopening by prioritizing marginalized students, I defended the policy. It’s fair. It’s just. It’s the right thing to do. Privately, I was terrified there wouldn’t be enough space for my kid. When we got the email before winter break that she hadn’t made the cut to go back, I was terrified we wouldn’t make it through the rest of the year. I don’t know what I thought would happen, just that things had gotten so bad, I didn’t know how we would keep going. I emailed the principal. “I know it’s not just about us. I know other people need this more. But if there is space after all the other priority flags have been considered, will you also the mental health impacts of prolonged social isolation on children with no siblings, no extended family, no pod?” When the time came to go back to school on an impossible hybrid schedule (two hours and twenty minutes a day, four times a week), enough families pulled out and a spot opened up for my daughter.
A year in, I know more. I know better. But I still don’t think I’m doing anything right.
“How are you holding up?” That’s what I ask when I talk to somebody I haven’t heard from in a while. “How are doing?” That’s what I ask after we’ve traded pleasantries and Omigods and Can you believe it’s been a year? The emphasis, I hope, conveys that I really want to know or that maybe I already do know because I’m going through the same thing. When we sign off: “Hope you’re hanging in there.”
People ask me how I’m doing and I have to convince myself they actually want to know. I tell them about how my daughter’s been in virtual school for so long but I’m lucky to have a stay-at-home partner who can supervise e-learning. I tell them I’m lucky I can work from home, that I’m lucky to have had work to do, but that I’m looking for more. I might tell them I’ve been teaching myself to cook and hiking with my daughter and painting with watercolors. I might even tell them about this blog.
It only takes a few minutes of talking for a person to have a general idea of the structure of my days. It only takes a few posts to take in my emotional landscape. What you still don’t know is what late stage quarantine actually looks like. Or maybe you know because you’re going through the same thing.
Late stage quarantine means I’ve quit brushing my hair and putting on makeup for Zoom/Teams meetings. I’m still wearing clothes, but that’s about it.
Late stage quarantine means busting out the lap desk to my “work station” (futon and fleece blanket nest) even more comfortable. I’m still sitting upright, but only barely.
Late stage quarantine means stripping down to my underwear to exercise instead of using ten minutes to change into workout clothes and adding to the laundry pile. I’m still moving my body, but I’m doing less every day.
Late stage quarantine means I don’t shower until I can smell myself. I’m still washing my hands until the skin sloughs off, but everything else is greasy.
Late stage quarantine means giving up on high brow TV and just binge watching House Hunters. Real Housewives is up next. I’m taking time to “relax” at night, but indulging my worst impulses at the same time.
Late stage quarantine means my kid messes with her parents by getting real close to our faces and telling us that it looks like we have pinkeye. I have a hilarious kid, but I might gouge out my own eyes.
Late stage quarantine means I’m watching my friends and family get vaccinated and venture out into the world. I’m so relieved and so happy for them, but I’m burning with envy. When am I going to get mine?
I used to be presentable. I used to be good. I used to always be going up.
Late stage quarantine means devolution in every sense of the word.
The best part of winter quarantine is that I don’t have to yell at my kid to stay away from other people outside because nobody goes outside. Nobody but me anyway. An astrologer once told me my Aries moon is the reason I can’t sit still. I don’t know about that, but staying inside does make me nuts. Yesterday I went for a walk and started kicking a ball of ice like a soccer ball. I was very into it, feinting and striking my way all the way around the block. I stopped at the communal mailbox before I went inside to see if anything came for the neighbors I’m house sitting for. I flipped through the few pieces of mail in the box because they asked me to watch out for an important letter from USCIS. I was bobbing my head, humming under my breath, jamming to Time After Time. The song was stuck in my head from the love songs playlist the kid put on six hours earlier for Valentine’s Day because she is a sap. I didn’t see the letter I was looking for but I must have seen something, maybe out of the corner of my eye, because I turned my head, and there was a man, just standing there. “Hi,” he said. I looked at him and screamed. The shock of seeing another person in this winter wasteland, of being ripped from my reverie, rippled through my whole body and I screamed with my whole body, too. Slight bend in the knees to brace myself, head back to project into the common area. As I was screaming, I recognized the man. He was a neighbor of course, someone I know well, a friend. He was standing about ten feet away, giving me a respectful distance and waiting patiently for me to finish checking the mail, and I was screaming loud enough to bring the rest of the neighborhood running to the windows. He started laughing and I made a joke about how long it’s been since I’ve seen another person, while I hastened to close the mailbox door and get out of his way. My instinct was to barrel back home after apologizing for being a total freak, but I forced myself to turn halfway and stay, ten feet away, while he checked his mail. I couldn’t figure out what to say, so I vomited more self-deprecating jokes, while I waited for him to help me out. “How are you? I’m not crazy, but how are you?”
