Letter to the editor: The COVID mother

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courtesy of Corey Hickner-Johnson

By Corey Hickner-Johnson, Iowa City

This morning we made “cloud dough” in a freezer bag. It did not look like the pastel fluff I saw on the internet. Our “cloud dough” looked like the catheter bag I wore when I gave birth to my daughter, who is the reason I even know what “cloud dough” is. Because the dough had clearly failed, I suggested that we mix the dough with some red jello from the fridge. The jello made it look like murder dough. She wanted to wash her hands.

We’ve made several substances during the COVID: a vinegar volcano mixture; “play dough,” which made her cry because it was beige and not yellow; powdered sugar and butter; some strangely puffy egg-free cookies (because she is allergic to eggs); and various compositions of sand. All of the substances “we” have made have turned out to be terribly flawed. How is it that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and my main source of struggle is how to make doughs?

When the COVID began, I saw many mothers posting color-coded charts dictating how their households would continue the maintenance of everyday life while social distancing. When I saw the first one, it seemed like a nice thing to do. When I saw the 16th one, I was like, “Aw, f–.”

I didn’t always want to be a mother. But then I saw a video on Facebook of a baby having her hair washed, and I changed my mind. I was very sick for months, and then I became very portly, to the point where I struggled to stand up from the couch. I wrote towards my dissertation during my pregnancy, trying to get as much done before my daughter came. After she was born, we had to stay in the hospital for an extra week because of chorioamnionitis. I was delirious with pelvic pain and lack of sleep, but I wanted my career to keep moving. So, I applied for a fellowship in the hospital room, my hands taped with IVs. I didn’t get that fellowship. For a long time, I felt resentful.

“Cloud dough” — courtesy of Corey Hickner-Johnson

It took so much persistence to get back to work. Motherhood changed my relationship to my career, and it took a long time to find a way to balance all my goals and values. And now, two-and-a-half years after my daughter’s birth, I’m renegotiating it all again — because of COVID. I am asked to work my full-time job, but daycare is closed. This is not a joke, yet it seems like there must be something I am not getting.

The COVID is reshaping my identity — as a mother and as a worker. Perhaps one’s identity is a rather selfish consideration in the time of COVID. But I don’t know how to do what I have been asked to do.

Full-time motherhood and full-time work — taken together — make a futile endeavor. I think there is also the feeling, for me, that I am not sure I know how to mother full-time. If my performance is measured by charts and dough, I am failing as a COVID mother. I’m sure a lot of working mothers are feeling the same way. We are in a new double-bind: the full-time mother/full-time parent. “Having it all” never felt so horrible.

My daughter sits on my lap while I Zoom and type comments on my students’ essays. “Mommy, I workin, too?” I let her work. She smashes her little hands on my keyboard, tries to touch the icons on the screen. She spills milk on the floor when I’m reading email, assuring me, “I OK. I OK, Mommy.” She wakes up some days at 5 a.m. and other days at 8 a.m. She has a penchant for mud puddles. I took her “fishing” in one because there was nothing else to do. I learned that cleaning up mud is a lot harder than cleaning up dough.

When I first had my daughter, people suggested that I “give myself grace.” This phrase meant nothing to me. I don’t know how to give myself grace. I like to work hard, perform well and drink wine in the evenings. I’m not very good at slow time and grace and believing that “this too shall pass.” I’m not used to letting things pass; I like to get things done.

For mothers like me — mothers who work outside the home — COVID truly is a challenge to our identity. It’s a challenge, too, for mothers who are used to being at home. Everything is different, now. I think it’s OK to recognize that. Of course there are more acute matters to consider — like if our children’s grandparents will survive and if their friend’s mothers, who are nurses, will get sick, and if their fathers will get their jobs back, once the COVID ends. Of course, there are worse things than not knowing how to be a mother. But when it comes to your child, it can feel like the worst thing of all — to fail at cloud dough.

I think we just have to keep doing our best — to keep trying new things, to keep juggling, to take breaks when we can. We need to keep telling our children we love them, and that love is not made like charts or dough.

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