This past two weeks, my life has mirrored the landscape of the dystopian novels I use in my middle school ELA classroom. A pandemic set loose on the world, exponentially rising death tolls, lack of basic services and consumer goods, inadequate healthcare, unmitigated government control, and widespread fear and hysteria.
The surreality of our current situation reinforces my belief that I cannot spend my life needlessly worrying. So many times in the past, I have had sleepless nights, letting potential problems keep me up, only to find they have never come to pass. Instead, I have been blindsided by issues I could never have foreseen. Today’s dystopian world is the perfect illustration.
Like everyone, I am trying to cope with our new reality. Between trying to teach my own classes online, to homeschool my kindergartener and first grader, and to productively fill our long days and empty schedules, some days are better than others. I am trying to be kind to myself and my children. We are all struggling. I am attempting to explain the unexplainable to them, why our world has shut down, why we have to practice social distancing. It is hard to answer the questions my young children have about these complicated issues without scaring them. It is difficult to remain calm in the face of so many unknowns.
And I am also trying to keep my children busy and provide opportunities for them to expend their youthful energy, even though all their activities and sports have been cancelled. There are very few places to take them. Even our local tracks have been closed.
So yesterday afternoon, after our daily homeschool lessons, I took my children up to the North Shore of Long Island to Cold Spring Harbor State Park. I have done this challenging two mile trail countless times with one of my friends. It was the second time that I had taken my children; the first time we did not get very far.
As my daughter, the future trail runner, bounds ahead, my son and I walk together.
“Mommy, my legs aren’t as long as Sis’s.”
“I know, Buddy. You are doing great.”
As we pick our way over logs, roots, and rocks, he begins to discuss a past event. “It was before we broke up,” he explains. My son has started to sort events into two categories: pre-divorce and post divorce. However, he descriptively timestamps events as before or after “we broke up.” Again, I explain to him that we didn’t break up; we could never break up. His father and I divorced, but we both love his sister and him very much. My heart aches.
From the time I learned I was pregnant with my daughter, over seven years ago, I have dedicated my life to protecting my children. Initially, I gave up wine and sushi and tried to fuel my body properly, nurturing beings I had never met but to whom I was already acutely tied. Out of the womb, my love and responsibilities have increased a hundredfold. I agonize over their physical, academic, mental, and emotional well-being daily, struggling to shield them from pain and conflict.
I have never before experienced the rage I felt when my children have been harmed by a playmate or bully. As a person who has always been immune to road rage, can turn my back on an enraged person, can tune out a belligerent student’s tirades, knowing full well his anger has nothing to do with me but stems from other issues, I have reeled from this blind rage. A feeling so uncontrollable, it can only be instinctual.
Unlike our previous visit to this site, this time my children completed the whole route. In a celebratory spirit, my slightly tired children and their exhausted mother return to the car for a thirty minute drive home. On the radio, a song I never heard before was playing, “Try Again,” by Andy Shauf. Despite recounting the story of a broken relationship, the tune is upbeat. The chorus repeats the song’s title, “Come on, baby, try again.”
I tell my children I like the song. Trying again is such an important lesson. We all need to try again as we did with our hike. Or how we sometimes need to do with our behavior. I am going to try to be more patient, I tell them. Maybe they can listen better, I suggest. We chat a bit more. A new song comes on the radio. But something has been dislodged in my son. He begins to pound his booster chair, repeating fiercely over and over, “You and daddy have to get back together again.”
It takes me a moment to understand what he is saying. He starts to kick the car door. “I am not kidding,” he yells at me. The irony is that I feel almost healed, but my poor children are still struggling with the aftermath of the divorce.
In the past, I might have given the stock answer, Daddy and I didn’t get along. However, the children’s therapist has cautioned that could lead children to needlessly feel conflict between parents. I say instead, “Sometimes parents don’t work well together.” Or, at all, I think to myself.
He calms momentarily. Throughout our ride home, he frequently returns to his outburst. I thank him for telling me how he feels, for sharing with me. I am sorry he feels that way. I do understand, I tell him. I know his ability to articulate his feelings is healing in itself. Yet, every time I hear his pain, my own heart splinters. There is no escape from this paradox. In trying to protect my children, I have caused them pain.
At one point, he says, “But mom, it is like the song. You can try again.” And I am undone by his intelligence, his ability to make inferences and connections. His optimism. He is five.
In bed that night, tears flow unbidden down my cheeks. Seven years of trying to insulate my children from heartache and loss. Despite our best efforts, we may still cause pain.