We survived the interaction, but man. If seeing people is weird, talking to them in person is even weirder. I had to consciously remind myself that small talk is not only appropriate but worth the effort. And it was effort. It took actual work to pull the right words from my brain, to figure out what from my life might be relevant to his. When we had exchanged what felt like enough sentences to pass as an actual conversation, I raced over to my neighbors’ house, dropped their mail in a bin on the floor, and proceeded to have an extended conversation with the old gray cat that I was there to feed. After that I went home, still a little embarrassed but mostly delighted to have an anecdote for my family and content for my blog.
“How do you want this next phase of the pandemic to feel?” That’s what my therapist asked me last week after I spent the first half of our session cataloguing the fears and anxieties that are currently dragging me down and eclipsing any hope that things will ever get better. People have been giving lip service to the importance of mental health since the early days of the pandemic, but I saw the writing on the wall the day the first stay at home order went into place. At the time, I was newly in therapy, working my way through a mental health crisis that had started the previous fall, but really that I had been living through, in a cyclical fashion, since I was 18 years old. In winter, the world goes dark and I can’t see my way out. It’s not just about the sun and the seasons. The first time it happened, I tried to end it all in Tucson, and I’ve been suicidal in June, too. It’s never been quite that bad again, but last winter it got close enough that I scared myself back into therapy after four years of trying to twelve step my way through all my problems. By March, I was working my way up and out of the latest deep hole. I felt more optimistic about my marriage, my parenting, my work–my life. I wasn’t thinking about dying.
Then the pandemic hit, and death was imminent and everywhere. Even if COVID wasn’t coming for me, it was gunning for my grandma, and my parents, and my in-laws, and even if they survived, somebody else’s grandparents, somebody else’s parents, somebody else’s children would not. I read those early projections in horror: 200,000 to 2 million Americans could die before this thing was over. Faced with the threat of disease, something inside me shifted, and I started actively trying not to die, and to not kill anybody around me, either. I stayed home.
That’s not to say my mental health during the first part of the pandemic was great. It was absolutely not! Luckily, my weekly counseling sessions transitioned relatively seamlessly to phone and then video, and I was able to keep doing the hard work of carrying on in these difficult times. Therapy was a lifeline. Knowing I had space to talk about intense feelings enabled me to set them aside and live my life in the meantime. Therapy helped me respond to ordinary stressful situations, cope with the additional challenges of the pandemic, and even address issues that I didn’t even realize were still lurking in the background (read: leaving Mormonism). Therapy helped me hold it together.
The cracks started to show in the summer. What happened was I got sick. It came on suddenly. In the morning I was running around in the summer sunshine with my daughter. By lunch I had a splitting headache and wanted nothing more than to take a nap. By mid-afternoon, the room was spinning, my stomach was churning, my temperature was spiking, and I couldn’t stand up. As my physical symptoms mounted, so did my panic. I was too tired to move and feeling guilty about it. I was snapping at my family and feeling shame about that. We were supposed to go camping with friends in a few days and I didn’t know what the hell to do about that. I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know how much of what I was feeling was real and how much was a physical manifestation of the deep anxiety that comes with getting sick in a pandemic. I didn’t know if my symptoms warranted a COVID test. I didn’t even know where to get a COVID test. I didn’t know if my non-COVID symptoms warranted a doctor. I didn’t even know if I could get an appointment with a doctor. Even if I wasn’t really sick, my anxiety was so off the charts bad that I knew I needed to talk to someone. You see, sometime after headache came on but before the gastrointestinal issues set in, my thoughts had turned toward self-harm. As the hours wore on and I got sicker and more confused about what to do, it started to look like the only way out.
