A Pandemic School Day.
I’m not doing well.
I can sing by heart the song of gratitude for what I have and that my family is healthy. It’s all true. I have food in the cupboard. My apartment is warm. I am deeply grateful.
Still, I’m not doing well.
Remote school is my job now. I’m supervising a 7th grader who chooses my closet as his domain all day every day. I get it. I have a studio apartment. The closet has a door and LED snowflake lights inside. It’s private. I’ve given him my best sofa cushion to keep it nice. And my days are spent opening the door to say:
“You need oxygen.”
“Get off YouTube and get back to class.”
“Your Spanish teacher just called to say you’ve skipped all your Google meets this week.”
“Did you do the school general attendance form?”
“Take a bouncing break.”
And my other little boy is in 2nd grade. Remote school is not remotely interesting to him aside from the 20-minute morning meeting where he and his nine other classmates chat with the teacher.
My favorite part is the “mood meter.” Their teacher is teaching them to name their feelings using a color-coded chart.
I’m going to go on the record here and say that is the most useful thing he’s learned this year. Thank you, Dear Second Grade Teacher, for helping my kid become conversant about his feelings and teaching the kids to all witness each other’s feelings. That is an actual skill that I know will serve him in life.
Reading? Writing? Math? Maybe once in a while. Art class? Forget it. Science over Zoom? No way.
There’s a favorite gym teacher who teaches once a week and uses fun music with her exercises. I’ve gotten a little trampoline that takes up the last little bit of square footage in my apartment. It turns out that kids are made out of the same stuff as Tiggers and they will bounce. If not on a trampoline, then on my bed, my chairs — you get the picture. My little one will bounce on the trampoline while the gym teacher plays the music for her class. Does he do what she’s asking? Uh, not precisely.
Precision is not part of remote school.
And as soon as it’s enough for him, he knows how the leave-meeting button works. He leaves class before I even know what’s happened. “Get back on the Zoom!” is a phrase hardly worth using. When he’s done, he’s done. We’re all tired of the sound of my voice asking him to get back on Zoom.
“Bouncing breaks” are a part of our day. We need them to reset our nervous systems and help us feel better, and sometimes we even break a giggle.
Once upon a time, there was a moment when my kids were just old enough to go to school. It was emotional and wrenching. I remember the time my oldest was not yet three years old and he said, “Mama, I want to go to school.”
“Kid, you should have told me this a year ago,” I said. “There are wait lists for preschool in Brooklyn.”
But I found a school in the neighborhood. They let him join mid-school-year. On the day he joined the class, the teacher let me hang out for the first hour. When that hour was done, she said to me, “Okay, have a good day.”
I didn’t understand. Did she expect me to just leave my child there and walk away?
That’s exactly what was expected of me. The lovely secretary in the office told me she has a special box of tissues for the moms who leave their kids for the first time. I thought that was stupid and a little over the top. Then I accepted the offered tissue as I walked away from the classroom.
I found myself on the sidewalk outside the school making mental calculations. Like, could I figure out which window is his classroom and just, you know, loiter a little and try to catch a glimpse of my little one in there? I knew that was not in anyone’s best interests. So I went to a coffee shop and sat still, alone. Like, pretty much for the first time since he was born. It was thrilling. I didn’t know what to do yet, but I knew I could do stuff and use my brain again in ways I hadn’t for a long time. I can write! I can walk and swing my arms because I’m neither holding his hand nor pushing a stroller. I was going to be able to drop him off, go teach the dance classes where I work and not hire a babysitter. I can just pick him up from school when I’m done.
Everyone has somewhere to be that is the right place.
Now, we are home.
We are home every day. I don’t have dance classes to teach anymore. Writing is not an activity that I can do regularly, because it requires having thoughts you can carry through to the end.
“Mom! He kicked me!” “Did not!” “Yes you did! Gimme my headphones!” “Why were you on YouTube?” “GIMME MY HEADPHONES!!!” [Fight to the death ensues.]
Sorry, what was I saying?
Oh, right. My current environment is one never-ending series of thought-breakers.
It’s been a trick to figure out what I can do with my time that feels like a day well spent.
Most days I feel like a pinball just bouncing from one wall to the other in my apartment. I have to find things I can do that can be interrupted. It turns out, those things are cooking and cleaning. Chopping vegetables is soothing and does not suffer from interruption. I can put the knife down, attend to a child and pick the knife up again. While my hands are busy, the part of my brain that solves life puzzles can have a good run. Priorities for the day become clearer. But lest you think that sounds like I’ve nailed it, most of the day is spent feeling like I’m not doing anything. Why do I feel like that?
Andrew Yang speaks about his wife taking care of their two children and how “the market rate for her work is zero dollars.”
I used to work several freelance jobs outside of the home. This means I have a record of earning what the government labels “non-employee compensation.” Jeezus, we need better language for these things.
It is money for work. It’s not a trick.
The language so clearly reflects the bias toward giving business owners an out for not providing benefits in our employment-obsessed culture. But since the Federal government recently expanded the pool of people who qualify for Unemployment Insurance, I got myself into the system. Before the pandemic, the only people who could qualify for unemployment benefits were “employees.”
Again, we have to do something about our language around work.
It took many tries and months of waiting, but eventually the tap turned on and some money started flowing my way. It helps. The state still seems uncomfortable with hand outs to artists and “non-employees” and such, so I receive the minimum payment the system allows. The minimum weekly unemployment payment for New York State is $182. It’s not everything, but it’s something and it’s way, way better than nothing.
And since I am also a woman who tracks and follows her money, I have systems in place to record income and expenses. That money that I receive on a weekly basis from the government? I don’t call it unemployment money. I don’t feel unemployed. I’m busier than a one-armed paper hanger all day long and caring for children is important.
