I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. My presence at home distracts my daughter from e-learning and throws them off their routine. When I come up for coffee or walnuts or cheesy puffs she looks up from whatever screen is working best today and says, “Hey guess what?” and then we chat over her teacher and he has to redirect her when I leave. When I join them for lunch, he says she’s like a whole different kid. When he’s being whatever, she looks to me as if to say, “see what I’m dealing with all day?” and I give her a look that says, “tell me about it.” I get to be the fun mom and he is serious business dad. I don’t think he likes that.
The downstairs room where I work and he works out is a mess of cords. I have work laptop and another work laptop and the tablet where I do my writing and last week I brought out the space heater. I keep talking about how I want to tell my firm to stop paying rent downtown and bring all my office furniture home. We could put the futon in storage, or just throw it away (it’s not like anyone’s coming to stay) and move is $$$ stationary bike into the garage. He really doesn’t like that.
I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. But I used to eat cans of soup for lunch and now I eat roasted vegetables and pasta. I used to scour discount shoe retailers for boots sturdy enough to stand up to several miles of sloshing through the snow, professional enough to stand up in court, and sleek enough to withstand the withering stares of ladies who lunch and now I wear slouchy socks all day. I used to get sexually harassed when I changed into leggings to go for a run and now I know the freedom of almost nobody looking at me at all.
I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. But, look, I tried to go back in June and the man on the other side of the wall was coughing into a phone while hawking his gluten free bread products and the other man with whom I was once locked in a silent battle over the thermostat in my office was sweating buckets at his desk and the receptionist was walking around with her mask dangling from one ear and every month or so I get an email that there’s been a positive test in the building.
My husband definitely wants me to go back to the office. But, like, would you go back before there’s a vaccine? Would you ever go back at all?
My neighborhood has loved spooky season as long as I’ve been here. There’s this house on the corner with a raggedy ghoul that they usually fix in a tree in their front yard such a way that it seems to be looming over the whole block and our first few Halloweens here I had to walk with my daughter on the other side of the street and distract her from the actual scariest image she’d ever seen. The ghoul is gone this year, though those neighbors still have an eight-foot spider inflatable on the porch, so I’m wondering if maybe they retired the ghoul for being just a little much for a neighborhood that’s crawling with small children. I hope that’s not the case, in part because in recent years my daughter has developed a weird affection for ghouls and now she misses it, and also because the rest of the neighborhood is so terrifying that one less creature of the night hasn’t made a whit of difference. The neighborhood–like much of America, I suspect–is hitting Halloween extra hard this year. COVID can take away fall festivals and trick-or-treat and parties, but it can’t kill the deep-seated human tradition of conjuring up spooks and spirits as a way of coping with the real-life horrors tapping on our doors, pulling up a chair inside our homes, rooting down inside our hearts.
My daughter loves Halloween as much as anyone and picked out our first legitimately creepy decoration this year: a strand of grimy looking skeletons from the Dollar Store that she asked me to put up above the dining table so she can see it when she is “at school.” Though her burgeoning love of skeletons, ghouls, and ghosts makes walks around the neighborhood easier this year, she still hates severed limbs and blood, a not unreasonable position for a seven-year-old, and closes her eyes when we walk past the butcher’s tree and the house with the foot hanging from the doorknob. She also has a severe fear of werewolves–irrational only because she loves big, vicious-looking dogs–but it’s bad enough that she straight up refuses to go down a street that I’m dying to show her with a ten foot skeleton and a motion-activated werewolf with huge feet and a ripped up red plaid shirt. She’s gets what we’re trying to do with Halloween this year, though, how we’re making the monsters beautiful before they eat us in our sleep. This week, when she popped her eyes open after the bloody tree and found herself staring right at Ghostface, she took it in stride. Her voice went up an octave and she squealed, to the delight of the woman sitting on Ghostface’s porch, “Ohhhhh look at that cute little ghoul! I LOVVVVVE HIM. He has PUPPY dog eyes!” So, no, we’re not in denial at all over here, folks.
