Published on May 20th, 2021 | by Meg Thompson1
During the summer of 2020, as my husband and I grappled with whether to send our six-year-old daughter, Mae, to virtual or in-person kindergarten, I had a dream about opening my mail. One of the envelopes had the return address of “The Civil War.” When I opened it, the letter was a single, typed line in the middle of a white page: Mae has to fight.
When Mae was a little over a year old, I stopped teaching full time and became a stay-at-home mom and a statistic: a woman who left the workforce because her husband was going to make more money than her. Instead of fixating on that, though, I gave myself to my daughter, and, three years later, to my son. We sat together on the floor, surrounded by wobbling towers of puzzles, each one carefully selected for when they were ready to learn something new: colors, animal sounds, numbers, shapes. Often when we would go places, I would stare at other parents with their teenagers and feel relief that my children were so small. That’s not me, yet. I would think. I don’t have to make the hard decisions.
Then the pandemic dropped its black scrim over our days, and life with my children did not radically alter so much as my mind did. Mae’s preschool closed, but I was used to her being home. We didn’t tell her what was going on, just that she was on spring break, which she was, technically, but she was too smart for that.
“Mommy,” she said, looking up at me, “I feel like there’s a monster outside.”
“Things are different,” I said, a hinge in my throat. “And it’s going to be ok.”
I had been preparing for her to go to kindergarten, well before the pandemic, knowing it was going to be hard for me, not her. She was enlivened by the idea of all-day school, obsessed with the logistics of lunch and recess. A natural student, she sat at the kitchen table and watched nature videos on YouTube.
“Mommy,” she said. “Did you know some animals have three hearts?”
In my heart, I wanted to keep her home because the situation seemed so precarious, wobbly, built on something none of us fully understood.
“I feel like I am throwing her into chaos,” I told my mother.
“She doesn’t know what kindergarten is,” she said, and her voice turned serious, which it rarely does. “And that’s on you.”
When I talked to the principal over the phone, I had tears in my eyes. “I don’t know what the right decision is,” I said.
“Whatever decision you make,” she said, “is the best decision for your family.”
This was a different kind of love to summon. The hardest one, but the truest and realest one so far. My heart reeled, looking back on the days of my children as newborns, infants, toddlers, with raging mixtures of joy and guilt. I was with them for every milestone. I have so many memories, they fight for top placement in my mind, but the isolation that can come from being a stay-at-home mom upended me, and sometimes I couldn’t take it. I lashed out, got angry at my kids just for being kids. Cue the guilt. Was I doing this right? Should I have been away from them more?
I still don’t know. If I am supposed to be confident, some kind of role model, I can maybe do that once a week, like when I remember to bring my reusable bags to the store. But during a pandemic? What do we have besides ourselves? Don’t you dare tell me what to do with my mind and my children when you abandoned us to figure this out.
On the first day of school, I knelt in front of my daughter and looped her favorite flamingo mask over her ears. I had been wearing a mask for months: this dumb, bright smile. My daughter knew it was fake. We laughed at it. That’s how we survived. I had to let her go. If I didn’t I was risking enmeshment, with her and her brother, our hearts tangling as we drifted like a squid around the house. I drove her to school and watched until her small frame disappeared through the doors, book bag weighted down with hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes for her classroom. War.