I will never know how my life would have played out in the pre-coronavirus world, however, because the pandemic completely reshuffled my options.
In early February, when the number of COVID-19 cases was soaring in China, my husband and I were living in Shanghai. There was so much uncertainty as to how the situation would unfold that it seemed prudent for us to leave for his family’s place in Connecticut until the whole thing blew over. Cases in the United States at the time were only in the double digits, and I thought of the trip as a long visit, one month at most. But what was a temporary departure from Shanghai has become a three-month stay in the U.S., with no end in sight. Our lease in China has run out, and we are semipermanent guests at my in-laws’, unable to make any plans until the “new normal” takes shape.
When the shelter-in-place orders were first imposed, I read about working parents with horror and fascination. All the parents I know bemoaned the strain their children placed on their productivity. Suddenly they were all BBC Dad, flustered, cornered, helpless. Their struggles only underscored my reluctance to start a family—and I was trepidatious when my sister-in-law decided to join our crowded lockdown household with her baby. Was I about to get a taste of the chaos of working from home with a child?
Read: Being a parent has made my pandemic life simpler, if you can believe it
My sister-in-law is a hospital social worker, and her husband runs a small law firm. Pulling their infant son out of day care wreaked havoc on their already precarious work-life balance. They tried to split up their days so that one of them was on baby duty while the other focused on work, but neither their jobs nor their son was willing or able to abide by such a schedule. With the quality of their work and their parenting suffering in equal measure, they decided they needed help. My sister-in-law went to her parents’ home, while her husband stayed behind.
In non-pandemic times, my in-laws might have balked at such an intrusion on their quiet, empty-nester life. After all, moving back in with one’s parents in adulthood, with a child no less, is stigmatized in America, despite growing instances of multigenerational households.
The macro logic of this arrangement made sense to me. By sharing the burden of household duties and child care, we would reduce the oversize disruption to my sister-in-law’s life, while only slightly increasing the overall disruption to the rest of our lives. We make sacrifices for the sake of family during a crisis. What kind of monster would I be to complain about a little extra work?
I pictured us handing off the baby throughout the day as if he were a squirming, drooling hot potato. Only a few hours after their arrival, I was set straight. A baby is a powerful agent of mayhem, capable of thunderous fury if he is not managed by highly structured routines. As he settled into his new environment, the baby had a tough time sleeping for more than a couple of hours at a time and needed a lot of attention.