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?
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.
Scene: Class zoom call starts in five minutes, only a few kids are on the call.
KID 1: I’m going to take my iPad outside and show you where people live. This is my house. And KID 2 lives over there.
KID 2: Hey, that’s my house!
KID 3: Go to Lake Street! That’s where I live!
KID 1, ignoring KID 3 and directing iPad camera at sewer instead: Does anyone know who Pennywise is?
KID 4: I know who Pennywise is!
KID 1: Pennywise is a…
TEACHER: Let’s all go on mute until class starts.
Scene: Drama class. The teacher asked the kids to get off the zoom call and make a video of themselves acting like their favorite animal. DAD is in the same room listening but not looking. KID sets the iPad on a chair and starts crawling around on the ground and woofing like a dog. KID stands up, moves the iPad to to the floor, and crawls around in front of the camera. KID stands up, moves the iPad again, falls to the ground and rolls over. DAD looks over and sees KID on her back, rocking back and forth, legs in the air, party dress around her waist, flashing her underwear at the iPad.
DAD: Okay, KID, this looks great, but we’re going to need to record it again. Go put some shorts on under your dress.
KID: Do I have to?
KID, pissed: FINE.
KID, brightening considerably: I know! I’ll put on a second pair of underwear over these ones!
DAD: No. Put on some shorts.
KID, running up the stair: Second underwear!
KID: SECOND UNDERWEAR!
Scene: Class zoom call, it’s daily question time.
QUESTION ASKER: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
KID 1: Underground.
KID 2, tentatively: Like a mole?
KID 1: No, KID 2, NOT like a mole! I wouldn’t have a long skinny tail. I WOULD BE IN AN ARMCHAIR UNDERGROUND BECAUSE I WANT TO LIVE ALONE.
Teacher: Are you sure there’s not somewhere you else you might want to live in twenty years?
KID 1: Nope. I’ve already made my life decision.
Scene: In PE, out of nowhere.
KID 1: I like movies and things that are IN-A-PRO-priate!
KID 2: I know a movie that’s inappropriate!
PE TEACHER: I’m going to mute you all now.
Scene: Class zoom call, daily question time.
QUESTION ASKER: What kind of animal would you be and why?
KID 1: I would be a bear because they can kill a person just by pushing them and when I get really mad at someone, I could push them.
KID 2: I would be a shark that eats people on purpose.
Yesterday was the autumn equinox, one day of perfect balance before the Northern Hemisphere starts sliding into the dark. Missing the rhythm of the calendars that once ran my family, the school calendar, the church calendar, the court calendar, I wanted to mark the day. Heretofore, this former Mormon mommy blogger exclusively used Pinterest to catalogue tattoos and short sassy hair, but yesterday it occurred to me I might use it for what I can only assume is its intended purpose: tablescapes and kids crafts! I was looking for ways to celebrate Mabon, the lesser sabbat that corresponds to the autumn equinox on the wheel of the year. I took a few notes, saved a recipe, copied down a blessing to read over whatever my husband made us for dinner. I didn’t have to ask to know it would be a feast fit for a Pagan harvest festival. He always feed us well. I only planned to mull a little cider.
Though I am a cyclical being–moods not wholly separate from the phases of the moon, outlook informed by the seasons–I am not always as in tune with the earth as I might like. Yesterday, for example, I was not especially balanced. I was not especially inclined to look forward into the mystery or back with gratitude for all I have. Much of yesterday I was, in a word, pissed. Much of yesterday I was, if I had another word, and I do, because I’m the writer, scared.
I’m in meetings from 8:30 to 1:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I come up for five minute breaks to use the bathroom, refill my water bottle, grab a snack. I mostly have no idea what’s going on with my daughter’s e-learning during that time except that my husband (and, ugh, fine, the school) are doing the Lord’s work making it all happen. Yesterday, when I came upstairs at 10:35 my husband and daughter were watching Puppy Dog Pals. What. The. Fuck.
I tried to hold my fire, I really tried. I know I don’t know what kind of break they were on from video calls, what work she might have finished early, what kind of day they’d had, what kind of judgment calls my husband was making, what meltdowns might have preceded or been prevented by a few minutes in front of the cartoon equivalent of boxed mac and cheese, my daughter’s favorite meal.
None of that stopped me from going off in my mind, though. Why isn’t doing school work? If they’re on a break, why isn’t she outside? If there’s not time to go outside, why isn’t she jumping on the mini trampoline, that eyesore we brought into our house in April when we realized we’d be stuck inside for the rest of the school year? If she doesn’t want to move around, why isn’t she playing with LEGO or drawing? If everybody needed an easy break, why weren’t they reading a book? My questions were like hypercritical flies buzzing around an elephant they really didn’t like, a distraction from the questions that keep me up at night. Why the fuck isn’t my daughter in school? When is she going to go back? How is a lost year of the kind of movement and play and meaningful interaction with kids that she has always gotten outside our house going to affect her. How is any of this going to work if I don’t micromanage it?
Mabon is about balance, and it’s also a time for gathering up what we need to survive the winter and letting go the rest. Goodbye to long sun drenched days and hitting every art festival and sprinting up and down the beach. It’s time to tuck in, start saving energy. Do I have any relationships that need to end? Unhealthy habits? Self-destructive beliefs?
