What’s that thing, Mom?
Max, you know what that is.What’s it called?
That’s your bra.
Is it white?
Not exactly. This color is called, uh … nude.
Oh, nude. Mom?
Do you poop in your bra?
Social isolation, Day 17. In the kitchen, in the bathroom, in bed, on walks, my husband and I, plus our boys—Max, 2, and Finn, 5—are all alone, all together, all the time. These weeks have been wild and strange and exhausting. They have been many things, but chief among them is, I think, intimate. I picture the four of us exiting quarantine as a single, many-headed organism.
On Friday, March 13, the email arrived from my sons’ preschool, its subject line devastatingly simple: Closure. I put the phone down. I couldn’t quite bring myself to read the rest. I felt my incredible luck—the worst thing to befall me during this global pandemic, so far at least, was a state-mandated staycation with my favorite people on Earth. Still, a jolt of actual panic seized me. How would we make it through with no outings, no playdates, no relief?
How would I get any work done? This part answered itself almost immediately: At least initially, I wouldn’t. Within days, my freelance career dried up, every story in the hopper vanished—poof! As a financial hit, it was bad, but it could have been far worse. I was already set to begin work on a book, the contract for which remains intact (I checked). As an emotional hit, it felt heavier. Overnight I went from working journalist to homeschooling mom. Let’s be clear: I didn’t feel demoted. I felt deeply unqualified.
My husband is a self-employed architect; we are roughly equal earners. Until a few weeks ago, child care was the biggest line item in our monthly budget. At times we have spent more on it than we could rationally afford, a fact about which I have felt largely unconflicted. I have respect for parents who choose to stay home with kids, and respect and empathy for those who have no choice in the matter. But more than once, I’ve joked that my only regret about hiring Finn’s first, beloved babysitter when he was four months old was not having hired her sooner. My best advice to pregnant friends is to line up child care. You don’t have to do this alone, I tell them. Subtext: I cannot do this alone.
It took me about three days of being home with my boys to recognize that our new lifestyle was not completely without precedent. Certain aspects of confinement had an eerie familiarity: the 24/7 relentlessness, the isolation, the satisfaction of small domestic victories. I’d done this before—twice, on maternity leave.
On one late-night, wine-fueled Zoom call, I listened to my women friends commiserate. One had lost her job; another suspected hers might be next. A third, a midwife, was delivering babies in a hospital with insufficient protective gear, worrying about what she was bringing home to her kids. All, meanwhile, were managing families and schooling young children. So I felt sheepish sharing the idea taking shape in my mind, that somehow I wasn’t hating this time as much as I was supposed to. I’d begun to wonder, in fact, if it was a reset that my family—or really, that I as a mother—sorely needed. Maybe I didn’t have to scramble for new assignments. Maybe I could reframe quarantine. It could be my third maternity leave.
I recall my two actual maternity leaves as twin blurs of never-before-felt tenderness and acute stress. Both times I was recovering from a C-section with an infant who had difficulty nursing. Nipples bled. Spousal tempers flared. Everybody cried. The bottom line? Those two hormone-soaked stretches are the only times I’ve ever been in charge of my own children for longer than a weekend (aside from vacations) without some degree of child care. Is it any wonder I initially dreaded the prospect of parenting without professional or familial assistance?
Marathon parenting—or, as it is known to regular full-time caretakers, “Tuesday”—is the sort of thing, I am learning, that you can’t do well until you do it a lot. You need ideas, a schedule. You need Cosmic Kids Yoga (look it up on YouTube), Sparkle Stories, a rotation of art projects that can hold a child’s attention for more time than they take to set up. Most crucially, you need low expectations, zero anticipation that any of these projects will be accomplished.
To clarify, I can afford to be relatively calm about all of this because I am not doing this by myself. While I do handle “mom school” most mornings, my husband is equally involved. He’s the one who takes the boys outside and runs them hard, like a pair of terriers sprung from their crate. He operates the survivalist-boot-camp arm of our operation, leading them in frog-spotting and hole-digging, equipping them with potentially finger-severing tools, and goading Finn to, say, repeatedly roll an empty tire up a hill.
