PANDEMIC REFLECTIONS

I Don’t Really Want Life to Go Back to Normal

My “normal life” wasn’t sustainable, and it wasn’t that much fun

A little over a year ago, I found myself lying face down on our backyard lawn. I was having, for lack of a better word, a tantrum.

My husband and I were in the thick of our quarterly fight. At work, I had quarterly planning meetings; at home, I had quarterly fights. We weren’t a couple that did much daily bickering. Sure, tense words were exchanged from time to time, and temptations to slam doors were resisted, but the agitation generally dissolved without too much collateral damage.

Then, about every three months or so, it didn’t. Of course, the bickering would always start over something stupid, as marital bickering often does. This particular quarterly fight started over a leaking bathroom faucet. The faucet had been leaking for the better part of a month. Despite all my talk about gender equality, when things in our house break, I want my husband to fix them. I want him to haul out his tool box and get the job done.

My husband is capable of being handy, but he isn’t enthusiastically handy. He doesn’t rub his hands together and exclaim, “Ooh, a problem I get to solve!” He’s more likely to throw his hands in the air and exclaim, “Fuck, another problem I have to solve!” I am probably capable of being handy, too, but both of us lack patience and time, which are two things that handiness requires.

Meanwhile, the drip drip drip of the faucet in the bathroom was driving me insane. It wasn’t just the physical drip drip drip of water against porcelain, but also the reminder that time was passing, slipping away, like droplets down a drain.

Drip drip drip. For 11 long years, my husband and I had been working toward a bright, shiny goal. He’d finish his educational journey from high school drop-out to doctoral graduate. We’d both have careers we loved, not to mention two whip-smart children, and a savings account, and a house with a porch.

It wasn’t just the physical drip drip drip of water against porcelain, but also the reminder that time was passing, slipping away, like droplets down a drain.

Well, about six months prior, we had arrived, and we barely had time to catch our breath. I had embraced the insanity when our shiny goal gleamed on the horizon, but now the horizon was behind us and the pace of life remained unchanged.

Our whip-smart children needed to be dropped off and picked up from two different schools every day, and my husband and I had to travel to two different offices every day, and breakfast had to be served, lunches packed, dinner made, laundry folded, squabbles mediated, baths administered, dishes loaded, floor swept, and bedtime conquered. Rinse and repeat.

And that was the easy part. The hard part was the other crap — the appointments, emails, meetings, forms, registrations, lists. The endless lists. So many of the lists lived in my head; putting them down on paper, or typing them in an app, was just one more thing to do. Work to-do lists. Weekend to-do lists. Weeknight to-do lists. Grocery lists. Packing lists. Holiday lists. Lists of books I’d never read, podcasts I’d never listen to, shows I’d never watch. Lists of all the various ways my house was falling apart.

Drip drip drip.

Birthdays and holidays had started to fill me with an impending sense of dread. As Halloween approached, I thought about the Saturday afternoon I’d spend hanging ghosts from the tree in the front yard. I thought about the neighborhood pumpkin party we threw every year, about locating the email list and preparing the food and scrubbing dried pumpkin guts from our living room floor. I thought about the generic costumes I’d have to purchase while feeling guilty that I couldn’t get it together to make our own creative costumes like all those moms on Pinterest. Sewing socks was already a tall order; costumes were out of the question.

I didn’t work myself into a tizzy trying to “do it all.” Rather, when it came to housework and holidays and house parties, I felt I was doing the bare minimum, and it was still a drag. When did things stop being fun? When did everything become a chore?

Drip drip drip. I couldn’t take it anymore. On Saturday, March 7, 2020, I YouTubed “dripping faucet” and dragged my entire family to the hardware store to purchase O-rings, seats, and springs. On Sunday, March 8, 2020, my husband and I dutifully watched the videos, then fiddled around with our O-rings, seats, and springs. We watched the videos again, then fiddled around some more.

Then we gave up. It was approaching dinner time, and dinner time on Sunday meant that anything that hadn’t yet been done would have to wait until the following weekend. We were about to dive into Monday, which essentially entailed holding our breath underwater until Saturday morning, when we could come up for air.

I suggested we text our enthusiastically handy neighbor.

The suggestion was not enthusiastically received by my husband. I was questioning his competence and hedging my bets on a man down the street, who had no more plumbing expertise than he did. And so our quarterly fight commenced.

Now it was not only approaching dinner time on a Sunday, but we were in a fight, which meant holding my breath underwater all week while being pissed at my husband, which was only more exhausting. There was no time during the week to hash things out. Fighting, like laundry and errands, was reserved for the weekend only. And it was one more damn thing to do. And our bathroom faucet would continue its smug, merciless drip drip drip through it all.

