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Happiness in the Time of Covid

“Going through puberty during a pandemic is pretty tough,” Clayton said to me matter-of-factly as we walked along the pedestrian lane of the new bridge that connects Topsail Island with the mainland.

After months of Covid-19 disappointments (a cancelled school trip to Atlanta, a cancelled camping trip to Edisto Island, a cancelled visit to Florida to see his grandparents, a cancelled, a cancelled, a cancelled . . .) we were finally on vacation in a rented condo on the North Carolina coast. The kids had been cautiously looking forward to this week for months, albeit with one ear peeled for the news that this trip, too, would fall through.

It has been a tough three months by any measure. On the national scale, there’s been a mismanaged pandemic, a crumpled economy, police brutality, political protests— all while our country has a narcissistic, racist, and inept leader at the helm. Unfolding against the backdrop of these national and global tragedies, our family has had its share of troubles of a much more personal sort.

Days after our governor’s first “stay-at-home” order, we discovered that four-fifths of our family was infested with lice. (Ah, Don said, the advantages of being bald.) We were, at that point, lice virgins, and so reacted with all the panic and over-kill that is typical of the first infestation. We cut Clayton’s hair to within a quarter inch from his scalp; the girls both got undercuts, trendy looks with the additional advantage of reducing the volume of hair to nitpick by a third. After a full day of washing bedding, our washing machine finally gave up the ghost. Don and I tied bandanas around our faces (remember that time when you didn’t own a face mask?) and marched into the appliance section of Home Depot like bandits. Delivery was ten days out, but our generous neighbors offered their machine.

“Are you even allowed to go over there?” Clayton asked nervously, voicing my own anxiety about breaking the “stay-at-home” rules.

But unless we wanted to wash our clothes in the bathtub, we didn’t have much choice.

“It’s an essential service,” I reassured us both, balancing a bottle of hand sanitizer on top of the overflowing laundry basket.

If going through lice during the lockdown meant more free hours for nitpicking on the back deck, it also contributed to my sense of unease and isolation. I wanted to ask the school nurse if those white specks on Sylvia’s scalp were dandruff or nits; I wanted a trusted friend to comb through my own hair and reassure me that Donald wasn’t missing anything. Mostly, I wanted our lives— upended in so many ways— to feel normal again.

But lice and a broken washing machine, no matter how stressful they felt, were mere inconveniences. Just as the whole country was shuttering its windows and closing its doors, our beloved dog, Soča, was dying. He had been suffering from dementia for months; now his body was giving up, too. We sadly scheduled a euthanasia home visit for the following day, but his back legs collapsed that afternoon and we had to rush him to the emergency clinic, not wanting him to suffer through the night.

So yes, there was no doubt the quarantine had been a challenging time for all of us. And yet I had a feeling that none of this was what Clayton was referring to when he said that things were tough. After all, at that moment we were walking far above the intercoastal waterway, the reeds and water below us glowing amber in the setting sun. And even though it was impossible not to imagine the slim strip of island disappearing to sea level rise or to worry about the pandemic’s trajectory when so many vacationers around us had clearly given up on social distancing, still the external landscape in that moment seemed pretty bright. Here we were, on vacation, our sun-kissed faces glowing, our salty hair blowing in the ocean breeze.

I turned to Clayton in concern. Navigating the ups and downs of puberty during a time when the whole world was topsy-turvey and ill-at-ease— that did sound tough.

“I’m sorry you’re having a rough time,” I said, laying my hand on his shoulder.

He shrugged. “It’s not that I’m sad,” he said. “It’s just that I can remember a time when I felt happy all the time, and it’s not like that now.”

I nodded, although I wasn’t sure that was true; Clayton has always had a complex emotional life. He struggles with anxiety and compulsion, and I certainly can’t remember a time when he was unceasingly happy. But still I take his words for what they are: an attempt to communicate his inner turmoil, this new and unfamiliar roiling of his moods. I understand. The external challenges of adolescence— and who can forget the gauntlet that is junior high, the scathing judgments of peers like battle axes on all sides?— pale in comparison to how one feels on the inside: confused, moody, unloved and unlovable.

How confusing it must be, not to know if he feels lonely and isolated because of puberty or because he hasn’t seen a friend in months? Is he irritable because his body and brain are going through unprecedented changes, or because he’s been cooped up at home with his annoying sisters for far too long? During all his emotional ups and downs of these past few months, I’d blamed the pandemic; we were all feeling out-of-sorts and alone. But Clayton, as usual, had hit the nail on the head: puberty during a pandemic was tough.

