Dear World: Please come back. But not exactly as you were
“Mommy, go in the other room so I can work,” my near three-year-old says to me.
Oh god, did I say this to her?
So much of what she says is mimicry, so when it’s something like, “We can’t go to the playground because the other kids will make us sick,” she must be getting it from me. She doesn’t see anyone but me and my husband.
Then she says, “I just need to write one email.”
Ok, that is directly from me. Even the emphasis is the same.
The day after she tells me to leave the room so she can work, a heavy snowfall sends us out to tromp around the yard, build snowmen and pull her around in her new blue sled. It is a very welcome change from the early-winter doldrums, when going outside in the cold isn’t much fun. And of course we haven’t been able to go to the library, children museums, coffee shops, or friends’ houses since last March.
The before time
I think everyone will have that memory of the last normal thing they did, before. For us it was her second birthday party on Leap Day 2020, with family, friends, cupcakes, sharing of drinks, hugs, laughing in each other’s faces. Then by St. Patrick’s Day, 17 days later, daycare had closed down and we were both working from home—for two weeks, and then two more weeks, and then months and months. When her daycare reopened in July, they didn’t have enough spots to accommodate everyone. Even if they had, we wouldn’t have sent her back. We wanted to leave the few spots for kids of essential workers, since we were both at home. And this way we wouldn’t have to worry constantly about her exposure. I’m sure this story is familiar, in some form. Let’s move on.
Things I miss: hugging and food
It is now early March, 2021. Fiona has been home with us for almost one year.
Honestly, at first, I was thrilled to not have to commute to work every day. And the relief I felt to not have the monumental cost of daycare, for even a short time, was more than I expected—I felt light. I dreamed of owning a home and taking vacations and being able to afford organic strawberries. Of course, soon after, came the crushing grief of the missing world. My grief consisted of a wave of memories, of sudden longing: Fish and chips and Irish music. Hugging friends—physical contact, without hesitation. Libraries. Birthday parties. Fried pickles and beer inside at a bar, even stale air and sticky bathroom floors. Swimming pools. Seeing mouths move and smile. I even miss the nearby run-down mall, where last winter we took our then 18-month old to totter up and down the storefronts, when she needed to run around but it was too cold to play outside. Salty, crunchy mall pretzels with that cheese sauce that could stop your heart. Yes, especially the cheese sauce.
But there are some things I don’t miss
At this time last year, my husband was spending over three hours a day commuting to work, on the commuter rail and the subway, beholden to its increasingly frequent delays and near-riots daily on the constantly packed platforms. I’ll never forget my daughter’s first Halloween, a day where a parade drew tens of thousands of people to Boston. The exodus of the parade happened at exactly the same time as the commuting workforce leaving early to be with their families on Halloween, and the seas of people outside North Station did not bode well for Dr. Grant, Dr. Sadler and the baby dinosaur being able to spend Halloween together. After an estimate that it would take him two hours just to board a train, we had to make a decision of whether to pay $100 for an Uber home, or have him miss his daughter’s first Halloween (we paid the money).
Meanwhile in those first two months of 2020 I was mostly driving to work, because I had the shorter commute and one of us had to be able to get to Fiona’s daycare within 45 minutes if they called and she was sick. Which meant that when they called, it was always me who went to get her. Young children in daycare get fevers all the time, and have to be kept at home for 24 hours after the fever goes away. During the winter of 2019/2020, Fiona had 3 ear infections, half a dozen colds, and I was constantly feeling guilty about having to leave the office, even though I would continue working on my laptop when I got home.
The bright side: Easing through the terrible twos
Balancing working from home with a toddler during a pandemic has been extremely challenging, when you aren’t allowed to do most of the things you normally would to entertain, nourish their spirit and stimulate their developing brain, all while worrying about getting sick and about whether your work productivity (or lack thereof) will put you behind your non-parent co-workers in the future. However, some beautiful rays of light have emerged too. With Fiona out of daycare, we’re saving money like never before, even despite the fact that my husband was laid off when his company shut down. (Though these savings have dwindled since we hired a part-time nanny to watch her while we work.)
Another amazing benefit: I think we avoided the terrible twos. First of all, I’m not rushing her off to daycare every morning. In fact, we are never in a rush to go anywhere because well, we never go anywhere. And when we do, we let her take her time choosing her clothes, deciding whether to go to the playground or what to play inside. I am constantly asking her, “what do you want to do?”. After a while, she starts asking me, “Mommy, what do you want to do?”
Everything I have read about how to deal with tantrums advises patience, empathy, calmness: understand that it is really just as simple as the child not having the ability to verbally express their rapidly developing emotions, and therefore they are often misunderstood. But since it seems like the kid is just acting out on purpose (and it does often seem like a toddler is purposely trying to ruin your life), parents understandably react with frustration, anger, and oh yes, begging them to stop.
