Quarantine Diary Day 98: On The Porch

Work is picking up again, leaving me with less time to let my mind wander during the day and less energy to write at night. Parenting remains all-consuming, in a way I didn’t expect. As the physical requirements decrease, the emotional demands run high. Like, we sleep through five nights out of seven, but I have to be emotionally available all day. Like, my kid will eat almost anything I put on the table but bursts into tears if I look at her sideways because “are you frustrated mama?” Like, she talks all the time. On Friday night after a long day at work and at home I put the kid to bed a bit early so I could do some writing. It was still hot outside with another hour of light so I set myself up on the front porch, which is where I’ve been spending the bulk of my time weekends when the weather is nice.

Have I explained where we live yet? I think I need to set the scene, since we’re going to be all summer. We live in a townhouse community with thirty-nine other families. The units on the west side have back porches and the units on the south and east have front lawns but everybody’s outdoor space is small–six feet square, tops. The buildings are arranged in a triangle around a grassy common area shaped like a slice of pie. There’s a driveway that runs between the buildings and then wraps around behind the units on the east. Our neighbors run the gamut from young couples to empty nesters, from single people to single parents, from tiny babies to teenagers, from families in the thick of raising school-aged kids to retirees. Our first year here there were more than twenty kids under the age of ten. Five years later I don’t know how many kids there are, but it’s a lot. Communal living is a dream come true for our little family living as far from we do from grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins; all we have to do is step out the front door and there’s someone to play with or talk to. It’s also worth noting that living in close proximity to dozens of people under an active HOA pushes every single one of my buttons.

The first thing I saw when I went outside on Friday night was a gaggle of kids eating cupcakes in the common area. Immediately I felt bad, first for shuttling my daughter off to bed and then because I realized we hadn’t been invited to join in whatever special occasion precipitated the cupcakes. I still remember the injustice of a summer bedtime before the sun went down and the loneliness of my voice not being part of the evening cacophony. The twin memories linger and sting. I considered returning to the kitchen table to write, but didn’t. I was determined not to cede the last of the light to my childish resentment of people having fun without me, or the night to my deeply maternal habit of projecting my insecurities onto my daughter. I decided to stay outside.

As soon as I opened my tablet, a neighborhood kid, a friend of my daughter’s, buzzed over like a moth to a flame. She paced around my camp chair chatting and chatting and intermittently asking “Where’s D___? Why don’t you go get D___?” and reacting incredulously every time I repeated (also incredulously), “She’s in bed!” At first I resisted the pull of the conversation. I put my own kid to bed so I could write and just think for a goddamn minute and here I was doing neither. I kept looking down at my the keyboard and rifling through the pages of notes also on my lap, but the kid refused to leave for more than a few minutes, and the one kid was followed by another who also wanted to know where D was, and then by the second kid’s mom, who just waved, and then by the first kid’s older sister who just wanted to talk, and then by her father who wanted to check in, and eventually by her mother, a dear friend who I haven’t seen for more than a few minutes since the pandemic started. When I finally closed the computer and gave myself over to the family dynamic spilling onto my front porch, the first kid came back and put an actual puppy on my lap.

I never ended up finding out what the cupcakes were for or if there was some party to which we weren’t invited. I never wrote the essay about being lonely, about struggling to feel like a good mom, about the challenge of maintaining my sense of self when living in close enough quarters to watch other people’s lives unfold. Instead, I spent a few humid
hours being a neighbor, a friend, a trusted adult, making the neighborhood a better place for someone else’s kids. I went inside when everyone else did, sticky bug-bit, and satisfied with the way the summer is going, with my tiny front porch, with my great big life.

Quarantine Diary Day 88: Law Mom

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At my old job, I had a reputation for being a thorough researcher, a strong writer, a careful Bluebooker, and a promising speaker. I also had a reputation for being “a mom.” I was not the only mom at my firm, or even the only parent of young children, but mom was nonetheless a larger part of my identity at work than it was for my colleagues. I bear some of the blame for this predicament. I went and got myself knocked up after only three months at the firm! Three! I hate to make a big deal out of that timeline because doing so reinforces two wildly sexist notions: (1) that a woman needs the approval of her employer to make highly personal, life-changing decisions; and (2) a woman needs to prove her worth to a company before she’s allowed to use benefits to which she is legally entitled and which, in fact, exist to benefit the company. Though I reject both of these premises, I do recognize that three months is not a lot of time. I barely gave my colleagues a chance to know anything about me before I announced my pregnancy! It’s no wonder they thought of me as mom.

