House. Fire. Germs. House.
What happens when you have nothing left to give your children?
It happens quickly. Lightning strikes and fire season starts early and all of a sudden we are parenting in a double crisis. I am dutiful, optimistic, creative. All or part of every day is spent indoors, anxiously aggregating air-quality sensor data, searching for a green or yellow blip on the map where we can drive before nap time. Corners of our apartment that have already been converted into art centers get made-over as ramshackle Gymborees. I am proud of my resilience. I didn’t know there was more in there.
Then we realize: it is not ending. We break the day into “units” of 30-minutes and the game is to occupy a unit without anyone, adults included, having a tantrum. I cannot tolerate the sound of my children whining, cannot focus long enough to give them something else to do. I spend long periods lying face down on my bed, until my husband informs me he has a meeting and I begrudgingly put on pajama pants and tap him out. All parents are now familiar with this cycle. Determination, hope, mania, exhaustion, despair, rage. But ours is happening on top of itself, like a circle of creepy campers singing in rounds.
I don't believe there is an ideal parent. Just as I don’t believe there is an ideal weight or an ideal way to dance to electronic music. But there has to be a basic minimum requirement, doesn’t there? If perhaps I have only one thing left to give, what should that one thing be?
Lev Vygotsky is the only prominent 20th-century psychologist who looks smoldering in his black-and-white head shots. He said the one thing is symbolic play. When a child takes one object and pretends it is another, they are able to make sense of their world. At their school, my children build homes with windows, doors, and dividers. They wave to one another from their windows, but insist on staying in because of the smoke. At home, my son kicks his sister and I drag him, too roughly, from the cardboard castle I found on Craigslist in a short-lived burst of inspiration. I cannot make my home a playground or a classroom. I do not have the imagination.
My friend is a grief counselor. She says the one thing is to tell kids the truth. That the terrible things that happen to them are not their fault. I tell my son the germs came from a bat. I no longer remember if that is true. The air gets worse and we spend days on end picking at each other’s faults and avoiding the pockets of our apartment where the smoke has seeped in. I tell my son that if he doesn’t stop bothering his sister, I will lose my mind.
Any intro psychology textbook from the past 50 years will tell you that the one thing is attachment. Be reliable and responsive, from the very first minute, mostly if you are a mother. (Paternal attachment is a bonus, but nothing worth studying or insisting upon). If your child doesn’t securely attach to their mother, early on, you’re screwed. There is no going back. We make a plan to flee to Portland, and hours before leaving, desert winds smear smoke, and then the fires, all over Western Oregon. That evening, when my children call my name, I don’t respond. I am the still face mother. We watch hours of cartoons, I no longer care if they are violent. When my son asks me to watch with him, I mumble something under my breath and wander into the other room to see if the air quality has improved. It hasn’t.
Our neighbor is a young man so perceptive we have wondered if he is a prophet. His one thing is to teach your children that they don't have to be perfect. He was raised in religion and didn’t know there was more than one way to be a good person. One morning, we awaken to a black sky that never becomes anything you would call ‘day.’ A red sun burns and something snaps deep inside me, like the “bag of waters” that popped while I tied my sneaker the day before my son was born. I yell so loudly, so suddenly, at my child that he cowers before me and tells me he is scared. I comfort myself by thinking that expressing his fear is a sign that he feels safe. The air gets worse. We are asked to pick our kids up early from school. I yell some more.
My parents were not perfect. My father’s one thing, he has told me, was unconditional love. That one thing did reach me, even through the imperfections. My son starts to ask me, several times a day, if I will still love him if he doesn’t eat all of his fish sticks or breaks my phone or blows up the house. I say yes, nothing he could do would make me stop loving him. But I know that I do not like him very much right now.
I wanted my one thing to be community, and I have worked hard to build it in a faraway place. Before the coronavirus, we ate dinner with our neighbors two times a week. Now, when we cut through our neighbor’s yard to pick some ashen basil, he senses my maternal desperation. He plays a game of chase with my son, even though we should “avoid prolonged outdoor exertion.” It will be my son's only physical activity this day. I have rooted down here for them, ignored the pull of other lives and places, found them surrogate aunties and uncles, and taught them the names and stories of everyone in every house all around us. It is not enough.
It occurs to me that, with nothing else available, the only thing I may be able to give my children is myself. I have already done that more than I ever wished. I tell my husband we have to go. It is not a plea, or a command, just an acknowledgement.
My third grade teacher used to harass us for asking “can I go to the bathroom?” “I don't know if you can,” he would say, “but you may.” We book a last-minute flight out of California. I know I am lucky that I can fly across the country to a new, hastily constructed life. But I also feel lucky that I may. I tell my son we are leaving and he nods with understanding. “Mama,” he says, “All it is here is: House. Fire. Germs. House."
Across the country, the sky is a startling blue. We stay in the small town my husband grew up in, birthplace of the American revolution. My son asks why there are so many monuments. “Because a lot of things happened here.” “Mostly wars,” he replies.
I am too exhausted to think about my one thing. My children still whine and bicker, but I don’t want to punish them anymore. We go into the woods, elated and a little guilty. When the kids disrobe at a small creek, I do not say “Jesus Christ!” and fling myself down in defeat. I have regained, just barely, the capacity to handle muddiness. And, having done something for myself, I no longer need so desperately to resent them. Maybe my one thing is not needing a thing. Or maybe when they’re older, if they are lucky enough to get older, they’ll tell me what it was.