When New York City went into lockdown in mid-March, my family was at the hospital, in the pediatric intensive care unit, where my 3-month-old son lay cradled in a makeshift nest of receiving blankets and tangles of cords atop a hospital bed. For five days, I pumped milk at his bedside, let his little hand curl around my finger, and watched his oxygen levels as he battled a respiratory infection.
Prior to this hospital stay, I could have counted the hours I was outside our apartment after our son’s birth on my fingers. Now, as everyone who could retreated into their homes, my baby and I — and my husband, until a new hospital policy limiting patient visitors was put into place — were forced out.
Despite this, there was a strange symmetry to the timing. A medical crisis usually throws your life wildly out of sync with the world outside. Instead, as Lauren Collins wrote in The New Yorker of grieving for her father amid a pandemic, the world had plunged into crisis parallel to ours. The panic and upheaval throughout the city seemed fitted to our private misery, though they were unrelated. My phone vibrated with texts from friends checking in, not because they had any reason to know our son was sick, but because everyone in New York was checking in on everyone they knew.
After he turned the corner and was slowly weaned off oxygen, we were sent home to the canned beans and granola bars I’d stocked up on the week before, in a fit of what I’d hoped was paranoia. We stayed inside. Our son still had a phlegmy cough; we’d hover over him as he slept, trying to discern if he was working too hard to breathe, if he had to go back. But he didn’t. Instead, we eased into a new reality that was also my old reality: pacing the floors of our one-bedroom apartment, gazing out the window, imagining how nice it would be to take a walk or go to a café or even commute to our offices but making no move to do so.
At this point, I had been on maternity leave for three-and-a-half months. For much of it, my husband had been traveling for work while I stayed home with a baby I was, deep down, rather terrified of. I’d spent little time around babies before having one. Everything he did surprised and unnerved me, from his silent glares to the way he ground my nipples between his gums, leaving them crushed and bloody. He seemed fragile and perpetually on the verge of howling or needing a bottle. I knew other moms routinely left the house with their babies, and I wanted to be among them, but it wasn’t quite clear to me how they did this. Even after I made a few successful outings for walks or music classes, it seemed no less mysterious to me how I might repeat it. Days and weeks passed without my ever breathing fresh air. When I did leave, the apartment building being constructed across the street would have doubled in size. I had the vertiginous sense that time was moving at the wrong speed, as if I’d woken from what I thought was a nap only to discover I’d been asleep for weeks.
One day this past winter, desperate for a taste of the outside world, I strapped him to my chest and walked to a coffee shop nearby, ordered a salad, and sat down to eat. Sensing that he was stirring, I began rocking violently in my seat, hoping to pacify him long enough to have my lunch. I ate the entire salad that way, rocking and chewing. By the time I finished my walk home, I was sweating in the February chill and I hadn’t enjoyed myself at all.
I had expected becoming a mother to obliterate my old life, to thrust me into a different sort of existence, and it had. What I hadn’t expected was that the rest of the world would meet me there.
New motherhood and life amid a pandemic share so many similarities that, for me at least, they’ve bled together. I haven’t set foot outside with a clear mind in five months; every errand is fraught with anxiety and additional burdens (the masks, the diapers, the sanitizer, the wriggly human). I tense up at the prospect of entering a crowded space, once, childishly, because I was afraid the baby would start screaming and draw glares and now, more rationally, because I’m afraid of contagion. Bereft of its old markers, time continues to feel off-kilter. Each day, an endless continuation of the day before, is spent in the same place and doing the same rote tasks. We know this won’t last forever, but we also don’t know how to make plans for anything worth looking forward to because we don’t know exactly when this state will end.
Leaving home to go to work, as many women must do soon after giving birth and as many essential workers must still do now, can be physically dangerous and emotionally devastating. Maternity leave, like sheltering in place, is a privilege if not a vacation, a luxury that rarely feels luxurious. It can be claustrophobic, isolating, enervating. Ever since I gave birth, I’ve lived in sweatpants and stained tees. When hair salons shut down, it had already been five months since my last haircut.
Because my mother died when I was very young, Mother’s Day has been a day of mourning for me for 20 years. Like many with dead or bad moms, I’d twitch at suggestions to call, send flowers to or buy discounted perfume sets for a person who didn’t exist for me, the annual reminders of all I had lost. I anticipated my first Mother’s Day as a mother perhaps too much; for years, I expected that at last I’d spend the day happy and celebratory, in sync with the promotional emails and crowded brunch spots that mark the occasion. Instead, it’s become a bit sadder for everyone. Some are losing their mothers and grandmothers to COVID-19. Other moms are separated from their kids by social distancing requirements.
Still others are with them all the time, far more than they ever expected to be. I’m writing this from the kitchen table in my small Brooklyn apartment. My now-5-month-old son is wailing in the bedroom; we’re sleep-training him and it’s naptime. He hates naptime and I hate listening to him cry. Every two hours, all day, I get up from my laptop, open Slack on my phone and curl up to nurse him on the couch. In between, I struggle to focus on my work assignments and to bite my tongue when I’m tempted to weigh in on my husband’s parenting decisions. I thought by now I’d be back at the office, swanning about the newsroom, attending meetings and wearing impractical outfits (midi skirts! dry-clean-only tops!) while he got his turn at solo parental bonding. Instead, the expected separation has been put off to some unknowable date. Another end date is knowable: Tomorrow, my husband goes back to work, and balancing care of our infant with our jobs will become doubly difficult.
At times it feels like the worst possible timing. At times I fantasize about living through the pandemic as my old childless self — baking endless loaves of banana bread, tearing through Netflix and leaving bottles of red wine in my wake, retreating to bed for the weekend with a stack of novels, learning to sew masks.
But though new motherhood has so much in common with the bleakness of life in quarantine, it also contains within it the purpose many are finding in sourdough starters and windowsill gardens: Every day, my husband and I need to help a living thing grow. The relentlessness of the task can feel inhumane, and yet each moment spent wiping a butt is a moment I can’t spend sinking into the couch, crushed by the weight of existence. The other week, my son started laughing. The timing could not have been better.
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