This essay was written in the early days of the pandemic, when the novel Coronavirus was actually novel. It’s a snapshot of one family at the start of a new world. Back then I carried with me a naïve certainty that one day we’d look back on this time and say, “Remember when we lived through a pandemic?” Thanks to the Delta variant, everything in our lives has been thrown into flux once again. For all of those out there in similar binds, here’s to living bravely and believing that, as Glennon Doyle says, “We can do hard things.” –author Danielle Ariano
“We’re building a house!” my son squealed as we walked outside with a roll of tape and eight large squares of cardboard.
“Oooohh I’m so excited,” I said.
“Ooohhhhh,” Cooper repeated, holding his fists in the air and shaking them.
A month ago, my wife, Lindsay, and I had been thrust into the role of rotating stay-at-home moms to our two-and-a-half-year-old when his daycare closed because of the pandemic. Our lives now consisted of watching Cooper or working. We kept telling ourselves it was temporary. How long could this possibly last?
Outside in our driveway, I began taping the four walls together and laying out where the door would go. Cooper was taking a screw from each section, holding it up and asking, “What’s this one for?”
It was already 11:30.
“Hey bud,” I said, “we’re going to have to go inside soon to have lunch.”
He ignored me and continued to play, happily pouring screws out and then picking them all up. It was dawning on me that I’d made a rookie mistake by starting a project that would not be complete before it was time to go inside, eat lunch, and then take a nap.
After 15 more minutes and several more reminders I said, “Okay, we’ve gotta go get lunch.”
I scooped him up in my arms. He screamed and kicked as I carried him inside, where I put out a plate of reheated noodles and some cantaloupe, but he refused to sit down. Until it was time to go upstairs, when he suddenly decided that he wanted peanut butter and jelly.
I walked to the steps. “If you are not on your way up these steps by the time I count to five, I will carry you up and you will not get a book. One, two…”
He dillydallied until I got to four, then high tailed his way to the bottom of the steps and reluctantly began his ascent.
Upstairs, we read a couple of books and then I told him a story about a dog that grew wings and learned to fly.
“Tell me another story!” he called loudly as I pulled the door shut. He always wants one more story or has one more question or needs a sip of water just as I am leaving. The more I entertain these requests, the more requests I receive, so I ignored him and walked downstairs despite the fact that he was calling to me.
I could hear Cooper yelling all the way down here, so I turned on the monitor to see what he was doing.
“Mom! I’m a little bit scared. Mommm.”
I watched him lean over the side of his crib to the blind that was within his reach. Light flooded into his room as he lifted it up.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s very bright out. MOMMM!”
Before I had a kid of my own, I thought it cruel to leave a child screaming in a crib. Once, I’d been working at a client’s house when she’d put her son down for a nap. I’d listened in horror as the young child screamed and screamed, and the mom walked around the house doing this and that as if she didn’t even hear him. The whole time I was thinking, “God lady, are you really going to let your kid cry for this long? What if he’s really genuinely scared in his crib?”
I turned down the volume on the monitor and made a couple of work calls, all while Cooper protested in the background. After 45 minutes, I was about to give in and go upstairs, when I saw that he’d finally fallen asleep. A big book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes covered his head.
I exhaled a breath of relief that I was going to have a few minutes to myself, and went outside determined to finish building the house. I needed to figure out a way to attach the roof to the walls. When Cooper wakes up, he’ll be so excited, I kept thinking as I worked.
Lindsay poked her head out the door. “He finally asleep?” she asked. She’d been working in her home office while the nap battle had gone down.
“Yes,” I said.
“Why don’t you take a break and do something for you mental health?”
“This is for my mental health.” I motioned to my miter saw, drill, drill bits, screws, and a straight edge, all of which were strewn about the driveway. To build, even just a house of cardboard, soothed me.
She looked at me with an expression that said suit yourself and disappeared back inside.
When Cooper began calling for me on the monitor, I bounded eagerly up the steps. As soon as I opened the door, he said, “No, no, no, I want Mama.”
From the time he could talk until he was a year and a half old, he had consistently favored Lindsay and freely vocalized his preference each time I showed up to get him. Initially, these rejections sent me into a self-doubt spiral: Was I bad mom? Why didn’t he ever call out for me when he skinned his knee or banged his shin? Was I not compassionate enough? I hadn’t been at all prepared for the way that this prolonged preference would decimate me. Sometimes, when the three of us were driving in the car, he’d reach his arm out to Lindsay and say, “Mama, hold my hand.” She would reach back and the two of them would touch and I would feel so many things all at once: a sense of awe, intense jealousy, but most of all, a deep hurt at the idea that I had no place in the family.
