Parenting is hard on the heart. The pangs of loss begin in the very first seconds. When our oldest was born at nearly forty-two weeks gestation, I could not wait to push him out into the world and get on with basic human functions, like bending at the waist and rolling over in bed without assistance. Yet as soon as the midwife took him away to measure his weight and height, my gut twinged. My son and I had shared my body every moment of his existence up until then. Every inch of distance he was carried away was the farthest he’d traveled from my heartbeat, my arms, my womb.
But the ache of parenting isn’t limited to constant tugs of separation. There are the daily—hourly—realizations that I am fallen, sinful, imperfect. I am not as patient as I’d hoped to be. I responded harshly again. I feigned sleep so my husband would get up to deal with a wandering toddler at midnight, even though it was my turn.
There’s a near-constant knowledge of my own frailty, mortality, and selfishness. Nearly every parent is faced with the recognition that we are kind of bad at this, and by the time we get better at any one phase, the whole game changes and we are greenhorns once again.
When our middle child turned four a couple of weeks into stay-at-home orders, friends from all over the country sent video messages to celebrate him.
“Poor kid,” one texted me. “At least having a pandemic birthday is historic!”
Not really. Turns out we all got a pandemic birthday. Last month he celebrated his second, acting surprisingly sanguine.
“As long as there’s cake,” he said.
When schools went remote in March of 2020, my husband and I did what most parents did: planned for a few weeks of survival, working in bursts when the kids were napping or screen-timing. After we tucked them into bed we toiled for hours, grateful for the flexibility to finish our responsibilities and bone-tired from keeping all the plates spinning.
Working from home was a privilege. We weren’t on the front lines; we had enough technology at our fingertips to do our jobs. But the hours we needed were far fewer than what we had, and plague dread weighed on us both. By the time we realized this was our new normal—work, eat, manage online schooling, hunt for groceries, work, work, work, collapse, repeat—the rhythm had been set.
For a few months we bubbled with my parents, who briefly lived across the street. They let our children build forts in their living room and spread crafts across their kitchen table a few mornings each week. But when Grandma and Grandpa headed back to their primary home, my husband and I stared down the long tunnel of nurturing three children and two vocations in an open-ended pandemic. It wouldn’t be difficult; it would be impossible. Something had to give.
July turned to August and the days went on and on and on.
My husband earns a bit more than me, plus I was sprinting toward burnout trying to be Mommy, Online Distance Learning Manager, and Pastoral Employee of the Month, so we made the same choice as thousands of other couples: I cut my hours back and became the primary caregiver to our stay-at-home-family. It was a terrible financial decision, but it was also the least bad one we faced.
After years climbing the vocational ladder, I set aside my professional hat and became Ms. Frizzle to our flock of three. Days filled with walks and board games and library curbside pick-up while my husband Zoomed from our newly repurposed guest room. I bought an inflatable wading pool and a huge vat of sunscreen. We set our sights on a return to school in the fall, but realized in July that it wouldn’t work. We would remain home for the long haul. July turned to August and the days went on and on and on.
I purchased homeschool curriculum and became a first-year preschool and elementary teacher. Learning gave our days structure and a sense of accomplishment, along with the joy of following the children’s bunny trails of interest and the anguish of trying to motivate a four-year-old who just wanted to be left alone in a blanket fort, and a seven-year-old who quickly grew frustrated with his mother’s horrific grasp of Spanish pronunciation and common core math. (I have other skills.)
Then we found a groove. We stayed up to speed in math and writing and social studies, but we also read Hatchet and started fires from flint. We memorized Langston Hughes poems and exploded tempera paint and hiked and hiked and hiked. On Sundays we worshiped in our living room from inside blanket forts, enjoying Tootsie pops during the sermon, while my husband and I oversaw our church’s digital services.
