Our interim director asks me how I am at the start of a meeting that I’m about to lead. I respond vaguely and he follows up, “How’s the family?”
I think back to the last time he asked me this, back in April, when he told all of us to make time to get outside. I turned on my video, triumphantly, and revealed myself, in a grassy field at the edge of a waterfront park, my toddler and I in our bike helmets.
I shudder a bit at it all now. It was my birthday. We hadn’t had childcare for a month. My husband and I were working in shifts, but my work meetings often did not align with this schedule. I decided to take this ride, squeezing our bike onto a narrow path next to the unexpectedly closed gate at the entrance to the park, both because I wanted to treat myself on my birthday and because I knew the park was a place I could simultaneously manage my toddler and this work call. It turned out to be one of the best days I had had in awhile, picking dandelions with my son, wearing my favorite dress, twirling in the endless grass with the river shimmering close by. It’s a good memory. But it was by no means triumphant.
There’s so much I take for granted even now.
For months my tongue was painfully and intermittently inflamed (I think from incessant, stress-induced gum chewing?) but I never seriously considered going to the doctor. I had neither the time nor the energy to figure something like that out. Eventually it resolved itself.
After a couple of months, our childcare center reopened to essential employees only. It quickly became clear that the very strict definition of essential meant that only a handful of children would be able to return. So we lied, in a myriad of ways. And after some desperate pleading, my husband’s boss signed off on our lie. My husband started a full-time graduate program through his employer in August. We couldn’t have managed without childcare. I’d like to say that we would have found another way to make it work, that we would have found another provider, but even before the pandemic there was a dearth of options.
We kept going to parks, but surreptitiously, full of shame. I remember the day, a really hard day for entirely forgotten reasons, when I finally broke down and let my son go down the slide on an empty playground.
Every week my toddler and I waited anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes in the line to get into the grocery store. There wasn’t really a better option: the stores weren’t open after his bedtime, and the wait on weekday mornings, while long, was much shorter than at any other time.
We’ve watched so much life pass by from our screens. A funeral, a graduation, a wedding. I said goodbye to my great grandmother on a video call, my son watching, waving, smiling at her fiesty declarations of “PURPLE!” (my son’s favorite color), her trembling hand repeatedly rising to the screen as if to reach us, touch us.
I almost wrote how things are easier now, but that’s not quite right. But things are more settled, more predictable, difficulties easier to acclimate to because even that feels routine. This call, the one where the interim director asks me, “How’s the family?” is in the middle of a day without childcare, a near weekly occurrence because our childcare center’s abbreviated hours make it impossible for my husband to attend his late afternoon classes. I take our son full-time on these days, but I can’t very well miss a meeting with the interim director, so my husband is on the other side of the wall trying to attend to his class (camera on and collared shirt required) and our very busy two-year old at the same time.