Of course the things I want to kick to the curb are not the ones that really need to go and vice versa. I’d like to give hyper-responsibility the old heave ho, not just the hyper part, but the responsibility part, too. I’m tired of holding my world up on my shoulders! I’m tired of working and and cleaning and negotiating and, oh god, so much caring and trying. I want a break from all that! But as a parent and a partner and an employee and a citizen suiting up and showing up is my only option.
What I really need to get over is trying to control other people and blaming them when behave the way I’d like them to. But power, even just the illusion of it, is hard to give up in the best of circumstances, and just about impossible when it feels like the world is spinning out around you. They call it a coping mechanism for a reason! Putting a lid on the pot and turning the stove up to boil when my husband does something differently than I would is easier than admitting that we have no guarantees that anyone will come out of all of this okay.
After stewing all afternoon, I went on a run to burn off my rage. When I came back, a neighbor was knocking on our door, wanting to play with our daughter. My husband answered and sent our daughter outside with a mask and a water bottle. When I finished with work for the day, I called my daughter in to help me measure cloves for the cider and round up the pinecones she’s collected over the last year to arrange into a centerpiece. We set out citrine and carnelian and a tiny jasper dog. We lit candles. We sat down to freshly baked challah and a broccoli tomato salad and sausage with apples. I read a prayer for the ones who light the way and the ones who take care. We sang a song about blackbirds. We talked about what it means for the emperor to have no clothes. After dinner we rolled toilet paper rolls in peanut butter and fruit and nuts and hung them in trees for the birds. We decided to take the leftover seeds to scatter in the park and walked over sipping cider from steaming ceramic mugs. My daughter pointed at the moon, a waxing crescent. Before bed we ate candy corn and read Harry Potter.
At the end of the night, I sat on the couch with my husband. I thought we’d might have it out over Puppy Dog Pals but instead I waxed poetic about Mabon and then let him update me about school. He’d spent the evening at curriculum night on Zoom. Last year I did curriculum night because I wanted to have a sense of how my daughter was spending her time while I was at work all day. I wanted to be the kind of working mom who also knows her way around her kid’s school. This year we thought it would be a better use of resources for the parent managing e-learning to try to figure out what the school is up to. When it was over, he said he felt better about our daughter’s teacher, and when he said that I felt better about everything. I don’t have to volunteer in her classroom or sit in on e-learning or get to know her teachers to know that she’s going to be okay. Her real education was never going to happen at school anyway.
One of the few things that doesn’t suck about elearning with a second grader is that my daughter already knows how to read. Don’t get me wrong. We’re a family of readers but not, like, prodigiously early readers. She just learned, barely squeezed under the COVID wire that shredded her education before she finished first grade. This summer was my first experiencing the parental pleasure that is reading a book on the couch while your child reads next to you. I think that happened once. She gets her best reading done before I wake up and the Echo Dot in her room is still disabled because nobody needs to hear Kidz Bop before 6:30 in the morning. Last summer she woke up every day with the sun and ran immediately into my room. I couldn’t tell you what time she wakes up now except that it’s sometime before I do and that when I peek in her room she is sitting cross-legged on the floor with a book.
Both enthusiastic about this new development, my husband and I took different approaches to molding our daughter into a kid who, we hope, will read even when she doesn’t have to. A former literature major, I pulled all our Roald Dahl off the high shelves with no regard as to whether stories about kid munching monsters and kid munching witches and fox shooting humans would be disturbing to seven-year-old sensitivities. A journalist by training, my husband subscribed her to National Geographic Kids and Highlights Magazine. She promptly hid National Geographic under her bed when they sent her an early Halloween issue with a horror movie mummy on the front, but she adores Highlights. Highlights! Do you remember Highlights? Highlights with godawful Goofus and goody two shoes Gallant? Highlights with the Look and Look Again puzzles with five differences that are impossibly easy to spot and one that’s always straight up impossible? Highlights with the Pinterest crafts before Pinterest was a thing that don’t require mom to have to reset her password? Highlights with the endless supply of knock knock jokes? Maybe you’re not in the Highlights target demographic or your parents couldn’t afford magazines or your grandparents didn’t buy you a Highlights subscription for your birthday and you’re wondering if I’m talking about the cartoon-y magazine at the pediatrician’s office. Don’t worry, you’ve got it, that’s the one.
Last month my daughter ripped a postcard off the spine of the magazine, the kind you usually fill out and send back in to resubscribe, and started scraping ink off the images on it with a quarter, like it was a scratch off lotto ticket. How did she know to do that? I wondered. We’re a buy your snacks at the gas station family, but not, like, a scratchers family. A minute later my daughter waved the card in my face. “I won, mama! Look!” I grabbed the card and studied it, suspicious. Sure enough, Highlights was introducing my kid to the dopamine hit of an easy win with a Scratch and Match promotional program. She didn’t have a match, but the card was clear enough that scratching off one image of a book, as she had done, meant that something called Mathmania would be coming her way. Never one to say no to something that might make math fun, I checked to see if we needed postage. In the meantime, my daughter pulled off another postcard from last month’s Highlights and started happily scratching away. A moment later: “Look mama, I won again!” She definitely did not win again.She must be missing something. I studied the second card and it was as clear as the first. She hadn’t won the big prize that came with three matches, but she definitely had won another magazine called Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye. “Wow, sweetie! That’s awesome! Congratulations!”