There were days I fell more deeply in love with my kids and days when I thought I might die from sheer tedium and forced cheer. Some days I praised God for the honor of witnessing these delightful little souls grow and others when I wasn’t sure I could face up to making another peanut butter sandwich and staring at the same four walls, the same swatch of backyard, the same freaking coffee stain on the same freaking floorboard. Every few weeks I rearranged furniture just to feel like we were someplace—anyplace—else. There was never quite enough money. There were always too many hours to fill.
The kids did all right. I introduced novelty whenever I could—library books and board games and a classic Nintendo, socially distanced dinners in the yard with friends, long chats with the neighbors from across the street. Our oldest played piano concerts for far-flung relatives and chatted weekly with a Spanish tutor in Guatemala. (Turns out my bad accent was all but impossible to overcome. Reinforcements were needed.) But we all chafed at both the ennui and the uncertainty. Sure, we could do this for a few more days. A few more weeks. But what was the endgame? When would we cry uncle and decide to take our chances with getting and spreading the virus, pretending everything was normal, even if we knew better?
Nine months in, my husband woke with a weird rash. He figured his sensitive skin was reacting to new detergent. Instead, we learned you can come down with the shingles virus—one that lives dormant inside your cells if you’ve ever had chicken pox before—in your 30s. Daryl spent the next two weeks alternating between bed and bathtub in excruciating pain.
The workload and isolation were already too much. Now they were impossible.
For eleven pandemic months, we’d managed together, the two of us, but now our team was halved. The workload and isolation were already too much. Now they were impossible. At my rock-bottom lowest moment, I called a far-flung friend.
“I quit,” I said through angry tears. “I did not sign up for any of this. The kids can teach themselves. The food can cook itself. The house can clean itself. I am done.”
Now my heart hurt with a new kind of parenting pain: the burn of absolute inadequacy. The apostle Paul might entreat me to become “all things to all people,” but even the vast array of hats required by parenthood fell short of what my kids truly needed. I could be teacher and coach, storyteller and snack maker, confidant and cheerleader, but I was still just me. Zoom interactions with others helped a little, but they were anemic at best. What they needed most was what the pandemic had so cruelly stripped from so many of us—other people. Up close. In the flesh.
After the longest weeks of both our lives, Daryl slowly began to mend. The news lit up with good vaccine reports then really good reports and suddenly we had what I’d longed for and prayed and hoped and yearned for: a way out. We signed up for our shots, posted vaccine selfies, planned reunions with family and friends and Sunday school teachers we had not hugged in a year. We celebrated it all with tears.
Our endless days finally had an end date. The obscene number of hours spent as a pod of five turned finite and I felt a realization slowly dawn: while I would not choose to live them over again, they would never be enough. They could not ever be enough.
It was far too much. It was nowhere near enough.
In a year of suspended animation—cancelled conferences and speaking events and in-person Easter services and family reunions—our children continued to grow up. It made no difference to them that the NBA suspended its season or that proms went online. Time continued its ineffable march. This year moved me from 37 to 38, hardly a milestone, though I do feel it aged me a solid decade. But for our children it was formative. Transformative. Metamorphic. The cold-molasses pace of our pandemic year did nothing to delay their persistent pull toward growing up.
Today I look at my newly five-year-old’s cheeks, still flushed pink from a night’s sleep and I see the gentle curve shifting from the pudginess of a tender preschooler to the leanness of a kindergartener. I run my fingers through my baby’s hair—except, she is no longer a baby. She pauses to allow my grooming for a moment, and then is off to the top of the jungle gym with her signature phrase, “Watch diss!” My eight-year-old pauses before he speaks now, having grown thoughtful with a year of more books and fewer soccer games. I watch the internal processing of complex ideas evident in his bright eyes, his furrowed brow.
The time goes so slowly, so painfully slowly, and this year I witnessed almost every single moment of my children’s days. A global crisis forced us into a bizarre social experiment that gave me what I thought I’d always wanted: all the time in the world with my kids. It was far too much. It was nowhere near enough.
And therein lies the ache.