Published on May 11th, 2020 | by Jade Sanchez-Ventura0
Raising Babies in End of Days: Going Nuclear
Three days before we left Brooklyn to merge with another family in the woods, I almost punched my hand through the glass pane of our front door. I came at it fast with my clenched fist and then at the last, with a gut effort, pulled up and pushed my knuckles against the glass instead, leaned my forehead onto its chill surface, said, “Fuck fuck fuck.” Behind me my four-almost-five year old sat on the bottom stair, shouting, “No! Mama you have to help me put on my shoes! You HAVE to.” My three-month-old baby was pressed to my chest in a carrier. My partner was in his office around the corner, providing therapy through a screen. My mother-in-law was in her downstairs apartment, I hoped not hearing any of this. My mother and step-father were in their apartment nearby, a week into a recovery from what we were pretty sure was Covid, but you know, no tests, so… My kid’s teachers and friends were scattered, available to us as faces on a screen, though my kid had begun boycotting those morning meetings. Our friends were either a block away or in other states, even countries, though the distance seemed irrelevant. I switched to the stone of the house instead, scraping my knuckles a bit as I punched, then stopped, mainly due to the fact that this was not the time to bring a mangled hand to a healthcare worker. I’d never before understood the punch-a-wall urge, but now it was hard to resist. I closed my eyes. Help me, help me, help me help us. I turned back to my kid and got him into his shoes. When my partner came home that night I told him, “Whether we go or not, something has to change. I’m not going to make it.”
We spent the first three and a half weeks of Covid-19 sheltering in place in Brooklyn with our kid and our baby—who was ten weeks old when it all began. I was the one on parental leave. Before Covid, we’d mapped out an exquisite, supportive schedule for my leave and were about to shift into one that allotted more time for my creative and professional life. But then, the schools shut down. That same weekend we found out that my mother and step-father were sick. Come that first Monday, I was the one to whom the responsibility fell of figuring out what the hell this sheltering in place, this so-called homeschooling would look like. The Sunday before the stores all closed found me taking the baby out for a nap in the carrier, while buying art supplies and catching the pediatrician on the phone to ascertain just how scared for the baby I was supposed to be. (Their answer? Wash hands constantly, disinfect doorknobs at least once a day, maintain social distancing at all times, so far doesn’t hit kids hard, but there’s a lot we don’t know. I began to live with a coal of fear burning in my belly.) My partner had his own list of tasks to get his practice functioning remotely, and as soon as he got home he too was cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids. When both children were finally asleep we sat beside each other blasted by exhaustion, watching Trevor Noah clips. Each day felt two marathons, one a piece. The key difference though was that I ran mine with a kid and a baby and never a moment to be an independent adult human.
In other words, suddenly I was a homemaker living in a nuclear family.
As this New York Times article “When Mom’s Zoom Meeting is the One That Has to Wait” reports, I was not alone. In the majority of two parent, mixed gender households, it’s the jobs of the women that are being compromised. There are many reasons, all of them rooted in sexism: The wage gap, the biology of bearing and nursing children, the ongoing pattern that has women as primary parents no matter how many hours outside the home they put in. Furthermore, it is the traditional professional spaces of women who have been left out on the front lines: Teachers, nurses, home aides. The Times reports that 1 in 3 jobs held by women are deemed essential. And the majority of the front-line work is specifically being held down by women of color.
The speed with which New Yorkers were made to shut down our lives left little time for nuanced decision making. Keep our kids in, keep working, shelter with whom you live. Immediately, and as the threat of future job losses loomed, the higher wage earner in households was prioritized. The wage gap is real, so that meant more typically that was the men. Even full-time working women are finding that their jobs are the ones compromised in this realigning of priorities.