I half-hoped she’d forget about the prizes because I did not really want to fill out the postcards and track down stamps but she proudly carried the cards downstairs and set them right next to my spot on the kitchen table. I let them sit for a few days until it was clear that they were not going to mysteriously disappear without parental intervention and I was never going to magically feel like doing this tiny chore. I quickly scratched out our name and address and my email address and put them in a stack of outgoing mail for my husband to send off.
A few weeks later, an invoice for $10.55 showed up in my inbox. Hmmm. A copy of Mathmania arrived in our mailbox a few days after that with a paper invoice for the same amount.
I didn’t read the fine print. I should have read the fine print! I don’t trust anybody who’s trying to sell me anything (unless it’s a God thing and then I’ll buy whatever you’re peddling). I’m not a skeptic but I am a cynic. Ialways read the fine print. I have to! I was raised Mormon in the mountain west in a hotbed of multi-level marketing and get rich quick schemes. My internet search history is smattered with “DoTerra + scam” and “LuLa Roe + scam” and “Usborne books + scam.” My distrust extends to subscription-based services and wellness product and anything that seems a little too popular. “Ritual vitamins + scam” and “Stitchfix + scam” and “Caroline Calloway + scam.” You can’t trust anything coming out of capitalism. Even as a believer, I interrogate the institutions that made me and changed me and saved me. “Joseph Smith + scam” “Alcoholics Anonymous + scam” “law school + scam.” You can’t trust anything and you can’t trust anyone.
The only reason I didn’t read the fine print this time was because it was Highlights for Children for god’s sake and I couldn’t imagine the Highlights of my most innocent childhood years would take my daughter for ride a like that, tricking them into thinking they won some kind of grand prize and then putting parents in the position of having to say, “Sorry, honey, you didn’t really win.” That seemed like the kind of dirty trick Goofus would pull.
I wasn’t about to tell my daughter she didn’t win and I’ve spent more than $10.55 on more worthless crap than math games so I figured I’d pay it and chalk the loss up to experience. It stung a little more when the invoice for Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye but she loves those puzzles so whatever. $20 is less to me than it was to my parents and is well worth it if it means I don’t have to get on the phone and demand a refund while confessing my ignorance to a stranger.
Before I got around to paying the bill, another invoice popped up in my email. I checked my Highlights account, because apparently I now had a Highlights account, and saw that not only did I have a new charge of $17.94 for a second volume of Mathmania but I also had pending charge of $17.94 for another issue of Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye that was about to ship.
Uggghhhhhh.They were going to make me call customer service. A lady answered the phone. She sounded sweet. She sounded older. She sounded like the kind of lady that works at Highlights. She sounded like Gallant’s grandma. I explained the situation in elaborate detail, but I didn’t need to. She knew exactly why I was calling. She cancelled the subscriptions to the two magazines and, without my even asking, removed the pair of $10.55 charges for the first two issues. She couldn’t cancel the charges for the new issues, which had already shipped, she said. We’d have to refuse delivery or send them back. I paused. I’ve missed dozens of packages over the years and had them returned to sender but I’ve never turned one away on purpose. “How does that…work exactly?” “Just write ‘refused’ on the outside of the package and put it back in the mailbox,” she explained patiently, like she was talking to a child. I thought about the plastic wrap that magazines sometimes come in and wondered how I’d write on it. “Like…with a Sharpie?” I asked, wanting her to spell it out. “Sure. Or a pen. And then you can call back and we’ll remove the charges.” Lord help me. I considered giving this nice lady a piece of my mind. Then I thought about how that never makes me feel good and how I’m trying to move through the world with a little less drama and a little more grace. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks for all your help.” “You’re welcome!” the Highlights lady chirped, sounding ever so slightly surprised. “Now that we’ve taken care of that, can I interest you in any of our other gift packages?”
This week, Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye came in the mail again. Before I could intercept and send it back, my husband brought it inside and waved it in the air. “Your new magazine is here!” He put it on the table in front of my daughter. “Hooray!” she exclaimed, tearing into the plastic wrap that I could not possibly have marked up with any kind of legibility. Sigh.
$17.94 is less to me than it was my parents but not that much less and at this point I feel like Highlights is setting me up to fail. It looks like I have at least one more phone call in my future. Perhaps many more, judging by these customercomplaints. In the meantime, at least my kid is reading.
Like most kids in the states, my daughter is officially “back” in “school” as of last week. Our district is all virtual or electronic or remote or whatever you want to call it for at least the next month, probably the whole semester. Nobody in our household was happy to see the summer come to an end. Definitely not me with my mountain of worry about the impact this year is going to have on my daughter’s social and emotional well-being. Definitely not my daughter who misses her teachers, misses her friends, and misses school the way it used to be. Definitely not my husband who is supervising at-home school on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis.
We tried to preserve some of the old back-to-school activities like shopping for new school supplies and replacing the sneakers she grew out of in the spring and picking out a new outfit for the first day of school. Our seven-year-old hasn’t been in school long enough to recognize these as traditions, but they are familiar to me and my husband and seemed like a reasonable way to build a sense of happy anticipation into an otherwise bleak time. My husband and daughter took a trip to Target in their masks and she picked out a long-sleeved shirt with a poodle on it, one of those shirts with the flippy sequins that little girls can’t enough of that and that, stupidly, are always all-white. She got a few notebooks and a new set of colored pencils and at least her fifth set of safety scissors. They did a drive-by to pick up her school-issued iPad. On the last official day of summer vacation, I took her to our local ice cream shop for cones and watched her drip chocolate all over the brand new poodle shirt.
