As New York City approached its peak of the pandemic, my sister and I decided to pay $51 for a coveted gallon of “germicidal” bleach. I spent evenings, while my then-four-month-old daughter slept, meticulously mopping our floors. The smell made our eyes water. Splashes of bleach corroded our doorknob. A drop left a perfectly circular white spot on the sofa. Still, it felt good to wash away our fears.
Now, as cases of COVID-19 have dipped and the city is poised to reopen, I wonder when it will be safe to go back outside. I’ve tried to recall a time when it did feel safe, but I’m not sure there has been one in recent history. Of course, life seemed safer before the pandemic—I was never afraid of my own hands. But the apocalyptic scenes on television are familiar, so I know, instinctually, that it couldn’t have been real.
There have been many blissful moments being self-quarantined with my sister and daughter.
We’ve baked box brownies and binged on Netflix movies. We recorded my baby’s laughter as she was tickled and her bewildered expression as she had her first taste of pear puree. One morning, the three of us lay bellies-down on my bed with my window open as wide as it would go, looking out onto the alley and naming the outside smells as they wafted in: garlicky food cooking, garbage, intoxicatingly clean laundry.
There have also been realizations that have been sobering.
During quarantine, new motherhood evolved from worrying if she’d ever sleep through the night, to worrying that, somehow, being locked in our apartment would scar my daughter. I’ve worried, too, that her watching me unlock the door beneath an N-95 mask and a hood will be context for her future nightmares. Pulling on a hood and covering my face is both parts comforting and frightening. I am protected from illness but, historically, less safe in the world if I cover my head.
When I was a little girl, my own mother taught me to hug myself when I was distressed and alone. There have been several times during this pandemic when I have gone into our narrow bathroom, wrapped my arms around myself and sobbed silently. Each time, I came out with a smile on my face, because I’ve learned, through Google searches and personal experience, how important it is for children to grow up feeling safe and securely attached.
My sister called me into our living room to watch as the video of George Floyd played on the news and goosepimples prickled on my arms as he cried for his mother. There is a specific kind of vulnerability in asking your mother to “come and fix it.” And there is an equally specific emotion in knowing as a mother that you must fix it, even though you don’t know how.
Long before I became a mother, I believed that I would fix things through conversation, knowing each other better, speaking about injustice. But Derek Chauvin and George Floyd may have worked together for years and Derek heard George begging for breath, for his mother. He heard George begging him to stop and Derek still killed him.
I don’t know how I can tell my daughter to trust a national culture like this one. The words we use to describe the world inside our apartment are “good” and “safe,” “kind ” and “sweet,” and I know once we step outside again, they will feel false. But how can I raise my child to see outside as it really is—“bad,” perhaps, “unsafe,” and mean—without growing her into an adult who is consumed by bitterness?
The truth is that home isn’t nearly as good or safe or hopeful or changeable as I thought it would be.
And maybe I will tell her that some day.
But if I do, I will also tell her that no matter how bad it gets, no matter how bigoted or unsafe her world is, I will wrap my arms around her and barricade her against anything she is afraid of. I will always fix it, even if I don’t know how.
Graphics by Lorenza Centi.