It was Memorial Day weekend and we were bored from the social distancing lifestyle. I wanted to go swimming, but the public pools were closed. I didn’t want to risk being in a crowd so a walk by the Chattahoochee River was out. Before scanning the internet for other entertainment options, I started scrolling through the photos in my phone, thinking about pre-pandemic times. There was a picture from the comedy show I was in at the Aurora Theatre just before the stay-at-home order in March. That was fun. I chuckled in recalling the bits of my fellow performers. The pictures of my friends tugged at my heart. I missed them and the freedom to gather whenever we want. However, the images of my daughter nearly brought me to tears. Her happiness had taken a hit since the pandemic. The joviality and lightheartedness in all the pictures had changed. Her face now was filled with worry and confusion.
Under normal circumstances, Julia’s joie de vivre is delightful to everyone who knows her. She sings loudly in the car and hugs her friends tightly. She grins during quiet moments of simple pleasures like walking barefoot in the grass or climbing a tree.
She has a charming Moon Dance ritual. Whenever the moon is bright, and she doesn’t have to get up early the next day, she runs outside for an improvisational dance in celebration of the night. It’s sweet, and exhausting because I’m forced to participate in this dance that turns into a game of tag, a game I can no longer win. I was winning up until 2018. But those days are over. Sprightly GenX is as fast as it gets. Whereas Julia is growing into her genetics. Her father, a mountaineer, former snowboarder, army ranger Operation Desert Storm Veteran, and high school quarterback has made his mark in her legs. And there’s my DNA, with having been raised in a small town in which, “Hey I’ll race you to that tree,” filled idle summer days.
A typical 21st century childhood, Julia is used to a busy schedule. Being in activities is very important to me because the lessons and relationships formed in these settings often have a greater impact than regular school. As a band geek starting in 6th grade who is still playing the flute, I know this to be true. But in March life abruptly halted, no dance class, no choir practice, no sleepovers. It was a shock.
There were sleepless nights, rude remarks, and volatile outbursts. Julia was angry about homeschool. Her stomach hurt. Her head hurt. For a week or so, she walked with a lethargic gate like an old man, as if she were carrying the actual virus and all the problems associated with it, in her legs. At night, she would get clingy and demand to sleep with me, even though that’s never been allowed because adequate sleep is child abuse prevention. With her father and I being divorced, a one-woman show can not go on without rest.
Julia was also deeply afraid. She wanted to know how many people were dying and what would happen if we got sick. She asked me if I had a will. And she already has a personality prone to worry. On chilly winter nights, she is wondering where the homeless people are sleeping. It is infuriating to her that our society tolerates people sleeping on the streets. Julia is also a person who picks up on other people’s moods and can articulate her friends’ complex family dynamics with surprising accuracy.
If Julia were a preschooler it would have been easier to shield her from the full truth. But unfortunately, she’s a keen observing tween who knows the emperor has no clothes. There are herculean efforts to limit media. But, Operation Stable Genius is happening and can’t be ignored. She knows the president called the virus a hoax. She knows he didn’t prepare in January. Moreover, she knows that the president is a moron who talks out of his ass. And having this knowledge unfortunately interferes with serenity. She’s too advanced in the art of bullshit detection. She doesn’t feel safe and secure because as a nation we are, by all accounts, not safe and not secure. And I am mad about this emotional burden she has carried because children should be able to trust leaders during a national health crisis in a first world nation.
I’m not suggesting Julia is an angelic activist making calls to congress. She’s intelligent and empathic. But she is still a 10-year-old kid who does normal things like lie about brushing her teeth and delivers masterful Shakespearian performances of distress when she wants to get out of doing something she doesn’t want to do, and to avoid uncomfortable conversations about misdeeds. Our relationship is not earthquake-proof. But on balance, we are very close and she is a wonderful child. No one has ever said she was a “handful.” Not one teacher, not one camp counselor, has complained. Which is why the snarky speech and disrespect she tossed my way during early days of quarantine shocked me to my core and broke my heart.
One afternoon, the frustration of Covid life boiled over in the kitchen. I don’t remember what Julia said. She might not have uttered a word. It could have been an eye roll or a loud sigh. Whatever happened, it was the final straw. And I started shouting and assaulting the pots and pans I was badly cleaning. With each phrase the tempo and volume kept building like a Beethoven Symphony. “I know you’re unhappy but you will NOT talk to me like that goddamnit” (bang) “Do you think this is a goddamn (bang) picnic for me?” “Do you think I’m having any fun?” “This pandemic is NOT my goddamn fault! (bang) I’m doing the best (bang) I can so you figure out a better way to communicate with me! (bang)
When the clamoring stopped, I stepped away from the sink. A few minutes of tense silence passed. I finally spoke and said I wouldn’t be gone long. I believe the exact wording was, “I need to NOT be with you right now!” I got in the car and drove around the eerily empty streets of East Point, Grant Park, and East Atlanta for a couple of hours. I hadn’t been in the car for days and so it was kind of nice to get out and listen to Billie Eilish, an artist she introduced me to. (I had a Dream…I got everything I wanted.)
