Family

The Trapped-at-Home Mother

For many women, coronavirus quarantine is paring our domestic lives down to their upsetting essence.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the Honest Co./Unsplash, Fabian Irsara/Unsplash, and Scott Rodgerson/Unsplash.

In my novel Perfect Tunes, which comes out this week, there’s a scene where a young musician, Laura, must take care of her infant daughter even though they’re both sick. They’re suffering from an ordinary stomach virus, the kind of thing every parent of young children catches every so often. I had norovirus twice while writing this book, which might explain why its characters are prone to barfing. The details of those bouts with illness mercifully faded in my memory as soon as they were over, but in the moment they felt catastrophic. There were the symptoms themselves, but much worse was the fact that I couldn’t just lie in bed and be sick; there is no such thing as a day off of the job of being a small child’s parent. For Laura, who’s a single mother, the stakes are especially high: She doesn’t have a network of support or relatives or a partner who can help, her baby is too little to distract with TV, and because she’s a character in a novel, the rent she doesn’t have is due and her landlord comes to collect while she’s still throwing up. A little melodramatic, but not unrealistic, I thought.

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While I was working on this scene, I believed with some satisfaction I would never again feel the overtaxed helplessness that Laura feels. I had written about it and now it was behind me. The stage of parenthood where everything is so precariously balanced that your life can be upended by something as minor as a virus—all done! I was writing about the past, writing myself into the future. I had no idea what lay in store for me, and for all of us.

To me, the quarantine has felt a lot like early postpartum, with its trademark blend of terror and boredom. For a week in mid-March, my husband and I were sick with flulike symptoms that we now hope were mild COVID-19, so our experience has even had the same physical trajectory as those newborn days: incapacitated first, then recovering, and then just sleep-deprived and damaged and persevering. We have a spirited (read: psycho) 4-year-old and a sweet toddler who worships his brother even as he gets punched in the face. We’re lucky in that our work is inessential and possible to do remotely, if we can find the time and wherewithal to do it, which so far I mostly have not.

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the first year of my older son’s life. That year, I was trying to find a compromise between what I wanted to do, which was be away from him all day so that I could write, with what I also wanted to do, which was be around him all the time. I left him with a babysitter for not enough time, went to the library near our apartment, and pumped breast milk in a bathroom stall. Some days I was too exhausted to do anything but sit there and scroll. Other days, to feel more virtuous, I would take a random book off the shelf and read a page or two. Some days I even wrote. I wrote a long essay that was tossed from one editor to another to another and then rejected. I got a kill fee and ended up publishing it elsewhere in a different form years later. Like everything I wrote that year, it was so hard-won—every sentence, every paragraph, squeezed out of my broken brain like … inevitably, it was just like milk squeezed out of my nipples via a hand pump.

I was paying to do this, much more money than I was recouping via my labor. I had the luxury of doing that, of investing in the existence of a future self who would be able to write again, thanks to a lucky confluence of minor windfalls. I don’t take it at all for granted that I could hire a babysitter to take care of our child while I regrew the part of me that could turn words into money. For a long time, though, I didn’t think it was worth it. I thought it was a waste. I felt guilty about how much I was failing at both of the things that I cared about most. It was impossible not to notice that I wasn’t living up to the standard I’d set for myself. Why couldn’t I simply write perfect sentences in the predawn hours before the baby was awake, during his naps, or after his bedtime? This was what the writer-mothers I’d always admired had always done. They hadn’t all died by suicide.

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At a year and a half, my son started going to day care full time, and I started working more, teaching undergraduates writing, and doing more of the editorial work I’d been doing before he was born. I continued to feel conflicted about leaving my baby to do work that was not immediately materially necessary to provide for his survival, but as time went on, it got easier to ignore that discomfort. I started making more money, enough that it seemed, if you squinted, like it might someday be possible for me to catch up.

The truth is that I make much less money than my husband and his job is the one that provides us with health insurance. In “real life” we both do a lot of child care and care work, but I do slightly more. I am the person who stays home when someone is sick, or when there’s a day off school that we haven’t adequately planned for, or when we can’t justify spending money on for “camp” or child care.

Now things are different. Our long-term stability as a family hinges on whether my husband can do the work he needs to do this year in order to keep his salaried job. If there is only enough time for one of us to work, it doesn’t make sense for that person to be me. Once I run out of things I’m contracted or otherwise obligated to do from the before times (like promote my book), I don’t foresee taking on any new work; our kids are too young to be left unattended, even to watch TV for hours. In this new world, someone simply has to be the person who does most of the cooking, cleaning, and child care. It turns out that in “real life” it is school and day care that bridge most of the gap between how we’d like our lives to be (totally equal) and how this crisis has revealed them to be when we’re ruled by necessity (his work takes precedence because it has to). We are pared down to our essence. I wish I could unknow what that essence is. It makes me feel like I have made some crucial error along the way, chosen badly, misspent my life. I tried to have it both ways and fucked up, or maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t fully understand the system and its limitations.

Because it turns out that I don’t want to stay at home with my children, writing in fits and spurts when their lives allow me to. What I want is the opportunity to live a full life and to spend time with my children, too. I want everyone to be able to have that. It’s what men have always had. It’s what no one with kids has right now. For mothers partnered with men, it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll have less of whatever is available.

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As my book hits (empty) stores, I’m thinking about the compromises fictional Laura made in a different light. She sacrifices her musical ambition to raise her child with some material stability, and winds up feeling like she’s failed on both fronts. Though the book ends on a hopeful note, I wonder if it will read differently now, as our society, too, is pared down to its essence. How naïve I was to imagine that individual choices mattered that much!

Or maybe the book will one day read as a quaint historical document, written before sweeping structural change made it possible—via wealth redistribution, free child care, universal health care—for everyone to take care of their children without curtailing their lives’ potential. It’s hard to see that future from here, but it’s also impossible to imagine continuing the way things have been up until now. It’s just one of the many glaring needs that this pandemic has made newly urgent, and I know it can seem less pressing of a problem than the life-or-death ones we need to solve in order to survive. But as long as we’re being forced to reimagine how our society is structured, we might as well imagine something better than what we used to have.