For many people, or so I hear, the days and weeks and months of this pandemic have tended to blur together, into a static lump of time. For me, this time has had a different shape. At any moment, you could have asked me how many months we’d been doing this thing, and I could have told you immediately. In March 2020, I had a baby, whose entire life has been measured in those same pandemic days and weeks and months. Now the pandemic is turning two, and so is she.
She came early. A few days before, I was watching the only other person in my office disinfect a pack of seltzer cans, and just beginning to engage in the arcane, inexact risk calculations—should I be disinfecting everything too?—that would soon become ubiquitous. I’d just skipped a party for two 4-year-olds (the number of guests seemed too high) in favor of getting a haircut (just me and my beloved stylist, alone in a poorly ventilated studio). After my water broke, my husband and I waited more than an hour for my mom to come drive us to the hospital, so we could avoid a car ride with a stranger.
If our goal was to avoid contact with this new, unnerving disease, all of these decisions were less consequential than the fact that my baby was born two weeks ahead of schedule. Every day, the risk of getting COVID was ticking up exponentially. On her birthday, 44 people were reported dead of COVID-19 in New York City. On her due date, it was 573.
In the pictures from the hospital, my husband and I look tired and happy. We’re not wearing masks, of course, because masks were in such short supply that even the doctors and other staff were rationing the few they had. You don’t want to be here longer than you need to be, they kept telling us. After she was born, we stayed hunkered in a small, divided hospital room for about 36 hours. The second-most-dangerous thing we did was send my husband to the cafeteria. (Our take-out order was canceled—the cook had called in sick.) The most dangerous was spending our last, long night across a flimsy curtain from another mother and father and their new baby.
Then we took her home. In the pictures that follow, so much is standard for a baby’s early life: She has her first doctor’s visit, her first bath, her first outing. She meets her grandma. One month passes. Her grandpa, then her aunt, hold her. She learns to keep her head up, to smile. She sleeps more soundly through the night. Two months, three months. She sits up; she has her feet dipped in the ocean (she hates it); she tries avocados, bananas, and peas. Six months. She has her first Halloween, dressed as a pirate, then her first Thanksgiving. She loves the swings at the playground. She crawls. Nine months. She is skeptical of snow. She stands, then shuffles; she screeches and squawks. Then it’s her birthday. She gets pancakes, whipped cream, and giant balloons that delight her for days.
In those same pictures, you can spot the pandemic’s weird realities. Some of it’s easy to see: Her first meeting with my dad is outside; he is masked, I am not, and he’s leaning in across six-ish feet of distance to get the best glimpse he can of his firstborn child’s firstborn baby. On an early trip to a windy beach, my husband, my mom, and I are all masked. Alone with the baby in the park—masked. I remember her gleeful surprise at realizing that behind every mask is a mouth, just one more fact of the world to absorb and accept. Other absences, she couldn’t understand, and are harder to make out: her other aunt and uncle and her only cousin, who were living in Germany and couldn’t come to visit; all our friends who didn’t meet her until she was older. Parties—she was never plopped down with a bunch of other kids, left to play while we kept half an eye on her; never passed from person to person, cooed and fussed over by admiring adults.
None of this fazes her, of course. She’s a baby. But these are her baby pictures, the ones that she’ll look at later to try to imagine the earliest months of her life. And sometimes I wonder: How will we describe this time to her?
In the second year, after she begins to walk, the changes are harder to capture—her awareness of the world grows, her confidence expands, she knows what things are, what she likes, what she is less enthusiastic about. She understands us when we talk. And there are vaccines, and all of sudden—more friends! more places! no masks!—until … breakthroughs start. At a year and half, the pandemic is just passing the peak of Delta cases; my baby—no longer really a baby—is playing with worms in the park, and running joyfully by the East River, pointing at the helicopters that fly overhead. At 21 months, she is impatient to open the Christmas presents under the tree, and Omicron is ruining our plans to share the holiday.
Through all of this, however many months she’s lived, that’s always about how old the pandemic is, too. COVID has its own patterns of growth, its own milestones. (Some, like those for babies, are also defined by the CDC.) Like a healthy baby’s weight, the pandemic’s gravity has kept increasing: At one month, the disease has killed more than 30,000 Americans. At six months, 200,000. By one year, more than 500,000. And now, at two, closing in on 1 million. The coronavirus developed new behaviors, too, in predictable ways that still surprised us, when we had to face their reality. The necessity of focusing on one little life, one tumultuous progression, has kept time ticking for me.
Now that she is a toddler, I can imagine more vividly what this time must have been like for parents whose children started the pandemic with any awareness of the world—harder, I think. Pandemic babies, millions of them, have known only this reality, and mine is none the worse for it. She goes to day care and plays with other kids; she has grandparents who dote on her. At almost 2, though, she has started to show, in little ways, how living through this has influenced her. One of her first 50 words was mask—she’s rarely worn one herself, but she sees us putting them on, like any other item of clothing she can name: pants, boots, socks, or (her favorite) hat. The other day, she volunteered, for no particular reason, to take an at-home COVID test.
Before she was born, we had a story we thought we would tell her, about how when I was 33 weeks pregnant—just on the edge of when you’re supposed to stop traveling—we went to Mexico, and how that trip was so worth the risk. In the more dramatic days of the pandemic, we wondered how strange that story might sound to her one day: If the airline industry had collapsed by then, would a plane ride seem like a dream? But for the most part, the societal makeovers conjured during lockdown have not come to pass; American life has settled into many of its old patterns, for good and for bad. And whatever happens next will feel like it’s happening faster. After 2, parents start measuring a child’s age in longer chunks—half years, full years. A baby shakes the rhythms of your life, and every day must be dedicated to understanding this new, controlling force. A toddler will still have a hold on you, but her wants and needs, her delights and sorrows, are now endemic: Her existence has been built into yours. Soon enough, I will be sitting with my daughter, flipping through these same pictures, and telling her a story about what this time meant. Perhaps she will feel entirely separate from it, unaffected by this strange happening at the beginning of her life. Or perhaps she will understand then how it shaped the world in which she grew, in ways we can only guess at now.