Four fat tan doves sitting in a tree. Four gnarly coyotes prowling down the street. Husky robins churning up the dirt right in front of our door. A muted cardinal practically ringing the bell. October rabbits running underfoot. Daytime raccoons trashing it up. Dozens of unleashed dogs and not one wagging finger. This is the rewilding.
I wore lingerie for date night for the first time in I don’t know and as I rifled through the drawer I dangled a bra between two fingers like, “What is this? What is it good for? How long am I going to let it stick around?” I was loathe to peel off the layers now that it’s getting cold, sweatshirt, t-shirt, leggings, all thick cotton, armor against the elements and acceptance of the life I now live. After kid bedtime and before adult dinner I considered a swipe of lipstick, some drama around my eyes, but then I’d have to wash my face against and I already did that in the morning. This is the rewilding.
My daughter is playing with the neighbor girls and their dad is watching over. I’m just back from a run with dinner to make and my kid is the only one without a mask. I make the right noises, put a mask in her hands, and disappear in side my house without so much as a wave at anyone outside my family. Other neighbors stop to talk about the weather. It was so nice until it wasn’t. Their dog, one of the difficult ones, reactive toward animals and children, lunges on his leash and I bolt like an October rabbit. This is the rewilding.
My mom asks if I’m coming to Arizona. No. A lady from church isn’t so sure about Black Lives Matter. No. A lady I don’t know tells me to call her after this meeting is over. No. Another lady offers to be my sponsor. No. A woman I know well offers to take me to a good meeting. No. A friend invites me to come back to Sunday School. No. Another mom asks I have the link to children’s chapel. No. The pastor asks me to join a small group. No. The school asks me to join the PTA. No. The PTA asks me to chalk the walk. No. The district asks me if I feel well-informed. No. My doctor asks me to start a course of physical therapy. No. A friend asks if I’m coming back to running club. No. Three people text in an hour to ask me to phone bank for Biden. No.
I’m still mostly civil. I got my flu shot. I smile behind my mask, force my mouth and cheeks up so it shows in my eyes. I try where it matters–at home, at work–but even there I’m saying yes less and less. My daughter asks if we can go to family swim at the Y. No. My daughter asks if we are going apple picking. No. My daughter asks me to get out of bed before my alarm to look for a missing toy. No. My husband asks me to put nuts in the brownies. No. Are you okay? No.
Last week I drew the strength card reversed. The lion was on top and the woman, brawny and beautiful, hung upside down, hands reaching up. The card said, Maybe you can do this alone, tap that well til it runs dry, but nobody ever said you had to. I put my hand up because, um, excuse me, yeah they did.
I didn’t ask to isolate and I don’t like it, which is only hard to believe because it comes so easily to me. The world asked this of me. In my scrupulosity I said yes and because I said yes I started saying no. This is not the rewilding. This is the disappearing of the lonely from public life, from any semblance of a life at all.
For the first few years of my daughter’s life my mind and my newsfeed were consumed by stories of women leaving the workforce. That wasn’t an option for me but I was obsessed with the idea that my life would be better if I’d at least had the choice, as well as with the idea that everybody was doing it better than me whether they hired a nanny or quit their jobs to stay home or never went into the workforce in the first place, and I sought out story after story to test my highly self-centered and ultimately fear-based theories. When my daughter went off to school and I started peeking over the other side of early childhood parenting, I want to shake all the women having and raising babies with with men by the shoulders and implore them:
If any part of you wants to work, find a way to make it happen. It doesn’t matter if childcare eats up your whole salary* a significant chunk of your combined household income. If you can afford it and you want to work even a little bit make it happen. Early childhood is over fast unless you’re having a million babies and before you know it all your kids will be out of the house for 6+ hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about what to do with this next phase of your life you’ll be solidly into your career and thanking all the ladies who who showed you that life can be so good.
*Don’t measure the cost of childcare as coming entirely out of your salary. Your partner is paying for and benefits from childcare too.
