Waiting to exhale


Image of brightly coloured pencils, paints, stamps, paper, scissors. Image source: Pexels/Pixabay.

In early July, our daycare announced that it would be reopening at the end of the month.

Back in June, the daycare had polled parents about priorities for reopening, and about whether we would send our kids back should a spot become available. I wrote, at the time, that the circumstances under which the staff felt safe to return would be the circumstances under which we would be happy to send our kids back, provided there was a space for our kids. My partner wrote to tell them that we would not want to take a spot away from a front line worker, nor from a child whose family needed it more than we did.

The daycare listened to our concerns. After a few weeks of planning and reorganizing the space for physical distancing, they contacted us again. They emphasized that the health and safety of both children and staff were their utmost concern. They would be reducing the number of places in the daycare by more than half. There would be 8 kids with 2 staff members in each age cohort. The daycare prioritized spaces for children of front line workers; the next set of spaces would be prioritized based on need; and they would hold a lottery for remaining spots.

They would be removing all carpets and soft or porous toys, and covering all couches with plastic sheeting for ease of cleaning. They would seat children at tables with plexiglass dividers for meal and snack times, and set out individual rather than shared art materials or crafts.

There would be no singing. No mixing of cohorts. No sharing of snacks. No hugs. Obviously.

We got the email. They had a spot for each of our kids! Our kids would be returning to daycare. We would be returning to some semblance of our old life. I took a deeper breath.

Perhaps I could start applying for jobs again? Maybe do a little bit of writing? Hopefully, working in August wouldn’t be the constant stream of interruptions that it has been since March 13. Perhaps our respective careers would, after all, survive the pandemic. Or, maybe at least one of our careers would. So many possibilities seemed to open back up with that one email.

We thought about what it might mean for our kids. A chance to see and play with kids their own age, notwithstanding the ban on hugs. Or the ban on sharing toys. Our kids’ bedtime might revert to a quasi normal time! Fewer tearful bedtimes? Fewer tantrums. Fewer days spent in the blue or red zone. A chance to spend some time in the care of a trained professional who cares for children, but isn’t as invested in everything as a parent. A chance to try to balance work and life once again.

Since March, I now realized, I have been holding my breath. Waiting for something to change. At some point, I noticed that I had stopped even checking the weather forecast. Because, what would be the point? We take it one day at a time. One tantrum at a time. One book at a time. One bout of despair at a time. One crisis at a time. Living in the moment. But, also: stuck in the moment.

I exhaled. It felt good.

Naturally, we started to plan, just a little.

My unexpected reaction to the daycare reopening was to feel the weeks and months ahead opening up to possibility. I started to look forward, after months of looking down. Of being stuck in one place. Of watching my feet, glued to the ground.

Many philosophies – ranging from Aristotelian accounts of Practical Wisdom, through Kantian accounts of Good Action to Existentialist and Libertarian (opposing) accounts of the True Meaning of Freedom – suggest that some portion of the meaning of life is to make choices, develop a direction, and plot a route from here to there. Making a plan is part of having a Life. A good life requires good choices, good aims. We live a meaningful life by working towards meaningful goals; a meaningless life by working towards superficial goals, or by not working towards goals at all. First, we consider our options; next, we set goals; we make appropriate plans for achieving them; we follow through. Completed goals or “achievements” may be considered and evaluated in an attempt to answer the question “How is my life going?” We judge ourselves, and are judged by others, through an accounting of the quality of these choices.

Many modern philosophers add a condition about living an authentic and self-directed life. Externally imposed goals, even if fulfilled, don’t count as “achievements” or don’t count in the same way. Death and taxes are not goals. For most of us, they are not what makes our lives meaningful. External constraints, such as the pandemic, don’t change the underlying calculus. We have to do our own choosing, bounded by whatever constraints the world imposes on us. We have to act for ourselves.

