In February, I stood in the baby medicine aisle of No Libs Target, texting my mom friends.
“Are you guys stocking up?” I asked, tossing extra infant Tylenol in my cart. My friends responded with mixed reactions — maybe they’d run out and get a few things later this week. In the moment they were focused on the usual drama of having a 1-year-old: teething, sleeping, the occasional fever. I texted back, “It’s probably just my mom’s stories about hard times in Poland compelling me to do this.”
As a professor of human rights, I used to tell my undergraduates, “Many say change doesn’t happen overnight, but it only happens overnight!” That classroom seems distant today, but the mantra feels omnipresent. The pandemic slowly encroached on our lives and remade our world overnight.
For the past year, I had dealt with the seismic change of being a new mom. I transitioned careers, adapted to new motherhood, and tried to ensure everyone’s needs were met, completely exhausting myself. My time of accomplishment and international travel was gone. I pined for those relics of my old life, yet the more I tried to hold on to it, the more it slipped away.
I recognize that my experiences as a mother are unique, and in many ways privileged. But I can only speak to what motherhood was like for me, and early on especially, it was hard. After many sleepless nights, I bulldozed my stroller through Fishtown, trying to find strength during the loneliness of early motherhood. Given that my biggest concerns were my infant’s sleep, food, and eating, I felt far from the work I had done before, from researching human trafficking in Northern Thailand, to documenting the stories of refugees in Myanmar. I took great pride in helping university students navigate complex global issues. Now, as a mom, my world had become so small.
But by the time my son turned 1 in February, I finally felt I was getting the hang of this motherhood thing. I reveled in my Fishtown community, where I felt a sense of peace seeing the same people at our favorite cafés, bakeries, and play spaces. We had a routine, friends, and community, all hard won. My son got his first teeth in. As I grew more confident, I was ready to start building my life and career again.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus was spreading quickly. My hopes for the future clashed with dispatches from Hong Kong about quarantine, and friends in Thailand writing that they hadn’t been out since late January. In early March, I was supposed to speak at the Travel and Adventure show at the Convention Center in Philly, and was planning to announce my book, an illustrated travel memoir — my first real “I’m back" moment since giving birth. Then, like so many performances, opportunities, and events, the show was canceled.
Quarantine is not that much different from the first few weeks of having a child. You are stuck at home, with a totally new set of rules. Sleepless nights happen for many reasons, and you are still responsible for everything getting done. Even though you may have a support network, they may not always be able to help in the ways you need. And you will miss your old way of life dramatically at first. Then you realize you have to work with what you have. I still had to chase my toddler all day, while worrying about my husband seeing vulnerable patients. And once again, eating, sleeping, and getting through the day were priorities.
There is a saying every mom I know with kids over 5 tells me: “The days are long but the years are short.” Days in quarantine with a kid can be very long. Every parent right now is building incredible resilience.
I stare at my son sometimes and wonder: “What sort of world did I bring you into?” It’s the guilt of motherhood taking hold again. As I type this, my son naps on my chest, blissfully ignorant to everything going on. My anxieties are not rooted in his teeth or feeding anymore, but what kind of world he will inherit. How will I explain exactly what the world was like before; how this pandemic exposed the fraying fabric of our nation; how this will impact his generation in ways I can’t fathom?
If we all are lucky enough to be here in 15 years, he will ask me what I did before this new era. I will tell him honestly: I spent my first year of motherhood clinging to my past, and transforming into your mom — eventually realizing that joy and opportunity were always around me.
When social distancing first started, my husband and I took my son to our beloved Philadelphia Zoo, and barely encountered other patrons there. We watched the rhino pacing, and his giraffe friends walking in circles for a long time. I thought this would be a moment signaling my return to the world after being cocooned away in new motherhood. Instead, the moment made me realize I was already in the world. Spending time with my family at the zoo and seeing the joy on my child’s face, I wasn’t reaching for the past — just living in the now.
Lately, everything changes so fast that I am unsure what strengths and sorrows next week will bring. At home with my family, I have never had more time to consider the world around me. For now, I remind myself: We are together, the weather is nice, and all we have is today.