When my first baby was a year and a nine months and no longer a baby, I finally found myself in a choir again. Being back in a cloud of voices, raining down notes together, was healing in a way a didn’t expect. We sang, among other songs, Andrew Carter’s Magnificat, and I could not get through Mary’s lullaby without my voice breaking: “I will love you, I will serve you, make my lullaby magnify, glorify the King of Kings.” Standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow church choristers, reading our music in the warm light of the choir loft, I was back in the early days of the baby’s life, breastfeeding him in the dimly light evenings. In those days, depressed and vulnerable, I would often cry, overwhelmed simultaneously with love for him and fear for what this broken and dark world would hold for him. How can I bring such innocence into such an evil world? Now as I sang almost two years later, I thought of Mary, breastfeeding the tiny Messiah, vulnerable and away from home. When she pondered all these things in her heart, did she feel the darkness of the world pressing against the innocence of the child she was now to care for? Nine months after she sang her triumphant song about his overcoming the darkness in this world, did she fear what this dark world would hold for him?
Advent and Mary and babies make me weepy since birthing my own children.
This year, I am caught off guard by a different artistic expression of Advent: an image by artist Scott Erickson, depicting a naked Mary labouring on a chair. I am undone seeing her face strained in pain, a yellow circle like a halo around her contracting belly. This year there are no choirs to sing in, no carols and lessons, no candlelight services to attend. Just the digital attempts at doing Advent together through scrolling social media feeds. They are frail substitutes. Often I find myself scrolling mindlessly, almost aggressively, trying to find some sliver of connection with others when we are surrounded by distancing. On Sunday mornings, I try to bask in the beauty of the Advent hymns ringing from the livestream of the worship service. But my baby and three-year-old can only sit in front of a computer screen for so long. Eventually we paint ornaments or eat snack while I try to catch snippets of the sermon. Church has become something we cobble together throughout the day.
In the evenings I light our makeshift Advent wreath—a kitschy gold tea light holder and a giant red candle. In the middle of supper the three-year-old breaks out in singing, “For health and strength and daily food, we praise your name, Oh Lord,” then explains, “I just wanted to sing that because we have the candles and I thought we should pray to God since we are celebrating God’s birth.” His dad and I join in the chorus the second time around. So we have a choir after all. After supper we try to carve out a moment in the chaos to read the story of John the Baptist from his children’s Bible. Then he blows out the candles enthusiastically, spraying molten wax on our table. Tomorrow at breakfast I will pick at these spots with my fingernail, shiny reminders of our attempts at home-bound liturgy. Artists, pastors and prophets offer their gifts online while we sit in our chairs, groaning in the pain of a labouring world, waiting to be together, waiting for God to arrive, waiting to be restored, waiting to celebrate.
“The ways he is changing remind me that time is still ticking on,” my husband says about our infant, “when everything else seems to have stopped.” Our lives have slowed considerable since the pandemic started. In our province, we are in “Phase 1,” encouraged to remain in the protective enclosure of our own home with our own household, to keep all others at a distance of six feet.
Time is a floating bubble that never pops. We are constantly asking each other what day it is. I mark the days of the week through watching my multivitamins disappear in their daily pill compartments. There are no events, no visits, no outings except for walks and fortnightly shopping trips. Everyday there are chores and books to read and noses to wipe. Our baby grows, our toddler learns new words and we watch the leaves slowly start to form on the trees.
The toddler looks at the clock. “It’s fifty eleven-teen hundred,” he says at 5:11, and his answer seems sufficient. The clock is nonsense right now. Freedom from it has it’s advantages, as well as losses.
Since self-isolation has started, the baby has learned to grasp and hold onto the toy he wants, to wiggle his body in a circle on the ground, to do the worm, and can almost sit up unassisted.
Milestones and special dates, while harder to celebrate in isolation, become more important. My husband told me of his colleague’s even-keel five-year-old who said a few weeks ago to her mother, “It’s Easter in three days.” “Actually,” her mother said, “it’s in five days.” The daughter said nothing more until three days later when she woke up and said, “It’s Easter!” and her mother said, “Still two more days.” Then the little girl threw a fit. When children have so little to do, there is so much invested in our special events.
“I can’t believe it’s garbage day!” my three-year-old yells over and over again. This marks one of the only regular events in our lives. The other is virtual church on Sunday morning, which ends with a Zoom coffee hour, during which we all wave awkwardly at each other from our Brady Bunch squares on the screen.
We’ve had a few socially distanced visits now, but how do you convey six feet to children? “Imagine there’s a force field around everyone!” one friend calls to her three-year old as he runs up to my son and grabs his hand. We are all enclosed in both real and imagined ways.
Our foray into socially distant gatherings coincides with the baby’s development of stranger anxiety. Unfortunately everyone but his immediate family is a stranger now, and this whole socialization thing is foreign and overwhelming to him.
My husband tells me about a conversation he had with a woman fully dressed in a batman costume while walking her dog. He is confused about why she was wearing it. “She can’t be going to a costume party.”
“She’s wearing it because she can,” I tell him, trying to explain that when we go stir crazy, we throw some inhibitions to the wind. Or perhaps costumes provide an escapist, protective layer.
“But where was she going?” he asks.
“Nowhere,” I say, “that’s the point.”