It may have been un-nuanced, unsolicited, and unwanted, but that was my advice from Before Times and I thought it was pretty damn good. Now, another wave is here and it’s even bigger than the one that washed over my life when it felt like everyone in my orbit was having babies. 800,000 women dropped out of the workforce. One in four are considering leaving or at least scaling back. I don’t have that option but I understand why women would take it if they did. A mom of a kid in my daughter’s school works full time out of the house and does e-learning late into the night with her second-grader. A partner at a law firm is on the verge of quitting her job. A colleague is working double time to pay her kid’s tuition at his dream school that could close any week. My sister launched her second book and wrote and pitched a third with her three kids running wild at home and an essential worker husband working longer hours than ever. More friends than I can count have had to trust that their kids will be safe at daycare or bring caretakers into their already overcrowded homes, and are paying a premium to do it. Even more are running themselves ragged running e-learning themselves at home while also working full-time. Quitting, if it’s an option, must feel like the only one. Of course, the stay-at-home moms don’t have it any easier. My sister–in-law wrangled five kids entirely on her own while her medical resident husband finished out a three month rotation in another city. A friend who was supposed to go back to teaching this year is homeschooling her two kids instead. An acquaintance who was supposed to go back to school herself and figure out what kind of career she wanted when her youngest went back to kindergarten this year is instead watching herself disappear.
I don’t have a speech for these women who are raising children with men. I don’t have any idea what they should do. It’s not fair that the burden of all the extra childcare and attendant emotional labor is falling on women but I understand why they are the ones picking it up. I understand how it is easier to let even the most carefully constructed egalitarian marriage fall to pieces than to try to keep that wobbly tower upright in harrowing times.
Last week, when I was complaining yet again about how impossible it feels to raise a happy, healthy kid at this moment in time, my therapist gently suggested that some women might be envious of my situation. She’s not wrong. I don’t know a whole lot of women whose lives haven’t been made immeasurably harder by the pandemic, but when it comes to work/life balance–that ever elusive, always illusory, annoying buzzword–my life got easier.
In March I realized my long-held dream of eliminating my commute and working from home. I sleep in an hour later every morning and eat a full breakfast with my family. When my husband stands up to clear the table for school and my daughter starts fussing about brushing her teeth, that’s my cue to head off to “work”–i.e., a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. By the time I make it back and set up my computer in the office downstairs, I can hear my daughter in her first video call of the day. I work for a few hours, come up for a quick lunch with my family, and disappear back downstairs for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes sounds of my daughter’s cries or my husband’s mounting frustration drift down the stairs. My heart breaks and I put on a pair of headphones. I try to finish work early so I can exercise and then call my mom as soon as she finishes up her shift at a school where the kids been back for months. I come upstairs at the end of the day to dinner on the table.
The evening shift with our daughter is mine. It’s not always easy but it’s usually fun. We dance wildly to Parry Gripp and read Harry Potter and throw balls inside the house and play card games and go for walks and draw with sidewalk chalk. I used to try to look at her school work in the evenings but now I don’t bother because allowing her to maintain some sense of separation between school and home seems more important than proving I’m as involved as moms who don’t work. I used to shuttle her to and from activities in the evenings but now they’re mostly cancelled and I refuse to put her in front of a screen more than she needs to be. We eat dessert every night. We unload the dishwasher and put away a few toys and then it’s off to bed. After a bath and jammies and a few chapters and a few songs, she’s down and the night is mine again. My husband cleans the kitchen. He charges the devices for school the next day. I burn incense and read and meditate and play music and then sit on the couch to watch TV with a bag of candy corn on my lap. I go to sleep before he does.
The weekends are all different, but the balance is there. This weekend, I put in the emotional labor to plan a playdate for our daughter, but my husband cleaned the house on the off chance anybody might need to come inside to use the bathroom. I supervised the kids playing outside but my husband brought out the snacks. We both played for hours with our daughter and did chores and took a few hours for ourselves both days of the weekend. Our dryer that has been on the fritz for months finally gave up the ghost and instead of freaking out I let my husband order and arrange install of a new one while celebrated a week off of laundry duty.