It is my professional and personal opinion that one of the best things to come out of the COVID pandemic is expanded access to healthcare through telehealth. Unfortunately, when I was in desperate need of a virtual appointment, I was too sick to figure out how to navigate the health plan website to request one, and it remains unclear whether I would have been able to get one as urgently as I needed it. Instead, I pulled on heavy sweats (because I was shaking from chills), an N95 mask, and rubber gloves and drove to urgent care, barely managing to not throw up on the way there. When I got to the front door, I was met with a sign telling me to go back to my car and call instead if I had any symptoms of COVID. I had to sit on the ground and catch my breath before mustering up the energy to walk back to the parking garage.
From the safety of my car, I called the urgent care practice and spoke to a nurse practitioner. I told her I had a fever, chills, nausea, cramps, and vomiting. I told her I couldn’t breathe, but that might be because I was also having a panic attack. I told her I wasn’t okay, that I was anxious and depressed and didn’t know what to do. I told her I needed help, I needed to talk to someone, anyone now. I stopped short of describing exactly how bad things were in my mind because I was afraid. I didn’t want to go the ER in a pandemic. The NP told me none of my symptoms were typical of COVID so she couldn’t recommend a test. I could get one if I wanted but I wouldn’t get results for five days. She didn’t say a word about my mental health. I took the jab in the nose and it came back within 24 hours negative for COVID, but I stayed sick for weeks, cycling between anxiety and depression the whole time. I still don’t know if I had COVID. The fatigue I labored under all summer makes me think “Yeah, maybe.” It’s the aftereffects of the encounter at urgent care that I still can’t shake, though. I know our healthcare system is broken, and I know COVID has put it under unbelievable strain, but I am a white, married, cisgender, able-bodied, employed, and insured. I never dreamed I could walk into a doctor’s office begging for help and be sent away.
I had to wait for my next therapy appointment to start to process that trauma. I identified the root of my panic as not having a place to go or a person to call when I am thrust into a medical crisis. My former reliance on urgent care and the emergency room to address any serious pain or scary-seeming thing was not viable in a pandemic. With my therapist, I made a plan to finally get a primary care physician. I haven’t had one since I was living under my parents’ roof. When you have a history of abusing prescription pharmaceuticals, going to the doctor is fraught. It took awhile to find a doctor covered by insurance (fucking insurance websites!) and it took even longer to get an appointment (fucking COVID!). By the time I got in the door, I was desperate enough to fill out the intake questionnaire honestly. Little interest or pleasure in doing things? Yes, many days. Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless? Yes, most days. Thoughts that you would be better off dead or hurting yourself in some way? Yes, some days. At my appointment, the doctor broached the subject gently. “Your depression screening was positive. “Really?!” I chirped. “You mean I don’t have depression?” “No, that’s not what I mean.” I deflected some more. “I mean, doesn’t everybody feel hopeless right now? It’s bleak out there.” The doctor couldn’t disagree. She raised the issue of medication. I had a lot of resistance, but I asked the doctor what she thought. She looked me straight in the eye. “I think you could probably feel better.”
It’s not like I hadn’t thought medication about it before. You don’t plumb the depths as long as I have without wondering if one of the pills everybody else you know is taking will pull you up and out once and for all. Like going to the doctor, taking medication when you’ve been addicted is complicated. I’m afraid if they give me the good drugs, I’ll abuse them. I’m afraid if I tell them about my concerns, they won’t give me the good drugs. The good drugs, of course, are the only ones that seem worth the trouble. I don’t want to alter with my brain chemistry if it’s not going to get me high. I don’t care if it will make me feel better. I want to feel good.
