David Huebert on the pains and privilege of parenting small children during a pandemic
Oblivion's Wake is a personal essay by David Huebert, part of CBC Books' Transmission series
We danced naked in the living room. We sat in a plastic sled in the backyard, paddled the grass with twigs. We played tug of war with a towel. We raced through the basketball court, galloping contagions of joy. The toddler begged never to go back to daycare. We built forts on the couch. We invaded the bathroom when N tried to sneak a shower. We cleaned the fridge, hung paintings, potted plants, the baby proudly munching soil. We froze homemade Popsicles, baked chocolate chip cookies, scarfed batter, licked spoons. The toddler wailed down the stairs, sure her mother had built a fort without her in the night. Bath time got old. Forts got old. The toddler begged to go back to daycare.
The toddler (R, nearly 3) comes up the stairs, screaming, "Papa! Papa!" Her little sister (S, 15 months) has yanked her hair again. Cuddle break on the bed.
Pandemic or not, raising little kids is a battle of will, patience and creativity. A week of staycation had been fun for the children and good for the family. By week two, we parents were worn, drained, wracked for ideas. All city parks had been closed for a week, including the playground we can see from our living room window. Before isolation, we never kept the kids home all day. Their daily rhythm involved at least two outings — dance class, pool, library, playground, soccer, Grandma's house, Point Pleasant Park.
We are still working out the new routines, how we can snatch a minute, an hour, to rest, shower, write. The childcare era has been replaced by the epoch of asking whether this is a suitable time to sneak a bowel movement. Daily, hourly, we mine new forms of play.
My two children play evil wolf on the bed, gnawing at each other's tummies, coaxing, their mother herding, giggling, devouring.
There are shades of privilege in the bruise of my distress. As I write, my spouse, N, wrangles the children, loads the dishwasher, wards off sugar and iPads. In our daily lives, we can (barely) afford childcare. We have a roof over our head. We're not sick. Our children, thankfully, are not old enough to understand the dangers or desperately miss their closest friends. N lost her work (and purpose) weeks after returning from maternity leave. I, like many other men, have leaned on my partner. At times she's leaned back.
Explosive poop incident, known in our home as a "cacastrophe." Impromptu midday bath.
It's raining, fierce. I put R's rain-pants on, deploy her tiny useless rainbow umbrella and brave the belligerence of March. We travel a block and a half before she asks to turn around. Stopped there in the pummeling rain, R spots a little girl, about her age, standing in a bay window. I kneel down with my daughter and wave. Waving into a stranger's house — something I would never have done before isolation. Something that might have embarrassed me and that I would have discouraged in R.
But we stand in the beating rain. Stand and wave to this strange girl, letting R know that the world is out there, that other children are out there, in their windows. That they too are lonely, seeking connection, needing and making new forms of play.
Inconsolable meltdown: cause undetermined though clearly related to the plastic machinery of a make-at-home Popsicle kit.
Little children don't conform to adult logic — they bend it delightfully. They think that potty training has to do with locomotives, that the counterpart of a penis should be a "poonis." My children don't understand "disease," are satisfied with the vague notion that "everything is closed." My children are oblivious, but, gratefully, they are also oblivions. They open seams in the flesh of the world, send me spilling through. It has been a joy, here in Pandemia, to swim the surf of their minds, to ride oblivion's wake.
Nap time (R).
Yes, R asked to go back to daycare. But, more often, she asks to stay home forever. It turns out that our children's fundamental social need is simple: us. It's an acute exhaustion to be their only entertainers, but it's also enlivening and enlightening, a boot-camp of the ludic. I'm grateful to have my vocation at my fingertips. And I am optimistic — worldwide we are crafting, together, new ways of being social. Whatever the "return to normal" might look like, these new ways of playing will not be lost.
David Huebert won the CBC Short Story Prize in 2016 with the story Enigma. He has also won The Walrus Poetry Prize, and was a National Magazine Award nominee in 2018 and 2019. His fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won a Dartmouth Book Award, was shortlisted for the Alistair MacLeod Short Fiction Prize, and was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. He lives in Halifax.
Transmission is a series of original creative works, commissioned by CBC Books, that reflects on time, place, identity, community and purpose in an era of COVID-19. It was published in spring 2020.