After a certain point, though, surely my colleagues should take some of the blame. I mean, one senior partner expressed surprise to see me back from maternity leave when my kid was eighteen months old. Sheesh, what could I even say to that? My leave was decent by U.S. standards, but not that long. Indeed, my coworkers were always asking me about my kid. One especially demanding senior partner stopped in my office a few times a week, and I’d always sit up at attention, even though inside I might be eager or shrinking, depending on how busy I already was. Neither my worry nor my anticipation were warranted though. For the last few years I worked at the firm, 95% of his drop-ins began and ended with him asking about my daughter and then sharing an anecdote about his grandson, who was close in age. I never knew what to make to make of this. On one hand, how nice that we we able to connect about something than other than work. On the other hand, we weren’t talking about work at all. Notably, the partners I could count on for a steady stream of work rarely asked about my personal life in the office.

I thought about raising my concern that I was being pigeonholed, but didn’t because I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to change. Certainly, I didn’t want to be treated like the men. One male associate became a dad just a few weeks shy of his one-year anniversary at the firm, which is when his parental leave benefit would have kicked in. He had to come to work one week after his first daughter was born. Another male associate tried to take paternity leave when his second kid was born and the demanding senior partner with the adorable grandson leaned on him to come back to the office less than a week later and then travel out-of-state for a multi-week client audit.

I like talking about my kids at work. I appreciate not having to hide the existence of my family. I want to be seen as a multi-faceted human being. I suspect I’m far from alone. But what do we do about people who can’t hold the idea that that a woman can be a talented lawyer and a loving mom in their heads at the same time? I don’t want to go back into the mommy closet. I don’t want to pretend I don’t want to eat dinner with my family and that I’ve never been to a parent-teacher conference in my life. How do we save work/life balance for everyone?

The answer, I think, has been revealed in the pandemic. Since all of my clients and contacts and co-workers started working from home, the men won’t shut up about their kids. I exchanged emails with a lawyer I’d never met before, and at the end asked how he was doing. He said that he was counting down the days for homeschooling to end. Every conference call starts with a round robin of updates about what’s going on with everyone’s families. Even the older guys want to talk about how their college kids and grown children are faring in virus times. I call an old friend in the middle of the day and he has to go because he’s on toddler duty. I call another friend and he is driving his mom to the store. All the two-income families I know have implemented complicated schedules in which both partners trade-off childcare so they both have time to work. I’m not saying that coronavirus has been the great equalizer. Women are still bearing the brunt of homeschooling, housework, and childcare and are at risk of serious career setbacks as a result. But that problem, too, highlights the path forward.

The goal is not, as we used to think, for women to act more like men. The answer is for men to act more like women.

Quarantine Diary Day 87: How To Slow Down Time

img_20200515_135644207-1None of the times I became a runner did I set out to run fast. I joined the middle school track team in seventh grade just wanting to be part of a team, eager to prove myself as an athlete but not caring if the coaches ran me in heat one, two, or three. I started training for a marathon the summer before my second year of law school just wanting to see how far I could go, wanting to prove myself as a person with grit but not caring if I finished in three, four, or five hours. I started running again after I built a career, after I had a kid just wanting to a damn minute to myself, wanting to prove I still existed underneath the suit I wore to court, now covered in baby spit, but not caring how many miles I covered in the forty-five minutes a managed to eke out for myself a few times a week.

Speed crept up on me when a few years of doing the same treadmill workout at the gym got so boring that I started nudging the speed up from my usual 6.2 mph and discovered that I could get a better workout in a shorter amount of time by running as fast as I could for a minute or two or three at a time and then slowing way down to recover and then doing that again and again. Speed crept up on me when I started looking at my watch after running longer distances outside and realized I could hold paces closer to eight minute miles than nine for five, ten, fifteen miles at a time. Speed crept up on me when I started following a marathon training schedule that included weekly workouts that reminded me of high school track practice–100m strides and 400m repeats and yasso 800s–and realized that the burning in my legs and lungs that I’d dreaded and done everything in power to avoid when I was a teenager was a thrilling change of pace from the sedentary lifestyle I’d grown accustomed to since law school. Speed crept up on me and I wanted more.

Speed is not just for running, by the way I do everything fast. I walk fast, dragging my kid along with me; I eat fast, leaving nothing on the plate; I read fast, skimming the page to get to the salient point; I work fast, saving the client money and getting myself home by five; I talk fast, cutting you off because I know what you’re going to say.

This is not the way I set out to live. This is just the way I learned to live.

