Kristen Millares Young: The Inescapable Joys of Motherhood
Adjusting to the new demands of parenthood during the pandemic.
Posted May 8, 2020
Contributed by Kristen Millares Young
I am lying flat on my back in a tent in my yard. Built for six people, with the rain fly it covers the flagstone patio we installed when we couldn’t imagine wanting a lawn.
In the quiet of early morning, my husband’s phone lights up the crags on his face. I ask for the time. “Three forty-five,” he whispers, our sons sleeping around us.
I am awake. There is no acceptable remedy for that truth.
It is week six of our family’s self-quarantine. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, but having to do with the pandemic during which my husband and I have been overburdened with work while homeschooling our preschooler and kindergartener, we have left our property very few times. There is a big park just two blocks away.
The first weekend, we drove to a remote rural county park called Guillemot Cove, where we kept a safe social distance from other skittish people in search of an easy hike with a big view. We sprayed our hands with sanitizer before eating our packaged picnic on an oyster beach, saltwater lapping the driftwood shores from where we sat to the foot of a snowy mountain range.
The second time—Was it last week? Or two weeks ago?—we walked down to Lake Washington, about a half mile away, during which time I counted dozens of opportunities for infection. I don’t like thinking this way. But my boys are four and six years old, and, to be frank, they don’t always remember to do what I tell them. It’s hard to adapt to these new circumstances. The news brings fresh and hellish revelations by the minute about just how easy it is to contract the virus from surfaces or passersby. I search the news for key words like slipstream.
We were masked with bandannas and hats and ski gaiters pulled up past our noses but (goddammit, Kristen) no gloves. (Why didn’t you get the gloves? Is it really that hard to get out the door with two kids and snacks? Yes.) Even though I’ve told them repeatedly not to touch anything, the first thing they do, after we pause to exchange loud greetings with neighbors across the street, is push the crosswalk button. “No! No! Boys! I said no!” I pull from my bag the last tube of antibacterial wipes we scored before our panicked populace bought up the world.
At this point we are crossing the street. Really, that’s what we need to be focused on, but I worry that they may touch their nostrils suck their fingers wipe a crust from their eyes before we reach the curb—these are not idle fears—and so I am wiping their hands as we cross, the kind of frantic multitasking that invites judgment from waiting drivers. But we get there.
I am trying to keep them safe. The only thing that matters to me, right now, as a mother, is that we survive this thing together, and in good spirits if we can manage it. And that is what astounds me. We are improbably happy.
I brought snacks for bribes, the kind of packaged pretend-food I would never stock but which was clicked on by my husband, who in his mercy provides small treats for us, rather than the siege-like deprivation I might broker were I in charge of groceries. He knows better by now. My frugality is in the marrow, instilled in me by my abuela, just passed, who should have been a nun but instead became a matriarch. She was my guide star, that impossible woman.
She also had a tendency to stay where she was planted. An exile born to a first generation, she became a first generation before birthing a first generation who made her own first generation. Aside from those big moves—one country per generation, not counting all the interstitial places from Lalín to Havana to Cueto to Orange to Miami to Tampa to Seattle—she stayed put so much that I began to fear she had a phobia not unlike her fear of the death which claimed her, which will claim us all.
What I mean to say is that she barely left the house unless she was brought somewhere. Writing this essay revealed an intergenerational pattern that, though reinforced by gubernatorial decree, still distressed me so much that I rose from my laptop at 10 a.m. on a work day to demand a family walk just when my children were happily ensconced on the couch with their brand-new tablets, performing educational app tasks to unlock Minecraft, the worldbuilding education they prefer, for which it would be hypocritical for me as a novelist to scold them.
On the path to the lake, one particular woman won’t move off her dry side of the marshy path, so my family of four, looking like bandits in bandannas since our infrequent outings didn’t seem to require proper masks, circles her orbit as one. The meadow mud will flake off their shoes for days once we get home. Part of me cheers for her – older, alone and resolute. The other part of me wants to give her a look which to do properly would require lowering my bandanna.
At the lake shore, ducks paddle near with soft quacks, hopeful but not begging, and I pivot that moment of beauty to instruct our boys about showy male and drab female patterning, a biological evolution whose fractals are belied by the fact that their dad wears hoodies and I, makeup. My sons squint against unaccustomed sun and ask for another Oreo. Turtles pile up along the silvered root of a partly-immersed snag. Are they mating? I, too, squint, but learn little more about the wildlife of Rainier Valley, where a week later I regard the sky through the tent’s door flap.
I am losing track of time.
Yesterday, I scooped my cat’s excesses from every nook of my garden using a trowel and a dustbin. I have never been much of a gardener, preferring perennials and pioneers over plants that require my seasonal attention, but my blueberries are trimmed and greening, and it looks to be another good year for the thorny gooseberries I should have planted in the corner of the yard, rather than by the car.
The boys rocket around our basement, swinging from wooden hoops that my husband installed to dangle from its ceiling, through which their raucous shouts emanate into the living room, where my husband is helping to salvage our state’s economy, one email and zoom call at a time. From the office, which I’ve claimed for ten years because I work from home, I write standing up. When I can be reasonably assured of their safety, I wear earbuds that pipe in brown noise to cover the hubbub of my beloveds.
I’ll be fair with myself. I have worked hard every day of the pandemic. I had to. I’ve been in a frenzy of rescheduling the book tour for my debut novel Subduction, more than a decade in the making.
Magical thinking. I don’t believe I’ll be flying to California in July or September, but I had to make plans, just in case. Belief is a tricky thing. It can sustain you through hard times and tank you during the good.
In preparation to write this essay, I spent more time outdoors with my kids. Cataloguing our mandated absence from the outside world spooked me into a deeper engagement. Such are the revelations of literature and its reckonings. I have been trying so hard to enact a vision I built for my life before the pandemic. I have been counting on their love. Their forgiveness and forgetting. And my own.
Kristen Millares Young is a prize-winning investigative journalist, book critic and essayist who serves as Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House in Seattle. Her debut novel is Subduction.