They say a mother must trust her instincts.
But that isn't quite right. To be a mother often means to fight your instincts. "No" is the baseline that a mother begins with. "Yes" must be negotiated, even if that negotiation happens within a split second, in the confines of her own mind.
"Can I go outside and play?" A flash before our eyes: No. There are cars, and predators and fire ants and hidden tree roots waiting to be stumbled on. But we negotiate. There are bugs to discover, fresh air to be breathed, and games to be invented. We say, "Yes." We fight our instincts because being a mother means containing our initial fear and allowing the life we are protecting to be lived.
Our instinct is to shelter, to save, to guard. Danger is around every corner. We anticipate, we plan, we strategize. Mothering is a constant battle between the desire to shutter the windows and lock the doors, and the competing wish to usher your child outside to see every delightful thing this wide world has to offer her. We tell them to feel the sun as it warms their cheeks, but not to forget the sunscreen.
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare every mothering instinct we have struggled to tie down and lock away. During other emergencies, we resign ourselves to the anthem "life must go on." We repeat it to ourselves when we learn of another school shooting. "Life must go on" when we hear of traffic accidents, leukemia, broken bones, cyber bullying, hidden heart defects, SIDS, or a grape left uncut. Life must go on.
But now, life must pause. This virus spreads and attacks the lungs. And if you're a mother, it also attacks your heart. It slithers in through your ear, whispering, "You were right all along. This world is unsafe. Close the doors. Lock them in the house. A dark cloud of death is looming outside your window, make sure that precious child doesn't fall victim to its shade."
This virus confirms what we already knew but have tried to convince ourselves of otherwise: The only safe space for your family is under your roof, under your watchful eye. There is danger at school. The grocery store is unsafe. There is poison in the air and on everything you touch.
This virus has confirmed all our hidden fears and anxieties, but it has also given credence to our other more beautiful motherly instincts. We have always known that it was best to slow down and savor the feeling of a tiny sticky hand in ours. We have longed for the moment when the world would pause and we could spend time appreciating the curve of a cheek and the bounce of a curl, with nowhere else to go. This virus has given us a glimpse back to the maddening newborn days when we would swing wildly between crippling fear and expansive appreciation.
As the pandemic has stripped us of the emotional protections we have painstakingly put in place over our years of parenting, it has also wiped clean the everyday fog that clouds our eyes. Now we can see with stark visibility that which we might not have noticed for so long. We see our children as they truly are, not as a blur in our periphery as we race to preschool, ballet, the grocery store and back. We were asked very plainly to distance ourselves from everyone but our immediate family. Perhaps as we push away the outside world, we can draw our children in even closer. Perhaps without the distraction of their friends and the rush to get to the next thing, they might even let us.
The possibility of relaxing and enjoying the moments at home might seem far fetched with anxiety settling like a Boa Constrictor on our shoulders. But mothers are trained in the art of controlling our emotions and making the best of things. We have been stripped of our security, but we have been gifted time.
There are those that want to skip over this pause and go back to business as usual. Already the politicians beat the drum of capitalism louder and louder, pushing for an early and speedy reemergence into this new world. But if you are a mother it falls on deaf ears. How can we be distracted by all their noise, when the sound of our own panicked heartbeat is pounding so loudly in our ears? As they try to convince us to, "Die for the DOW," we shake our heads and think, "You silly boy. Go home to your mother." We add our response to our long list of "no's" that are piling up. No, we will not go back to normal. No, not yet. But even as we say "no" to the outside world, we are left with so many yeses to give in our own world.
Will you come play with me? Can I have chocolate milk? One more story? One more kiss? Will you stay with me? Just one more minute?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Am I going to be ok?