I have come to accept that this year will not be my most productive year ever.
I knew this at the start of 2020. I was due to give birth at the end of January and dedicated time to getting ready: balancing work life and home life, while scrambling to make enough freezer food to get me through the haze of newborn life. I knew that we would be challenged without having a "village" nearby—our families and close friends are scattered across the United States and our closest family member lives 13 hours away.
And so we baked and sanitized our way into the new year, and carefully budgeted for furniture from IKEA for a nursery. I had saved up my sick leave for five years in order to have 12 weeks of paid leave after birth. That was the plan. I was prepared.
Late January came, and there was our daughter. Beautiful and bright, if a little jaundiced. We were ecstatic and fearful and tired and grateful and in love.
But there was no way to prepare for what came next.
My father unexpectedly dying. My mother's house robbed. My mother furloughed. A global pandemic. My husband and I frantically conserving food and bleach, telling each other in grim voices, "I'm going on a run" to the grocery store as if we were living the reality of The Walking Dead.
We live in a designated hotspot of the coronavirus in the Southeast. We barely leave the house and often find ourselves in tense negotiations with family members who are convinced we are overly cautious. As the school year looms, we are hearing reports that teachers are being advised to create wills in preparation of heading back to campus or into classrooms. As contingent faculty on one-year contracts, we worry over our jobs, our students, our lives.
Amidst this, I am still working on managing everyday postpartum life—the thrills, the guilt, the laughter, the resentment. It's hard to balance emotion as the go-to parent. As I am exclusively breastfeeding, I do not have uninterrupted hours, uninterrupted time. Being screened for postpartum depression has left me bewildered in the time of COVID-19. Where to start? I blink, and answer that I'm managing. That's all I can hope to do.
There are small wins: that brief moment when I wake up before my daughter does and I forget, for a moment, staring at her through the baby monitor, what has happened, what is happening. She stirs and I go to her, dressing her for another day, keeping her clean and dry and (I convince myself) safe. She's just started to have a deep belly laugh and I breathe her in, deeply. It is all her then, like a kaleidoscope of joy and hope and time.
But each day I step into armor, worrying plating my shoulders, my neck, the tension rigid like steel.
Work, family, friends, the world—these feel like scattered grains of rice I am constantly gathering together to hold safe in my hands like the mythic Vasilissa, though without cosmic help. They spill through my fingers with each breath.
So I'm letting go.
My good friend gave me the best piece of advice when I was pregnant: readjust expectations. Parents and in-laws and family will act differently than you assume. People you expect to "show up" won't. Others step up to bat for you in surprising and touching ways. This is all true.
But this also needs to happen for ourselves. By readjusting my expectations, I'm letting go of any pre-ordained "work-life balance." Work has infiltrated our home. Working remotely has left me (limping? braving? prospering?) through Zoom calls while breastfeeding.
For myself and other working parents, work has required checking with a supervisor for their permission to keep our children in our homes during "work" hours. When people complain about children or dogs—life—happening in the background of Zoom calls, I listen. But I speak up too, heart thudding with nerves—reminding colleagues and supervisors that parents may not have much choice, with so many daycares full, or closed for cleaning or quarantine, or no longer financially available. I sweat in those moments, feeling brave, feeling exposed, feeling dismissed.
I wanted to breastfeed my daughter at least six months, and we met that goal. Feeding your child—no matter the method—is hard. We used formula in the early days to supplement, and I exclusively pumped when I traveled to say goodbye to my father—all of it was time consuming, worrisome and hard.
I celebrate that my husband and I have not been furloughed yet. That I live in an age when I can FaceTime with my 95-year-old WWII veteran grandfather in the Midwest, my mother on the East Coast. That I have time with my daughter every day. She is our beacon in the midst of a storm. And I am grateful for my husband's presence in the middle of the night when I wake up, terrified of my phone ringing, of more bad news.
I celebrate myself. That I am managing. I am managing.
These feel like heartbreaks. These feel like miracles.
Once, before my daughter's birth, a friend told me to stop listening to those who would urge me to enjoy my daughter now before she grows up. To cherish this age, this era. He shook his head and grinned, full of pride for his own two grown kids, and said, "Every age is the best age."
Perhaps for us, too.