In her book Self, Society, and Personal Choice, Diana Tietjens Meyers nicely explains the connection between living authentically and living autonomous life. Meyers explains: “to be in control of one’s life is … to live in harmony with one’s true – one’s authentic – self.” (19). In the pandemic, I am not in control of my life. None of us are. But also – as a result – perhaps I am not being true to myself? I am losing my concept of who I am, of who I want to be. Stuck in the moment is also stuck in tension with one’s true self.

Although I continue to set goals, my ability to work towards them is extremely limited. In the pandemic context, I am not in control of my life plan. I am not even in control of my daily plan. The pandemic – and pandemic parenting in particular – precludes so many different types of planning. The constant stream of interruptions? It is so much harder on me than I recognize on a daily basis.

Myers continues, “Completing a part of one’s life plan does not simply add an item to a person’s roster of accomplishments; fulfilling a particular plan insinuates itself into the individual’s personality by weakening or reinforcing some of the individual’s traits, by modifying the relations among them, or by engendering new ones.” (60) I am no longer the type of person who moves forward. I am stuck, and this is becoming Who I Am. Holding my breath. Waiting. Looking down.

Part of my pandemic problem, then, is that my life plans – and my ability to fulfill them – has been taken completely out of my control. We are collectively struggling about whether, when, or how to reopen schools and universities. (Not to mention bars). How can any of us work towards our goals in the context of so much uncertainty?

But even to the extent that I can still formulate goals, there is one set of goals that takes precedence: the parenting problem. Even if I want to wallow in the uncertainty of it all, my kids have other plans. They certainly have up and down days. But their days are my days. I no longer get to choose my own bad days.

Myers explains that: “Autonomous people must be able to pose and answer the question ‘What do I really want, need, care about, believe, value, etcetera?’; they must be able to act on the answer; and they must be able to correct themselves when they get the answer wrong.” (76) Here is the pandemic dilemma. We have time for introspection. We have moments of deep recognition of our wants, needs, desires, values. But the pandemic makes acting on the answer next to impossible. Pandemic parenting certainly means that someone else’s wants, needs, desires, and values take precedence. Maybe this is true of pandemic life in general.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “It is apparent that the method we are proposing […] consists, in each case, of confronting the values realized with the values aimed at, and the meaning of the act with its content.” What we claim to aim for is important, but what we do – and how it relates to our aims – is fundamental. It demonstrates our true values. What we Really want. Our True Choice, and our True Selves.

Now, to put Beauvoir and Myers together: what we do affects, or builds, our identity. What we do defines what we want, need, care about, believe, value. In short, what we do is who we are.

Striving for a goal, and genuinely taking steps towards that goal, is part of living a meaningful life. Daycare’s planned reopening allowed us the space to take those steps for the first time in a long time.

Three days after daycare offered us a spot, they sent another email. They would not, after all, be reopening. There was not enough interest. Other parents had faced the possibility of sending their kids back to daycare, and had decided to keep muddling through. Many are front line workers who may worry about the risk they pose to the rest of the daycare. Many have preexisting conditions and other forms of vulnerability within their family bubbles. All have good reasons for their decisions. We were nonetheless heartbroken. The hoped-for August disappeared. The plans evaporated. The self that I was starting to see on the horizon receded back into the fog.

In the coming days, many of our school districts, states, and provinces will make decisions about whether, or how, to reopen schools in the fall. They will be just as conscientious and well-thought out as our daycare’s plans. With any luck, they will be backed up by funding promises. But, even with a plan, the pandemic may shift the goal posts once again. A second wave, or a sudden surge in cases, will certainly force us to reconsider any plan.

My attempt to form a plan sits in the shadow of our collective efforts at forming a plan. Each plan sits enmeshed with other people’s plans. With institutional plans. With government plans. And that means that each layer of the plan remains out of any individual’s control.

I find myself once again holding my breath. Perhaps you do, too. After all, we are all in this together.

1 Comment

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One response to “Waiting to exhale

  1. Quite moving. I love your thoughtful interspersion of philosophical texts with the present predicament.

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