The Long Haul Symptoms of Being a Covid-Era Mom
Male pundits urge us to "go back to normal," but those of us who've endured the grief and isolation of new motherhood during the pandemic know better.In Depth
Illustration: Benjamin Currie
Increasingly, I’ve found myself enraged by the White Man With A Newsletter pundit set using their somehow immense platform to tell the world that because I am doing everything in my power to protect my 17-month-old from being exposed to a virus that could kill him, I am a paranoid ideologue who rejects science and reason. These Davids, Jonathans, and Alecs fundamentally predicate their arguments on the notion that I can and should “go back to normal” and “move on” with my life because, I, individually, am vaccinated, so the risk of “normalcy” turning fatal for me, specifically, is low. In the process, they have rendered invisible the children under five, the immunocompromised, the vulnerable, and the people who love anyone within those categories.
As someone who reported on Congress and politics for almost a decade, I already was cynical about the state of our country, aware that death could be our politics’ collateral damage and fearful that a national media built on a “both-sides” ethos of coverage would not hold a breaking government to account. The 22-year-old Meredith who moved to Washington with high ideals of public service had faded away long before the pandemic hit. But the person who emerged to replace her was not fully actualized by the time I decided to be a mother, or later, when I had to sequester my physical self in my apartment while sitting largely alone with my emotional self. I could not have imagined the despair I would feel at our nation’s collective shrug as it hurtles toward a million deaths as a result of a pandemic we, as a society, have quit trying to contain. For as much as the “move on” pundits question the thinking of people like me, it’s hard for me to understand how—looking at the same set of facts—they can magically flip a switch and be who they were before. Must be nice.
These “go back to normal” proponents, because of their media influence, have undue power over the narrative of how Americans feel about the pandemic—which in turn has influenced politicians across the country to ease back protections based on a vague sense that “people are done,” and in defiance of both public health data and polls stating the majority of their constituents support safety rules. More than that, though, these talking heads also represent a growing sect of privileged people, people we see and know in our everyday lives, who have no pressing need to adjust their behaviors, are unwilling to make even the smallest concessions for the greater good, and cannot understand why every other person on earth does not want to join them in the freedom they already have but purport to be missing.
They want to return to a time when there never was a pandemic, because to return to that unreachable place is to enjoy their freedom without guilt, to avoid grappling with how many lives have been lost or changed, and to never consider how their words might have played a role in incalculable loss. They are moving forward without looking back. The rest of us are stuck.
It feels like I’m treading water in an ocean where one current is the futility of our collapsing society and the cross-current is my desire to figure out who I am supposed to become, and the thing I’m holding up above the surface is a baby—whose birth was one of the most profound acts of hopefulness of my life—just so he can feel the sun. There is no old “normal” left for me. These past two years have changed me forever, and I cannot go back to a person who is gone in a time that does not exist.
My initial views of pandemic pregnancy and new parenting were significantly shaped by the fact that in the closing months of The Beforetimes in 2019, I lost our first son in my twenty-second week of pregnancy—a traumatic loss for which doctors could not ascribe a medical explanation, and a statistical anomaly of which I only had a .5 percent chance of facing. Missed baby showers, going to scans alone, even the prospect of laboring and delivering alone when we imagined that in Spring 2020—none of these sadnesses or fears resonated with me, when in my view, pregnancy had been flattened into a neat binary: Do I get to take a healthy baby home or not? This binary focused me. It gave me purpose. It also made me theoretically willing to sacrifice the things that I considered “nice to have,” so that no other woman would face additional odds. Every medical professional who treated me treated other pregnant women, so limiting covid exposure for them, attending appointments alone, pondering delivery alone, meant doing my small part to cut the chances of anyone having to lose something precious like we had.
In this way, 2020 felt manageable. It was oriented around survival. That my pregnancy would survive to viability. That our baby would survive his first few months when his nutrition was dependent exclusively on me. That we would survive until vaccines were available.
In 2021, however, the world shifted. People started sorting themselves into separate camps of “still living in the pandemic” and “returned to normal,” and as someone in the former camp, there was surprisingly little empathy from members of the latter. In December, I left my day job at a university because, as one of the few employees who had a child ineligible for the vaccine, I was made to feel like my concerns about working in-person in open cubicles were illegitimate. This stung, not just because being a high-achieving professional is central to my identity, but also because until we could get vaccinated and put our son into daycare, I had exhausted myself for half a year working full-time and co-parenting full-time.