One back to school tradition we completely forgot about was class assignments. I’m old enough to remember my mom driving me to school at the end of summer to find my name on a list hanging on the wall but my kid is young enough that everything having to do with her schooling still feels unfamiliar and overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting the letter with her class placement for the upcoming school year to show up in my inbox in the middle of August. I remember that information being kind of a big deal when I was a kid, with the potential to make or break my whole year, but as the working parent of an only child and being relatively new to the school, I didn’t have enough context to generate a reaction to the placement. Maybe in a normal year I’d start asking around about the teacher, trying to figure out of we knows any of her classmates, but staring up the steep hill of the upcoming year and not knowing whether my daughter will ever even set foot in her classroom, I couldn’t muster up the motivation. Is Ms. ____ a good teacher? Do kids like her? Does it even matter?
My husband had gotten the email too and neither of us mentioned it for a few days. Eventually, we realized we should tell our daughter who her teacher was, see if we couldn’t drum up some excitement for her, but we kept forgetting to do it and, when we remembered, we realized we also kept forgetting the teacher’s name. Our daughter adored her first grade teacher, but the way virtual learning went in our district the teacher more or less dropped off our family’s radar when the school shut down. It was hard to imagine how a teacher we might never meet would be any kind of significant presence in our daughter’s life.
Last year, my husband handled e-learning in a manner that inspired awe and envy in our friends. It as like he’d been running a home school for years. The resources from the school were minimal and our daughter could have blown through them in under an hour but he had a six hour schedule blocked into a mix of instructional time, individual work, rest, and play. He shifted the whole school day back an hour to start at ten instead of nine. Our daughter was reading the chapter books he kept ordering for deliver and doing math workbooks he’d found to supplement the worksheets from the school and researching whatever animals she wanted and launching model rockets and using the 3D print design studio for art and, yes, finishing all the assigned work and showing up for the handful of video calls set up by the school. We ate lunch together as a family most days. They had outdoor time every day. Meltdowns were minimal, and my husband was confident, competent. I’ve never been more grateful to have a stay-at-home partner in my life.
By the end of the first day of school this new year, he was a mess. To its credit, the school is trying to create a more engaging environment for the kids. This is critical. Not everybody has an at-home parent who is able or inclined to step into the role of teacher, fine arts instructor, lunch lady, recess aide, principal, nurse, and janitor for six hours a day. As well as last year went, he was hoping for more involvement and resources from the school. Faking it til you make it for a few months is one thing; making up a curriculum for a year with no end in sight and doing it from scratch with no guidance, desire, compensation, or training is another thing entirely. My husband was looking forward to being a little more hands off this year.
A week in, it is apparent that while my husband will be ceding all his autonomy and influence over our daughter’s day to the school, he will also be in no position to take his hands off any aspect of what’s going on in our home any time soon. She’s too young. He spent the first day of school sitting at the kitchen table getting her in and out of back-to-back zoom conferences, interpreting inconsistent and unclear instructions, trying to deal with broken zoom links and other tech issues, navigating the unintelligible learning platform our district selected for K-2 (fucking Seesaw), printing off assignments that are unreadable on the iPad, corralling her into doing as much of her assigned work in the five- to ten-minute blocks allowed by the impossible schedule, and trying not to freak the fuck out. There was no time for recess and they didn’t step outside once. From my office downstairs I kept an eye on the email traffic from the teacher and opened up an email with the subject line “Tech Help information.” It was empty. When I stepped out of my office to do a load of laundry, I heard the teacher critique the kids for not spending enough time on their work, not putting enough detail in their drawings. “You’re second graders now. You can do more when you were in first grade.” I tried to keep an open mind, consider how my daughter might benefit from a little push from someone other than me. When I asked my husband about it in the evening, he exploded. “It’s the first day of school and they’re drawing on the fucking iPad.“
There is, in fact, no better symbol for e-learning than the school-issued iPad. It’s aspirational for many families, including ours. We’ve never owned an iPad and our daughter never had a device until the school forced our hand last spring. Its compact form seems to promise that we won’t be adding much to the landfill of elementary worksheets and kid art that amassed in our house in kinder and first grade. Its corporate sheen throws light on how a year or more of learning alone at home is preparing our kids for a future in late capitalism: working in front of a computer, showing up to meetings on time, interfacing with colleagues for a screen, and then getting right back to work. These kids will be maximally efficient. At the end of the first day of our life for the next however long my husband went to plug in the iPad. The battery was shot, dead, totally drained. He rummaged through the box of supplies from the school. They hadn’t given us a charging cord.