One time in the self-check-out line in Target, there was a toddler at the register who was teetering right on the edge of a full-blown tantrum, as his mother tried to quickly scan, bag and pay for their items. She kept saying to him, utterly exasperated, “I’m just trying to get out of the fucking store! I’m just trying to get out of the fucking store!”
And I must admit, I related, deeply, to that sentiment. Often with a young child, when trying to accomplish any kind of task that draws your attention away from them, you just need a few moments, dear god please just give me 10 seconds to get you out of this store so I’m not totally mortified, because typically when you switch your focus fully back to them, they begin to calm down.
My husband and I have an at-home system where we take shifts, and your shift means you are really paying attention to her, and not trying to work at the same time. Of course this doesn’t always work with our schedules, and we sometimes plop her in front of the TV so as to not miss a meeting, but we really try to do it most of the time. So because either my husband or I are with her at all times and rarely in a rush to go somewhere, we are able to see the melt-down coming on, and implement a strategy that involves talking to her about her feelings, identifying even the bad ones (especially the bad ones), giving her time to calm down, and it works, mostly.
Nearing the end, and a new beginning
I should probably note that even since writing a draft of this, our now three-year-old has developed a totally new set of challenging characteristics, including perceiving a general threat from the world. Because of suddenly warm weather, we went to a playground today where there were other kids. I put down my travel tea cup on the ground so that I could swing with her, and she looked at me, utterly distressed, with tears in her wide eyes: “But Mommy, the kids are going to get your tea!” Despite all my anti-tantrum tactics, I absolutely could not convince her that the kids were not going to steal my tea.
For me, the intense missing of the world has turned into a semi-depressed, foggy state of being where I feel vaguely stressed, but I’m also bored so I must not really be stressed; I desperately want to be rid of my child for the daytime weekday hours, and at the same time I honestly don’t even know if I will be able to leave her at preschool whenever the times comes. Vaccinations are picking up speed, and somewhere deep inside me I know it’s all coming back, the world, but it’s been a long enough time now that I can’t really picture it. It seems like there are so many hurdles, and maybe even when it’s safe we still won’t feel good about it. At this point I just can’t picture how things ever go back to normal.
Dreading the new world, normalizing compassion
And the thing is I don’t want to go back to the normal world. Yes, of course I want libraries and birthday parties and cheesy mall pretzels, but not some other things. “Normal” life for us as parents meant feeling like we were sacrificing the next 10 years of financial stability in order to pay for childcare. It meant lengthy commutes and guilt over the long daycare hours because of those commutes. And of course worry over having to leave work early, even worrying about possibly losing a job because of it. I know this is all true for many other families in this country, and it’s not a good life for anyone who values their time and sanity. It’s not good for two-year-olds needing more engagement and patience, or for parents tending to their own self-care, mental stability and future aspirations. It’s not an exaggeration that there can be real trauma involved in status-quo, pre-pandemic parenting. It’s also far more likely to be women missing out on career opportunities because of choosing to stay home with kids instead of paying for childcare. We even thought about having me stay at home, and I’ve never imagined leaving work to raise kids. If we had twins, or two children under three, I definitely would have stopped working. Even preschool isn’t free in Massachusetts. Even Kindergarten isn’t always free.
I don’t think I need to go out on a limb to say that families need more flexibility. This past year could provide an opportunity to strive for something better, as the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated existing challenges working parents are facing. I hope that employers and state governments can see that there is a great opportunity here to do two things that would really help: normalize some amount of remote work, and provide childcare subsidies.
Normalize flexibility: for example, one parent has the option to work part-time in order to spend more time with their kids, and actually gets paid enough to send the kid to daycare the rest of the time, or can afford it because of subsidies. A longer term solution to this would likely include a disruption to urban sprawl, and bolstering our gateway cities: the higher paying jobs are in Boston (similar to most major cities) where the cost of living is so high that people have to move further and further out, especially to find a house big enough for a family. This makes the commuting longer and longer, requiring longer daycare hours and a greater amount of work missed when children get sick. Having more jobs in surrounding cities could be a monumental difference. It might seem like a big dream, but let’s start right here, where we can. After all, our kids are our families. Our families are our communities. Our communities are our future.
I want it all
After being at home together for almost a year, I can only say that every day I feel like everything stretches: my heart, my patience, my humor, my humility, and my gratitude, just for being able to witness her journey in the world. Every day, she gets wilder, smarter, kinder, braver, more stubborn, and more hilarious and I’m just trying to keep the wheels on, in this wild, wonderful ride.
Can’t I have that, and have someone else help care for her, and have a fulfilling career and not feel guilty about it?
As Fiona would say: “Mommy, what do you want to do?”
Well. I want to go back to a better world.
About the author
Jessi Duston is originally from New Hampshire and lives in Ayer, MA with her husband, daughter, and dog. She writes in various forms including personal essays, spoken word poetry, screenplays and a memoir about living in Los Angeles. She recently received a Master’s in Sustainability and Environmental Management and works in clean energy research in Boston.