“Not to brag but what a time to be childless,” tweeted comedian Kim Congdon.
Her post, on March 30th, got over 500,000 likes and 100,000 retweets.
Even as the butt of the joke, a mother to two small children, I had to laugh. It’s funny because it’s true—kind of.
Even on a good day, when school is in session and our actress babysitter doesn’t have auditions and none of our deadlines are too daunting, my husband Andrew and I find ourselves short on time. Both self-employed, we lament lack of childcare and, well, breaks. While we have loving and helpful extended families, we don’t have one of those dreamy setups where someone takes the kids for weeks at a time, while we escape for a reset.
In fact, long before coronavirus came along, I was insane about my children washing and sanitizing their hands because I harbored a deep fear of the regular ole flu. I didn’t want any of us to feel sick, of course, but my primary concern was about what I’d do if one of my kids had to miss school for an entire week! How would I find a way to work and be caretaker at the same time?
The joke is on me. Again.
There is so much to say about how this virus has already shifted our culture. Andrew and I pulled our daughter out of school before the public schools in New York City were officially closed, despite some raised eyebrows from people around us. And, after two weeks of heavy quarantine, we packed up our kids and left Brooklyn, absconding to his parents’ remote house on the Chesapeake Bay. Shortly afterward, my parents and sister did the same, taking a house down the quiet dirt road. We are a quarantined compound.
I felt—and continue to feel—some guilt for leaving my city. But, though it may sound absurd, as Jews, we feel strongly that, when the shit goes down, you want to be the first—not the last—to leave.
I have a 2-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, which means that they’re just young enough not to be able to do anything for themselves and just old enough to have Zoom classes and little assignments and yoga classes to attend. (The older one was interrupted in the midst of learning to read, which panics me daily.) Like many of my working-mom friends, often, I get so absorbed in trying to juggle the everyday logistics of this reality, while managing my own deadlines, that I forget that this pandemic is about more than just being on an island without childcare. At night, I remember that this is a life or death situation. Then I meditate. Or eat dairy-free ice cream.
Throughout this time, I have regularly praised God, fate, luck, biology, karma—whatever you want to call it—for not making children as susceptible to this virus as adults. Otherwise, I’d be curled up in fetal position on the floor. But I’m not going to lie: this time is still very hard. It is for all of us, no matter what our individual situations. Parenting in a pandemic just brings another level of exhaustion and rigor to an already unnerving experience—and I have the rare luxury of interacting with other family members right now.
In some ways, I have to admit that it’s freed me. I feel released from the pressures of Brooklyn mom perfection. Those chicken fingers aren’t organic? Oh, well! The kids had dessert three nights in a row? So be it! They haven’t bathed in days? Dirt builds character—and microbiomes! The possibility of perfect parenting has left the building (as if it ever actually existed), so I do feel free to exhale in that department.
But, the truth is, it’s not the work and the entertaining and the cooking that’s actually been hardest: When we first arrived here, my daughter expressed uncharacteristic reticence about walking five minutes from one set of grandparents’ house to the other, despite the fact that she’s quite close to both sets (not to mention her aunt, who is sleeping at the other house).
At first, I got frustrated with her. Why was she making my life more difficult by refusing to budge? But then Andrew and I realized that her resistance must be coming from a place of anxiety, though she couldn’t articulate what was holding her back.
With the promise of baking cookies with my sister, I finally lured her over to the other house. She stayed and played for hours, happy once she arrived. With my father as little more than a prop, she invented a game where she owned a hotel restaurant and had to lay everyone off. She was going to get fired too and have no money, and one of her stuffies, a large crab, was apparently hoarding food!
When my father reported the details of the game to me afterward, I felt like I’d had the wind knocked out of me. Of course, my husband and I had been careful not to say anything obviously frightening in front of her. We’d explained that there was a sickness, kind of like the flu, and that it really didn’t impact children very much. But that we all want to keep too many people from getting it at once, so we have to stay away from our friends and school for awhile. But it never occurred to me that she was listening and absorbing when I reported facts to my husband about zero occupancy in hotels! At 6, she’s straddling these two moments—between being a baby and a full-blown kid—and sometimes it’s difficult to know what she’ll understand.
As I walked home with her that day, I asked whether she was feeling afraid. She smiled and said she was fine; the game had helped her play some of that out, I imagine. But then she asked me if we could get coronavirus from trees, since they take in our carbon dioxide and give us oxygen back. I was at once impressed by her logic and devastated by how scared she much be feeling. “No!” I told her. “We’re so lucky to be surrounded by trees!”
I thought we’d made progress until a couple of nights later, when I tucked her into bed. She hugged her favorite stuffed owl close and reported, “Mommy, Hoo Hoo has the corona owl.”
My heart dropped.
Time for a long talk! I told her she could ask me any questions she wanted about things she’d overheard or been told that she didn’t understand. She wanted to know: How does a new virus start? What makes this one so bad? If it’s okay for kids, what does it do to grandparents? Where did it start? Would this happen again? Will this happen to her kids when she is a mother?
The next morning, she came into my bedroom and reported that Hoo Hoo actually only had a cold, though he was still social distancing from his other stuffed animal friends, just to be safe. That night, when I put on a kids’ meditation for her that turned out to be about staying calm in the time of coronavirus, I wasn’t sure how she’d respond.
“Mommy!” she gasped. I braced for what would come next. “This must have been recorded recently!” She was just excited that a new meditation had been added to the roster.
Children are resilient. That’s what they always say and, of course, it’s true. Who is shouldering the burden of this more than the adults, worrying about their finances, their kids’ education, social development and mental states, not to mention mortality itself?
But, particularly for the kids who will remember, this is a formative moment in the vein of the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion and 9-11. And that feels like a lot of pressure. Our children now live in a global community where a situation like this one is a possibility, where the health and safety of the world cannot be taken for granted, where their normal lives could be upended at any moment. For those of us who are fortunate enough to emerge unscathed, hopefully the message is more about coming together and being okay—despite a massive interruption—than about instability.
The kids are going to remember this time. That’s why a lot of parents and experts out there say that our calm and loving behavior in this moment is more important than all the Zoom meetups and Mo Willems doodle classes combined. That’s why sometimes it’s better to just put on the movie, instead of force the lessons, and give everyone some space. But modulating our behavior, in the face of our own fear and sense of upheaval, is probably the hardest thing—even harder than home schooling and parenting 24-7 without a break. We have to find a way to at least pretend to be okay, even in our most devastated and panicked moments.
When my friend, also a mother, forwarded me that Kim Congdon tweet about being kid-free, I laughed hard and wrote back, “I mean, she’s not wrong.” Then I added, "Except for the hugs.”
And that’s the real truth too: For all the exhaustion, our need to stay positive for our kids and immerse ourselves in their (mostly unencumbered) play can be a gift. It forces us to stay present and divert our attention to small joys because, for small kids, mindfulness is just a way of life. Children don’t care about the past or future—they’re in the now.
And, yes, there are also the hugs, which help a lot. I’d like to send some out to all the tired mamas out there. You’re doing great. It’s going to be okay.
Written by our very own editorial director, Nora Zelevansky.