I don’t have any advice for women trying to sustain an egalitarian heterosexual marriage with kids in a pandemic. What I do have is advice for constructing a marriage that will rise to the occasion when crisis hits:
Get yourself a stay-at-home husband. Switch the traditional roles so completely and shift them so far out that the seesaw hits the ground on the other side and you’re sitting up high legs swinging in the air. Make your income indispensable. You will feel the weight of responsibility but there will be no question your job comes first. Understand that everything that needs to happen in the home is also a job, and it’s not yours. Let your husband make the appointments and the beds or let them go unmade. You will feel the pain when it’s not done right but there will be no question whose job it is. Undoing all the cultural programming and fighting your way into social structures that weren’t built for families like yours will hurt like hell but one day life as you know it will fall apart and your kids will be home for 24 hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about how to keep all the balls in the air you’ll go off to work and leave your husband to deal with this fresh new hell and you’ll thank me for telling you that life can be so good.
It feels unfair, how much harder my husband’s life got this year while mine got easier. It is unfair. But it’s not like it was fair before, when the bar I was working so hard to clear was set to Perfect Mom instead of Pretty Good Dad. It’s not like the scales are perfectly balanced today. I probably still do too much, way more than my dad ever did, more than my husband would do if our roles were reversed. Luckily for our marriage, I’m not aiming for fairness; I’m playing the long game of self-actualization. The pandemic might have set me back, put me into survival mode. It might have destroyed my marriage. The only reason it didn’t is because we had someone at home to track down toilet paper and masks and wait in line at Trader Joe’s and take over our daughter’s early elementary education and that someone was someone other than me.
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.
This post is the fourth in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first, second, and third posts here, here, and here.
May 10: Today is Mother’s Day. After breakfast in bed, my husband asks me if I want to watch church. He had the whole day planned, including alternate variations to take into account me watching church or not. “Do whatever ever you want,” he says, and I can tell he means it. It wasn’t always this easy for us. He used to assume that special occasions were an automatic guaranteed day off from church. He was the opposite of other lapsed Catholics. He’d go to church with me any old Sunday, but Christmas was better spent at home and Easter and and Mother’s Day were for brunch brunch. He couldn’t imagine that I might want to mark significant days in the year in community, with a bit of ritual. I couldn’t fathom why he thought it was okay to make grand plans about how we’d spend our Sundays without at least giving me, his wife and the religious one, besides, a say in the matter. Things changed when our daughter developed her own relationship with the church. She expected and wanted to go every Sunday and didn’t understand days off just because. I signed her up for the Christmas Pageant and the Children’s Choir with performances all throughout the Easter season and on Mother’s Day too. I became a regular church lady and my husband joined us for every special occasion. Obviously our daughter would not be signing with the Children’s Choir this year. All the practices and performances after Ash Wednesday were scrapped when church went virtual. THe Mother’s Day service, like every other service since March 15 would be streamed live to my Chromebook. The choir would sing through my tethered bluetooth speaker. I’d be stranded in pajamas on a chair floating in the sea of LEGO that had overtaken our living room floor the last two months. (Neither my husband nor I had the heart or nerve to clean it up, take away the one thing stopping our daughter from going mad with boredom.) This is not the Mother’s Day service I want, but my husband asks if I wanted to watch because he knows that virtual church has been my lifeline. He knows I liked watching the number of viewers tick up in the left corner of the screen, seeing names pop up in the chat box from all over the country, and listening to the pastor weave the Jesus story around COVID, around racism, around all the death and destruction in our times. I think maybe he likes it, too. Religion is doing the only thing it can do in a supposedly enlightened society–giving me connection and meaning. I don’t remember the sermon that day, or the songs the choir sang, or the postcards from home. Whatever the pastor said pales against the beautiful day my family gave me. Not going doesn’t feel like a choice, though. Church is still my bulwark against isolation and despair.
