I am at the sink. Again. Near always. Washing vegetables. Washing dishes. Filling pots. Washing hands. Washing hands. Washing hands.
My two-year-old is home with me every single day for a month now. There is the joy of it. The pleasure in nothing but cat noises with my little love for hours. Snuggles and giggles and nothing to do but be silly. There is the gift of being a stay-at-home mom, something I’ve never been, still checking in on work even when on maternity leave, always grounding myself in quiet, focused work. Now, I am not grounded. I meow hour after hour, my body turning into a tabby cat, nuzzling my young, mewing and yowling, teaching her to voice her needs, to erupt with noise, even if we’re still calling out for days and days and days.
There is a reason I’m not a stay-at-home mom. I’ve always known that I need my own mental world. I adore being a mother. I am quick to playfulness. Nurturing is my style. But I am prone to give so much that I am spent, and I get bored without something more for my brain to do. Having a work life makes me a better mom and a better me.
In this pandemic world, we do not go out. I have never loathed the city more. People everywhere. Every good place we could usually enjoy now closed: city parks and beaches, gymnastics. bookstores. Walks outside are dangerous with maskless strangers veering quick around corners and a two-year-old who wants to run. We do not go out.
I am at the sink again. There is no end to dishes, no break from domestic tasks. We’ve succumbed to more TV watching than our little one has ever been allowed. I station her on the couch and go back into the kitchen. Into the kitchen again and again. All these meals, every day. All these dishes. It comes to the point that seeing the full sink is like a jolt to my amygdala. I feel the mental equivalent of hives. And there is no end of this pandemic in sight. I wash some more.
Summertime. I’ve escaped the house for three hours. My co-parent has our little one. He’s taken over dishes for two days to give me a break. I am not who I know myself to be. I am on call every minute. Until now.
I am in Lake Michigan, neck deep in warm, clear water, held by it, swayed gently, sun alight on me and the peaks of waves. This place is a miracle, a suburban beach that somehow is not closed. If you can pay, you can still have a beach this summer. We splurge.
I cannot drive along this shore the six hours north to my lake paradise hometown where I normally spend a few weeks each summer. I cannot go there to my mother’s house, whom I cannot hug. I can barely leave the disinfected square footage of my city apartment on my city block surrounded by people I cannot go near.
But I can drive for twenty minutes, mask up and flash a pass to enter. There is dune grass, just like my hometown, and the same inland sea splashes ashore. I leave my mask on my towel and stay far from other faces, other vulnerable bodies. I submerge my toes, returning home in a way, forging forward into the depths, held there, pushing off against the sandy bottom until the lake hides me for a moment then releases me into air I am finally free to breathe.
I take my little girl to the woods for a walk. Even though there are fewer people here, we wear our masks. This is one of many ways we’ve begun weighing risk and reward. The number of cases in our city seems to be dropping, and so we begin to rejoin the world, even in this small way, only into the wilderness and not into the once-civilized, now frightening city spaces. This time in nature is saving us. There are no swingsets or other kids or playdates, but we can enter the woods, following whatever path entices, making new paths of our own.
I am grateful to know my daughter even more than I did three months ago, and her me. I start to count the hours we had together out of daycare before. They seem so few now. How could they have been so few? And yet, every minute was for us then, and now I am finding ways to escape our togetherness to take care of the other requirements of life or just to think. Still, I know I will look back on this time as a gift to be with my girl.
Walks together are slow. There is a lot of stopping to pick up rocks and the slow balancing of steps along fallen logs. I pull my mask down for a moment and take in the freshest air I can find in the city. Her hand is in mine, and I tell her to stop and take down her mask, too. Just for a minute. We follow the soft dirt trail overlooking a grassy pond. I scan the woods for other people, fingers itching to remask. But there is no one, just us, so we keep going. As we begin to descend the ridge toward the pond, two deer bound across the path in front of us. They come closer to us than any strangers have in months. I squeeze my girl’s hand. “Isn’t life amazing?” I say. I kiss her cheek and take one more breath before we mask up and walk on.