That was my husband’s first day. It might have been better for our daughter. During the last video call of the day, which they’re calling Sunset Circle, the teacher asked the kids to share one or two things that they learned that day. Six months of video calls have taught my daughter how to use her voice and I could hear her shouting into the microphone all the way in another room. “Today I learned that I have a nice class and that you’re a good teacher!” I could end this post now and leave my friends and family feeling hopeful about the possibility that this year will be okay for us. I could leave you feeling hopeful that maybe this year will be okay for you and your kids, if you have them. Instead, I’m going to tell you my daughter broke down crying in the bath at the end of the second day of school. She said she hated e-learning. She said there were too many calls and she didn’t have enough time to do anything and her teacher was too strict and her papa got too frustrated when things didn’t work. She said she just wanted to go back to school.
I don’t know what to do with any of this. It’s only a week in and I’m hopeful things will improve, but but surely some of what we’ve experienced would be valuable for the school to know as it moves forward with this new way of learning. The school set up a helpline for tech issues but has not designated a person or place for feedback about the virtual learning in general. I don’t want to dump all my feedback and fears on the teacher. I don’t want to go to the principal and invoke the defenses of the administration or say anything that will come down on the teacher. I don’t think I’m unreasonable in wanting more than what we’re getting. I’ve already given up on academics. I don’t care if my daughter learns anything this year and I don’t expect her to. All I want is for school not to inflict further trauma on her or on our family. Is that too much to ask?
Last month, when salons and retail stores were open and playgrounds were still inexplicably closed, I started dropping hints to my daughter that I wouldn’t mind and it wouldn’t hurt to dabble around with the parks. Early in the morning we’d spot a renegade mom talking on the phone and a couple of toddlers climbing freely over the caution tape piled loosely on the ground, and I’d say, “I’m pretty sure the playground’s still closed, but we know it’s safer now.” Early evening, I’d nod at the neglected playground equipment, look over conspiratorially and ask, “You want to go down the slide?” She always said no. Had she outgrown the park, I wondered, her sense of childlike freedom and play another casualty of the coronavirus? Or was she just too young to cope with conflicting safety messages and peer-like pressure from a parent?
It must be the latter because the playgrounds have been open in Illinois for a little over three weeks now and play is back in a big way. It is, can I just say, a complete and utter delight to walk over to the park after dinner and set her loose. No more begging/bribing/cajoling her to leave the house! No more sad, contemplative laps around the neighborhood! Obviously, I still take plenty of those, but I’m not dragging my daughter with me anymore. Four months of shelter-in-place made my once “slow-to-warm-up” kid into someone willing to play just about anyone who asks, but the best is when our friends from the neighborhood are there. She loves seeing familiar faces and so do I! Hello, moms and the occasional dad! I never thought I’d miss you but I do!
Last week, we ran into one of D’s classmates from first grade with his parents. We didn’t get to know each other especially well during the school year, though perhaps we might have if not for (*gestures helplessly around*) all of this, but that didn’t’ stop it from feeling running into long lost friends! “D, look! Look who’s here! It’s ____ from school!” The kids quickly set up shop (literally–they started playing “stick store”) and I caught up with the parents. We talked about how the school year ended up (shitty) and how the summer was going (okay!) and how hard this has been on only children and how work is starting to feel normal and about how they are going all in on a pandemic puppy and how we all want to get away somewhere quiet in Michigan for a week in August. Eventually, the conversation turned what’s going to happen in the fall. I was still reeling from the options presented in the district survey and the then-realization we were likely facing a hybrid of virtual and in-person schooling. [Note: That was last week. This week, I suspect all-virtual is much more likely.] I shared my reservations about such a system and the other mom seemed to hesitate before responding. Maybe she has a different risk assessment. Maybe her kid is radically different than mine. Maybe she hasn’t heard. I tried to level set. “Did you see the survey from the district?” “Yeah,” she responded. “Yeah, I took it, and then I pulled ____ out of the district. We’re going back to Montessori.” The other mom went on, referencing her dissatisfaction with the school outside of its response to the pandemic, but she didn’t need to justify her choice to me.
The Montessori school is committed to reopening for in-person education five days a week. The Montessori school is installing an air filtration system. The Montessori school is making small class sizes even smaller. The Montessori school will hold class outside.
We stayed at the park for awhile after that and the conversation took different turns. We laughed a lot. We bought sticks from our kids. It was a lot of fun and I left thinking, “I really like that family.” When I got home I was bubbling over with the energy that comes from just the right amount of real life human interaction. “Guess what?!” I told my husband. “We ran into ____’s family! They’re getting ____ a dog! And they’re putting him in private school!”
Later that night, I tapped the impossible to spell name of the Montessori school into the search bar on my phone. I thought I’d clocked the tuition before, though I couldn’t remember why–we’re a public school family through-and-through–and I wanted to see if it was as high as I remembered. As I tried to navigate through the maze of promises and COVID pop-ups on the mobile site, I interrogated my actions. Was I counting other people’s money? Or was I counting our own? Finally, I found the tuition page. $20k for a year of lower elementary. About what I remembered. I clicked out of the browser, tossed my phone on my bed, went back to my real life.
The next day I woke up depressed. Depressive episodes aren’t unusual for me, but they still catch me off-guard every damn time. Talking it over in therapy, it wasn’t hard for me to chalk it up to uncertainty about what fall and winter are going to look like for my family. I hurried to reassure my therapist that things weren’t all bad. We’d had a great weekend. And that great playdate at the park, which I described in detail. I’m forever leaning into gratitude as the best DIY antidote for my particular mental twists.
