"Planning" for a pandemic

Quarantine Diaries: Man Plans, God Laughs

The second installment of one WFH parent’s journey amidst the coronavirus pandemic. This edition is about how Yiddish might help you learn to listen to (your own) good advice.

In case you missed it, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic—and none of us really knows what we’re doing or how to cope. At least, I don’t. I’m taking it day-by-day, trying to balance working from home and parenting three kids while also wondering if this is the end of the world as we know it. And I’m taking you, dear reader, with me. This is "Quarantine Diaries." Come back next week to see how it’s going; this series will last at least as long as your toilet paper supply.

Chapter Two: Man plans, God laughs.

So. Remember how last week I was pleased with myself for establishing a schedule—one that was consistent enough to give us the comfort of a routine, but flexible enough to let us roll with the punches?

There’s this Yiddish saying: Der mentsh trakht un Gott lakht. Man plans, God laughs. (Interestingly enough, that’s also the title of a Public Enemy album. I don’t know why I, a Black Catholic, know it as a Yiddish witticism and not as part of Chuck D’s ouvre; life’s a mystery. I blame Mel Brooks.)

This week, I’ve been man. And God is cackling.

Task: Follow the quarantine schedule.

My partner Kelsey and I really thought that we’d considered everything when we put together a daily schedule for the household. We built in time for the kids to do school work and for me to do work work. We’d snuck “helping time” in, so that the kids would participate in chores and so that the house wouldn’t end up a mess of legos and crayons and sticky notes. We’d scheduled daily “journal time” so that the kids would have some self-reflection time and writing practice (and so that I’d have time to write this here Quarantine Diary). We’d even built in some luxurious perks for ourselves: since the kids no longer have to be at school at 7:45, let’s start the day at 9am, we thought.

Well, it turns out that 5-year-olds are hardwired to wake up with sun.

On Monday, the first day of our new schedule, Booker was up and drawing Pennywise portraits before 7. The 9- and 11-year-olds were up before 8:30, too—though thankfully they’re more self-sufficient. Still, by “helping time” at 12:30, Kelsey and I were both so tired that we gave up on chores and told the kids they could watch TV and play video games so long as they just let us take a nap.

Tbh, taking a nap was a great choice, because by 12:30, I’d hit cognitive overload and was useless. There was no way I could muster enough brainpower to fact check questions about 14th century literature or write clever haikus about the periodic table. But two hours later, I was refreshed and renewed. I might not have had it in me to do the haikus, but I could at least remember who wrote Piers Plowman. It was a useful reminder of a lesson I’ve learned many-a-time: doing what you need for yourself isn’t just a way to take care of yourself; “self-care” is also a way to take care of your business.

The day was still productive—we all learned a lot. The boys learned that if they don’t aim for the water when they pee, they have to clean the toilet and floor.

I learned that Booker loves to sing “The Illuminati song” (which is actually just the X-Files theme song). But mostly what we learned was that the schedule was an illusion. A lie. To think that we could control time was pure hubris. We were Icarus. We flew too close to the sun. And eventually, like him, we plummeted to the earth.

Task: Do actual work during quarantine.

My work continued even though the home schedule had fallen apart, and I struggled. In fact, I would have struggled even if I hadn’t deluded myself into thinking that I could get enough done during “thinking time” and “screen time” to keep up. That’s why, at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, I was holed up in my bedroom, writing things I should’ve written the day before, catching up on emails (it’s the apocalypse why are people sending so many emails!?!?!), and questioning capitalism as a useful framework for society.

(If anyone has any protips for actually getting through these mountains of emails, I’d love to hear them. You can DM me on the Supermaker account. So far, I’m just pretending they don’t exist, which doesn’t seem like a sustainable strategy.)

One of those emails was from my editorial supervisor. It began with a Camus quote: "In the midst of winter, I learned that there was, in me, an invincible summer." This was my supervisor’s way of softening the blow before telling me that, come next week, we will be back on a regular editorial schedule, and I will be expected to submit 10 trivia headlines a week.

I have always hated Camus.

Still, I soldiered on. Kelsey, a goddess and a gem, took full responsibility for the children, making sure they didn’t interrupt me as I tried to get through my seemingly never ending work to-do list. At first, it was hard to focus and work. I felt guilty, like I was dumping the kids on her, and like I should be doing more to help out.

She tried to reassure me that she was fine doing this work to facilitate the work I was doing (which in turn facilitates things we both want and value, like food, shelter, and a fancy comfy couch), but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was putting too much on her. Until, that is, we talked about the terms of the agreement. She would keep the kids for a specified amount of time, I would handle after-dinner clean up, and she could send me text updates about kid antics.

Sure, the kids were maybe a little much, but she opted into all this. That was a useful lesson (and one that you’d think would be obvious, but that I need to relearn again and again): If you’re squirrelly about accepting help, think of it as if you’re negotiating a contract. What help, specifically, do you need and what compensation can you offer?

At this point, I really thought we’d fallen into a groove. It seemed like we’d adjusted the plan, and that we’d be able to move forward smoothly.

