School is back in session, and with it comes a Rorschach of emotions that seem harder to process the more I think about them.
There’s the normal uncertainty that comes up when we send our kids out into the world. Will my kids be challenged? Will they get the support they need? Will their teachers be effective yet also have the right personality to keep the kids engaged and feeling safe? Will they learn what they need to learn? Will they be good friends and nice classmates?
But this year, there is so much more than that. This year, all the usual suspects are joined by a low-level fear that I don’t see going away anytime soon.
Will my kids get sick at school? Will they bring sickness home and get one of us, or their baby brother, sick? Will it spread to our family members and friends who are medically compromised?
A haze of illness is dripping off everything around us, and rather than trusting that we can work together as a community to protect ourselves and each other, we’re in a place where we can’t trust the people around us to simply do the right thing.
Suddenly, taking basic measures to protect the entire community has become secondary to some individuals' "right" to do whatever they please. I don't have to tell you about the people all over the country bucking against any kind of protective measure that keeps their friends and neighbors safe. I don't have to remind you, either, that infections and deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise. You might even not need me to share this gruesome statistic that stopped me mid-guzzle yesterday morning as I tried to mainline as much caffeine into my body as possible and tread in the existential dread long enough to parent my children.
Yet, somehow, health and science have become "politics." Basic human courtesy is an "agenda." We can't bring ourselves to actually give a damn about anyone else, because we are so wrapped up in value judging them based on what we presume to be their political inclination.
Here's what I want to say to all the people who fly their Feedumb Flag as an excuse to be abhorrent human beings who can't be bothered to exercise basic human decency because Politics.
Put yourself at risk all you want. By all means, congregate with other future COVID death statistics, packed like salty, recirculated-droplet-breathing sardines in the windowless dining room of your favorite burger joint. Let this disgusting brand of individualism you hold so dear infect you and your cronies from the inside out.
But leave my kids the hell out of it.
"Only 400 children have died from COVID," I heard at a school committee meeting the other day. The capacity of my kids' school is 350. Picture every desk in your child's school, and every car in the parking lot, occupied by a child who died of COVID. Are you sure that's a statistic you want to use to corroborate your stance?
"Children rarely get sick from COVID," I've heard. Without even going into the fact that the Delta variant has a higher infection rate among children, this claim misses the mark. I'm worried about my children, yes. I'm concerned they'll get sick, and I'm concerned they'll have long-lasting symptoms we haven't yet discovered. But, also, if my kids carry around the virus, whether or not they get sick, they can pass it along to someone else - like the many people in our lives who are medically compromised.
And that's not to mention the disruption to learning that comes when students have to be sent home and/or quarantined because they've either been in class with someone with the illness, or because they have a symptom that appears on the laundry list of possible COVID indicators.
I am so appalled by the willingness of people to use their children as pieces in this poorly-conceived game in which we've all engaged ourselves. People are so quick to follow their political party in what should be a commonsense public health decision, and it infuriates me.
By virtue of living in an organized society, we have agreed to work toward the collective good. I could see where this might be tricky if the collective good is in opposition to a person's individual success. But following basic decency and simple public health precautions is in everyone's best interest. Sure, we all have our own individual freedoms. But when exercising that freedom, it's each individual's responsibility to be sure we're not negatively affecting those around us.
I shouldn't have to worry every day that my neighbor's risky behavior is going to put my family at risk.
But I do. And until everyone is willing to make this conversation, grounded in facts and science, that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with basic human decency and the common good, that's not going to change.
There is a saying I've heard many times over the years: If everything's important, nothing's important.
It rings true. It really does. But the problem comes when there are enough things that actually are important that it becomes impossible to accomplish them all.
This started to happen to me when I began teaching. Being a first-year teacher is a fresh hell reserved for only the most naive and masochistic of us. You've got to have the right combination of drive, stubbornness, and support if you're going to get out of there alive, and there were times when I didn't know if I would. The learning curve is so steep that there's always a hundred things you don't know and a thousand things you know but suck at actually doing.
And the kids can smell it.
After five years, I thought I had the hang of teaching - and then I moved to a new school at a new grade level and got to be terrible all over again. Only this time, there were state tests and network-wide initiatives and, well, more things to suck at. There was the teaching, which happened during the school day, but there was also the lesson planning, which generally happened before and after the school day. Everything was so important (and being a teacher is so miserable unless you're decent at it) that I spent hours each day trying to get things just right so I could do something other than fall apart when I was actually in front of kids. Even so, I'd close my computer at 11:00 each night, knowing what I had wasn't quite good enough, but so exhausted I could do no more.
It was a constant state of failure - one that never truly went away.
Having children is a similar state of perpetual shortcoming. There's always something I know I should be doing, but I just can't. If I'm doing well on meal planning, I'm doing a bad job of spending time with the kids. If I'm keeping consistent behavioral expectations, I'm doing a bad job of cleaning the house. And if I'm doing a fantastic job at all the parenting things (which is a dream, let's be real), then there's a 100% chance I'm failing at doing anything for myself. I'm not working out, I'm not reading enough, I'm not doing well at my job.