My doctor told me to call her if I wanted to revisit the conversation about medication. I agreed, but was renewed in my commitment to toughing it out on the basis that my brain is not always a scary place to be. I have more good days than not. I generally enjoy my life, except when I’m sick, and in non-pandemic times, I really enjoy my life.
That was six months ago. I knew this winter would be hard, and it’s been so much harder than I thought. At this point, I am completely devoid of hope that the world will go back to any semblance of normal, that my daughter will go back to school, that I’ll go back to church, that I’ll see my family on the other side of the country, that we will get together with friends, that we will be free to walk around outside without me freaking out when my daughter strays too close to a neighbor, that we will be able to gather in groups, that we will stop wearing masks. The light on the horizon is gone, and operating in this context is getting to be too much. I’ll spare you the grisly details and family dramas and leave it at this: I’m worn down, and it feels like I’m going lower than I’ve ever been before. I was explaining all this to my therapist when she asked me, “How do you want this next phase of the pandemic to feel?” I mulled it over for awhile. My knee jerk response is that I want to feel good, goddamnit, but I know that’s asking too much. It would be weird to feel good right now. Really, all I want is to feel better than I do. I hearkened back to the doctor’s words last summer. “You could probably feel better.” I hearkened back to my own words back to her. “Doesn’t everyone feel hopeless right now?”
Maybe I’m glutton for punishment, but I’m not going on meds. Not right now. I can’t do it, not during the pandemic, for the same reason I’m not buying a bigger house or moving to the country or adopting a puppy or putting my kid in private school. I don’t want to make life-altering decisions in reaction to circumstances that, God willing, won’t last forever, and I don’t want to introduce another variable into the hot mess that is life today. I don’t want to wake up in a post-COVID world and wonder why I moved to a red state. I don’t want to wake up happy and wonder if I could’ve gotten there on my own. I might wake up in a post-COVID world and decide I still want to feel better after all, but at that point I hope the decision will feel like mine.
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.
Last year, I wrote minimum an hour a day five days a week. Notable exceptions include the week after the pandemic shut down the U.S. (which I spent picking nits out of my hair and doom scrolling), the week I got really, really sick (which I spent freaking out), the week I went on a real vacation (camping in Michigan), and the weeks I spent “on vacation” in my house (spring break, winter break). This year I have big goals. I want to finish my memoir and start a novel. I want to keep writing these diary entries and, if this pandemic ever ends, I want to publish every single sad puppy posts into a book. I want to start a newsletter. I want to write about all the cool stuff I do when I’m not ruminating about my life choices and place in the world. I want to post about tarot on Instagram because nerding out about a niche hobby is me in my purest form. We’re only two weeks into the new year but instead of writing I’ve mostly been, uh, staying up too late and sleeping in and writing nothing at all. Last year, this diary was the easiest place to show up. This year, I have nothing to say.