Once upon a time there was more time. There was so much time it was like there was almost too much time. Whole days and weeks and summers and years stretched out in front of me until I’d get to do the things I wanted to do. I don’t remember when it changed, though if I had to guess I’d say it was around the time I slid from adolescence into early adulthood, around the time I quit using weed to spin hours into days, around the time I quit working low-wage jobs to go to law school, around the time I adopted anxiety as a lifestyle. Now, of course, there is never enough time. I have to move quickly because it’s up to me to save it.

Sometimes it feels like everything in my life is conspiring to slow me down. I bought one dog and then adopted another that both straight up refused to walk. The first dog, the corgi, used to waddle fifty meters down the sidewalk then fall on his belly with his stubby little breadstick legs stuck straight out behind him. The second dog, the reactive staffie mix, used to walks to the corner and then freeze up with his tail between his legs and refuse to budge. I married a man that shuffles his feet on every walk and can’t tell a story without getting lost on the way to the point. And don’t get me started on my kid. My kid is slow. You’re probably thinking that all kids are slow and you’re not wrong, but my kid is really slow. My kid is so slow that her preschool teachers brought up how long it takes her to put on her coat and mittens at parent-teacher conferences. My kid is so slow that she’s never finished a school lunch a day in her life. My daughter is so slow that her teacher doesn’t bother to set the three-minute timer for bathroom trips because she just can’t make it back. My kid is so slow that her preschool class left her behind on the walk from the school to the playground next door. My kid is so slow that her kindergarten class lost her on the walk from the classroom to the exit at the end of the day three days in a row. Of course my rushing puts me in perpetual conflict with my family. In pre-pandemic times, we were always running late to school because my efforts to rush my kid out the door only slowed her down and inevitably resulted in frustrated tears and forgotten backpacks.

Back to running, though. This year was going to be my year for speed. I was coming up on twelve months injury-free and a strong marathon training cycle. I’d been running with a speedy group from my local running club since the fall. The club would be moving to the track once a week for interval workouts in the spring. I was focusing on the half over the full marathon to build my confidence for racing and running fast. I was aiming to try for a new personal record in the marathon in May.

You know what happened next. The pandemic hit and the races were cancelled, the track closed, and the running club scattered. Time slowed down and I slowed down with it. Honestly, I didn’t mind. I was happy to slow down, grateful for the opportunity to rest. After two months of running slow every morning and going nowhere the rest of the day, I was starting to drag, though. You know? You know. I was getting antsy. I wanted to go fast again. I started tentatively introducing speedwork back into my workouts. I did a few interval runs, one minute on, one minute off, and it went well. I felt energized and eager to get back to my old routine. I didn’t exactly know what I was training for, but I didn’t care. I decided to do a workout I’ve done a million times, a 1-2-3-2-1 fartlek. I wasn’t prepared for the challenge of doing a speed workout while maintaining social distancing on the crowded lakefront path, which required me to weave back and forth between pavement, grass, asphalt, packed dirt, and loose sand. The combination of sideways movement and forward acceleration was too much and my calf tore in the last one minute interval. There was no walking it off. I hobbled home and put my foot up on ice for the next ten days. This week I started jogging again, but I’m taking the hint this time. I’ll be going slow for a long while.

Now that I’ve finally given into the pandemic’s demands, the benefits of slowing down are hard to miss. There are fewer family blow-ups in the mornings. We have nowhere to go, nothing to get dressed for, no appointments to keep. There is no reason to rush my daughter and therefore no reason to fight. I still feign my morning commute with a walk around the neighborhood but with no real reason to get to work at any particular time, I can stop and wait for my daughter to stare at a pinwheel turning in the wind or a bird tugging a worm or work up the courage to step over a beetle turned over on its back in the middle of the sidewalk.

I slowed down and time slowed down with me. Time practically stopped. A few weeks ago I took my daughter outside after lunch on a weekday, giving us both a recess from school/work. We hit the basketball court where she’s been riding her scooter almost every day. Mindful of the fact that I needed to get back for calls for her and me by 1:15, I called out “ten more minutes!” at 1:00, and then climbed back onto the child-sized skateboard she’s been letting me roll around on. I’m not very good–my feet are too big for the board and I have weak ankles and poor balance and am in my mid-thirties–but I’m getting better. That day, I got lost in practice, pushing off from the court again and again, rolling farther and farther, and practicing my turns. Is this what they call flow? Eventually my daughter whizzed by me and jolted me out of my concentrated reverie. Shit. What time was it? I looked at my watch, ready to tell my daughter to pack it up, and then stopped. It was only 1:04.

