A Mother's Sacred Oath
In Uganda, while mothers tend to their crops in the hope of growing enough food to feed their families, National Geographic reports that chimpanzees watch from a distance, waiting for the opportunity to snatch away a toddler who wanders too far from her mother’s reach.
In New York City, I study COVID-19 death rates and incidence charts to try to figure out whether it’s safe to send my child to school in September, or even let my kids leave the house to play outside with friends. I live in a part of Queens that has a higher-than-average COVID-19 rate—about 16 percent of those tested yielded a positive result, and the Rockaway peninsula has registered some of the highest death rates in the city. Nationwide, more than 5 million people have been sickened, and while children usually do not get very ill, they can spread the disease to those who do.
I know parenting is never easy, but come on. Preying chimpanzees? An invisible virus? I remember when my biggest fear was losing sight of my child at the local playground. Amateur!
I try to turn down the flame on my freakout by reminding myself that I am not the first parent who has feared for her child’s life. In fact, millenia of parents had much more reason to fear than I. There was a time when for a child to live into an adulthood at all was a miracle unto itself. And then consider war, pogroms, slavery, girls married way before their time and boys hired out, never to be seen again. What’s my foe? A virus that, with a mask and enough hand sanitizer, I can do a reasonable job of protecting my child from. There are generations of parents who would have gladly traded places with me.
I know. I know. And yet, I whine. This is so UNFAIR!!! I am so tired of all the decisions, and of worrying about my decisions, and then changing them from day to day. Is it okay to go to the beach? To meet a friend at a playground? Should my kids continue remote learning or opt to go back to the classroom, where there are so many variables—namely, other kids--that safety cannot be guaranteed.
And then there are the repercussions of the decisions. If my son stays home, he limits his virus exposure. But it also means he is on screens for more hours than I ever, ever thought I could allow and still consider myself a decent parent. If I say no to my daughter going out, her sadness fills the house like a thick fog—you can feel it even when she’s just sighing deeply from behind her closed bedroom door.
Okay, yes. I am not hiding from the Nazis or fleeing from my bomb-ravaged village. I am, in fact, living a very comfortable upper-middle class life in what is considered one of the world’s greatest cities. So basically, I am an impatient whiner. I want things to go back to the way they were, when the answers were more obvious and the questions did not have life or death implications. I want this all to be over and am feeling like a spoiled brat and a sulky teenager. Has anyone seen the corkscrew?
And while I might resemble those things, I cannot act them out in real life. In real life, I am an adult and a parent who has to make decisions and live with them. Pick your lane and sit there.
I recently visited Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where I grew up. I showed my daughter the alleys, once strewn with broken beer bottles, where my friends and I used to scandalously run barefoot, jumping fences and sneaking into neighbor’s yards to steal roses from their bushes. Whenever I cross a street near the corner, I hear myself repeating the words my grandmother told me, “Always look because these cars come out of nowhere.” Broken glass; speeding cars. Ah, the 1980s. If only those things were all I had to worry about.
I’m annoyed because there are no clear answers. To avoid glass in your foot, put on a shoes! To be safe from speeding cars, stop and look! But what do you do about coronavirus? Do we stay inside forever? Or what feels like forever? The world seems incapable of that and our government is pushing us back to school and back to work so—do we just put our masks on and move forward, knowing there are risks but doing our best to protect ourselves?
In Uganda, chimps’ natural habitats are being cleared to make way for farming. Chimps are now competing with humans for resources, raiding the crops and snatching away humans that they see as too weak to be a threat. To equate the chimp problem to COVID-19 is a false equivalency. For one, it seems a much easier solve (stop knocking down forests, for one) than a runaway virus that no one has immunity to. And, the childcare challenges of women who have no choice but to bring their small children into the fields with them, despite the horrific dangers, are unimaginable. But I can equate the fear we mothers experience as we raise our children into adulthood. From the moment my children were placed in my arms, my maternal soul activated and I knew immediately I would do anything to protect them. I resent anyone, anything, that stands in my way of doing that. I resent anything that makes me fear for their safety. I resent the machinations that my mind goes through as it tries to figure out ways to fulfill that most sacred of oaths. I think this is a universal maternal experience, and so the risks that any of us have to take tear at the soul.
If you’re looking to me for answers, I have none. All I do have is commiseration. Parents, I know we are tired. I know what it is to wake in the night wondering if the virus somehow snuck its way past your child’s masked face; whether that sneeze at dinner was just allergies or something worse. I know how exhausting all the decisions are, especially if, like me, you change your mind on a daily basis. I’m tired too. This sucks. But let’s just do our best. Let’s keep our kids close; let’s not worry about their screens so long as it keeps them connected with their friends; and let’s be aware of the dangers that lurk and do our best to fight them off. And then go to bed, try to sleep, and do it all again tomorrow.