After a solid year of rebuffs, occasionally I’d go into Cooper’s room after he woke and he’d say, “Mom, it’s you,” instead of “Go away, mom.” As that happened more often, the rejections became much easier to laugh off.
“Oh, I’m sorry bud, but you got me,” I said as I walked toward Cooper’s crib.
“No, no, no, I just want Mama.”
I kneeled down. “Do you want to go downstairs?”
“Do you want to stay here?”
I sighed. It was going to be one of those days that had made me a firm believer in the notion that it was possible to wake up on the wrong side of the bed. I lifted him out of his crib.
“I’m sorry you’re having a hard time,” I said hugging him.
“Don’t say that!” He pushed me away. “Don’t talk! Don’t. Don’t.” Tears welled in his eyes.
I walked downstairs with him in my arms, trying to soothe him, reminding myself that something was happening for him that he didn’t have the language to convey and that this was how it manifested, and that I shouldn’t take it personally.
“Do you want to sit on the couch with me?”
“Would you like a snack?”
“NO, NO, NO!”
“Hey, guess what?” I asked, attempting to distract him out of his spell of despair, a technique that worked about half the time.
“I finished your house.”
He ran to the window and looked out. “NO! I do NOT want a house.”
He threw himself on the floor and writhed around. I stood there, unsure what to do next. He’s only two, I reminded myself, and I love him. I took a deep breath.
“How about some yummy pretzels with cream cheese?”
“Okay,” he agreed.
I rushed to get them on a plate and put them down in front of him before he changed his mind. If I could get some food in him, his mood would likely improve.
“NO! I want yogoit,” he yelled when I set it down.
“You asked for pretzels,” I said sternly. “If you want something else, you need to ask nicely.”
“I want oatmeal.”
“How would you ask nicely?”
“Please,” he said grudgingly.
I sighed. Preparing oatmeal with Cooper was an elaborate process fraught with many potential missteps. He had to be the one to get the packet, pour it, sample the powder mix with either the blue or yellow spoon (NOT the pink or white one), pour the milk, and then stir it. After that, he needed to be held up while he opened the microwave door and pressed the buttons. If the process veered from this routine at any juncture, the results could be disastrous, especially when he was in bear mode.
Somehow, we made it through without any missteps, all the way to the point when it was time for him to pour the milk.
“I don’t want milk,” he said. “I want it like this.”
“No buddy, we have to pour the milk in. You can’t eat a bowl of dry oatmeal.”
“But I want it.”
“I know, but we don’t eat our oatmeal like that. It’s not good for your belly.”
I had no idea whether this was true or not, but it seemed true and I’d already told him no, so I felt that I needed to stick to this completely arbitrary line I’d drawn: he was not going to eat a bowl of powdered, uncooked oatmeal. “Do you want to pour the milk?”
“Well either we pour the milk or you don’t have oatmeal,” I told him.
“AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH! I WANT IT!”
He grabbed the bowl and shoveled a scoop of powder in as he screamed. A small puff of dust came out of his mouth. I pulled the bowl away and jammed it in the fridge, where he couldn’t reach it. He clawed at my leg and wailed as if he’d been mortally wounded.
As I turned to wipe the counter, I saw it was starting to rain outside. Panic overtook me. My tools and the precious cardboard house were still in the driveway.
I sprinted upstairs and burst into the office, interrupting Lindsay’s conference call.
“I need your help. My tools are outside and it’s raining and he’s freaking out,” I said, as if she couldn’t hear the commotion.
She nodded, and held up one finger indicating that she’d be right down. I ran downstairs, past the screaming kid, and out the door to rescue my tools. I dragged the house into the garage, then stowed my table saw, miter saw, and drills.
When I came back inside, it was quiet. Cooper was sitting happily at the kitchen table, eating his bowl of dry oatmeal.
“Why was his oatmeal in the fridge?” Lindsay asked.
I’d forgotten to communicate about the arbitrary line I’d drawn and Lindsay had stepped right over it. I sighed and sat down next to Cooper.
“Mom didn’t want me to eat my oatmeal like this,” he said, grinning as a small cloud of oatmeal powder puffed out of his mouth.
Danielle Ariano is a cabinetmaker and writer. Find links to her work here.