Parenting during a pandemic

I have started about a half a dozen pieces since COVID-19 quietly and swiftly morphed itself into a national and global pandemic. I am a changed person each time I sit down to write making it impossible to work off of previous drafts. It’s my hope each time that I sit to write that I will be led to some raw revelation, about myself, about this predicament, about all of us – a country united through separation. But each time I walk away from an unfinished draft while one of my four young children interrupt me with a different need or want , I realize I am as lost and confused as when I began- that words confound me. That for the first time, writing may not be what digs me out of a place of existential crisis and into the warm satisfying light of creative expression.

We have all found ourselves in unchartered territories. A foreign and uncomfortable new lifestyle we are still struggling to accept. Not one of us will be untouched by this. In some way, we will all feel the effects. And I am desperate to make sense of it all. I want to sit down and internalize, I want to reflect and most of all I want to cry as the names of the ill grow steady, as the dead crowd morgues. But my shelter in place includes four daughters, 10, 7, 3 and 1 and a spouse who is considered an essential worker and still leaves each day, and very often, each night as well. My days fill with the mundane. I am making brightly colored homemade playdough, helping a second grader construct her first persuasive piece of writing, and explain fifth grade level math when I can barely add. The laundry piles fast as I insist each of us dress daily. The bickering is steady and creative. The weather is gloomy and chilling and the snack cabinet is days away from being locked with a key. We do all this to the soundtrack of the Beach Boys, Yeshiva Boys Choir and our personal favorite, the steady and incessant cry of our youngest sister and child.

Life has been turned upside down. But it is my children. My children at the forefront of everything. The start, middle and end of each day. Their basic needs, their extra wants. The confounded confusion of my eldest, the incessant inquiry of my second and the at times, brutal exuberance of my third and a nearly 1.5 year old who still doesn’t sleep through the night. The jolting need to shift from the news of a community death to the florescent yoga story flow on the television screen that instructs me and my daughters to shoot imaginary glitter sparkles forth from warrior pose. And its right here, surrounded by giggling girls, bottles of bright colored nail polish and the trimmings of all the remote learning Haggadah projects that I realize I am deep in grief and anxiety.

I want to internalize. I want to give and support and find a semblance of good, the tiniest promise of hope in a time of utter social, political, economic and human demise. I also want to hide. I want to tantrum and mourn a whole life lived with shameless abandon. But I am a mother kept dutifully inside with four young people, some with and without the ability to express the confusion of this new isolated way of life. So I have to push so many of these feelings aside, to balance the day to day structures of our new family dynamics. I need to innovate ways to pass the endless repetitive mass of hours that we face morning after morning. I have to carefully manifest a particular kind of energy to guide each varying personality through the challenges she faces of being inside. An energy that leaves me tired down to the backbone of my soul, so that by the end of the day my brain feels numb and my physical being aches with the knowledge that I will have to redo it all come sunrise.

The other day I remarked to my husband that this week my parents would have been arriving. My mom would have come first, to help with the cooking and preparing of Pesach. She would walk into the house and immediately we would recognize joy; her mere presence the announcement of the imminent holiday festivities. A sister would arrive next, likely in the darkest hour of night, she and her husband would quietly and carefully carry sleeping children to the beds set up in their cousin’s rooms. My father would arrive last, he would ask me several times about various responsibilities that I likely had already assured him were taken care of, he’d crack jokes and ask me to refill his coffee cup. Our home would be full of the voices of children, our table heavy beneath school projects and the kitchen would be loud with laughter and filled with the scents of my mother’s cooking. I can perfectly conjure these images, because they are familiar and I ache for them with the kind of stubborn want that awakens the worst of tantrums in children. But I am not a child. I am the one responsible for the children. I assure them to wipe that sadness off their face about no family for Passover. Like little soldiers, I coax them with an almost militant vigor that we will have the best Seder yet.  I secretly order Pharaoh and Moshe costumes for the Seder and plague toys, plan a skit with my husband, anything that can liven up the first Passover which we, like so many, will celebrate alone.

It is lost on no one that a plague rages right when our children color pictures of frogs with bright green crayons, when our older children learn about the death of the firstborn. Plague. Death. It doesn’t feel like storytelling anymore, not even remembering, but living.

I want to tell you that I am okay, that you will be okay, that it is okay. But I think there’s greater value in transparency. There is value in letting go of judgement of ourselves and others, of releasing our expectations and settling into this in whatever way feels right. We have to endure. Which means my kids will pack away their remote learning materials from the dining room. We will set our table for the Seder and I will focus all my attention on trying to surround this holiday with its usual redemptive celebratory spirit and I will pray. Pray for the dead, the ill, the trapped. But while I do, I will allow myself to get lost in the innocence of the small faces that will join me around my Seder table, the faces that will ask the four questions and don not an N95, but the colorful, cartoon-like masks of the 10 plagues while we all wait for G-d to rid us of the eleventh.

About the Author
Talya Jankovits’ work has appeared in Tablet, Kveller, Bartleby Snopes, Literary Mama, Recovering the Self Magazine, The Jewish Literary Journal, Mutha Magazine, and The Citron Review among others. Her short story “Undone” in Lunch Ticket was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart prize. Her poem, A Woman of Valor, is featured in the 2019/2020 Eshet Hayil exhibit at Hebrew Union College Los Angeles. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and resides in Chicago with her husband and four daughters.
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