As for the children’s perspective, I’m pretty sure social distancing is the greatest thing that ever happened to them, the windfall of their short lives. They get all of us almost all the time. Finn chatters about his friends, but little evidence suggests that either of them misses school. This realization is, for me, bittersweet. I can’t think about how happy our kids are to be with us—just us—without acknowledging the fact that that’s the one thing we’ve never given them. It is the one thing that is truly off the table.
I’ve always relied on a convenient certainty that preschool is a win-win. High-energy as they are, surely our pups would chew the legs off the table if we kept them at home, and they’d miss out on the early socialization that I’m convinced (and remain convinced) has put them on the road to becoming tolerable human beings. But the truth is, they are there not because that’s what they need. They’re there because that’s what we need. And when school reopens, they’ll be right back there again. I’m okay with that, but maybe not as okay as I used to be. Yes, I have to work to pay the bills, and I’ve always known that working is essential to my sanity and sense of self. But now I have a keener sense of what my boys—and I—will be missing.
Something is happening between my kids and me that I don’t think I’ll fully understand until this is all over. Finn and I spent the better part of Monday lying side by side on our bellies, doodling on an enormous swath of butcher paper I had taped to the floor. It was exactly the scene I used to picture when I imagined what it might be like to have children, and yet, somehow, we had never done it. By late afternoon, I was showing him how to draw dogs and people in a way he hadn’t tried. Yesterday, he sat at the kitchen table and proceeded to draw one figure after the next, better than I had taught him, with a confidence I’d never seen.
Finn is a complex creature. If he thinks he’s not good at a new skill, he can be heartbreakingly self-critical. No question, he and I would not have found the openness that made that late-afternoon drawing lesson possible had we not whiled away the entire day—and maybe had weeks of togetherness before that—leading up to it. Something about the specific slowness of shutdown life lends itself to these moments. There are a lot of things I’ve strived to be, as a parent. Slow has never been one of them.
When I try to put my finger on what is really different about my current relationship with my sons, it’s not the isolation. It is that, for once, I’m not working. (Except, of course, I am: I’m writing this.) Without the usual press of deadlines, I am not pushing my kid’s swing with one hand while scrolling through my inbox with the other, worrying about what I’m missing or not getting done.
Here’s the recent revelation that blows my mind: The more I’m with my children, the less they drive me crazy. In our normal life, I go over to friends’ houses and marvel as they calmly chop root vegetables while holding forth on the Democratic primary, as if there weren’t a pack of children burning rubber around the kitchen island like it’s the final lap at Daytona. I’ve never been able to do that. The normal human cacophony produced by my sons regularly sends me over the edge. I’ve considered this constitutional brittleness to be both my primary flaw as a parent and proof that I wasn’t built for mothering all the livelong day.
But I’m becoming conditioned to the chaos. I’m learning which of my toddler’s tantrums to soothe, and which to ignore—mastering the kind of benign negligence that makes family life tolerable for everyone. One recent morning, my children and I achieved a flow that felt borderline balletic. Breakfast rolled into outdoor time, which rolled into drawing. Sure, there was screeching; sure, when the 5-year-old rolled his eyes like a seasoned tween, I did fantasize about bashing myself over the head with a cast-iron skillet—but only briefly! We kept moving along, and then it was lunchtime, and when their father came downstairs to take over, I felt as heroic as Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, standing on the wing of an Airbus A320 in the middle of the Hudson.
Naturally, comeuppance came, swift and brutal. Later that afternoon, I found my children detestable, our arrangement untenable. Max’s trademark high-pitched, glass-shattering shriek was a personal assault on my stability. After his 19th or 20th round of it, I hurled a bag of shredded cheese across the kitchen. “Stop screaming,” I screamed, spittle flying, as both kids stared at me, stunned. Mom school was closed for the day.
I’m not proud of the flying cheese, but it is partly why I find this “third maternity leave” theory handy. Maternity leave is rare, and it’s intense, but it’s also—God willing—temporary. When a friend texted late the other night to confess that she’d yelled at her daughter repeatedly that day, I wrote back something that a few weeks ago would have sounded to my own ears like an empty platitude: Just start again tomorrow. The strangest aspect of this grand social experiment may also be the most useful one: Every day is Groundhog Day. To me, that makes every day a do-over. I may not have had the courage, or frankly the desire, to voluntarily take time out from life and work to do what I’m doing now—try, and fail, and try again with my kids. Yet it’s the chance I’ve been given.