On Mothering in a Pandemic and Hiding in the Pantry
"In struggle, we find ourselves. Through adversity, we learn who we really are." - some midwestern high school football coach
I was watching 30Rock last night. The episode where Liz gets jury duty and the defendant is a woman on trial for setting fire to the Kinkos where she is manager. After a day of her employees disappointing her at every turn, she comes to believe that her new beginning can only come with a cleansing fire. And that, phoenix-like, she'll rise from the ashes.
This resonates with Liz, who then proceeds to almost burn all of her employees, all of whom have disappointed her at every turn, alive in her office.
Now, I'm not going to say that this pandemic is going to turn me into an arsonist. At least I hope not. But it has certainly been a microscope for an awful lot of truths.
Sure, it's imbued us with a rustic pioneerism that has us obsessively baking our own sourdough bread and starting container gardens on our decks. And it's also brought into stark relief just how many people only just learned how to wash their hands in March of this year. And it has forced us to learn "communicate better or we're all going to die" strategies with the people we live with because, let's be honest, we're all disappointing one another at every turn and are also, frankly, tired of only looking at the faces of those same people every.single.day.
We're all learning things during this phase of, shall we say, upheaval.
For example, you may have learned during this forced grounding that your spouse chews like a camel and that might make you want to set your hair on fire.
You may now know that while you have many gifts and talents, you cannot, in fact, cut your own hair.
You may have discovered that it's not just Uncle Ricky who believes that the Obamas bought the pandemic from China for a cool $1.2 million (as if that's a lot of money on a global dominance scale) and released it into the wild to distract you from the fact that apparently Forrest Gump eats babies. Or something. (I'll be honest, I haven't really learned much about this because if I do, I'll lose what tattered shreds of my faith in humanity remain.)
But if there is one thing that this pandemic has REALLY learned us durn good, it's our triggers.
I was pregnant at the beginning of this pandemic. I gave birth during the first peak (a good story for another day). I am juggling a newborn and a toddler while being utterly unable to leave my house because A) the people called "weinernoses" can't seem to grasp wearing their masks properly; and B) my toddler licks everything.
Mothering in a pandemic is a special sort of awesome and awful all knotted up together. I gladly give my time, my body, my sleep, my sanity.... Okay, fair. Perhaps not gladly, but I do it because it's important. But apparently I draw the line at food. This is my trigger. This is my rage point. I finally found it.
Anyone who takes care of children full-time or, hell, even part time, knows that when you get a chance to actually put food in your mouth and chew it, you may as well be at a spa. It's that special. And sacred.
Anyone who takes care of children in any capacity also knows that, the very moment you sit down to eat that meal, the child will, WITHOUT FAIL, say to you in that high, precious voice of theirs, "Mommy, can I have a bite, please?" And then proceed to eat the entire fucking thing.
It doesn't matter if I eat when she eats. It doesn't matter if I eat after she's done. It doesn't matter at all because as soon as a fork is in my hand, two things are universally true: the baby will start crying and the toddler will ask for and summarily devour my entire meal.
"But she's trying new things! That's wonderful!"
Shut up. She doesn't want it because it's new. She wants it because it's mine. If I were to give her her own portion on her plate, she would look at it, scream, and put on an Oscar-worthy performance of a person being attacked by eels.
"Motherhood is selfless, you know."
No shit, Sherlock. But is it not enough to have selflessly given my body my sleep, my time, my career, my sanity? No? She needs my leftover tikka masala, too? And the smoothie? And breakfast? Cool. Cool.
I'm not proud of this trigger. I'm frankly almost as enraged by being triggered as I am of the trigger itself. It feels petty and neanderthal, like I'm some primitive cave dweller that's hiding a slab of meat from my offspring under a pelt in the back of the cavern because I need to live, too, damnit.
Actually, it's exactly like that exactly like that, only instead of a slab of meat it's a peanut butter sandwich and instead of hiding it under a pelt in a cave, I'm furtively eating it in a pitch dark pantry while my toddler wanders around the kitchen chirping, "Where did Mommy go?"
It's as predictable as sunrise or taxes or presidential tweeting at this point. I prepare food for myself. My toddler, if she sees it, eats the food. And then I descend into a deep state of simmering rage that I cannot express because she's just being a toddler, but that I cannot shake either because as I said before, I've already given her everything. Nothing is my own - not my body, not my time, or my sleep, or my sanity, or my space. I've already given it all to my children. The only thing I have that is mine is that bowl of minestrone and it's not even mine anymore.
I have this desperate, primal need to protect them that has only intensified in this pandemic. I have a driving urge to provide for them. I literally feed the one with my body and spend an absurd amount of time worrying about whether the other is getting proper nutrition. I feed her and she eats what I give her and is robustly healthy. And yet it's not enough. She wants mine, too. It doesn't matter what it is, reaching even beyond food. If it's mine, if it has even a bit of my attention, she wants it.
I fight the urge to roll my eyes. I fight the urge to put my head down and cry because I've been so frenzied taking care of both of them all morning that that lunch was the very first food I've had in seven hours. I fight the urge to take out all of my rage and frustration about the fact that I am cut off and isolated from everyone and everything because of a virus that half the country seems to think is no worse than the common cold, though we have myriad proof of the contrary. Individualism, I've heard it called.
The sandwich is a metaphor and daily I fight the urge to shout and pace and scream that I've given too much, that I'm stretched too thin, that I worry that I'm giving away so much of myself one piece at a time that by the time this is all over and they're grown, that there will be nothing left.
And there won't be. There won't be anything left of the person I was, the person I am now. I'll be someone new. There is no individualism in motherhood, and certainly not in pandemic motherhood. But as much as I am giving of myself every single day and as much as she is taking and taking and taking, piece by piece, she's taking and turning into a spectacular person. She's braver than I've ever been, with more relentless joy than I thought possible for a person.
So, I share. I pass her the spoon or I do what she prefers ad pull her into my lap and let her have it. The tikka masala. The minestrone. The peanut butter sandwich. The time. The sanity. My body. I let her have it and then I go make another sandwich.