Quarantine Diary Day 121: Wait, What?

Last month, when salons and retail stores were open and playgrounds were still inexplicably closed, I started dropping hints to my daughter that I wouldn’t mind and it wouldn’t hurt to dabble around with the parks. Early in the morning we’d spot a renegade mom talking on the phone and a couple of toddlers climbing freely over the caution tape piled loosely on the ground, and I’d say, “I’m pretty sure the playground’s still closed, but we know it’s safer now.” Early evening, I’d nod at the neglected playground equipment, look over conspiratorially and ask, “You want to go down the slide?” She always said no. Had she outgrown the park, I wondered, her sense of childlike freedom and play another casualty of the coronavirus? Or was she just too young to cope with conflicting safety messages and peer-like pressure from a parent?

It must be the latter because the playgrounds have been open in Illinois for a little over three weeks now and play is back in a big way. It is, can I just say, a complete and utter delight to walk over to the park after dinner and set her loose. No more begging/bribing/cajoling her to leave the house! No more sad, contemplative laps around the neighborhood! Obviously, I still take plenty of those, but I’m not dragging my daughter with me anymore. Four months of shelter-in-place made my once “slow-to-warm-up” kid into someone willing to play just about anyone who asks, but the best is when our friends from the neighborhood are there. She loves seeing familiar faces and so do I! Hello, moms and the occasional dad! I never thought I’d miss you but I do!

Last week, we ran into one of D’s classmates from first grade with his parents. We didn’t get to know each other especially well during the school year, though perhaps we might have if not for (*gestures helplessly around*) all of this, but that didn’t’ stop it from feeling running into long lost friends! “D, look! Look who’s here! It’s ____ from school!” The kids quickly set up shop (literally–they started playing “stick store”) and I caught up with the parents. We talked about how the school year ended up (shitty) and how the summer was going (okay!) and how hard this has been on only children and how work is starting to feel normal and about how they are going all in on a pandemic puppy and how we all want to get away somewhere quiet in Michigan for a week in August. Eventually, the conversation turned what’s going to happen in the fall. I was still reeling from the options presented in the district survey and the then-realization we were likely facing a hybrid of virtual and in-person schooling. [Note: That was last week. This week, I suspect all-virtual is much more likely.] I shared my reservations about such a system and the other mom seemed to hesitate before responding. Maybe she has a different risk assessment. Maybe her kid is radically different than mine. Maybe she hasn’t heard. I tried to level set. “Did you see the survey from the district?” “Yeah,” she responded. “Yeah, I took it, and then I pulled ____ out of the district. We’re going back to Montessori.” The other mom went on, referencing her dissatisfaction with the school outside of its response to the pandemic, but she didn’t need to justify her choice to me.

The Montessori school is committed to reopening for in-person education five days a week. The Montessori school is installing an air filtration system. The Montessori school is making small class sizes even smaller. The Montessori school will hold class outside.

We stayed at the park for awhile after that and the conversation took different turns. We laughed a lot. We bought sticks from our kids. It was a lot of fun and I left thinking, “I really like that family.” When I got home I was bubbling over with the energy that comes from just the right amount of real life human interaction. “Guess what?!” I told my husband. “We ran into ____’s family! They’re getting ____ a dog! And they’re putting him in private school!”

Later that night, I tapped the impossible to spell name of the Montessori school into the search bar on my phone. I thought I’d clocked the tuition before, though I couldn’t remember why–we’re a public school family through-and-through–and I wanted to see if it was as high as I remembered. As I tried to navigate through the maze of promises and COVID pop-ups on the mobile site, I interrogated my actions. Was I counting other people’s money? Or was I counting our own? Finally, I found the tuition page. $20k for a year of lower elementary. About what I remembered. I clicked out of the browser, tossed my phone on my bed, went back to my real life.

The next day I woke up depressed. Depressive episodes aren’t unusual for me, but they still catch me off-guard every damn time. Talking it over in therapy, it wasn’t hard for me to chalk it up to uncertainty about what fall and winter are going to look like for my family. I hurried to reassure my therapist that things weren’t all bad. We’d had a great weekend. And that great playdate at the park, which I described in detail. I’m forever leaning into gratitude as the best DIY antidote for my particular mental twists.