“That must have been jarring for you,” my therapist said when I’d finished recounting our evening at the park, “to go from making all these connections with another person and then to realize that you weren’t in the same situation. How did that make you feel?” ‘
I paused, surprised. She was trying to connect the conversation at the playground to my low mood on Tuesday, when I started feeling so bleak about the future. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I tried to think about it, dig down beneath the gratitude. How did I feel? The answers came quick.
For one thing, I felt tricked. Here I was reserving judgment because I thought the district was doing everything it could to make the best of a bad situation. Here I was keeping an open mind because thought the options presented were the only ones available. Here I was setting aside worries about access and fairness and falling behind because I thought we were all in together. Here I was thinking my community was setting some kind of example simply having the conversation about about detracking math and removing police officers from the schools not realizing the locus of the fight for equity had already shifted to private schools and private tutors and co-ops. Here I was naive to the one maxim carried forward into every new world: money and privilege are power.
This week, all the parents online are weighing the pros and cons and putting out feelers to form their pandemic pods. Next week, the conversation will make its way to the playground and I’ll realize I’m behind in providing for my child again, though not as behind as the mom or dad who works longer hours than me, or the parent whose kid is disabled or neurodiverse, or the parent of black and brown kids facing segregation on a whole new front.
When I finally put it all together, I felt angry. I felt angry that I don’t have the option or ability to make school safer–or even to make sure school remains a possibility–for my child. I felt angry for the students whose options and abilities in this regard are more limited than mine. I felt angry when I realized that any parent who can is going to pull their children and influence from the district and leave the rest of us to to fight for…what, exactly? A few months ago I might have said equity or justice. It would have felt like overkill to say we’re fighting for our lives, but it’s clear now that’s exactly what all the anxiety is about.
When the pandemic hit, R and I were in the midst of the world’s most millennial house hunt. Our search was entirely self-directed, almost wholly online, and annoyingly noncommittal. We were exacting in some of our demands–not a speck of carpet, anywhere!–and whatever about others–“I guess we don’t really need a master bathroom/central AC/garage.” Our demeanor was similarly varied, as, depending on the day, we vacillated from “we kind of want to see this house but no rush and if someone else buys it it wasn’t meant to be” to “why the FUCK has Stephanie from Redfin not responded to the email we sent one hour ago?”
We poured through pictures of nearly every house to hit the market in our town over the last sixteen months and toured nine with an agent, on top of attending maybe another seven or eight open houses. We put a couple of offers. We were quickly outbid on the first house (a gorgeous gut rehab in the city) in a weird situation that could have been a bidding war but wasn’t because the sellers accepted the other offer without even asking us to raise ours. We backed out during the inspection period for the second house (a charming blue farmhouse in the suburbs) in a weird situation involving mysteriously soaking wet walls. There was a third house (a cute little split-level by the railroad tracks) that R loved and I didn’t but we didn’t even get the chance to argue about it because of a weird situation where we asked to see the house a second time and the seller preemptively accused us of wanting to lowball him and yanked it off the market.
Throughout this whole process I’ve been ambivalent about the prospect of actually moving. I’m a big believer in signs and serendipity (ew, I know), and the process of moving into the house we live in now was so stupidly easy it felt like it was meant to be. I might be glossing over a few details, but it basically went something like this: 1) R found a house listed online and went to vet it while I was out of town on a business trip; 2) R took me to see the house and when we pulled into the driveway our then-eighteen-month-old daughter” exclaimed “We’re home!” in her sweet little toddler voice; and 3) six weeks later we were signing papers at the mortgage broker’s office. I get that we were first time homeowners, kids, really, and that it’s bound to be more complicated this time around, what with a house we’ll need to need to sell and an actual kid in elementary school and all the inflexibility in our wants and preferences of people who are well on their way to middle aged.
Even with that understanding, the part of me that makes my decisions based on the “vibe” never got on board with our search. If the sheer amount time and energy we were putting into our search to yield only small handful of houses where we could even imagine ourselves living told me our timing might be off, the bizarre situations that kept us from closing on houses we did like were like alarm bells clanging. I was sick to my stomach for the entire two week were under contract for the blue farmhouse. I’d go to 12-step meetings and stories about people losing their houses would jump out and grab me by the shoulders. There’s this one story in the big book that really freaks me out, about a woman who buys a big house just to prove she’s not an alcoholic and then loses it in sobriety. The part that really gets me is that finds comfort in the fact that the house is replaced by “a townhouse that is just the right size” for her. We read this story in a meeting the day we put the offer in and I was certain it was the sign I’d been looking for, except that instead of telling me to go for it, it was telling me to go home.
I know that all sounds a little woo woo, but the truth is I knew it was foolish to drain our savings on a down payment on a 160+ year old house that couldn’t pass inspection that we couldn’t really afford. I knew we already had all the house we needed in a neighborhood that we love. I knew that, at least for me, the house hunt was a temporary escape from all the things I don’t love about my life–my messy house, loneliness, arguments with my husband. The fantasy of moving into a bigger house in a better neighborhood was a way of pretending to deal with those things without actually, you know, changing anything at all. It was easy to imagine that we’d be naturally neater in a house with more rooms, that we’d invite people over for cookouts when we had a backyard, that I wouldn’t resent my husband for daring to have so many goddamn things in his own house if I had an office that wasn’t in the same room as his exercise bike.
