In my house are two adults, four boys and one dog, but only the dog seems stable right now. The rest of us are on the verge of crisis. It’s important to say here: We’re on the verge of crisis, not in crisis. An iron railing, built by our privilege, protects us from going over the cliff.
The boys’ father has an autoimmune disease and has rarely left the house since March. He also lost his job in March, taking half our annual income with it. My university’s pay cuts kick in next month. I’ve spent the last few months slashing our budget to the bare bones so we don’t lose our house. In the spring, I attended faculty meetings while waiting in line for federally subsidized lunches for the boys. Instead of essays, I craft shoestring menus on $30 a week. I’m not so much numb as mired in survival, but sometimes, I’m also numb.
This may not be the absolute worst of times, but it’s definitely not good times, either. Right now, I’m in the basement, and no, son, I didn’t smell the smoke pouring from the dishwasher. Do you see flames? If not, could I please have two more minutes?
My boys are good boys. Under normal circumstances, they’re (mostly) considerate, empathetic, compassionate. But the world’s troubles, and our family’s, lurk in their sidewalk shadows. As they flail from losses and fears, what they need from me rivals what they needed when they were babies. I’m back to providing emotional milk every two hours. They’re hungry for my touch, for my assurance (once, while in the grocery store, I received 79 texts from a single kid. I’d left my phone in the car so as not to contaminate it. He wanted to know when I’d be home.) So we walk, bike, play tennis, roller skate, talk, read stories, volunteer at a farm, cook, attend protests, do chores. And I listen to hours (hours!) of descriptions of Minecraft worlds they are building while the real one glitches.
I’m programmed to say, “This is a blessing.” After all, we’re together with a roof over our heads and food on our table. We’re not sick. In fact, we’re more together in this pandemic than we would’ve been otherwise. We’re so together that I can’t go to the bathroom without someone knocking on the door.
Fine. “This is a blessing.” But could one of them please stop hiding my laptop to keep me from working? Because I need to work. I want to work. I want to read books on combatting racism. I want to research the genteel essay tradition in America. I want to write about essayists who pushed against the boundaries of what it meant to write essays as women. I want to write as a reader about the work of Gail Hamilton and conduct research on the global nonfiction syllabus. I want to plan the courses I need to teach in potentially three different ways in the fall.
How we are is a mother’s lament over patriarchy and maternal responsibilities, the plight of working moms during a pandemic, and the cards stacked against academics who are also caretakers. How we are is the tumble of children, who are barely okay only because I am keeping them glued together (but STOP HIDING MY LAPTOP).
Look, loves. We’re sitting on that iron railing, skin to skin, practicing strength and resilience and trying to ignore the drop-off behind us. There was a big fight moments ago about who would sit next to me. We’re trying to smile. We’re trying not to blink. I’m beyond exhausted, physically and emotionally. But, if you don’t get too close, you could hardly tell.
Alright. Take the picture.