A Motherhood Reset

The Atlantic|June 2020

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A Motherhood Reset
How quarantining showed me what my children had been missing—and what I had, too
By Maggie Bullock

What’s that thing, Mom?

Max, you know what that is.

What’s it called?

That’s your bra.

Right.

Is it white?

Not exactly. This color is called, uh … nude.

Oh, nude. Mom?

Yes, Max?

Do you poop in your bra?

Social isolation, Day 17. In the kitchen, in the bathroom, in bed, on walks, my husband and I, plus our boys—Max, 2, and Finn, 5—are all alone, altogether, all the time. These weeks have been wild and strange and exhausting. They have been many things, but chief among them is, I think, intimate. I picture the four of us exiting quarantine as a single, many-headed organism.

On Friday, March 13, the email arrived from my sons’ preschool, its subject line devastatingly simple: Closure. I put the phone down. I couldn’t quite bring myself to read the rest. I felt my incredible luck—the worst thing to befall me during this global pandemic, so far at least, was a state-mandated staycation with my favorite people on Earth. Still, a jolt of actual panic seized me. How would we make it through with no outings, no playdates, no relief?

How would I get any work done? This part answered itself almost immediately: At least initially, I wouldn’t. Within days, my freelance career dried up, every story in the hopper vanished—poof! As a financial hit, it was bad, but it could have been far worse. I was already set to begin work on a book, the contract for which remains intact (I checked). As an emotional hit, it felt heavier. Overnight I went from working journalist to a homeschooling mom. Let’s be clear: I didn’t feel demoted. I felt deeply unqualified.

My husband is a self-employed architect; we are roughly equal earners. Until a few weeks ago, child care was the biggest line item in our monthly budget. At times we have spent more on it than we could rationally afford, a fact about which I have felt largely unconflicted. I have respect for parents who choose to stay home with kids, and respect and empathy for those who have no choice in the matter. But more than once, I’ve joked that my only regret about hiring Finn’s first, beloved baby sitter when he was four months old was not having hired her sooner. My best advice to pregnant friends is to line up child care. You don’t have to do this alone, I tell them. Subtext: I cannot do this alone.

It took me about three days of being home with my boys to recognize that our new lifestyle was not completely without precedent. Certain aspects of confinement had an eerie familiarity: the 24/7 relentlessness, the isolation, the satisfaction of small domestic victories. I’d done this before—twice, on maternity leave.

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June 2020