Parenting was never supposed to be this for me. I was raised by a single mother in New York City. My childhood was lived out as much in parks, restaurants, subways, and buses as it was inside the home. My mother was aided in my rearing by a bevy of adults. I appear to parent in a nuclear family home: We are married, of different genders, and live in our own apartment. However, behind that façade we’ve worked hard to build a home life outside of the nuclear paradigm. We bring grandparents and friends into our family life and try to live out in the city as much as we can. We try not to own if we can borrow, share or use public resources. And never in my life had I shopped for two weeks of groceries at once.
A nuclear family is, according to Merriam-Webster, a family unit consisting of only parents and children. It is also a building block of American capitalism as we live it now. The term evolved after World War II when the U.S. had gained military dominance via it’s murder-by-atomic-bomb of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, and economic dominance by being one of the few manufacturing countries whose infrastructure hadn’t been bombed to smithereens. (Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and Oliver Stone’s documentary series, The Untold History of the United States both busted open my thinking about our involvement in World War II. See especially Stone’s episodes about Wallace Stevens, F.D.R.’s original vice president, supplanted by Truman, for some serious Bernie Sanders déjà vu.) Post-World War II was a dangerous moment for the status quo: Both women and Black people had gained societal advances when the war economy needed their bodies to fight and to manufacture. But then all those white, male veterans came home needing jobs and the war economy needed to be maintained, only without a war. As carla bergman and Nick Montgomery write in Joyful Militancy, “[The nuclear family] evolved as a way of reproducing wage-laboring men through the unpaid labor of women…and for the accumulation of white wealth.” (p 44).
And though my foray into such a household was urban, the American nuclear family can never be independent of its suburban origins, the creation of which played a key role in suppressing Black upward mobility and female independence. The creation of the suburbs relied on discriminatory lending practices and white flight out of the cities. (I’ve said it before, if you haven’t read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece The Case for Reparations, go do that.) Culturally, women were taken out of the work force and relegated to their roles behind those white fences, this time without the networks of neighbors, friends, and relatives that had been a central aspect of pre-World War II city living. Economically, black people’s wage employment was not allowed to be transferred into the generational wealth building of home ownership.
The suburbs have been ground zero of the nuclear family, but they have not contained its cultural force. It has become the defining, ubiquitous image of family, even while it undermines the emotional and mental health of the family. As bergman and Montgomery also note, the nuclear family has been a central site of abuse, in particular for women and children. It is a space that pressurizes parenting, especially in our society where there is little support for the work of child rearing.
From the get, the nuclear family has specifically served as a mechanism of oppression. No wonder I was raging.
I nursed our baby and felt a rope of panic twist in me. I moved our kid through our days and in this role received the full force of his grief and anger. One morning, he stood inches from me stomping, jumping, screaming, crying. “Change it!,” he screamed. “Change it.” Technically it was something trivial, a toy or a breakfast plan maybe, but I knew that the thing he wanted me to change was the everything that I could not. My partner had to leave for work. He kissed the top of my head, as our kid continued to yell and cry and I held my arms open for him to climb into, when he was ready. I was grateful that at least the baby was napping. At one o’ clock every day for three weeks we tuned into Mo Willems’ Lunch Doodles; the only digital resource that could make my kid laugh. I lit incense and assembled lunch and for those twenty minutes felt that perhaps this was a life I could live. When Mo announced that the Doodles were ending, I wept. Then I hated him. The longer we spent indoors the less safe I felt. I tried to balance my acute need for fresh air with my kid’s social distancing learning curve and the safety of the baby. The afternoons were hard. Most days of the third week, come mid-afternoon, rage poured into me, kerosene waiting for a match that my kid usually lit. On top of the constants of home and parenting, I was meditating every morning, stretching and breathing, getting fresh air, reaching out to fellow parents, staging at-home dance parties, asking my partner for help when I most needed it, reading poetry at night, writing morning pages—in other words, doing all the damned things to put on my proverbial oxygen mask first and yet every day the rage returned. Sometimes I stared at my baby and wondered if this new family she’d made us into was too good to be true; by now I could not imagine myself without her and there she was in a body with an immune system that felt all too new and vulnerable. I asked my partner in those exhausted evenings, “Are we going to lose her? Do we need to do everything we can to run for the hills?”
