No One Else Can Feel It For You
only you can let it in
It’s so weird, and frankly kind of embarrassing, to recall that I spent the second-to-last weekend before [gestures vaguely] all this on a retreat, trying to write and also to think about what I might be able to do, over the coming months, to make writing, and my life in general, feel a little easier. My plans involved reducing the amount of time I spent on freelance work, acquiring a bit more childcare, and exercising more frequently. And, well… it turns out that sometimes, two out of three is bad?
I was probably due to lose my freelance job at some point this year, and obviously there are many people in much worse straits, so no major complaints there. And I actually have been exercising a lot, although I’m not sure it’s a huge net gain once you’ve factored in the loss of the kind of almost-passive exercise that one gets simply by moving around New York City, a thing that I no longer do.
But. But! Instead of acquiring more childcare, as intended, I (like nearly everyone) lost what childcare I did have, a now-unbelievable-sounding forty-plus hours a week, most of which was provided free of charge by the city in the form of public kindergarten. Technically, of course, my daughter was still enrolled in school through the end of last month. But despite her teachers’ heroic efforts, and notwithstanding the once- or twice-daily live sessions that she (usually) deigned to attend, it was really more like private kindergarten. By which I mean that she was alone, with only me to assist and motivate her, and I’m not sure I was especially great at it.
I am far from the first to observe that this period has felt very much like a second maternity leave—not since my daughter’s infancy have I spent anywhere near this much time with her. In some respects, it’s been better: I’m tired, but not can’t-form-new-memories tired, and while I remain nervous that everything that’s going on right now might mess her up, the potential consequences are mostly a lot more nebulous and remote than, like, crib death. In other ways, it’s worse: While my first maternity leave was, like this one, unpaid, at least I got to decide when it ended. Eight weeks after having her, I had already hired a part-time nanny and was inching my way back to work. What’s happening now feels like it could go on for ages.
So, I suppose it was only a matter of time before—plot twist—I started to accept it? Had I known, when I picked her up on March 11th, that my daughter would not be returning to the school building again for the rest of the academic year, and possibly even the rest of the calendar year, I’d have been inconsolable. As it was, I was close, and I was only thinking that this might go on for, I don’t know, six weeks?
But the set-point theory of happiness, as explained by the APA, posits that everyone has their own baseline of “subjective well being…that is generally stable throughout life and that they are likely to return to despite life-changing events” both positive and negative. I think I believe this! Yes, certain things in my life have improved over the last two months (for example, my daughter and I have relocated to a house in Vermont that’s just a few miles away from the nearest swimmable body of water), and I’m sure that’s a huge part of it. But I think it’s probably also somewhat due to my lifelong habit of just being relatively happy.
That habit is, of course, a privilege. It is also, I suspect, a byproduct of the many more concrete privileges I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, e.g. the ability to relocate to a house in Vermont. I’m not exactly immune to the anxieties that so many of us are experiencing—about the virus and our various governments’ utterly inadequate responses to it, about the not-even-creeping-anymore authoritarianism of our current presidential administration, and about the structural racism and state-sponsored racist violence that has recently, finally (I hope) become un-ignorable even to most people who look like me—but those anxieties have felt a little more manageable as of late.
I still miss my friends. I miss my job, by which I mean I miss my very charming coworkers and the money and even, at times, the work, and I miss being able to walk over to Xi’An Famous Foods at lunchtime to pick up an order of spicy cumin lamb noodles and a tiger vegetable salad. I miss karaoke, and meeting someone for a drink, and at least having the option to go out dancing, and a million other things. I’ve been feeling better nevertheless.
But even as I’ve returned, however improbably, to my old self, there are some things about me, this summer, that I hardly recognize. For example: I paddleboard now? I’m not fantastic or anything. But on Friday morning, I rented a paddle and a board and I stood right up on it like it was easy, because it was, and I pushed myself away from the beach full of children, one of which was my own, to a distant part of the reservoir, where I could be alone with only the water and the trees and mountains and the sky, for several minutes at a time.
Maybe this is who I’d have been, before this, if certain other things hadn’t worked out the way I thought I wanted them to, earlier on. (Obviously, it’s not only the paddleboarding.) Or maybe I’m just good at adapting? I don’t know. This feels like a time for asking questions, for being open, and for hoping that, eventually, the answers will come.
P.S. Want some more coronavirus-inspired musings from me? I wrote an essay back in March for Glamour, headlined “Will My New Relationship Survive the Pandemic?” (Spoiler alert: It did not.)