I was three months pregnant with him in March 2020, when covid hit the United States in earnest and everything closed in around me. The perfectly aligned timeline of my pregnancy and the pandemic means that, for me, “The Beforetimes” was a confusing mix of professional clothes that may never get worn again, a lifetime’s worth of friends I haven’t seen in years, a social calendar that wasn’t ever so big but also used to exist. These things have fallen away, and it’s hard to know the root of their disappearance: the demands of motherhood or the reorientation of life around avoiding disease. In isolation, I began separating from the survival mode that once gave me purpose—I got vaccinated and our baby grew to a young toddler—and wondered more than ever about the balance between my role as mom and what I would do with the rest of myself.
it’s hard for me to understand how—looking at the same set of facts—they can magically flip a switch and be who they were before. Must be nice.
Trying to make sense of my feelings, I read essays on pandemic pregnancy and new parenting, hoping to see my anger and struggle in them. I couldn’t. The pregnancy-mom industrial complex has focused so many women on the individual, on being celebrated, on “magic moments” to be curated and shared, and I understand why people lament that loss. But I realized the moments new mothers are supposed to find magical ultimately are irrelevant to who we are and the children we raise, and worse, serve as tenuous cover for the way our society devalues women, questions their ability to be mothers, refuses to guarantee pay for their maternity leave or ensure access to affordable childcare. We ask women to bring new life into the world then leave all of the work of deciding whether women maintain their value outside of being parents to each individual mother on the ground. Now, society is placing additional burden on those mothers who want or need to be more cautious in their behaviors with regard to covid. We are pushing all our weight downward and hoping that regular humans hold.
I’m not sure if I ever consciously bought into the idea that “it takes a village” to raise a child, but if the past two years have shown me anything, it’s that “it takes a village” is a lie when you view this aphorism as a promise that we’ll be there for each other and our children. Just this week, Dr. Leana Wen, another leading “return to normal” pundit, said on national television that lifting covid protections will put children under five who cannot yet get vaccinated “at greater risk,” and that “this is unfair but part of a necessary transition from government mandate to individual decisions.” Of course, it is “unfair” that babies will die preventable deaths, but why is it “necessary” to abdicate our collective responsibility to the most vulnerable around us, especially when we were not even trying that hard in the first place?
In 2022, in America, it seems to me as if we’ve decided that some unnecessary severe illness or death among children under five is acceptable to diminish any guilt felt by these White Men With Newsletters when they look out at restaurant dining rooms that aren’t at 100 percent capacity and are reminded there is still a pandemic. Meanwhile, I spend most of my spare time looking at our son, knowing his preciousness to us and thinking of other children’s preciousness to their parents, and no sacrifice feels too big.
I think about the world I brought my son into in September 2020; a country that, in the span of his lifetime, has normalized mass death because the people with the most power to do something also enjoy the privilege of being largely untouched. I think of a White House that in Spring 2021 telegraphed that masks are a punishment needing to be shed, instead of asking Americans to do the absolute bare minimum to protect those, like my son, who cannot protect themselves. And selfishly, I also think of myself, and the mom I will be to my son now that I’ve had these concurrent experiences of living through a pandemic and being a working new mother, now that I’ve lived these two years in relative confinement, doomscrolling and rage-tweeting my way through anxiety and profound disappointment.
For me, the most intimidating part of becoming a mom is thinking about the person I will be when my son is old enough to know me: how he’ll perceive my own beliefs about myself, what he’ll tell his friends I “do” for a living, and frankly, whether that work ever will feel big enough to me relative to what I feel is the enormity of his life. The pandemic has intensified the isolation of not just the project of new parenting but also the project of understanding and building a version of myself that reflects my current reality.
I hate that the most hopeful moment of my life, the birth of my son, happened simultaneously to my utter loss of faith in humanity and government’s role in improving people’s lives, which, for many years, helped define who I am. But I have to choose to believe more of myself, and of us, to not “move on” but to become unstuck, to change into who I want to be for myself and for our son. The truth is, I already made that choice when we decided to have him, when we were more committed to the idea of him in our lives than we were overwhelmed by the fear of suffering an improbable loss again.
For as exhausting and as isolating as this time has been—and for as unsure as I am about how it all will shake out—I know, if I am honest with myself, that my strength has been more powerful than my doubt. I want my son to know a me who’s more hopeful. I want him to know a world that is better. It’s difficult to take on both of these challenges at once, but they, like the times we are living through now, are with us permanently, a covid long-haul symptom mothers have to confront and will commit the rest of our lives to trying to cure.
If I can raise him to be someone different than the Davids, Jonathans, and Alecs, a boy and then a man who faces life with kindness and empathy and consideration of others, maybe the next time we go through this, we all will be better off.
Meredith Shiner is a writer and a communications consultant living in Chicago. She covered Congress and national politics in Washington from 2009 to 2016.