I don’t wake up with panicked thoughts of not enough sleep! not enough time! anymore. I don’t move through my days bookmarking life hacks, optimizing every moment, in an effort to make the most of the time I have. I have all the time there is. The only question is how do I want to live?

Quarantine Diary Day 82: No More Pencils No More Books

Today was the last day of school, for my daughter and for my husband who was conscripted into being a homeschooling parent. All three of us are feeling the absence of fanfare that ordinarily comes from the school. There was no fun run or field day or end-of-year picnic or class party. It’s bittersweet to watch my daughter try to navigate the transition by creating her own rituals: specifically, a special meal, a party with confetti and balloons, posed pictures, and a certificate for her favorite stuffed dog, who totally coincidentally “graduated from obedience school” the same week that she finished first grade. “Golden is so excited to be done with school!” she’s been saying all week, over and over again.Last night before bed, she got quiet and I wondered if she was feeling sad that her dad and I weren’t making a big a deal of her last day of school. “Hey, D,” I said as I tucked her into bed, “What do you want for your special dinner tomorrow? Pizza? Burgers? Sushi?” “I don’t know,” she mumbled. A moment later, she burst into tears “I’m just going to miss having papa as my teacher.” I didn’t even know what to say. I’ve been so worried that she is sick of her parents and suffering from the absence of any meaningful interaction with other adults and kids that it didn’t occur to me that this time has been as much a gift for her as it is for us. I thought about pointing out that she has a long summer ahead of her at home with no camps and the decent odds that she won’t get to go back to school in the fall, but thought better of it. Rites of passage exist for a reason; the least I can do is not yank her through them just because I’m uncomfortable. “You and papa had a really special time together, didn’t you? You’re a pretty lucky kid.” My words were cold comfort. After I left the room, I stood outside her door and listened to her cry herself to sleep.Somehow, even without having set foot in a classroom for almost three months or a clear idea of what summer will like this year, she woke up today as exuberant any other kid the last day of school. She put on a pretty summer dress without any parental pleading to please change out of her pajamas already. She picked out all the letters to spell out “D’s last day of first grade” lightening fast. Oddly (or not) She put on her backpack, the one that’s been hanging empty by the front door since March, and wore it while she skipped and jumped around the neighborhood on our morning walk. At least a dozen times I told her, “I’m so proud of you” and every time she responded, “I know. I’m proud of me too.”Her dad and I did try to import a little ritual into the day. He printed out a certificate and presented it to her while I played pomp and circumstance on YouTube and clapped. We took pictures and she posed with a real smile. We did order a special dinner (pizza). The best part of the day was wholly impromptu, though. After dinner, we headed outside with a soccer ball and some candy and found a bunch of kids from the neighborhood running around, all buzzy from being cooped up for so many months and the prospect of being released for the summer. We stayed outside, playing near enough but not-quite-next-to other families for an hour and a half. I chatted with the other parents, asking everybody, “What are your plans this summer?” and nodding as all of them answered in the same way. “None. Nothing. We’ll be here.” I wondered if, against all odds and expectations, if this could be the best summer ever, for a kid at least, with nothing to do and nowhere to go and a bunch of neighborhood kids in the same boat.

Quarantine Diary Day 70: Work Family

My work from home situation works like this. I work from the futon in our extra room, a pseudo-den/office/guest room/home gym that doesn’t have its own door, but is the only room on the first floor of our townhouse and so is pretty cut off from everything else. Up on the second floor, my husband home schools our kid at the kitchen table, which sits right in the middle of our living room/dining room/kitchen in the type of space that dummies on HGTV call “open concept” and that families sheltering in place call “a nightmare” and “a terrible idea.” We have a third floor, too, with two bedrooms. Our WiFi network is called ThreeStoryLuxury, which is a 66.67% accurate description.

I work from 8:30/9:30 to 5:00 with a lunch break at 12:00 that I eat at the table upstairs with my family. Home school is in session 10:00 to 4:30. Husband runs a tight ship with a strict schedule except from 2:00 to 3:00, which he tries to call Choice Time because that’s what they called it at our daughter’s school, but sometimes he slips up and calls it Quiet Time, because what it really is is his only break during the day. Every day during Quiet/Choice Time, husband “meditates” (naps) on the couch in the living room and daughter plays in her bedroom upstairs. Usually I come up at some point during this stretch for coffee or a snack and I also visit daughter upstairs, just a quick hello and check-in to see how she’s doing, and then I go back to work. Quiet/Choice Time is the most peaceful part of the day.