And yet, perhaps I could have managed it. Yes, living in the epicenter of a global pandemic with a newborn was terrifying. Yes, every day was a logistical puzzle to arrange and re-arrange, more so when face coverings became necessary. Yes, having a four-almost-five year old inside most of the time was over-stimulating and exhausting. Yes, my own shock and sadness and anxiety made it hard to even think a full sentence. But the thing that made it all too much, that made it feel impossible, was the sense that the life I’d spent the previous twenty years building had been undone in a few days.
They were still saying then that this was a finite situation, but even then it didn’t feel like it. Instead it felt like my life before had been the illusion, a foolish notion to think I could live outside the traps of my gender and the home. It was as if my life had been a bird’s nest built on the stone head of a sleeping colossus that had suddenly roared awake. My family life, my thousands of hours of conversation and community building were straw and twigs to be shaken off.
This move to the country began as a furlough. A week, maybe ten days to release the pressure. Within hours in the new house, with four parents and four kids, the labor patterns shifted. (My kid’s need for companionship will have to be the subject of its own piece, but it was powerful to see confirmed.) With two parents in the household there had been no wiggle room. My partner had to work outside the home and I had to work in. But with two more adults, we could collage all of our various roles and move between child care, cooking, cleaning, and jobs. We are two couples whose men already shared in the work of the home; pre-Covid both of our families had mixed up the all the work between the two parents. The shock in my home had been how the crisis had immediately undone the patterns my partner and I had been deliberate about setting up. But in this new construction, we could live again some of our old values. I was freed from the isolation that was leaving me raging and weeping. I began to believe again that I got to have some say in how my family lived. Within days, my friends invited us to stay and co-habitate with them and become one isolated, isolating unit.
There is, of course, immense privilege in the thing. None of this would be possible without the property itself. We are not crammed into a small space and there are woods behind the house, a stream, and an open grassy area for play. We would not be here if we weren’t friends with a family who has access to such a property. We all have our paychecks mostly intact. I can begin returning to some of my work outside the home. Though some of our jobs, as two educators and a mental health provider, are deemed essential, none of us are front line.
The inequities of our communities are playing out in who is staying and who leaving, in who is staying and receiving deliveries and who is doing the delivering, in who is working, and in whose work puts them at risk. My nest is not the only one the colossus is shaking off. New York is trying to cancel an election outright, for god’s sake. The funds being cut are the ones that pay for the few community-minded programs we have: Summer youth employment, composting, libraries, health clinics. Apparently even the postal service is under threat.
Covid-19, as it has played out in my city, is a crisis of capitalism. The deaths of 15,000 New Yorkers, the decimation of our economy, the shutting down of our lives were not inevitable. These have been the result of studied negligence and the repeated prioritization of profit over preparedness. And now those same principles are being applied to the recovery.
I want to protect and support my neighbors and community. I am not proud to have left my city. I am even less proud of the parenting I was doing in the last days before I left.
The one thing I am sure of is that pandemic shaming is a waste of our anger, and provides quite the duck and cover for the politicians who put us in this position in the first place. They love to scold sunbathers in the park. They do not love to talk about why they didn’t have a plan in place by January.
For the record, I rocked week one of Covid parenting. And three days ago I made my kid a triple decker chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate chips for his 5th birthday. I cook, I clean, I nurture. Such work is not the sole domain of the nuclear family and to be able to do it again with pleasure is to be returned to myself.
They called it sheltering in place. Indeed, as a failsafe against a virus, it provided some protection. But it sealed me off into a home life, a family life, that radiated its own toxins: A space that was, indeed, nuclear.
All photos in the essay are (c) Jade Sanchez-Ventura