One day last week, when I picked up my four-year-old from junior kindergarten, she came walking out the door proudly, face covered in a pink mask with hearts, holding hands with another little girl in her class. In the before times, the normal parental response would have been, "Oh, how adorable," there was instead a simultaneous gasp from the other mom, the principal and me. The fear-wrought anxiety in that breath was audible, as if broadcast over a loudspeaker.
From behind his mask, the principal reminded the kids that they weren’t allowed to hold hands because “we don’t want to spread our germs.” The little girls dropped their grip as the grown-ups all scrambled for hand sanitizer. I could see the disappointment, the loss of something so innocent, so natural, the sadness shining in their big bright eyes.
It was then that my heart broke into a million pieces, for the millionth time since March.
We've now been in the thick of the pandemic for 40 weeks. Forty weeks is a full-term pregnancy, more than nine months, more than three-quarters of a year. And even with efficacious vaccines on the horizon—which, trust me, I'm thrilled about, I can't wait to get my shot—our distanced and masked reality still does not have a distinct end in sight. And 40 weeks in, with the weather getting colder each day, I now wake every morning faced with the sadness and chaos of a world coming apart at the seams, and question whether I really have the internal strength to keep following all of these rules, even though I know and understand the consequences.
There, said it. I feel guilty, but I said it. I’m not sure I can keep following all of the rules anymore. Bring on the judgy memes and the Instagram shaming.
Now, amidst rapidly rising case counts this holiday season, there’s a sinking feeling of deja vu, and along with it, some uncanny post-traumatic stress as we are all reminded of the fear, worry and uncertainty of the first lockdown. Will schools close again in January? Are we facing many more months of isolation? Will small businesses and restaurants even survive? I’m sad, I’m angry, and again, reaching a breaking point because, time and time again, our politicians have claimed to prioritize the economy instead of human needs, while they make up the rules as they go.
Heading into the holidays now, and looking back at the longest March break on record, I can’t help but wonder what the sacrifice of staying home for months on end was really for. Is it because eating on a restaurant patio or playing a round of golf was more important than my child’s education? Was going to the mall essential but hugging grandparents a luxury?
This is the world we live in now. A world where my daughter, who intuitively holds hands and giggles with other little girls, has learned that her need to be close to others is tabooed; a world where my son asks me in the car, “If Bubby and Papa get the virus, will they die, Mommy?” A world where my pandemic baby is now a ten month old who plays not in a playgroup, but with the baby in the mirror, or grandparents on FaceTime.
While my family is beyond fortunate, we are now staring down the barrel of a very long, cold, and isolated winter, a reminder of the cavernous hole, childhood innocence lost, the “supposed to” things, and the “would have been” moments that we are mourning collectively.
Don’t get me wrong, 2020 has brought some things that I never want to change: the return of tie dye, the normalizing sweatpants, and the irrelevancy of lipstick are way up there on my list. But the high level of alert and anxiety is something I think has changed me indelibly, paralyzed me, frozen us all in place. From worrying about playgrounds and going to the grocery store, to the separation from my parents and watching them struggle and age, in that subtle isolation-triggered way, to waking up every morning and checking that I can still taste and smell and checking, almost obsessively, when new emails come in to see if there’s COVID in my kids’ classes at school, to the constant worry that my anxiety, our world’s new rules will having a lasting impact on my kids, despite my best efforts, and despite their incredible resilience. This extended period of living in constant fear, I’m almost certain now, will have lasting impacts for all of us.
And as COVID numbers continue to soar south of the border, as well as in our own backyards, I can’t help but feel that we are back where we started, and I cycle through the sadness, the hopelessness and the angry feelings this brings, especially with the holidays approaching, and with the public health recommendations to spend the holidays with only the people you live with.
I am a rule follower. We didn’t see grandparents or friends until public health gave us the go-ahead, even though malls and retail stores were opened first, and even though I disagreed with how reopening was prioritized; when my kids returned to school in the fall, we again distanced, because we felt an obligation to be responsible, to give schools the best chance, and to keep grandparents safe; we did not enrol in extracurricular activities, host any indoor playdates, or go to the playground without our masks.
But now, all I want to do is throw my hands up in the air and scream. So many parts of me are done with following rules that feel so unnatural, that go against every emotional part of me. Cue the meme-shaming once again.
Trying to walk this tightrope between managing our need for human contact and closeness and community responsibility and safety is not the black and white picture painted by our politicians, who prioritize the economy time and time again, or public health, who needs to hold everyone to the same standard or set of rules in an attempt to mitigate the very real threat of the virus and the implications for overwhelmed hospital capacities.
While the gathering rules are presented as simple by our mayors and premiers, the reality is much more complex, and much more human. As a parent and a daughter, I am torn between managing my kids’ need to spend time with their aging grandparents, and my parents’ need to see their only living daughter, and hug the grandchildren that are everything to them, and our community responsibility to prevent further spread of the virus as much as possible. This is a balancing act that we rewrite again and again almost on a weekly basis, and now, it is even more amplified with the holiday season upon us.
And even the rule followers are going to have a difficult time following impossible rules during the holiday season, in part, because the reason these impossible rules are in place now is because of the political ineptitude, mismanagement and shortsightedness over the past several months in reopening priorities.
Every step of the way, our politicians have been behind the ball, playing catch up. Instead of putting preventative measures in place, they pushed limits and boundaries in a misguided attempt to springboard the economy back into action. And you know what? It didn’t work and here we are, staring either a very lonely, or a potentially very dangerous, holiday season directly in the face.
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