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Facing My Failures as a Mother in Quarantine

Joy Thompson
Mar 20 · 5 min read

When the reality of the pandemic first set in, of course I first thought of my grandparents — my two grandmothers and my grandfather, ranging in age from 85 to 91. Then my dad, who is in poor health, on dialysis, and with diabetes so advanced he recently had his second leg amputated. If they contract the virus…my heart creeps up to the wall of dread, peeks over the side, and, horrified by the endless horizon of grief, scampers away.

So I focus on today. Today my 4-year-old daughter’s daycare is still open. Today the teachers do their regular health checks at the door, instead of the classroom, so parents keep their germs away. Today she comes home and asks, “What’s a virus?” Today my department is packing up and choosing to be the first from my institution to work remotely. Today my sister, who is earning her doctor of public health at Johns Hopkins, tells me it’s not safe to do playdates.

Today I get the worst news, the news I’ve truly been dreading: my daughter’s daycare is closing (except to families who have no other safe option); she will be home with me for three weeks, or more.

I flash back to the endless days when I was a stay at home mother. That frantic feeling every time I looked at the clock and realized we had another four, five, six hours until my partner came home. The bottomless (obviously completely valid) needs of my baby and the fear that she would drain me of every last ounce of life and energy with her constant crying, nursing, needing. The desperation I felt to retreat into my own mind, my inner sanctum, populated with every story I’ve read, every word I’ve loved, walls hung with golden memories of summer camp and travel and quietly floating in clear waters. I remember the longing to move freely, unhindered by another human being for whom I was responsible, able to make decisions on the fly without worrying about snacks or naps or diapers.

When my baby was 14 months old, I plunged back into working full-time. The first day, I cried. But the next day, I walked to lunch by myself and was steeped in the same exhilaration I felt at 17 years old after I got my license and drove a car alone for the first time. I could go anywhere. I could turn the music up and listen to what I want.

My job as an editor is not easy, nor is it grueling. It’s pleasantly challenging, sometimes weighed down by tedium or tricky interpersonal dynamics but mostly, it’s an escape. I have an office with a door that closes. Every Monday my first few hours in my office are like one long sigh of relief. I love my daughter more than I’ve ever loved anyone or anything. Does that even need to be said? But being home with her, being “on” in a way that taxes every fiber of my introverted being, can sometimes feel a teensy bit like a hostage situation. Just like when she was a baby, now in the face of a weeks-long quarantine I fear being emptied beyond the point where I might be filled again; emptied by incessant demands for snacks, for attention, for a patience I don’t know if I can muster. In her novel Swing Time, Zadie Smith writes what children want from their mothers is “complete submission.” I feel this deeply in my bones, the same bones that are weary from battling my strong-willed daughter every day since she was born for a scrap of myself to have leftover at the end of the day.

Now, with the coronavirus, I’m having to stare all these demons down once again. What does it mean about me, as a mother, that the worst thing so far about this social distancing is that I have to spend so many hours with my intelligent, hilarious, adorable (and relentless) daughter? One day this week I had to log off of social media because my anxiety was ramping up from all the virus talk. But yesterday I had to log off because I was seeing too many childless people complaining about their self-isolation, which to me sounded like a literal dream come true. Nothing to do but read and watch movies and do puzzles and go on long walks? That’s called a vacation.

It’s often said that mothers who hold down full-time jobs outside the home actually have two full-time jobs. I’ve always felt that to be true. The work never ends. Just because I’m at my office doesn’t mean I’m not weighing the options of ballet versus gymnastics, or considering the dual immersion program for kindergarten, or wondering what reward system I can implement to get my child to stay in her bed past 6 a.m. But now I’m trying to do both of those jobs at the very same time, from before the sun rises until I fall asleep at night. At the same time, I’m trying to stay calm and upbeat for my child who could easily pick up this stress and tension and internalize it so that she has to spend an extra five cumulative years in therapy when she’s older.

There are so many major, global unknowns popping up as we careen into this unprecedented time in history: how many people will fall ill, how many deaths will occur, in what ways will the economy collapse? But as our anxious minds play whack-a-mole with those unknowns, there are also the small, personal ones. What will my family look like on the other side of this? Will my mental health hold? Will I finally break through my shame about not being the kind of mom who loves mothering and just accept that I’m doing the very best I can? As the world comes together to dodge the worst case scenario, we each have our own very particular, very personal worst case scenarios, as well as questions and obstacles and challenges presented to us. Now we brace ourselves to see whether we will come out on the other side, triumphant, or at least, intact.

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