“That must have been jarring for you,” my therapist said when I’d finished recounting our evening at the park, “to go from making all these connections with another person and then to realize that you weren’t in the same situation. How did that make you feel?” ‘

I paused, surprised. She was trying to connect the conversation at the playground to my low mood on Tuesday, when I started feeling so bleak about the future. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I tried to think about it, dig down beneath the gratitude. How did I feel? The answers came quick.

For one thing, I felt tricked. Here I was reserving judgment because I thought the district was doing everything it could to make the best of a bad situation. Here I was keeping an open mind because thought the options presented were the only ones available. Here I was setting aside worries about access and fairness and falling behind because I thought we were all in together. Here I was thinking my community was setting some kind of example simply having the conversation about about detracking math and removing police officers from the schools not realizing the locus of the fight for equity had already shifted to private schools and private tutors and co-ops. Here I was naive to the one maxim carried forward into every new world: money and privilege are power.

This week, all the parents online are weighing the pros and cons and putting out feelers to form their pandemic pods. Next week, the conversation will make its way to the playground and I’ll realize I’m behind in providing for my child again, though not as behind as the mom or dad who works longer hours than me, or the parent whose kid is disabled or neurodiverse, or the parent of black and brown kids facing segregation on a whole new front.

When I finally put it all together, I felt angry. I felt angry that I don’t have the option or ability to make school safer–or even to make sure school remains a possibility–for my child. I felt angry for the students whose options and abilities in this regard are more limited than mine. I felt angry when I realized that any parent who can is going to pull their children and influence from the district and leave the rest of us to to fight for…what, exactly? A few months ago I might have said equity or justice. It would have felt like overkill to say we’re fighting for our lives, but it’s clear now that’s exactly what all the anxiety is about.

Quarantine Diary Day 124: House Hunting

When the pandemic hit, R and I were in the midst of the world’s most millennial house hunt. Our search was entirely self-directed, almost wholly online, and annoyingly noncommittal. We were exacting in some of our demands–not a speck of carpet, anywhere!–and whatever about others–“I guess we don’t really need a master bathroom/central AC/garage.” Our demeanor was similarly varied, as, depending on the day, we vacillated from “we kind of want to see this house but no rush and if someone else buys it it wasn’t meant to be” to “why the FUCK has Stephanie from Redfin not responded to the email we sent one hour ago?”

We poured through pictures of nearly every house to hit the market in our town over the last sixteen months and toured nine with an agent, on top of attending maybe another seven or eight open houses. We put a couple of offers. We were quickly outbid on the first house (a gorgeous gut rehab in the city) in a weird situation that could have been a bidding war but wasn’t because the sellers accepted the other offer without even asking us to raise ours. We backed out during the inspection period for the second house (a charming blue farmhouse in the suburbs) in a weird situation involving mysteriously soaking wet walls. There was a third house (a cute little split-level by the railroad tracks) that R loved and I didn’t but we didn’t even get the chance to argue about it because of a weird situation where we asked to see the house a second time and the seller preemptively accused us of wanting to lowball him and yanked it off the market.

Throughout this whole process I’ve been ambivalent about the prospect of actually moving. I’m a big believer in signs and serendipity (ew, I know), and the process of moving into the house we live in now was so stupidly easy it felt like it was meant to be. I might be glossing over a few details, but it basically went something like this: 1) R found a house listed online and went to vet it while I was out of town on a business trip; 2) R took me to see the house and when we pulled into the driveway our then-eighteen-month-old daughter” exclaimed “We’re home!” in her sweet little toddler voice; and 3) six weeks later we were signing papers at the mortgage broker’s office. I get that we were first time homeowners, kids, really, and that it’s bound to be more complicated this time around, what with a house we’ll need to need to sell and an actual kid in elementary school and all the inflexibility in our wants and preferences of people who are well on their way to middle aged.