May 17: Today started badly. Nobody wanted to go outside in the rain so I skip my morning walk but arguing about it is enough to make us late for children’s chapel on Zoom. My daughter doesn’t want to do it but I make her anyway, drag the little green chair–overstuffed with the white dots and her name embroidered on the back, a gift from her Texas grandparents when she turned one that she still uses today–over to the tablet, and go to sign her in. “Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon.” This is typical and it makes sense to use a waiting room for meetings with kids, but the message irks me. We’re already late. How long is the host going to let us languish in the waiting room while my daughter misses out on questionable but, to my mind, critical approximations of human interaction? Ten of the meeting’s scheduled twenty minutes, apparently. I send a nice enough note to the teacher–“Hi ___, can you let us into the meeting please?” but I am livid. “I can’t believe this. Leaving kids out a church meeting. Do they know how that feels?” I have a history of turning on religion, of throwing churches under the bus when they fail to live up to the impossibly high ideals they set for themselves (and I, like an idiot, believe), but I haven’t breathed a bad word against my new church, not to myself, not on this blog, and definitely not in front of my daughter. Until now. Now I am spitting venom. “This is absolutely the most careless, thoughtless, heartless way to treat people. If they can’t let everybody into the meeting, they shouldn’t have it.” My daughter cuts me off. “They’re probably just having technical difficulties, mama.” Oh, shit. I guess I have some work to do if I don’t want to pass my religious baggage on to my daughter. A few minutes later, my daughter’s face pops up on the screen, one square alongside a dozen or so others containing confused kids and parents. The teacher is frazzled. “I’m so sorry. There was a global Zoom outage. We’ve been trying to let people in for fifteen minutes.” She reads a quick story and then sends everybody off so we can show up on time for the main service. Worship that day is led by the Northern Illinois Conference Bishop and Cabinet. I don’t begrudge our local pastors a break, but seeing all those strangers in strange buildings singing the hymns, saying the Lord’s prayer, and the preaching the word leaves me cold. Before service ends, the children’s ministry has sent an email apologizing profusely for the issues with Zoom. The church sends another email later that day. Of course, the damage is done, most of it by me.
May 24: I’m watching church alone today. I don’t know where my family is. I open my tablet and click the link to in my email to watch the service on YouTube. I see from the timestamp on the video that virtual services were pre-recorded and uploaded seven hours ago and I feel a ripple of resentment and revulsion. I want to slam the laptop shut. It was a battle to get here on time in the first place after a vicious argument in the thirty minutes before children’s chapel. My daughter has stopped changing out of her pajamas in the morning. Today she is wearing one of my old band t-shirts and flashed her underwear to the Sunday School class standing up to answer a question. I didn’t much care and neither did she but I’m not about to force her to watch the main service with me today. I don’t light the candle. I don’t make a coffee or crack a can of LaCroix. I don’t follow along with the worship bulletin. I don’t sing. I don’t close my eyes for prayer. I put my feet up, cross my arms across my chest, and stare up at the ceiling. I look back down and notice my tablet sitting on top of the Sunday Times. I pull out the arts section. Art saved me once before you know, when I was numb to everything else. On January 31, 2016, Day 2 without booze after my last and worst drunk, I took my daughter to the Art Institute. I lingered over Stamford after Brunch before I ever went to my first AA meeting, before I found a church.
May 25: Police in Minneapolis murder George Floyd in cold blood.
May 31: The email from the children’s chapel teacher asks all the kids to wear red for pentecost, which sounds ominous to me. I still don’t really know what pentecost is. This is around the time of year my mind wanders off outside the chapel. I think my daughter said no when I asked if she wanted to watch chapel or maybe I didn’t even offer. I still want to stream the sermon, but can’t get the link to work. I play around with it for a few minutes and give up. It doesn’t matter. We need to make signs for the march.
June 7: I go to church. It’s fine. It’s Trinity Sunday. Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity and I’m still not sure how to think about the more mystical aspects of mainline Christianity. A line from a hymn catches my ear. “Holy, holy, holy…Only Thou are holy.” Oh! I don’t need to be holy? What a relief. It’s hard to sit still today. I want to busy myself with cleaning but I make myself sit. My legs jiggle against my chair. My hands fidget for the paper, my pen. I wonder why I want to be a Christian if I don’t believe it, if I don’t need Christianity to be good. I guess I want a mind full of stories, a life full of people. I’m not getting that from the screen.
June 14: I don’t know what we do today, but I know we don’t go to church. I won’t stream another service for the rest of the summer.
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?
