The day after the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic, my husband and I quit using pacifiers with our 2-year-old. The timing is purely coincidental. We’ve spent the last few days talking up the “pacifier fairy” and she is slated to come that night, taking our daughter’s binkies away to give to babies who aren’t big girls yet.
The first day without it, she refuses to nap. She cries for an hour, begging for the comfort of her pacifier, before we quit trying to get her down.
She cries every nap and night, hollow pleas for her “pacis.” It takes hours to get her down each night like it did when she was a baby, when we would go into her room over and over to lay her back in her crib. Similarly, when she sleeps, it’s in fits and spurts, and she wakes up at odd hours of the night, screaming.
Two days later, her day care closes. On top of the fractured sleep, we are now home together, the three of us, all day, every day. As the days tick forward, a strange sense of deja vu comes over me, the nagging suspicion I’ve done this before. My body feels a twinge, like a reinjured muscle, a strain that never fully healed and is now painful again. Then, I realize what we’re living through all over again: the newborn stage.
I was not built for the newborn stage. Far removed, in the safety of toddlerhood, I look upon those first three months — known as the fourth trimester — affectionately and with a kind of fearful reverence, like the final girl in a horror movie realizing she’s somehow survived.
My maternity leave felt like a yellow wallpaper trap, cooped inside at all hours, being told to relax — and enjoy it! — when all I could feel was the unbearably heavy weight of responsibility, the knowledge that I was somehow singularly responsible for keeping another soul alive and healthy and happy.
At three months, I welcomed day care into my life with open arms. But now suddenly, I am back in that trap, marooned in my home with my child, feeling responsible once again for each decision, each choice.
The first week is OK. We bust out the finger paints. We put on our bathing suits, fill the tub too high and have an improvised pool party. We read books and go on walks. We bake bread. I start to feel good about myself as a mother in a way I never have before.
Maybe, I cautiously hope, my fears are unfounded, my constant guilty worry that I lacked what was so natural for others: the need, the desire, the want to be with their child at all times. Maybe I can give her what she should have had from the start — a mother who is not too overwhelmed, too sad, too scared, but who instead is there, always, smiling like a 1950s advertisement.
But week two dawns, and the cracks in our facade are showing. The novelty of being home together has worn off. Her toys are declared boring. The activities I plan take too long to set up and too long to clean up to justify the scant few minutes she’s occupied. She is increasingly cranky from the lack of structure, becoming more annoyed at my husband and me, who are continuously descending upon our laptops to check emails or hop on Zoom meetings.
Her unhappiness burrows under my skin, filling me with memories, almost flashbacks. I cannot fix it now as I couldn’t fix it then. A familiar frustration roils my stomach. I feel the same sharp unkindness toward her demands, one that I know is unfair but still sets my teeth on edge. She is so needy, yet also needs nothing, and I feel the tightness in my chest like in her early days, the unbearable irritation that I cannot seem to give her what she wants, her wailing uncontrollably in my arms despite a full belly and a clean diaper.
Now, like before, I run down the checklist of what is supposed to make her happy. I give her toys and games, puzzles and playtime. Crumbs of Play-Doh embed in the carpet. Every sweatshirt I own is covered in paint. But, as it did then, her unhappiness persists.
She throws herself on the floor, dangerously flopping her whole body down like a soccer player. She hurls her toys down the hallway. She sits on the wet ground on our daily walk, refusing to move. She stopped using her high chair last month, but now she crawls into my lap at each meal, presses hard against me, her thin, colt-like legs dangling over the side of the chair as I eat around her, food sliding off my fork and onto the floor with comically audible plops. I am transported back to the time when I would balance her across my middle while eating every meal cold, terrified I would accidentally drop hot food on her fresh, bald head.
“You’re the mother. You set the tone,” my sister scolds me when I call her on the cusp of week three. When she says it, I know it’s true and unfair in the way all things about motherhood are true and unfair, that moms get penalized at work for their children while dads get promoted, that moms handle the majority of domestic tasks, that moms get judged for each effort while dads get lauded for just showing up.
“It’s survival mode,” she says, that phrase everyone said after she was born, echoed now by anyone trying to parent through this crisis. “Just do what you need to get through.”
But I can’t. My village, already so much smaller than any previous generation, shrinks even further as we are told to stay away from friends, family, neighbors, grandparents, until our entire universe is just the three of us. Outside, terrible things are happening, makeshift morgues and rising numbers. Friends are diagnosed. Anecdotal evidence from Italy about what to expect fills social media. Soon, they warn us, everyone will know someone.
But stranded on our island, I can only give them fleeting acknowledgement as the feeling aches and throbs from a small, sad part of my soul, one that I haven’t felt since her infancy: fear of failure.
Fear that I can’t do it, at least not in the way mothers are supposed to. That even with the sky falling and the world crumbling, I can’t be the mother I so want to be, the one who can sacrifice herself for her child with the ease everyone assumes all mothers have.
I am desperate for words of comfort — that I am doing this right, that when we return to whatever we return to, she will be OK. That I have not ruined her in this time with my short temper or my uncreative projects or my incredibly relaxed screen time.
Articles multiply online about the impact this will have on a generation of children, the ones that were already living through the climate crisis and school shootings now saddled with the consequences of a pandemic, an economic depression. None of us know how our actions in this time will manifest as our children grow, the articles say.
I find myself thinking, in the rare quiet moments of the day, how this time will imprint on my daughter, this time when the ones in charge are failing her, from leaders at the top ignoring the crisis until it’s too late all the way down to me, her own mother at the bottom who cannot stand to pick up the dried rice from the spilled sensory bin one ... more ... time.
Three weeks into quarantine, three weeks without the pacifier, staring down another sleepless night, I try something different. Desperate to try and relax her for sleep, I begin to talk, narrating what we did that day: We woke up. We got dressed. We went outside. We looked at the yellow flowers.
I lower myself into the rocking chair, something I haven’t been able to do since the pacifier fairy came. She only sighs a small protest. I continue: We had lunch. We watched ”Daniel Tiger.” We had dinner. We took a bath. We had milk. We brushed our teeth.
It’s a rose-colored rendition of the day that ignores the crying and whining that came from both of us, but for some reason it works. As I talk, I can feel her body settle into mine. She lies against me in the same position she lay as a newborn, her warm milky breath against my neck, her legs now spread over my hip bones but with her arms still tucked up in between our bodies like a baby bird. She drifts to sleep that night listening to the top highlights, the moments we were both our best selves.
The comfort she’d once known and depended on is gone. But maybe there’s a new solace — one for both of us — in these moments of reflection, acknowledging the buoys that kept us afloat for one more day, the things we should remember to give thanks for.
The small magic of just getting through.
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