Even with that understanding, the part of me that makes my decisions based on the “vibe” never got on board with our search. If the sheer amount time and energy we were putting into our search to yield only small handful of houses where we could even imagine ourselves living told me our timing might be off, the bizarre situations that kept us from closing on houses we did like were like alarm bells clanging. I was sick to my stomach for the entire two week were under contract for the blue farmhouse. I’d go to 12-step meetings and stories about people losing their houses would jump out and grab me by the shoulders. There’s this one story in the big book that really freaks me out, about a woman who buys a big house just to prove she’s not an alcoholic and then loses it in sobriety. The part that really gets me is that finds comfort in the fact that the house is replaced by “a townhouse that is just the right size” for her. We read this story in a meeting the day we put the offer in and I was certain it was the sign I’d been looking for, except that instead of telling me to go for it, it was telling me to go home.

I know that all sounds a little woo woo, but the truth is I knew it was foolish to drain our savings on a down payment on a 160+ year old house that couldn’t pass inspection that we couldn’t really afford. I knew we already had all the house we needed in a neighborhood that we love. I knew that, at least for me, the house hunt was a temporary escape from all the things I don’t love about my life–my messy house, loneliness, arguments with my husband. The fantasy of moving into a bigger house in a better neighborhood was a way of pretending to deal with those things without actually, you know, changing anything at all. It was easy to imagine that we’d be naturally neater in a house with more rooms, that we’d invite people over for cookouts when we had a backyard, that I wouldn’t resent my husband for daring to have so many goddamn things in his own house if I had an office that wasn’t in the same room as his exercise bike.

When the deal fell through last fall, I was relieved.

Of course we kept looking, so when the real estate market in our town dried up in the winter I was relieved there wasn’t much to look at.

When showings ground to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic, I was relieved again. More than that, I was grateful. We had a place to live. We had a place we could afford. We had neighbors we knew. And, thank God, our savings account was still intact. And now, with the possibility of moving off the table for the foreseeable future, I had a few months to just be.

Old habits die hard, though. Looking at houses online is still a reliable coping mechanism, and I use it from time to time. Lately, when the prospect of another year or more of living like this–on top of my husband and daughter, unreasonably close to our neighbors, far from friends and family, with no outdoor spaces that aren’t stupidly crowded–starts to wear me down, I start chasing that geographical cure.

I pull up listings in Arizona, fantasizing about bubbling up with my sister and her kids and swimming in my parents’ pool. I scroll over to Michigan, dreaming about camping with friends and a house near a lake. I check out Colorado, and imagine myself running with the elites. I see what’s up in North Carolina and wonder if I could stomach the politics in exchange for a big backyard and a two car garage.

I can’t seem to lose hours online like I used to. It seems that COVID is infecting my fantasies, too. Everything that once bound us to Chicago–school, church, friends, sports, museums, concerts, festivals, restaurants–the things we’re missing so badly now, we’re not going to find them anywhere else. Wherever we go, a disappointing and inequitable remote learning plan surely waits. Wherever we go, the virus rages in bodies sheltered and masked to various degrees. Wherever we go, there we are.

Real estate is a helluva good drug, though. Obsessive Redfin searching almost stopped me from writing this post.

Quarantine Diary Day 114: Surveys

One of the most restorative aspects of our week in the woods was that I took myself completely offline. This was entirely a matter of choice, not necessity. We camped at a major state park with decent cell service, or at least I assume it was decent based on the fact that other folks in our group were texting and streaming music all week, and my husband has probably half a dozen backup portable chargers, including one that is solar powered, so there wasn’t any real reason to conserve battery life. Even so, I turned my phone off the minute we pulled into the site (right after texting my mom “we’re here, we’re safe, love you, byeeeeee”) and left it off all week, only it turning it on once a day or so to snap pictures. I ignored texts. I didn’t check my email. I definitely didn’t look at the news.

On the email front, I didn’t miss much. A dumb Nextdoor post tagged “Crime and Safety” reporting two unmasked shoppers at a random Walgreens in the neighborhood. A bunch of emails about COVID protocols for my kid’s day camp and reminders to turn in outstanding paperwork. A survey from QuitMormon.com about LDS missionaries who got sick from drinking tainted water during their missions. Some political and social justice oriented calls to action. A notice that my dentist is open and I’m way overdue for a cleaning. Informational emails from all the places I’ve been ignoring because they no longer have any relevance to my life: the library, the gym, the running club, the book club, the church, the school. A week’s worth of morning briefings from the New York Times.