If you’ve been reading here for awhile, you know about my daughter’s nightmares (all about dead animals, recurring since March), but you don’t know about mine. I’ve been a terrible sleeper since childhood, when I started hearing footie pajamas with nobody inside them shuffling around in the basement at night and facing my own recurring dreams about oversized disembodied faces looming out of the walls and hands scuttling across the floor. In high school, the demons crawled under and over and through my bedroom door and started visiting. There was the sensed presence, the shadowy figure that stood at my bedroom door or sometimes the foot of my bed or sometimes right next to my bed, staring down at me. There was the girl with all the hair from The Ring lying in my sister’s bed. There was the sinewy humanoid crouched on my chest pressing down so I couldn’t breathe. There were the actual demons getting up in my face, breathing, leering, readying themselves to steal my soul. The creatures visited at all hours of the night whenever I was in the liminal state halfway between wake and sleep and when they came I couldn’t move or scream, though I tried to. Sometimes I hallucinated myself flipping and spinning bodily getting all tangled up in the blankets in my bed of an accord another than my own, like the little girl from The Excorcist, but I was mostly immobile save for my fingers twitching on top of the sheet. Sometimes I imagined that I was groaning loudly enough to stir my sister or summon my parents but in reality I was silent save for heavy breathing that didn’t disturb anyone but me. These nightmares, night terrors, whatever they were, scared the living shit out of me, but I never breathed a word of them to anyone. I guess the nightly battle for my soul seemed like something I should keep private? I couldn’t fathom what help anybody could give me. I already knew how to banish the demons. I never remembered the trick until the terror just about overtook me, but eventually a bit of religious folklore I’d picked up being raised in the church would come to me and I’d start praying the demons away like my life depended on it, casting them out in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It always worked. Not right away,but eventually.
Ironically, the incubus crawled in and landed on top of me around the same time Incubus was dominating the radio airwaves with Make Yourself, without me having any idea it had a name, a history, or scientific explanation, and the waking nightmares, night terrors, whatever they were stayed with me for years, even after I got on the internet and figured out that what I was experiencing was sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that is well-documented, well-understood, and common. Well, how about that. I wasn’t uniquely haunted. I hadn’t broken my brain with teenage substance abuse.
I mostly sorted my sleep problems out when I learned about sleep hygiene from a therapist some five years ago. When I collapsed on her couch I was a hot, tangled mess of anxiety and depression and compulsion and fear, and the only homework she gave me out of that first session was to fix my sleep, which made me figure it was pretty important, so I did. I’m still a light sleeper and vivid dreamer but the nightmares are mostly gone and I haven’t had a bout of sleep paralysis in years.
Until this week. You know that was coming, right? You know this pandemic is clawing back all our hard-won mental health victories. You know the novel coronavirus isn’t the only part of this pandemic that’s deadly.
This past weekend was great, really great, it felt almost like a regular summer weekend. We went mini-golfing on Saturday morning and it felt safe enough being outdoors, with timed entries, masks on until we got on the course, one group to a hole. Afterward, we drove out to Dairy Queen for Blizzards to celebrate our seven-year-old’s hole-in-one, a pandemic miracle for a kid who swings her club like a granny with a bowling ball, and that felt safe enough, too with the restaurant rejiggered for people to order and pickup at the side doors with masks on and six feet of distance between customers in line. We are our ice cream in the car. Saturday evening we hosted an old friend driving through Chicago on our porch and stayed up late into to night chatting a little about the last decade and a lot about the last six months. Sunday morning, I had promised my daughter a beach day, and I worked hard to make it a responsible outing, waking up stupid early and throwing breakfast in a ziploc baggie for the car so that we could be at the beach by 7:30 and out in under two hours. We kept our masks on until we found a good spot for our towels far away from the other early risers and I was vigilant about maintaining a buffer between us and everyone on the sand, in the water, all the time. Sunday afternoon I saw that our town’s summer art fair was still on for that weekend–another pandemic miracle–so I signed up for a late afternoon entry and spent a glorious masked hour talking to artisans and looking at art (including dropping serious money here and picking up a print from here). Sunday night we grilled. The rain was coming down hard so we ate inside just our family but first we dropped a plate of food off at the neighbors’ since they’ve been sharing all manner of cheesy, chivey breads and braised pork with us since May. God, it was such a good weekend. Before bed, my husband and I sat on the couch drinking tea and half-watching our current go-to series for comfort TV and one of us mentioned how much this winter is going to suck when we are all stuck inside the house again and our favorite festivities are cancelled and my seasonal affective disorder kicks into high gear.