This was the course of events that led up March 12, 2020, when I found myself face down on the lawn in our backyard, sobbing. I didn’t mind getting emotional in front of my children, but I preferred to sob in solitude, and our cold, damp lawn — which we had so optimistically laid down years before and which was now fraying around the edges and balding in the middle (there was a metaphor in there somewhere for my life, I was sure) — seemed the only viable option for an all-out, chest-heaving sobbing session. Even in my semi-hysterical state, I added “fix backyard lawn” to my mental list of Shit That I Will Think About But Never Do.

In retrospect, it’s a damn shame I didn’t enjoy that week more. I’m not sure I enjoyed it at all. But Friday the 13th in March 2020 lived up to its ominous reputation because on that day, the world as we knew it unraveled.

Within two weeks, my children’s schools had closed indefinitely and my husband was out of a job, at least for a few months. I set up an office in our basement bedroom, surprised to discover that I was still capable of working while shrieks, stomps, and squeals rained down on me from above. I often watched my kids through the basement window, traipsing up and down the path from our front yard to our backyard, sometimes on scooters, sometimes on bikes, most often with their own two (bare) feet.

There were my barefoot children playing under a merciful spring sun, and then there was the news. Businesses shuttered, jobs lost. Hospitals scrambling for supplies. The sick gasping for breath. And as weeks stretched into months, the layers of tumult continued to pile. Civil unrest, natural disasters, mothers on the brink.

I found myself at a strange epicenter. I was struggling to figure out summer camp alternatives for my children; I was managing the emotional needs of a Black husband whose personal memories of police brutality were being triggered daily; I was watching wildfire smoke, thick and gauzy, wrap my home in a smothering embrace; and I was reading about my own city of Portland, Oregon nearly every morning in The New York Times.

Beneath it all, COVID quietly raged — stubborn, sinister, ceaseless.

There was so much going on. And yet, there wasn’t much going on at all. Suddenly, there were pockets of time to fill that simply had never existed before. Thirty minutes in the morning during which I normally would have been commuting downtown. Empty stretches on the weekends that normally would have been filled with birthday parties and playdates. Afternoons suddenly disentangled from the mad scramble of school pickups.

There was so much going on. And yet, there wasn’t much going on at all. Suddenly, there were pockets of time to fill that simply had never existed before.

I found myself sitting more (finally taking advantage of our front porch), talking to my husband, being present with my children, spending time with my own thoughts. We sat, but mostly, we walked. When we figured out a workable childcare arrangement, I walked my children home in the afternoons. I walked with them after dinner — well, I walked, and they rolled on an assortment of wheeled contraptions. We walked on the weekends — through city streets, up mountains, alongside rivers, behind waterfalls. We ate apples and peanut butter pretzels while gazing out at skylines, oceans, and grassy meadows.

We zipped up our raincoats and walked through drizzle, the wetness settling on our hoods and the tips of our shoes. We laced up boots and walked through snow, our breath clouding the air with every exhale. We donned baseball caps and walked through summer heat, the small of our backs catching our shirts with sweat.

Our house was hell sometimes — too many voices, needs, bodies. On weekends, wherever I looked, the floors and walls appeared to be vomiting. Headless Lego figures, capless pens, mateless socks. Snack bowls overturned, papers strewn. I can’t absorb it all, the house seemed to be saying. It’s too much.

It was outside, along trails and sidewalks, that we found ourselves in sync. We all shared the same destination, the same goal. There was nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other. The children complained, sometimes, and begged for snacks and asked how much longer, but mostly they lost themselves in the awe of examining the world. They sprinted ahead to see what lay around the bend, or they lagged behind to have conversations with imaginary friends. My son claimed he had one hundred of them. They lived in a gymnasium and all their names, like his, began with “M.”

I watched my daughter’s eyes widen with wonder as she beheld the world through the shimmering curtain of a waterfall, which looked like it was madly rushing and simultaneously standing still. I saw the quiet contemplation on my son’s face as he tossed rocks in rivers, watching the spreading of concentric circles.

Of course, I look forward to reclaiming some aspects of my pre-COVID life. I want my kids to go back to school. I want to grab a drink with friends, to spend summer weekends at our neighborhood pool.

But I also fear “back to normal.” I hear “normal,” and I think of myself face-down on our backyard lawn. “Normal life” wasn’t sustainable, and it wasn’t that much fun. It was crammed with impossible schedules, unrealistic expectations, and simmering resentments. All against the drip drip drip of time slipping away.

I don’t want to start sprinting through life again, red-faced and out of breath. I want to keep walking.

I write from the intersection of gender, race, and motherhood. Aiming to make you laugh, cry, and want to punch something all at once. Top writer in Parenting.

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