When the deal fell through last fall, I was relieved.
Of course we kept looking, so when the real estate market in our town dried up in the winter I was relieved there wasn’t much to look at.
When showings ground to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic, I was relieved again. More than that, I was grateful. We had a place to live. We had a place we could afford. We had neighbors we knew. And, thank God, our savings account was still intact. And now, with the possibility of moving off the table for the foreseeable future, I had a few months to just be.
Old habits die hard, though. Looking at houses online is still a reliable coping mechanism, and I use it from time to time. Lately, when the prospect of another year or more of living like this–on top of my husband and daughter, unreasonably close to our neighbors, far from friends and family, with no outdoor spaces that aren’t stupidly crowded–starts to wear me down, I start chasing that geographical cure.
I pull up listings in Arizona, fantasizing about bubbling up with my sister and her kids and swimming in my parents’ pool. I scroll over to Michigan, dreaming about camping with friends and a house near a lake. I check out Colorado, and imagine myself running with the elites. I see what’s up in North Carolina and wonder if I could stomach the politics in exchange for a big backyard and a two car garage.
I can’t seem to lose hours online like I used to. It seems that COVID is infecting my fantasies, too. Everything that once bound us to Chicago–school, church, friends, sports, museums, concerts, festivals, restaurants–the things we’re missing so badly now, we’re not going to find them anywhere else. Wherever we go, a disappointing and inequitable remote learning plan surely waits. Wherever we go, the virus rages in bodies sheltered and masked to various degrees. Wherever we go, there we are.
Real estate is a helluva good drug, though. Obsessive Redfin searching almost stopped me from writing this post.
One of the most restorative aspects of our week in the woods was that I took myself completely offline. This was entirely a matter of choice, not necessity. We camped at a major state park with decent cell service, or at least I assume it was decent based on the fact that other folks in our group were texting and streaming music all week, and my husband has probably half a dozen backup portable chargers, including one that is solar powered, so there wasn’t any real reason to conserve battery life. Even so, I turned my phone off the minute we pulled into the site (right after texting my mom “we’re here, we’re safe, love you, byeeeeee”) and left it off all week, only it turning it on once a day or so to snap pictures. I ignored texts. I didn’t check my email. I definitely didn’t look at the news.
On the email front, I didn’t miss much. A dumb Nextdoor post tagged “Crime and Safety” reporting two unmasked shoppers at a random Walgreens in the neighborhood. A bunch of emails about COVID protocols for my kid’s day camp and reminders to turn in outstanding paperwork. A survey from QuitMormon.com about LDS missionaries who got sick from drinking tainted water during their missions. Some political and social justice oriented calls to action. A notice that my dentist is open and I’m way overdue for a cleaning. Informational emails from all the places I’ve been ignoring because they no longer have any relevance to my life: the library, the gym, the running club, the book club, the church, the school. A week’s worth of morning briefings from the New York Times.
One of the first things I did when I came back to town was respond to two surveys sitting in my inbox about the possibility of returning to school and church in the fall. (I ignored the missionary health survey because I never served a mission.)
On the news front, I didn’t bother trying to catch up on what happened while we were away. I’m sure I missed a lot in the details, but the headlines were the same: it’s the end of the world as we know it.
Now that I’ve been back in the world long enough to remember that we’re still living in a deadly pandemic and to appreciate, perhaps for the first time, that it’s getting worse instead of better, I’m realizing that responding to the surveys when I was still high off the forest and family and friends might have been a huge mistake! I may have been a little, um, overly enthusiastic and, ah, unreasonably optimistic in my responses.
Consider the survey from the church, which was geared toward gauging interest in the following proposal for returning to in-person worship in the fall:
A shortened 30 minute worship service for 50 people;
Congregants would register beforehand, sanitize hands before and after worship, wear face masks, and maintain physical distance, including assigned seating;
Family members would sit together and children would stay with their parents;
No singing, communion, coffee, or fellowship hour; and
No sunday School for children or adults.
I skimmed through the limitations and didn’t even pause before checking the box to indicate “YES, I would be interested in attending in-person worship as outlined above.” Was I interested? Of course, I was interested. I was more than interested, I was desperate to get back to church. I thought we would be gathering for outdoor services back in June and here we are in July still meeting virtually. I would have checked the box a thousand times.
Having established my definite interest in attending in-person worship, I moved on to the next, and last, question in the survey: For those interested, are you willing to provide assistance ushering or reading? Again, I didn’t hesitate. Ushering? I’ve never ushered before, but sure, no problem, yes please, let me see my people. Reading? Again, I’ve never read from the pulpit before, but only because the church has never asked me. This, truly, is an oversight on their part; I am an impressive orator. I’d rather speak than read someone else’s words (even, ahem, God’s), but at this point, I’m as desperate to be of service as I am to interact with other people. Please just let me be useful.
A week after hitting submit, a week spent confronting the reality that life is not going back to normal in the fall (a reality that I am fully aware that people who are capable of taking life more than 24 hours at a time have probably already accepted), I’m feeling decidedly less charitable. If I had to check a box now, it would be the one that says, Oh shit, what did I do and can I take it back? If I could write my own survey and send it back to the church, it would look like this.
Parishioner’s Return to In-Person Worship Questionnaire:
Will ushers be permitted to maintain six feet of distance, hold their breath, and cross their fingers while welcoming people to church?