But, again, Der mentsh trakht un Gott lakht.

Task: Try not to openly sob during quarantine.

To make our house’s front room more quarantine-friendly, Kelsey and I had moved our bikes from their regular spot leaned against the wall (inside) to the front porch (outside), where we’d locked them to the railing. Wednesday morning we noticed that, while we’d locked the frames, we hadn’t locked the wheels. And someone else had noticed it too—because they’d stolen the wheels off Kelsey’s bike.

Wednesday morning was also when our bodies decided to betray us. For Kelsey, it was bloating, irritability, and fatigue. For me, it was even more fun: premenstrual migraines!

". . . doing what you need for yourself isn’t just a way to take care of yourself; 'self-care' is also a way to take care of your business."

Even with Excedrin and blackout curtains, there was no way to actually work. Instead, all I could do was curl up, close my eyes, and lament my fate. I felt like Job in the Old Testament—beset by horrendous disasters for absolutely no good reason at all. There was nothing left to do but suffer, and hope that, when it was over, I could be restored to an even better condition than I’d been before (though, honestly, I’d have accepted just a condition where my head wasn’t throbbing and my inboxes weren’t so full).

Task: Lower everyone’s expectations (including my own).

Once it became clear that the schedule wasn’t going to work, and that the headache wasn’t going away, there was only one option: let everyone know that I was struggling, and I needed more time to get things done.

This is something I absolutely hate doing. As a former gifted child and a recovering workaholic, I struggle with intense feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and guilt when I don’t achieve the (often unrealistically high) goals I set for myself. As a queer Black woman who followed a, well, nontraditional path, missing deadlines also feeds into my imposter syndrome. I really, really didn’t want to have to tell people that I would need extensions—I really didn’t want to have to tell people that I’d failed.

But I had to. And I did. First, I drafted an “I’m sorry I’m worthless trash” email to my supervisor. I typed out all of the reasons and excuses and apologies: I can’t concentrate; I can’t manage my time; my brain is trying to claw its way out of my skull through a nonexistent hole behind my left eye. It seemed like… a lot. Probably a lot more information than my supervisor wanted, and definitely a lot more than he needed.

"If you’re squirrelly about accepting help, think of it as if you’re negotiating a contract. What help, specifically, do you need and what compensation can you offer? "

I realized the email I was writing was for me, not for him. And that was another lesson from this week working in quarantine: Your colleagues don’t need to know every detail of your struggles with feelings of guilt and shame; they need to know how your work will affect theirs. While sharing can be great in the right environment or within the confines of the appropriate relationships, sometimes focusing on the facts is best.

So, I erased everything that wouldn’t affect my supervisor, and left only what he actually needed to know to be able to do his job. And…the world didn’t end. It was actually fine. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one on our team who was struggling, and, it turns out, he was also having a hard time (and he didn’t even have horrendous PMS; it was just COVID-stress and trying to adjust to a whole new reality that might last for forever ohmygodwhatareweevendoing?!?!).

In the midst of dealing with my own existential dread and revolting uterus, I’d missed something really obvious. Yes, I was struggling, but so is absolutely everybody else.

The Takeaway: Learn to listen.

I wish there were a convenient narrative thread to connect back to where I mentioned Job a while back, but there’s not. Instead, here I was more like Lot’s wife, who doesn’t listen when she’s told not to look back at the destruction of Sodom, and is turned to a pillar of salt. In the bible, Lot’s wife isn’t a very sympathetic character, or even a very important one. She doesn’t listen, she’s punished, and that punishment is meant to serve as a reminder for the rest of us.

But I’ve always liked more forgiving interpretations, like the one of Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Lot’s Wife,” in which she doesn’t only look back out of disregard for authority, or because she’s just a some silly woman (lol, broads, amirite?); she looks back because she’s mourning loss. She knows that she has to leave Sodom, but she hasn’t forgotten all the hopes and dreams she’d attached to the place. Or there’s Kurt Vonnegut’s take on Lot’s wife in Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut compares her looking back at Sodom to his own recollection of the bombing of Dresden. She looks back because she remembers, and the remembering makes it hard to go forward.

"While sharing can be great in the right environment or within the confines of the appropriate relationships, sometimes focusing on the facts is best."

This week, like Lot’s wife, I didn’t do a good job of listening. I didn’t listen to my reality when the schedule fell apart, or to my body when it started to revolt. I didn’t even listen to myself.

Like Akhmatova’s version of Lot’s wife, I couldn’t not look back at my plan for the week. I hadn’t forgotten the hopes and dreams—in my case, the work-related goals and expectations—I’d attached to the plan. Like Vonnegut’s version of Lot’s wife, I remembered, and remembering made it hard to go forward.

Next week, I hope to be able to actually listen to my own advice, to “be a lot kinder and gentler with myself.” I hope I can remember that we’re all new at this, and struggling with it, and to use the resources that we’re working together to build. And maybe to learn something from the story of Lot’s wife, too: that it makes sense to look back, but it’s important to not let that keep you from moving forward, albeit down a different path than the one you had in mind.

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