One of the first things I did when I came back to town was respond to two surveys sitting in my inbox about the possibility of returning to school and church in the fall. (I ignored the missionary health survey because I never served a mission.)

On the news front, I didn’t bother trying to catch up on what happened while we were away. I’m sure I missed a lot in the details, but the headlines were the same: it’s the end of the world as we know it.

Now that I’ve been back in the world long enough to remember that we’re still living in a deadly pandemic and to appreciate, perhaps for the first time, that it’s getting worse instead of better, I’m realizing that responding to the surveys when I was still high off the forest and family and friends might have been a huge mistake! I may have been a little, um, overly enthusiastic and, ah, unreasonably optimistic in my responses.

Consider the survey from the church, which was geared toward gauging interest in the following proposal for returning to in-person worship in the fall:

  • A shortened 30 minute worship service for 50 people;
  • Congregants would register beforehand, sanitize hands before and after worship, wear face masks, and maintain physical distance, including assigned seating;
  • Family members would sit together and children would stay with their parents;
  • No singing, communion, coffee, or fellowship hour; and
  • No sunday School for children or adults.

I skimmed through the limitations and didn’t even pause before checking the box to indicate “YES, I would be interested in attending in-person worship as outlined above.” Was I interested? Of course, I was interested. I was more than interested, I was desperate to get back to church. I thought we would be gathering for outdoor services back in June and here we are in July still meeting virtually. I would have checked the box a thousand times.

Having established my definite interest in attending in-person worship, I moved on to the next, and last, question in the survey: For those interested, are you willing to provide assistance ushering or reading? Again, I didn’t hesitate. Ushering? I’ve never ushered before, but sure, no problem, yes please, let me see my people. Reading? Again, I’ve never read from the pulpit before, but only because the church has never asked me. This, truly, is an oversight on their part; I am an impressive orator. I’d rather speak than read someone else’s words (even, ahem, God’s), but at this point, I’m as desperate to be of service as I am to interact with other people. Please just let me be useful.

A week after hitting submit, a week spent confronting the reality that life is not going back to normal in the fall (a reality that I am fully aware that people who are capable of taking life more than 24 hours at a time have probably already accepted), I’m feeling decidedly less charitable. If I had to check a box now, it would be the one that says, Oh shit, what did I do and can I take it back? If I could write my own survey and send it back to the church, it would look like this.

Parishioner’s Return to In-Person Worship Questionnaire:

  • Will ushers be permitted to maintain six feet of distance, hold their breath, and cross their fingers while welcoming people to church?
  • Will the people being ushed understand that I do not want to be anywhere near them?
  • Will readers be permitted to wear a mask at the pulpit?
  • Is there a mask that covers my mouth and nose and also hides the terror in my eyes?
  • If I volunteer, who will sit with my daughter–i.e., make sure she doesn’t wander out of our designated pew/holding pen and threaten the lives of the other brave and/or desperate churchgoers?
  • Are we worried about spreading the virus via the biblical floods of tears I am almost certainly going to cry from trying to pretend that this facade is anything close to what I want it to be?
  • Is church without singing, communion, fellowship, and coffee really church?
  • Is it worth taking my daughter if she hates it?
  • Do I have to go?
  • Do I want to go?
  • Does it even matter?

The survey from the school district was longer and more complicated and my responses were more nuanced. Suffice it to say that I indicated a strong preference for returning to in-person school five days a week for many reasons, including that my kid is the kind of kid who will likely struggle with a schedule that involves a mix of days in school and days out of school, and that I have serious concerns about the mental health implications of another year of entirely remote learning. Obviously, as a concerned citizen who tries to pull my head out of my own ass the sand at least occasionally, I’m second guessing the wisdom of that option now. Even if the risks to children seem low, I get that we can’t gamble with their lives, plus I don’t want staff to die! I don’t even want them to get sick! I only thought I had COVID for a couple of days, and it was terrible!