I label that money SALARY.
Therefore, I tell myself that I am earning a salary from the government for being at home doing school with my children all week long. A friend of mine calls it “financial dignity.”
What line do I stand in to get some of that?
Sometimes, just to witness myself, and to feel like a writer, I write down what I’ve done for the day. On January 6th, before the day of the wild insurrection at the Capital became a date lodged in American history, I ended the day with one of those lists.
January 6, 2021. What I did today:
- I got my little one on his morning meeting Zoom on time, in pjs, with cereal, in the little nook under my desk where he feels safe; with a pretty pillow.
- I let him skip science Zoom because he was in a grumpy funk. I put on music and bounced on the trampoline with him, which lifted his spirits enough so he could attend his reading Zoom and do what the teacher asked of him.
- I started my period midmorning.
- I finally put away that pile of clothes.
- I made peanut butter sandwiches when my boys needed them.
- I set up a board game so they could do something fun together that is not on a screen.
- I spoke to my oldest with kindness in my voice, not impatience, and thanked him when he did the things I asked him to do.
- I encouraged my youngest all the way through writing three sentences.
- I held him when he cried after he showed his dad who made him feel like it wasn’t good enough. I told him I am proud of him.
- I emptied the dishwasher.
- I peeled the red cabbage left from before Christmas and found that it’s just fine past the first dried leaves, so I made a jar of pickled red cabbage.
- I fed myself brown rice and lentils and a green salad.
- I saw the news today. What the actual fuck?
- I listened quietly and did not engage as my ex monologued at me. Including the part about our son’s writing “I’ve told you about this many times and I need you to be invested in his progress the way it should be.” Uh huh.
Postscript: My to-do list is still a beast. But I’m now going to sit down on my couch and put my feet up and require no more of myself for one day. The idea of being a writer still lives in me. I just can’t find the cracks in my life to fit it in. And now I’m too tired.
Not too many days later, I started taking to my bed and crying in the afternoons. It wasn’t deliberate. It isn’t ideal. It’s just where I ended up.
One of those mornings, I had managed to put in a load of laundry in the basement. I’d put the towels in the dryer and brought up the t-shirts and delicates to hang on the rack in the apartment. All that was before I ended up crying in bed. It’s incredible to think that, mid-breakdown, I somehow still manage household chores. I’m not trying to lift myself up with this fact. I just notice I’m pinballing from task to task even in emotional descent. It makes me feel like such a — I’m going to say it — housewife.
I want to scream. “I’m such an interesting person! I’m a creative professional! I speak four languages! I have dreams! I had plans! And now I’m just a mother!” Even as I think these thoughts, I shame myself for ingratitude. How hard did I try to have these kids? I had four miscarriages on the way to my second child. I really, really want to be a mother. And I’m losing my mind. Why can’t this be enough?
Why can’t I just stay in my apartment all day every day with my children and be fine?
It can’t be good for children to see their mother crying in bed in the afternoons. I’m able to think this even as I sob.
“Mama, can we do something?” my sweet children ask.
“Fold the laundry!” I shoot back as I put the sleep mask over my eyes and try to quiet myself.
My mind enters something like a dark cave. The absence of stimulation is soothing. I hear in the distance my children whispering as they move around like mythical brownies trying to do good. No words are clear. I don’t try to understand. My muscles soften the grip they have on my skeleton.
It’s not sleep. But it’s a kind of quiet place where I stay for a couple of hours. I don’t move. I don’t think. I’m outside of time. It’s a little frightening to experience. As a mother, there is an expected 24-hour vigilance and I’ve clocked out. I think about stories of mothers of yore who took to their beds. Nervous breakdown is one expression. “I dropped my basket” is another way I’ve heard it described. One of my friends who grew up in the South said her mother used to “give down” and disappear to her room for days at a time.
As a culture, we judge these women for being over-dramatic, or under-equipped. Growing up, I definitely learned to have judgmental feelings towards women who couldn’t “buck up” and just get on with it. I mean, how hard can it be? You have everything. A home, children, food on the table. Is that not everything?
A depressive time out cannot last forever. I’m a woman with a human body and my bladder has limits. When the signals become unbearable, I have to rouse myself from bed. I blink and wonder how long I’ve been gone. The inside of my sleep mask is still wet from tears. The sun is low and the shadows outside my window are long.
I think about my children and their helpful, earnest little whispers as I was drifting away. They asked what they could do. I heard them scurrying around to do what I asked.
“They’re good kids,” I think.
As I turn on the lamp, I run into the laundry basket with my feet. All the towels and socks are still in a jumble from the dryer. But I told them to fold the laundry. Nothing is folded. I don’t understand.
Then I see it. There’s a bench next to my table. My blessed children took all the wet t-shirts from the rack, rolled them up into neat little damp burritos and lined them up on the bench. See? They folded the laundry. It’s what I told them to do.
That’s when I realize the only next right thing for me to do is to rehang the wet laundry. I can’t let it mold. I’ve had my tearful time out. I pick up the first one, hang it, and then the next one. I think about Sisyphus. Man, those Greeks and their apt metaphors! Faced with a boulder and a hill, how hard can it be to get the job done?
Recently, my Mom called me and said, “I read Meghan Markle’s article saying we all need to ask each other if we are okay. Are you okay, sweetie?”
No, Mom. I can confidently say that I am not okay.
We are in a pandemic. Any work I might have done outside of the home has evaporated. Schools were previously a place where kids could go and be in the right place. That’s a thing of the past.
There’s talk of a future. But for the moment, it’s just talk. In the present, it’s bouncing breaks and peanut butter sandwiches and “Get back on Zoom!” and “I’m proud of you!” and occasionally a trip to the dark night of the soul. And gratitude. And despair.
And do it all again tomorrow.