Until last week, that is, which is when my daughter realized that Quiet/Choice Time presents a prime opportunity for her to sneak past her teacher/dad and venture down to my office to visit me at work. She doesn’t hang around long, and she doesn’t say much. What she does is deliver notes–interoffice memos, really–with detailed questions and precise instructions about how and when to answer. She leaves them on a shelf just outside of the office and then stands there silently until I’ve stood up and retrieved and read the note. The notes go like this:

  • “Hi Mama I love you. Here’s a dog. Leave me a note bake pleas at 2:24. Hope you like the dog.”
  • “Mama, every day I will send you a dog and then you send me a leter bake I will send you 1 home for it then we will both send letrs  to each other.”
  • “Hi Mama I love you Please leve notes on the bike sete downstairs.”
  • “Hi Mama wold you like a Golopigos turtel or a sea turtel. I love you. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Of course I respond, with words and pictures and inside jokes. On average, we exchange five to six notes a day. I hang the pictures she draws me up on the window next to the futon and tuck the notes in my planner. I know she is saving my letters back to her in a special box in her room. The process is all very adorable and highly distracting. Sometimes the notes come during conference calls. Once she dropped off a note during a call with a client and only gave me six minutes to respond. After the second day of this, I considered whether I should put an end to it, remind husband that 9 to 5 is his jurisdiction as the stay-at-home (hahahaha) parent, remind daughter that I need to be able to focus on my job. By this point, it should not be lost on anyone that I am the fun police in my family, and that I am fairly compulsive about maximizing my productive time.

Luckily, something else occurred to me before I acted on my impulse to strip this delightful bit of family life from my workday, which is this. Fielding notes from my daughter is not all that different from engaging with a chatty coworker or friendly receptionist. It’s true that when I’m hyper-focused on work, I find all of these things annoying, because they slow me down, but it’s also true that slowing down and taking the time to talk to another person is what makes a day–a life–worth living. It’s not easy to have your actual family become your work family, but I know I’ll miss it when it’s gone. I can’t imagine I’ll be able to persuade anybody in my actual office to deliver me little bowls of cheez-its and drawings of wiener dogs and carefully, dreadfully written letters telling me over and over again what a great mom I am and wishing me a Happy Valentine’s Day in May.

Quarantine Diary Day 69: The Upside

Spring in Chicago

Our daughter didn’t cry the day we gave our rescue dog back. We were expecting tears, had been bracing for them for over a month, since the day the dog bit a family friend and we knew that we might not be able to keep him. We only kept Study for six months, but that half year was huge to our four-year-old, almost as big as “forever” which is how long we thought we thought he’d be part of her family. Heartbreak doesn’t always look the way we expect it to, though. Our daughter was crushed, but she didn’t cry. Instead, she quickly constructed a vaguely dog-shaped structure using pieces from a magnetic building set and cradled it in her arms. I admired her creativity and complimented her skill and tried, urgently, to get her to put the “dog” down before her dad returned from delivering the dog back to the family that fostered him. Of course she refused, and I spent the next few hours trying to turn my own heartbreak into comedy. “It’s so weird,” I told anybody who would listen. “The dog is made of magnetic tiles. It’s not even soft, and it falls to pieces if you handle it wrong, but she won’t stop loving on it. We really fucked up.”

It’s been a few years now, and our daughter still adores critters and creatures don’t love her back, can’t even emote. She set up a sprawling “slug garden” on our back porch and begged us to let her spend her own money on a second basil plant intended exclusively to attract and feed slugs. Her goal this summer is to see a snail. She cradles rolly polly potato bugs and admires spiders. She even likes centipedes. We can’t take a walk in the rain without staging a worm rescue operation; it stresses her out to see them inching along in the wrong direction, away from mud, or toward a sewer, and she likes to pick them up and put them back in the dirt. And just last week, I walked in on a Zoom session with her class just in time to hear her announce, “I have a tamagotchi, which is kind of like a brother! And these are my stuffed dogs, which are kind of like pets!”

A month ago, we stopped to watch a worm work its way across the sidewalk for a solid fifteen minutes. It was raining hard and the worm looked pretty ordinary to me, but my daughter was smitten. She bent down low and cooed things like, “It’s such a cuuuuutttieeee” and “What a cutie lil’ adorable lil’ worm.” On the outside, I melt. She’s such an adorable little weirdo, and I love her. Inside I recoil, as I always do at shows of affection that put my failings on display, that make me relive the day with the Magformer dog and curse myself for not giving her something better to love.