If I could redo the survey and send it back to the district it would look like this:

P.S. I’m sorry everything I want is bad.

P.P.S. Just tell me what the hell to do.

Quarantine Diary Day 45

My daughter has always been a kid that preferred the company of adults, or at least the company of me, to that of other kids. Typical oldest daughter, maybe. Maybe a typical only child. Of course, nothing about our own children ever feels typical. Most days, our bond feels special. I love how clearly she prefers me when it looks the way I want love to feel: sweet and easy. I’m talking mama-daughter dates at the museum, sushi dinners, and endless walks around the neighborhood. I worry and chafe when her attachment demands what love actually requires, which is to say, patience and sacrifice. When the neighborhood kids graduated from their parents’ arms to side-by-side play to careening around outside in a big, bonded pack, I longed to send her off with them so I could talk freely with the other moms. All through preschool, my girl stayed glued to my side, whined when I paid more attention to other adults than her, and cried when other kids came too close, touched her toys, or asked me a question.

When she started kindergarten, her world exploded. I was still her sun, but now she was crossing paths with dozens of other little planets. The planets were other kids, and she resisted their pull. She puzzled over their varied atmospheres, their rings, their moons, always too many or too few, their very existence. By the time she realized she might actually like the other planets, they were all spinning in time and she didn’t know how to sync up. We spent a lot of time at parks, her surreptitiously watching other kids play, me gently encouraging her to join, and both of us pretending we didn’t care when it didn’t happen.

Last summer, in the grassy common area between our houses, one of my more brutally honest friends put me on the spot: “Why doesn’t D play with the other kids?” Inside, I jerked at the pain of being found out. Outside, I answered honestly, nonchalantly: “She has a hard time working up the courage to join them. She is waiting for them to invite her in.” My friend dropped her chin and looked at me in disbelief, like I was asking for the moon. “But…kids don’t do that. They just…play.” “I know,” I shrugged. “She’ll figure it out.”

In the fall, my daughter started first grade in a new classroom, at a new school, and her world blew open again, and this time the pieces landed just right. After just a few weeks of trepidation about being the new kid, she settled into her new orbit, and she thrived. She ran around with a pack of kids on the playground, led a friendly war against the boys in her classroom, and came home everyday bubbling over with stories about her day. When she told me her favorite subject at school was recess I about died with pride and relief at the normalcy of it all. Kids without friends never like recess.

By the time winter rolled around, she was planning her own playdates and I breathed another sigh of relief. My only child would not be lonely. The playdates did not go perfectly smoothly. She would have a terrific time for two, three, even four hour stretches, but when it was time to go home, she would break down, devastated that the fun had to end. It was like preschool social interactions in reverse: she cried when I came too close, touched her arm, or asked a question. If I tried to grab her hand, or nudge her toward the door, she’d go alternately boneless or stiff as a board. Eventually we’d make it out the front door, but she’d be inconsolable the whole way home.

After a few of these scenes, I figured out what was going on. Having friends was still so new to her, she didn’t know if she could count on it to last. On our way home from a classmates’ house one evening, I tried to reassure her: “Honey, this is just the beginning. You’re going to get to play with M again.” She wasn’t so sure. She sniffed and tearfully asked, “Do you promise?” I take promises seriously, so I took my time before responding. When I felt sure, I said, “Of course. You’re going to have lots of playdates with lots of friends. I cannot think of any reason in the world you wouldn’t play with M again. We’ll invite her over next week. I promise.”

That was Monday, March 9. By Thursday, school was cancelled through April 12. On March 31, the district announced that schools were closed through April 30. On April 17, we got notice that schools are closed through the end of the year.

We hung D’s class picture on the wall next to the kitchen table where she does her schoolwork now. The first week of quarantine, I’d catch her staring at it throughout the day. Sometimes she’d climb up on her knees in the middle of a meal and start reading her classmates names out loud. Sometimes she’d touch their faces. Six weeks in, she’s hardened. She’s still willing to admit that she misses school and church and choir and swim, but when I ask her who she misses, she says “No one.”