Clayton’s moods, whether induced by the pandemic or by puberty— have me thinking a lot about happiness. Under normal circumstances, I try to help my children lead a healthy, rich life. I make them pancakes for breakfast on the weekends. I take them biking, or hiking, or to the river to swim. But I also aspire towards what I once heard a friend describe as “benign neglect”: a parenting style that provides boundaries and limits, but also gives kids the freedom to grow and learn independently. And although sometimes, when one or the other is in tears, refusing to be consoled, I can’t help wishing they were babies again, when I could offer perfect contentment with a good, long nurse, for the most part I have resigned myself to the fact that they will have troubles and conflicts and sorrows that I just can’t solve.

And yet, in the first months of the pandemic, I found myself feeling a new responsibility for my children’s happiness. After all, with schools closed and all activities cancelled, wasn’t our family all they had? When our annual trip to the beach for spring break was cancelled, I planned a backpacking trip instead. When that was cancelled, too, because the National Forest closed just as we were driving to the trailhead, we watched movies, camped out in the yard, baked an Easter bunny cake. When their spirits drooped, I came home from the grocery store with forbidden items that made them gawk at me in surprise: What had happened to their mother? Cans of Pringles and Kit Kat bars seemed like small lifeboats indeed in the tidal wave of Covid disappointments my kids were experiencing, but I was grasping at straws (and mixing metaphors). If my children couldn’t perform in Peter Pan, or go on their school trips, or visit their grandfather to celebrate his eightieth birthday, at least they could eat the occasional bag of Doritos or box of Lucky Charms.

In addition to the slew of disappointments we continued to face, there was the added challenge of five people living, day-in and day-out, in the same space, all while trying to do work and school. In the context of the quarantine, it became even more apparent how much our individual pursuits of happiness rubbed up against each other in often challenging ways. How could the kids be happy if their dad was cussing about needing a quiet place to work? How could I be happy if the kids were at each other’s throats?

Clayton is happiest when the house is in order, every book and plate in its place and the floor swept and mopped. But for Dee Dee, true bliss is throwing herself wholeheartedly into her art, not sparing one iota of creative energy on monitoring whether she’s left a scrap of fabric on the floor or paint streaks on the kitchen table. Both end up feeling that their efforts are underappreciated, their values maligned.

And even when no outright conflict is playing out, there’s still that tricky problem of moods. I think most moms can relate to that old adage that a mother is only as happy as her least happy child. When Clayton’s glum, I certainly never feel like singing Zippity-do-dah. But with Clayton, overly-empathic soul that he is, the opposite is also true. He monitors my moods like a hawk, honing in on any slight slump in energy or moment of irritability.

“Momma, are you happy?” he’ll ask me, looking over from where he’s tirelessly sweeping the floor. And because we’re all together almost all the time, there’s little room for private moods. I almost miss the old days, when I would drive to work feeling, perhaps, a little down or anxious, and sometimes a bit lonely, too, because no one knew that I was sad. Now my moods are closely monitored at all times, as if my cheerfulness on any given day is the barometer for my whole family’s happiness.

A person’s happiness, I’ve read, is largely fixed; supposedly it changes little even with events or circumstances you’d think would ratchet it up or down: winning the lottery, for example, or losing a limb. Perhaps the same is true of a pandemic; despite the anxiety, uncertainty and loss, we are fortunate to be about the same amount of happy as we were before.

In Sylvia’s case, that’s pretty darn happy. Not only is she content in the everyday moments of her life, she seems to live in a perpetual state of excitement about what’s next. There’s just so much she’s looking forward to: dying her hair purple, being old enough to babysit, becoming a teenager, a pediatric nurse, a mom. She’s done the math, calculating that she’ll probably live eleven times the years she’s already been alive. She’s only one eleventh done! “I’m so happy,” she told me recently at bedtime. “My life just seems so long!”

A year ago, this blog would probably have ended there, with that cute, uplifting quote from a girl who has a lot to teach me about being sanguine. But not this year. Not now. Now it’s impossible for me to write that line without reflecting on the light it shines both on my own white privilege and that of my kids. As a white mother of white children, I don’t have to fear— as so many black and Latinx moms do— that my children’s lives will be cut short because of an encounter with police gone wrong. I can listen to my daughter predict her life into her ninety-ninth year and I don’t have to worry about all the ways systemic racism might rob her of it before she gets there. To live free of that terrible anxiety is my privilege, when it should be— must be— any mother’s right.

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