Needing new eyes, I pull out my phone to take a video. At first I focus on my daughter, and then I zoom in close on the worm. The worm is taking me for a ride, too, and the journey is compelling. The longer we stand there, the closer I get to seeing what my daughter sees, which is, of course, a life. It occurs to me, for the first time, that maybe the trauma of loving a difficult pet and then having it taking away under even more difficult circumstances gave my daughter something good–a tremendous capacity for love and empathy.

I turn this over in my mind for a few weeks, meaning to write about it but not knowing how. I don’t know how to articulate my deepest fear in a way that’s respectful of my daughter, in a way that’s meaningful to others, in a way that’s more palatable than the truth: I’m afraid I will fuck it all up. I’m afraid I already did. I want to write about it, though, because the worm the depth of my daughter’s love for the worm gives me hope that she will be okay.

The worm gives me hope, too, that the trauma of COVID-19 will leave its own gifts behind. Perhaps, having had half a year or more of life as she knows it stolen away, being forced to shelter at home with her crazy parents, won’t fuck my daughter up. Maybe she will emerge into the world so ready to engage that she never knows my social anxiety, my reluctance to participate, my reliance on substances for connection. Maybe the looseness of schooling at home, of playing with Lego bricks for hours at a time, of staying up late dancing around the living room and hitting a balloon back and forth will free her to become the person she was meant to be. Maybe bearing witness to so much suffering at such a young age will buttress that tremendous capacity for love and empathy.

Please don’t take this as a long-winded way of saying everything happens for a reason, that other people died so we could thrive. If I could give my daughter back her dog I would. If I could go back in time and wipe out coronavirus I would. What I’m saying is that I’ve lived my whole life waiting for the other shoe to drop. Is that a Mormon thing? A religious thing? A human thing? What I’m saying is when I find myself with entire swaths of time with nothing to do but watch my girl tenderly care for creepy crawlies that make me want to run and hide I wonder if maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. Maybe we will be okay.

 

 

Quarantine Diary Day 67: Sightings, Part 1

A List of Things Seen at the Park During Quarantine:

  • Kids climbing on the playground equipment while parents look on nervously, darting furtive glances over their shoulders (Week 1)
  • City employees removing the nets from the tennis court
  • Basketball nets tied off to the rims so nothing can get through
  • A 10-inch hand-painted model rocket stuck in a tree
  • A man with a 12-foot ladder trying to climb a 50-foot tree
  • A man and little girl chucking rocks and sticks into the branches of a tree
  • A woman craning her neck, staring up into a tree, muttering about a man
  • Dozens of people lined up outside the community center, six feet apart, to pick up the breakfasts and lunches their kids would normally get at school, including a classmate of the little girl’s that she has yet to see on video calls with the class
  • Playground equipment standing empty, caution tape flapping in the wind (Weeks 2-8)
  • Countless dogs, often running through the park off-leash; for once, this does not bother the woman
  • Families playing catch, badly
  • Families playing soccer well
  • Families playing with brand new puppies
  • Kids playing basketball, having torn the nets down
  • An old man playing tennis with an orange against a wall
  • A kite shaped like a neon triceratops stuck in a tree
  • Little libraries stuffed full with books that no one wants to touch
  • A raccoon running around in broad daylight
  • Basketball hoops blocked off with wooden planks
  • A middle schooler turning head over heels on the basketball court in a human-sized hamster wheel
  • Teenagers with skateboards and no shirts jumping off of a DIY ramp in the middle of the basketball court; they have a boombox, like it’s the nineties
  • Something disemboweled in the soccer field, guts in a neat pile, perfectly intact
  • A teenage neighbor running sprints
  • An older neighbor jogging slowly
  • A family the woman knows a little walking with a stroller; they were supposed to get together for dinner before the pandemic, but now she doesn’t say hi because it feels too complicated
  • Kids climbing on the playground, over, under, and around the caution tape while parents watch on, unperturbed (Week 9)
  • The little girl blowing every dandelion she get her little hands on, wishing over and over again for a dog
  • A tween chasing a pure white hedgehog through the grass
  • So many people the man, the woman, and the little girl know, all waving eagerly, eyes crinkling as they smile behind their masks

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Quarantine Diary Day 66: Down In The Valley