Will the people being ushed understand that I do not want to be anywhere near them?
Will readers be permitted to wear a mask at the pulpit?
Is there a mask that covers my mouth and nose and also hides the terror in my eyes?
If I volunteer, who will sit with my daughter–i.e., make sure she doesn’t wander out of our designated pew/holding pen and threaten the lives of the other brave and/or desperate churchgoers?
Are we worried about spreading the virus via the biblical floods of tears I am almost certainly going to cry from trying to pretend that this facade is anything close to what I want it to be?
Is church without singing, communion, fellowship, and coffee really church?
Is it worth taking my daughter if she hates it?
Do I have to go?
Do I want to go?
Does it even matter?
The survey from the school district was longer and more complicated and my responses were more nuanced. Suffice it to say that I indicated a strong preference for returning to in-person school five days a week for many reasons, including that my kid is the kind of kid who will likely struggle with a schedule that involves a mix of days in school and days out of school, and that I have serious concerns about the mental health implications of another year of entirely remote learning. Obviously, as a concerned citizen who tries to pull my head out of my own ass the sand at least occasionally, I’m second guessing the wisdom of that option now. Even if the risks to children seem low, I get that we can’t gamble with their lives, plus I don’t want staff to die! I don’t even want them to get sick! I only thought I had COVID for a couple of days, and it was terrible!
If I could redo the survey and send it back to the district it would look like this:
My daughter has always been a kid that preferred the company of adults, or at least the company of me, to that of other kids. Typical oldest daughter, maybe. Maybe a typical only child. Of course, nothing about our own children ever feels typical. Most days, our bond feels special. I love how clearly she prefers me when it looks the way I want love to feel: sweet and easy. I’m talking mama-daughter dates at the museum, sushi dinners, and endless walks around the neighborhood. I worry and chafe when her attachment demands what love actually requires, which is to say, patience and sacrifice. When the neighborhood kids graduated from their parents’ arms to side-by-side play to careening around outside in a big, bonded pack, I longed to send her off with them so I could talk freely with the other moms. All through preschool, my girl stayed glued to my side, whined when I paid more attention to other adults than her, and cried when other kids came too close, touched her toys, or asked me a question.
When she started kindergarten, her world exploded. I was still her sun, but now she was crossing paths with dozens of other little planets. The planets were other kids, and she resisted their pull. She puzzled over their varied atmospheres, their rings, their moons, always too many or too few, their very existence. By the time she realized she might actually like the other planets, they were all spinning in time and she didn’t know how to sync up. We spent a lot of time at parks, her surreptitiously watching other kids play, me gently encouraging her to join, and both of us pretending we didn’t care when it didn’t happen.
Last summer, in the grassy common area between our houses, one of my more brutally honest friends put me on the spot: “Why doesn’t D play with the other kids?” Inside, I jerked at the pain of being found out. Outside, I answered honestly, nonchalantly: “She has a hard time working up the courage to join them. She is waiting for them to invite her in.” My friend dropped her chin and looked at me in disbelief, like I was asking for the moon. “But…kids don’t do that. They just…play.” “I know,” I shrugged. “She’ll figure it out.”
In the fall, my daughter started first grade in a new classroom, at a new school, and her world blew open again, and this time the pieces landed just right. After just a few weeks of trepidation about being the new kid, she settled into her new orbit, and she thrived. She ran around with a pack of kids on the playground, led a friendly war against the boys in her classroom, and came home everyday bubbling over with stories about her day. When she told me her favorite subject at school was recess I about died with pride and relief at the normalcy of it all. Kids without friends never like recess.
By the time winter rolled around, she was planning her own playdates and I breathed another sigh of relief. My only child would not be lonely. The playdates did not go perfectly smoothly. She would have a terrific time for two, three, even four hour stretches, but when it was time to go home, she would break down, devastated that the fun had to end. It was like preschool social interactions in reverse: she cried when I came too close, touched her arm, or asked a question. If I tried to grab her hand, or nudge her toward the door, she’d go alternately boneless or stiff as a board. Eventually we’d make it out the front door, but she’d be inconsolable the whole way home.
After a few of these scenes, I figured out what was going on. Having friends was still so new to her, she didn’t know if she could count on it to last. On our way home from a classmates’ house one evening, I tried to reassure her: “Honey, this is just the beginning. You’re going to get to play with M again.” She wasn’t so sure. She sniffed and tearfully asked, “Do you promise?” I take promises seriously, so I took my time before responding. When I felt sure, I said, “Of course. You’re going to have lots of playdates with lots of friends. I cannot think of any reason in the world you wouldn’t play with M again. We’ll invite her over next week. I promise.”
That was Monday, March 9. By Thursday, school was cancelled through April 12. On March 31, the district announced that schools were closed through April 30. On April 17, we got notice that schools are closed through the end of the year.
We hung D’s class picture on the wall next to the kitchen table where she does her schoolwork now. The first week of quarantine, I’d catch her staring at it throughout the day. Sometimes she’d climb up on her knees in the middle of a meal and start reading her classmates names out loud. Sometimes she’d touch their faces. Six weeks in, she’s hardened. She’s still willing to admit that she misses school and church and choir and swim, but when I ask her who she misses, she says “No one.”