What is there to say about parenting? My life with my daughter is a mixed bag of joyful, mundane, hilarious, excruciating, and poignant moments. None of it is new. My daughter is really into jokes. Knock knock jokes and puns and dad jokes and and jokes she made up that are actually pretty funny. She’s always been this way, and we support her habit with joke books that she reads to us page by page like she’s telling a story. When she was a tiny baby, her dad and I had a stupid running gag about how she would disappear every night to do blue comedy at a club in the city. The jokes have taken on a life of their own this school year. One of the rotating jobs in her second grade class is joke teller. The joke teller is supposed to come to class prepared with one joke–just one!–but when it was my daughter’s turn, she had three at the ready and my husband reassured me that’s how it goes. The teacher lets the joke teller get away with telling at least two or three jokes and then the next twenty minutes is a free for all with absolutely anyone who wants to chiming in with their own jokes. Once, I came home from a walk and heard my daughter saying “knock knock” and the teacher responding “who’s there?” and my daughter saying “banana” and the teacher asking innocently “banana who?” and my daughter repeating “knock knock” and the teacher asking, with trepidation this time, “who’s there” and my daughter (daring girl) answering “banana” and that’s when I turned around and walked right back the door because I know exactly how long my daughter can carry on with this joke before she lets everybody off the hook with an “orange you glad I didn’t say banana?!” I don’t know if the teacher gets anything else accomplished during morning meetings and I don’t care because somehow she’s building rapport between twenty kids sitting in twenty different houses who spend the bulk of their days staring at twenty different screens. Thanks to the daily comedy routines with her class, my daughter has a ton of material, but, like a touring comic before the advent of the comic special, she tells the same jokes over and over again. Because there are so many and because half the time I’m only half listening, I forget the punchlines over and over again. “Hey mama. What room does a ghost not need?” “Ummmm, I dunno, let’s see. . . The bathroom?” “No, mama. Why do you always say that? It’s the living room.”
What is there to say about navigating life outside during a pandemic? Functionally, life looks a lot like it did last March, which is to say, I barely leave my house. Emotionally, it is both more and less terrifying. We’re not wiping down groceries anymore and I’m not worried about supply chains breaking down, but people in my family are finally getting sick. They are recovering from it, thank God, but we know enough about COVID long haulers and about the unpredictability of this disease to know they’re not out of the woods. The worst part is, ten months ago, I believed that life would go back to normal in a few months. Now, even with the vaccine going into the arms of healthcare workers and people who are high risk, I have no hope that life is going to get better anytime soon. Maybe not even this year. The neighborhood, the extended family, the church, the school, the district, the city, the state, the country–they’ve all broken trust too many times. I know plenty of people aren’t living like this anymore, but there is nowhere to go in Chicago. It’s cold out and restaurants, museums, and parks are back closed. Anyway, you couldn’t play me to step into a room with other people inside. I had to run to Target to pick up on online order over the holidays and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Last year, I stayed home to protect other people. I was trying to do something for my community, my country. Fuck that noise. It’s evident now we’re all in this for ourselves. This year, I’m staying home for me.
What is there to say about staying home? It’s lost its novelty. A few years ago, I took two weeks off work during the holidays. I didn’t travel anywhere and nobody came to visit, I just stayed home and celebrated Christmas and New Year with my little family of three. The time was restorative –I hadn’t taken that much time away from work since maternity leave–but it was also the longest two weeks of my life. That was the year of the polar vortex and it was mostly too cold to leave the house. I got so bored that I joined the YMCA just for a place to go. I hit up family swim and gym with my daughter every morning and went back to work out by myself every afternoon. When it was time to go back to work, I was more than ready. This year, I blinked and the holidays were over. Staying home was easy. Who needs a gym when you’ve got snow on the ground and warm clothes in the closet and art supplies and books and music and board games and television and a kid’s wide open imagination?
What is there to say about politics? I have no unique vantage or new insights. I’m watching our democracy crack like everyone else. It makes me sick what happened at the Capitol, but it doesn’t surprise me. There’s never not been cause for despair.
What is there to say about religion? I have none. I have something; you could call it spirituality and I’d cringe and say, “Ugh, I guess,” but it changes shape faster than I can track and I’m no longer interested in offering it up to the masses. I turned myself inside out for years and I’m not sure there’s any more marrow to suck from those bones.
What is there to say about (not) drinking? I gave up. I drank a few months out from what would have been a five year anniversary. I’m still working out whether I still put any stock in the concept of recovering out loud when the recovery is not a straight line.
Last year, I tied up every one of these quarantine diary entries like making meaning is my job. This year, the best I can offer you is a loose container for all the thoughts and events rattling around like the wooden blocks my daughter played with when she was a toddler. They never quite fit back into the package they came in. My mind is a cardboard box worn soft and coming apart at the corners. This blog is a slightly bigger box.
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.