Drifting off to sleep on Sunday night should have been easy, I was so worn out. Instead my brain lit up with rapid-fire images of death and fear, scenes from every horror movie I’ve ever seen and every violent news article I’ve ever read plus some grisly originals courtesy of my own overactive imagination. Lots of Pennywise, lots of children suffering, spliced with shots of evil men and psychologically tattered mother figures. I’ve learned a lot about how to get along with my mind in the last half decade so I practiced not resisting the thoughts but letting them float in and out like clouds against a blue sky. I reassured the scared child inside me that it’s okay to be scared, and perfectly understandable, because we live in scary times. The pictures peeled away and I fell asleep.
I woke up screaming silently at 2 am. The dream had been disturbing. I was trying to make tea in the kitchen but kept fumbling, dropped the bag, spilling the water, knocking over the mug. Every time I righted the mug and looked away it was upside down again when I looked back. I turned to call out to my husband in the next room to laugh with me and reassure me that I was clumsy not crazy, but he was staring in horror at something off to the side behind a wall I could not see. I knew without knowing that it was an intruder, that someone had let himself into our house and come up stairs without either of us hearing, and I knew from the way my husband wasn’t saying anything that we were in trouble. When I joined him in the living room I saw that I was right. The creature was huge, hulking, a man without a face, just stubble sprouting out of the vast pink expanse on the front of his head. He turned his mass toward me and, unable to cope with the menace, my brain startled awake. Unfortunately, my body didn’t, and I found myself pinned to the bed with the old hallucinations, clawing the sheets with stiff fingers and moaning my husband’s name through closed lips. After a miserable eternity he came to and pulled my physical form to safety.
The dream logic is obvious. The faceless intruder is COVID, impersonal, invasive, impervious to locked doors. The return of the sleep paralysis is my powerlessness in the face of the pandemic. The reel of death as I drifted off to sleep is because the tradeoff for a fun summer weekend is a whole lot of risk. Nightmares are the new hangovers, inflicting maximum shame and regret for too much fun the day before. Even if we were careful, even if each activity felt safe, even if we followed all the protocols, we did too much. Last year, cramming too much into a weekend meant we’d end up exhausted and grumpy. Now, someone might die.
I don’t know how to strike the right balance between preserving my own mental health and somebody else’s physical safety. I don’t know if it’s unforgivably selfish to even consider the former in the same breath as the latter. What’s the line between catastrophizing and respecting the severity of the global health crisis? What’s the line between anxiety-induced hypervigilance and obsessive over-responsibility and being a good citizen? How do I responsibly care for myself and my family and you? If mental health starts with a good night’s sleep, what do we do when the nightmare of daily living infiltrates our dreams?
Running doesn’t feel the way it used to. I used to run a lot, five to six days a week, forty miles or more, plus strengthening and conditioning and cross training and prehab and rehab, all to support the running. Non-runners in my life probably thought I was sort of a freak how early I went out and how reliably, rain or snow or shine, how far I’d go on a weekend run, half marathons just for fun, how hard I worked to hit my paces on the track, 800 repeats for no reason, how far I drove to run up and down hills until I was just about to puke, again, all just because. There was usually no race on the horizon, and even if there was, I was never in line to take home any prize other than my own satisfaction. Here’s the thing non-runners didn’t get about the running, or about how it was for me. Running was easy. Running was fun. I don’t even really like to work out.
I’ve been a runner for twenty-three years. Almost a quarter century! In seventh grade it killed me that I had to wait until spring for track and field to start because I knew I was an athlete even after getting cut from volleyball in the fall and basketball in the winter. I knew I could run. I knew it from how I finished the mile ahead of every kid in my classes in lower elementary, from how I was the only girl who didn’t walk. I knew it from how laps in P.E. never felt like a drag, never made me tired, from how suicides never felt like their name. It turned out I was right, too. I killed it in track and eventually cross country, earned a duffel bag full of medals and ribbons that I never hung on the wall, qualified for regionals and states, set a few school records, earned a spot on the varsity team my sophomore year.