I parked by the Atlanta Zoo and walked a few blocks. Somewhere around Cherokee Avenue, I acknowledged that my daughter had actually hurt me. And strangely, once I admitted it, I was able to let go and separate her suffering from our relationship.
Julia missed her friends. She missed her routine. She was scared. She was lonely. She needed me to hear what she was saying and not saying, and change my reactions. She needed a different plan. But that’s a tall order. The plans are a day-by-day experiment because we don’t know how many people will fill the hospitals next week. We don’t know when we will make music with our friends again. We don’t know how bad things are going get.
What I do know is that my job is to survive this pandemic without losing my sanity. And as I was walking around Grant Park after beating up my kitchenware, I had to remind myself that I can’t change the fascist crackpots, and incompetent fools in the government right now. I can’t change the people and circumstances that have disappointed Julia. And I certainly can’t do anything about the Coronavirus with my liberal arts degrees.
My child is not alone in her distress. Even families with deep pockets and high thread-count social clout can’t protect their families from all the harms of the pandemic. And children with less resources are living with stressed out parents that struggle to make rent, let alone listen to their concerns.
I decided to seek solace in the words of Mr. Rogers. He once said, “There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus of growth.” We are undoubtedly in a historical period of turmoil that I hope will lead to a national “impetus of growth.” No one can argue with Mr. Rogers theoretically. However accepting Fred Roger’s gospel that my child must experience pain and suffering, is another matter entirely.
I couldn’t turn on the fan and blow her bad feelings out the window the day I screamed at her and accosted stainless steel. And that was infuriating. It’s not a fear that my daughter might be weak in the face of adversity. I just don’t want her in a position of having to be strong too soon. And I might add, dreadful times shine the light on our insecurities. There was a fear that I might be ill-equipped in this moment and damage the most important relationship in my life. Then again, there is no evidence to support suspicion. Witness testimony and a paper trail would have me in the clear that I am a loving conscientious mother. Maternal confidence can’t be denied. But am I not a performer?
I didn’t have the easiest childhood. I lost a sibling. There was a divorce. And I lost my father. And all of it happened before turning sweet sixteen. After my brother’s death in the winter of my Kindergarten year, my parents were broken from grief and complicated culpability. They weren’t functionally broken though. It was like a house still standing with trimmed hedges, painted shutters, and a working car in the driveway. But inside, it was smoky and dust filled, without enough light and silent.
It wasn’t like my parents stopped talking about him and the trials of all 14 years of his life. The limp, the brain injury, the coma after the accident, the seizures from a brain injury they didn’t understand. My mother in particular spoke of him often. But no one else was invited to this conversation so it was more like monologues, my mother’s own radio show and her kids were expected to be attentive audience members. They acted like parents and childhood didn’t end. But it was the beginning of knowing I was on my own.
During the divorce and after my father’s heart attack, the interrogations increased. In the college dorm, I told my friends my mother had the 2 0’clock disease. Whatever I had done, whatever the accomplishment, whatever the decision I made or new revelation I came to understand, it was dismissed as petty and should have been done the previous Thursday by 2 p.m. Weaknesses and wounds picked at, ignored, or mocked. Strengths diminished to ensure no one to get too big for their britches.
And so I seek to be attuned to my daughter’s feelings. I want her to be strong and make her way in the world. And yet I don’t want her to feel what I have felt.
Am I doing this right? Am I overcompensating as I monitor my daughter’s moods during a health crisis that is also a political crisis? Should she read this book about feelings? She has to learn some grit and manage her problems, right? Do I demand respect in this particular moment or will a look of disapproval and a long sweaty walk away from her suffice? Does she really deserve an ice cream cone? The questions pull and taunt me more than usual, disturbing my slumber, and changing my appetite, because dreadful times shine the light on our insecurities. I know I am a loving conscientious mother. The papers prove it and my maternal confidence can’t be denied. But, I also know that I am a mother who still needs mothering, a fact that won’t change when the pandemic ends or on my 90th birthday.
Everyone has to manage the ebb and flow of the national nightmare upon us, of which there is no end date. It is daunting because we don’t have answers to the most basic questions.
The best I can do is to tell Julia the age appropriate truth that she deserves, assure her that I am the bedrock of our home—trustworthy of all details good, bad, and boring—while showing her that when we wrestle with problems and confront our suffering, we can still move in a direction toward joy.