By Kara Gebhart Uhl
I make mental calculations of what’s in our cupboards and pantry as I prepare the morning’s coffee. I look at the empty blocks on our calendar and think how long I can stretch what we have to limit shopping. I try to find balance in underbuying and overbuying. Except apples. I continually overbuy apples. I don’t know why.
Everything in the backyard is in bloom –– forsythia, daffodils, the cherry tree. It seems a bit bold, really, all that brightness in a time of gray.
The plans and spreadsheets and color-coded charts mamas and papas have made impress and exhaust me. I think of the box of sidewalk chalk I bought a month ago. I feel ill-prepared for mothering through a pandemic. I imagine for many, planning helps suppress anxiety. Days neatly defined by grids provide a shield against the unknown in an environment in which the very air we breathe could be deadly. I acknowledge the importance of routine. But I also listen to my mom, a kindergarten teacher for 30 years who mothered in the 1980s, as she insists we mothers cut ourselves some slack. It’s a pandemic. Extra electronic time as we work through this won’t scar anyone. Her wise words over the phone comfort me.
I’m grateful for the daily assignments and lessons from our now-work-from-home teachers. I’m grateful for the board games on our shelves we haven’t played yet. For our basketball hoop on no-rain days and the sidewalk on our street. For all the books spilling out of our bookshelves that, previously, my children didn’t read with any sense of eagerness. Maybe pandemics spark avidity.
When not doing school work, my twin boys curl up on the couch, screens in hand, buried under handmade quilts, bare feet sticking out, toes tapping on the couch. (They’re 9.) My daughter walks around the house singing songs, giving me kisses, holding her phone, surveying the pantry, throwing a ball to the dog, sighing, scowling, smiling. (She’s 12.)
Sometimes I set up my office at the dining room table, wanting to sit in the heart of it all. I have an office in a tiny room upstairs, a beautiful office my husband built, but sitting amongst my family, laughing with them, listening to them, scolding them, helping them, bearing witness to their day, feels important right now.
I think of our privilege and my cheeks flush with guilt. My husband and I have worked from home for a long time now. Because of the nature of our jobs, our income is stable (for now). I have one son who has asthma. That’s it. Navigating kids and work simultaneously is not new for us. We slide into the rhythm of it somewhat bumpily, but also somewhat easily.
I’m cold, even when the sun is shining.
So I light tapered candles, not for warmth but for ambience, and I keep them lit for hours, watching them become stubs as our mantle clock ticks.
My phone pings often. Loved ones checking in. Friends sending me things that make me laugh. Breaking news stories. Ping. Ping. Ping. It’s a sound that reminds me of the songs sung from the balconies in Italy. I watch those clips online, at 3 a.m., awake. There is comfort in them, despite the underlying sorrow. These pings and songs muffle my frustration, albeit briefly.
The opening of time, in the evenings and on the weekends, is a gift, although I feel ashamed for saying that. I could write. I could read. I could take long walks, as long as long walks are still allowed. Sometimes, though, I just sit.
I think about all our to-dos. The boxes in our attic where holiday decorations, toy trucks, board books, old linens, old love letters, dolls from my own childhood, broken things, never-used things and regretful things all spill out. A mess. I could clean it. Create a space for the ping-pong table we have no space for. Lay down old, stained rugs on the unfinished floor. I could tidy it all up, in a way I can’t tidy up the world around me. I could do this, I think, for those I love. But I’ve yet to manage it.
I read all the things –– articles, essays, opinions, predictions, graphs. I read this, my brother’s most recent Facebook post: “some days the sirens just drown out the claps.” He lives in New York City, in Jackson Heights, in one of the many hearts of this virus. I read and I worry. It’s not panic, I say. I insist: It’s not panic. It’s just that the weight of worry is sometimes heavy.
I think of those I love, who are older than me. I think of those I love, who have chronic health conditions. I think of those I love, who are immunocompromised, who are now without income, who work in the healthcare industry and grocery stores and all our essential businesses, who own small businesses that have had to close, and who have planned and worked and prayed for something for a very long time only to have had it erased so quickly. I think of those I don’t know, who have no one.
I read the numbers. I do (a little) math, every day. I stand up, walk to the kitchen, and make dinner.
My boys were born too small. At one point, early on, I had a 2-year-old daughter who had the flu, a less-than-one-month-old who was out of the NICU but now in a crib at our children’s hospital possibly with the flu, and a less-than-one-month-old who I had to make sure continued to breathe every time he ate and who weighed fewer than 4 pounds at home. I couldn’t be in all the places. I couldn’t fix all the things. The picture I had of motherhood was gone and at times I didn’t recognize the new life I was living. So I did all I knew how to do. I worried. I worked hard. And I loved.
We have plenty of coffee in our cupboard. What’s not in bloom has buds, promises, waiting. I buy from local businesses. I buy art from artist friends. I continue my work, thankful for the work, while my kids spend too little time engaged in meaningful, creative activities. We have medicine to help control my son’s asthma. Our parents are following the rules. When my children’s tempers flare, I choose my battles. I forgive, myself and them, more easily. I have a husband to watch Netflix with at night while we continually pause, telling the kids to get back in bed and go to sleep. And I have a dog who is beside himself with joy that we’re all home.
The mental calculations I make go beyond our cupboards and pantry. When the flutter of anxiety rises in my chest I try to calculate what’s held between our walls, too. These days, everything there is messy, loud and tinged with guilt (what we have compared to so many), and none of it is well-defined by grids (even if it should be). But when all that’s outside my home drains me, I try to let the content of my home refill for I know I can stretch that love infinitely. So I do.
Kara Gebhart Uhl writes and edits from her home in Fort Thomas, KY, where she’s a mom to a 12-year-old daughter and twin 9-year-old boys. More of her essays on mothering can be found at pleiadesbee.com.
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