While pushing the children in the stroller through downtown, I see a person turn the corner in an ornate duck costume. They are wearing an orange unitard and an oversized, sculpted and sparkling head of green. They walk towards us, and stop six feet in front of us on the empty street. They bend over, hands on hips, to eye level with my toddler and give out a loud “quack” from what I guess to be a duck whistle inside the costume. My toddler seems unimpressed. It is the highlight of my day.
They pass us with a wide birth and continue to walk in the anonymity of the bobble duck head.
Now the baby is crawling and learning to stand. I have accepted I can no longer call the three-year old the toddler, and finally others are able to see him and attest to his transformation into big boyhood.
In Ontario, we will soon be given permission to create “a bubble” with up to ten people in total. We joke that we will hold popularity contests to see who gets to be invited into each other’s bubble. “We’ve prepared a portfolio,” my husband tells our friends, “so you can see what great candidates we are.”
I grew up in what we referred to as “the bubble,” an insular Christian community mostly composed of Dutch immigrants and their decedents. We attended private school together and went to church together. Instead of girl guides I went to Calvinettes. Instead of dance classes or figure skating we did catechism classes. Our social lives largely revolved around church activities, and as many of us were farmers, it was possible to interact almost exclusively within the bubble.
The term was sometimes used often with affection and sometimes with derision. People were mindful of the fact that, in order to fulfill the Christian obligation of reaching out, we needed to interact with people outside of the bubble. But the school-church bubble protected us. We felt known and familiar. And yet I think many of us longed for more diversity as well. There was something exotic about the public school kids right beside us, separated from us by a fence. I remember my mother telling me about a wedding she attended where the bride, in her thank you speech, said to her parents, “We are so grateful you raised us in this protective bubble, until we were old enough to go out on our own.”
A friend I met in adulthood referred to the world in which I grew up as a cult. I understand why. But there was also beauty in our community, in our shared history and known-ness. I often feel our inter-human connections have become too large for our psyches to handle. There are too many people we should know.
I think often about how isolation must be affecting babies’ development. I’ve been watching the Netflix documentary series Babies, and learning about how the first six months are such a formative time in babies’ ability to recognize and differentiate between different faces. A young infant has the ability, one scientist tells us, to distinguish between individual spider monkeys. By twelve months, if not regularly exposed to a diversity of spider monkey faces, they have lost this ability.
What does it mean for my son to only be held by his parents, to look into only faces that look much like his own?
Restrictions have lifted as we move into “Phase 2” and we are permitted to extend our bubble to ten people. Finally grandpa is back in our bubble. Grandpa, who held our baby so often in his first few months, now cannot walk past our seven month old without the baby bursting into sobs. If Grandpa tries to smile, the baby’s face expands in terror, and he looks for Mommy and Daddy immediately.
What will our way of being in pandemic do, I wonder, to the development of babies of 2020? Will they have lower immunity from lack of exposure to flus and common coughs? Will they be more attached to their parents? Will they struggle socially? Be better able to read faces on video chat? Will they enjoy a slower pace of life? Be more anxious? Less? Better able to entertain themselves without constant stimulation? I hope that someone will do serious research on all these things. I love and hate that my child could inadvertently be part of some important experiments on child social development.
It is a struggle to find a mask to fit a three-year-old, let alone keep it on his face.
I have finally begun to take my children grocery shopping with me. It is like learning a new dance to suddenly navigate this trip with two children. When the baby starts to fuss in the shopping cart, I try to cheer him by making faces, and he looks at me with a puzzled expression. It takes a full minute for me to realize he cannot see my face under my mask.
I pick him up and he tries to pull the mask off my face. He does not smile back when I coo.
The baby has taken quickly to socializing. He brightens when strangers interact with him in the grocery store. He crawls towards new people at the park. He is in his element with summer.
In the darkness of bedtime, I crouch beside my baby’s crib and peer through the protective bars to watch his still and perfect face. Brené Brown writes in The Gift of Imperfection about how parents describe feeling great vulnerability in these moment, though she doesn’t say what it is about seeing sleeping children that leaves us so raw and exposed. Perhaps as we stare at our babies’ faces we see our own faces, aging and crinkling, and we know that time is a quick-footed beast dragging us along as we clasp for dear life to its tail. Perhaps it is because the sleeping child allows us that soft moment to meditate on our child in a way not permitted by the daytime busy and chatty child who is trying to eat toilet paper or climb the shelves. Perhaps it is that sleep is a type of death. Perhaps it is the longing to form an impenetrable bubble they will live in forever, followed by the heavy realization that we are so incapable of providing the protection they need. Whatever the case, I join with multitudes of parents and caregivers since the beginning of humanity who stare at their sleeping children in fear, love and wonder and watch them vulnerably in the darkness.
In keeping with the parenting during pandemic theme, I wrote this article back in March and Plough magazine published it. “When the Sickness is Over” looks at parenting a toddler while in social isolation, as well as some reflections on the theological concept of already-not-yet.
I’ve written a few reflections on daily life during COVID-19. “The gift of nurturing small things in isolation” was published in The Christian Century. Here I reflect on raising a baby in a pandemic, giving and receiving living things when we are living apart, the joy of caring for small things like succulents and sourdough starter, and some theological concepts around creation.