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The first thing I wrote yesterday morning was “Today the rain is falling, as it did all night and as it promises to do all day.” The rain did come down all day yesterday, in buckets, dumping all over everything. I didn’t mind it so much in the morning, waking up to the sound of it splattering against my bedroom window, feeling safe from the gray of it around the kitchen table with my family and a stack of waffles and the crossword. I got out once for a walk during a lull in the early afternoon, but I stayed out too long and came back drenched. “Why did you go so far?” my husband asked? “I read you the minutecast.” It’s true, he did tell me that the rain would be back in precisely twenty-three minutes, and I’d chirped, “Perfect!” like that was all I needed. It’s true, too, that twenty-three minutes is enough time for a walk. But what’s truer than true is that I needed more time. I wanted to stay out longer, walk farther, and feel freer, and I thought that the wanting and the acting on the waniting would be enough to hold the rain at bay until I made it back home. It wasn’t, and I got wet. It was a warm rain, though, and I arrived home to a warm home and dry clothes and my family already snuggled on the couch waiting for me with snack bowls and blankets and Toy Story all cued up. These were the high points of a hilly day.

Down in the valleys, I did battle with my character defects. In a low moment, I gave voice to my shrieking insecurity in the presence of my daughter and then desperately tried to claw it back, because there’s nothing I want more than for her baggage to be all her own. In another low moment, I gave airtime to my selfishness, begging everybody to just be quiet so that I could sit on the couch for an hour and read. The things I do in the valleys make me feel like a bad mom, and that’s a feeling that I drag with me all day. It doesn’t matter how high I get. I could be walking on clouds and I’d still hate the mom from down the hill.

Bedtime rolled around and I cracked. I cried and cried, buckets dumping all over everything. I saw my daughter’s lower lip shake because there’s nothing sadder than watching mama cry, and then I cried some more because there’s nothing sadder than watching your kid watching her mama cry. I pulled myself together, pulled her into my lap, and rubbed her arms and told what I’ve told her hundreds of times, “It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.” When it felt like she might be starting to believe me, I asked her what she wanted for a bedtime story, and she told me that tonight she would read to me. We settled on the floor, her with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in her lap, and me curled up on my side, arms wrapped around myself, willing myself to believe the promises I keep making.

Quarantine Diary Day 64: FOMO

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I’ve heard it said a couple of times that being forced to shelter-in-place put an end to fear of missing out. Before this all started, fear of missing out drove us to overcommit and overextend ourselves, to say yes to things when we really wanted to say no, and to stay out longer than we should have. When we did find ourselves at home, fear of being left out drove us to scroll through tagged photos on Instagram and Facebook with knots in our stomachs, and swirling thoughts like, “What was I doing that weekend” and “Why didn’t I know about this?” Now that are our feeds are filled with our immediately family members, at-home graduation, birthday, and anniversary parties, and endless loaves of bread, it’s clear there’s not much going on to be jealous of.

Or is there?

Perhaps I suffer from a more virulent strain of FOMO that everybody else, stemming from a more deeply-rooted insecurity, but I don’t have to look too hard for signs of life carrying on without me.

The underground dinner parties for the DC elite were easy to dismiss; that was never my world and, frankly, I ate up the backlash against people flaunting their privilege in the early days of the pandemic with a healthy side of schadenfreude.

An early suggestion that parents cope with the no playdates guidance by picking a “best friend family” stung a little. There are lots of families with young kids in our area, but we’re no one’s best friend. As my daughter’s budding social life died on the vine, kids from her class reported during Monday Zoom calls that they’d spent the weekend playing with “just one” friend. We tended the hurt with salve we picked up up on the moral high ground and reassurance that this was temporary.

The first time I video chatted my family out west and found my siblings and parents and nephews all together in one place I hung up the phone and cried. They were all outside, all properly socially distanced around the pool, around the firepit. They weren’t doing anything wrong, but they were together and I was starting to come apart.

At the park, I play with my daughter near but not exactly with other families who are less vigilant about keeping their kids apart. Like all kids, my daughter has a violent sense of justice. Usually I try to tamp it down, complicate her view of the world, model empathy and open-mindedness, remind her that we live life in our own lane. Other days, I let her screams of “WHY AREN’T THEY SOCIAL DISTANCING!” go unanswered because I’m as pissed as she is.

In the house, I hear voices drift in from outside, peek out the window and spy my neighbors barbecuing with friends. The good smells good but what I really crave is the conversation.

I attend virtual church with 150+ other people and virtual AA meetings with people who may or may not know my face and my name, but I have yet to be invited to a virtual happy hour.

I know I’m not really missing out. I know we’re all struggling differently, even the people who seem to be taking this all in stride. I know I have a lot and that there are a lot of people who look at the pictures I take and the words that I write about my life and they ache, because they want what I have.

I’m just lonely.