There's simply not time in the day for it all.
So what do I do? I go in phases. Sometimes I feel like a really good mom. Some days I do really well at my job. Others my writing shines like Aladdin's lamp.
But never all at once.
It's survival mode at its finest, and I've been living here for my entire adult life.
I read a book recently - The Islanders by local Massachusetts writer, Meg Mitchell Moore. I enjoyed the book quite thoroughly, and I identified hard with the character Lu, an at-home parent who aspires to have a career. She's speaking with another rock-star female character, Joy, who says something that tightens my shoulders even now.
"We can't have it all. We have to pick."
Lu's response is desperate, and tears sprung to my eyes when I read it. "You're wrong," she says. "You have to be wrong." I feel those words in my soul.
People will say to prioritize. They'll say it's impossible for one person to do all the things. But it can't be. Because if I have to pick, I'll inevitably pick everyone else over myself. And so I pick survival mode. Catching one of a thousand balls before they all clang to the ground, occasionally asking a kid, partner, or friend to chase after one as it bounces away. But mainly I pick everything, because I can't be whole if I have to choose.
So what's a person to do when everything's important? A person who wants to be a good parent, while at the same time having a career and a self that exist outside? Will it always be survival mode, or is there hope?
Share your story in the comments.
I feel your bass
drum kick, boom-boom,
up near my
heart and so
forceful it can be
seen and not just
Then comes in the
bass guitar, rolling left
to right, slapping
time, the vibrations
backbeat in my
Your hands stay
folded up next to your
smushed-up face, all
the way down
showtime, and then
fingers glide and
flutter, finding the
keys in the
I tap along,
fingers drumming the
snare, toes tapping the
high hat, humming lead
guitar to the tune
of who cares because
it’s just you and
Some times you are
gently as if we have
nowhere to be and
you are content
to stay inside
Others you plug
in and make yourself
unmistakably known and I
wonder what choreography you’re
learning in there, and if
you’ll remember it when
Or, perhaps more
likely, we’ll settle
in to a new
sound, a new
song, a new
dance, just you
Except this time,
like it or not,
there will be vocals.
“I’m going to take a shower,” I said to my husband. “A long one.”
“Okay,” he said.
I thought for another moment, taking in the empty bathroom. “Actually, maybe a bath.”
He raised his eyebrows as I removed a bath bomb — a Christmas gift from one of the girls — from the cabinet.
In my house, it’s a serious thing for mama to take a bath. A sacred thing. It means I don’t want to be disturbed. I’m known to stay in the scalding water, soaking and reading and listening to acoustic pop covers on my phone, and maybe even having a drink, for long enough that people forget what I was doing in the first place.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when my kids burst into the bathroom after about four minutes, brandishing a package, one of them exclaiming, “Mom! I think this is for me!” and neither of them seeming to register my condition.
“Girls! Leave mama alone!” came the call from the front steps.
“Shut the door!” I sang after my progeny as they followed the sound of my husband’s voice back out of the house. I sank down a little deeper, trying in vain to submerge my ever-knotted trapezius muscles in the hot water.
Another two minutes passed before the doorknob turned again. My husband entered and began rummaging through one of the drawers.
“Whatcha looking for?” I asked casually, as if I wasn’t sitting naked in a tub full of steaming water.
I wrinkled my eyebrows. “Everything okay?”
“Yellow jackets,” he said. As an explanation, it was lacking, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to probe further.
I directed him to where I’d left them, and he left again without further elaboration. At least he closed the door without a reminder. I rearranged my hair, leaned back, and attempted once more to zone out.
It couldn’t have been more than another minute before one of my amazing children, dirt and grass stains on her knees, a book in one hand and a cheese stick in the other, launched herself through the door once more. “I’m sorry, Mom, I know you’re trying to take a bath, but I really need to poop.”
I did the mental equivalent of throwing my arms up in the air. I’m not always Zen about these kinds of things, but in this case, the hilarity of it all just bowled me over. Before I knew it, both kids, along with the dog, were in the bathroom, just going about life as if I wasn’t sitting there in my birthday suit, trying to soak in a quarter of an hour of peace. I’m pretty sure any one of them would have hopped right in with me if I’d offered.
I smiled in spite of myself — maybe because it was Mother’s Day; maybe because I’m trying really hard to be less uptight about things in general.
Did I expect this kind of glamor, when I was envisioning motherhood? No, I suppose I didn’t. But I wouldn’t trade these crazy, imperfect children for anything in the universe.
This story is dedicated to everyone out there who can identify with the exasperating beauty of parenting. There is nothing quite like it.
Do you have a funny Mother's Day or parenting story to share? Tell us all about it in the comments!