I quit sports halfway through my junior year when I started drinking cough syrup and stealing pain pills but I never stopped running. I kept running even when I was suicidally depressed freshman year of college and listening to Elliott Smith in a bouncing discman. I kept running even when I was hacking up a lung from smoking a pack a day of unfiltered cigarettes. I kept running even when I was lying to campus health about a fake back injury to score more pills. I couldn’t run fast or far or with any frequency in those years but hitting the road was something I could do when I felt like the biggest most absolute piece of shit because running–unlike addiction and crippling depression and losing my religion–was easy.
Of course, running got a lot easier when I quit smoking and drinking and getting high. I ran my way through all nine months of pregnancy, well past the point when people stared at me with open alarm on the gym treadmill, when people commented that I must be due “any day now,” when people asked if I was carrying twins (nope, just one 9.5 lb baby). I ran my way through postpartum, past the stage when people kept asking if I was pregnant (nope, just a new mom), past the stage when I kept checking to see if my baby was still breathing in the night, past the stage when the depression and constant, soul-clenching anxiety could be attributed to hormones. I couldn’t run all that fast or far in those years either but hitting the road was something I could do when I felt scared or sad or trapped because running–unlike parenting and managing multiple mood disorders–was easy.
I ran my way through the good stuff too. I ran my way into to better apartments, better jobs, a healthier lifestyle. I ran my way through all the days of my marriage and my daughter’s childhood and all the golden moments that make up a life. The road wasn’t always easy–over the years, I’ve suffered my share of shin splints and stress fractures and tendonitis and bursitis and road rash and rolled ankles and run of the mill colds and flus and other illnesses–but the running was. Whenever I was laid up, I felt like that seventh grader chomping at the bit for the weather to turn so I could get on the track and prove myself. Life was hard; running was the easy part.
This summer, running doesn’t feel the way it used to. I got burned out from all the running and going nowhere back in the the early days of the pandemic and realized I needed to rest, so I did. Then, in June, I got sick and running hasn’t been the same since. It’s harder now. It’s hard to get myself out the door. It’s hard to breathe. It’s hard to get my legs to turn over. It’s hard to run far. I used to have to make myself stop as planned. I was always wanting to tack on an extra mile or two. Now I’m looking at my watch for the last half mile of every run asking, can I stop now? It’s hard to run, period. The first mile is hard and so is every mile after that. I’m having stomach issues for the first time in my life. I’m exhausted. I can’t get in any kind of zone.
The running isn’t the hardest part, though. The hardest thing is not knowing what changed.
Am I burned out from twenty-three years of the same sport?
Is the stress of living in a pandemic finally catching up?
Is the endless anxiety loop wearing me down?
Is the prospect that the next twelve months the will look and feel as bad as the last six starting to take a physical toll?
Is it too damn hot and humid outside?
Am I adjusting to the shift of running in the afternoon instead of first thing in the morning?
Am I still getting over whatever illness I had back in June?
Do I have permanent lung and potentially other damage from undiagnosed COVID?
Am I just getting old?
All this not knowing has me pretty sure I know why we humans like our gods to be omniscient. All my powerlessness over how I’ll feel tomorrow, what will happen with school in the fall, when I’ll see my family again has me pretty sure I know why we made them omnipotent too (though as a woman raised under patriarchy, I always had an easier time with all-knowing than all powerful; just give me the answers please and I’ll be fine, a girl like me wouldn’t know what to do with the power to fix things anyway).
You might think the hardest part of this shift would be losing something that reliably brought me purpose and joy for over two decades. I’m doing alright, though. I’m still running, for exercise if not for pleasure, and hoping this will pass. I don’t run as fast or as far as I used to, but I don’t miss it. Now that it’s not easy, I don’t really want to run at all.
In the time I used to give to running, I’m finding new ways to start the day, and new ways to play. I bought a standup paddleboard, for one thing, and I’m living for the challenge of just trying to stay upright, speed and even forward motion be damned. Running got me through a lot of things, but it’s not going to get me through this.