Quarantine Diary Day 60: How I Got My Kid To Go Back To Sleep

Let’s talk about the nightmares. Not the waking nightmare that is life in a pandemic, but the regular sleeping kind, and not my nightmares (though they are wild these days), but my kid’s. Pre-COVID, my seven-year-old went to bed easily after an involved but mostly pleasant bedtime routine, sweetly sang and chattered to herself for fifteen minutes or so after I left the room, and then promptly passed out. She slept through the night, every night, and generally didn’t disturb the household until she popped out of bed refreshed and ready to play at 6:30 the next morning. She averaged maybe a nightmare a year.

A few weeks into COVID, that all changed. First she had one bad dream: I had given her an owl for a pet and she kept it in a cage in her room, and after a week she realized it was dead, that it had been dead the whole time. We got her back to bed without too much drama, but the memory of it lingered, and scared her off sleep for the next week. Just as the fear was starting to dissipate, she had another , and then another a few days after that, and then it was three nightmares three nights in a row, and then there was one hideous night where she had three separate nightmares, each necessitating a trip to my room, my husband and I trading off increasingly drawn-out and unsuccessful attempts to comfort her, and much begging to just sleep in our room. Bedtime became an anxious, pleading affair. She desperately wanted to sleep in our room or us to sleep in hers. I tried to be her soft place. I held her in my arms, sang songs, prayed, breathed deeply, and talked her through guided meditations, but turned to stone when she tried to disrupt the family sleeping arrangements. I am the jealous guardian of sleep: of my own, my daughter’s, and everybody else’s. I know about kids climbing into bed and never getting out, and wasn’t about to let that happen on my watch. Even with me policing the parental bed, none of us were sleeping much. Most nights I spent hours lying in bed, wired with adrenaline, just waiting for the next scream.

The nightmares were all variations on that first bad dream: dead owls, dead squirrels, a dead guinea pig, a dead anthropomorphic fried egg named Gudetama. It was the animals that threw me off, made me slow on the uptake. That and the exhaustion. What is going on??? I fumed. Why is this happening to us now??? How can we make it stop???

It wasn’t until the specter of the nightmares manifested in the middle of our daylight hours that I realized. D had been resisting taking walks outside with me for days. I knew she had seen a dead squirrel in the park with her dad and was afraid of seeing another one, so we kept strictly to the sidewalks. Still, every time we saw a squirrel scamper in the distance, she flinched. “The squirrels aren’t going to hurt you, kiddo. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.” She looked up at me with fear in her eyes: “What if a squirrel runs up to us and dies?” I started to respond—“Why would a squirrel run up to us and d_____”—and then trailed off when it hit me. She knew all about the virus. She knew she wasn’t allowed to touch anything outside because it lingered on surfaces. She knew we had to cross to the street when we saw the neighbors coming because it traveled through the air. For all she knew, coronavirus was everywhere, all the time, infecting all the animals she ever loved, and probably all the people too.

This, of course, was the result of us trying to keep our kid informed while shielding her from the worst truths about the pandemic. We didn’t talk about the death toll. We reassured her that most people who got sick got better. But kids aren’t stupid. They know life doesn’t shut down for a bad cold. I asked my therapist what to do. “It might be time to talk to her about death.”

I did start talking to my kid about death, but those conversations are complicated and controversial so I’m not going to get into it now. Instead, I’m going to tell you the bedtime hack for anxious kids that I discovered while I was trying to sort out what I could possibly say to my daughter about death that would provide her with comfort and security given that my belief system has been abstracted to the point of being unrecognizable to believers and non-believers alike.

This is how I tricked my daughter into going to bed relaxed and happy instead of working herself into the kind of fearful frenzy that only breeds bad dreams–i.e., how I taught my daughter to stop worrying and learn to love bedtime:

Every night, the moment I hear the words start to come out of her mouth–“Mama, I’m scared I’m going to have a bad dream”–I shush her and say, “Echo: play music by the Beach Boys.”

Every night, without fail, the lush harmonies and dulcet tones of “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B,” which now form the soundtrack for entire evenings in our house, sometimes beginning right after dinner, lull her my daughter into a sense of well-being better than any drug I’ve ever taken. She dances and sings and climbs into bed at ease. I promise to stay outside her room for five minutes in case she needs me and listen to her chatter herself to sleep. If I stay longer than five minutes it’s only because I’m writing these diary entries. She hasn’t had a nightmare in about two weeks now. I’m still having freaky dreams on the reg, but can’t complaint. At least we’re all sleeping through the night.

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