Throughout the pandemic, I found myself returning to Brian Doyle’s “Dawn and Mary.” If you’ve never read it, please do. In the essay, Doyle tells the story of Dawn, the principal, and Mary, the school psychologist, who put themselves in front of the bullets at Sandy Hook. They leapt and lunged at the shooter to protect the children in their school.
Years ago, when I first read “Dawn and Mary,” reprinted in The Sun, I was in the dentist’s waiting room. I burst into tears (not uncommon) but breezed through the drilling (uncommon), having just had my head set on straight and my heart blown open by Doyle’s last paragraph:
The next time someone says the word hero to you, you say this: There once were two women. One was named Dawn, and the other was named Mary. They both had two daughters. They both loved to kneel down to care for small beings. They leapt from their chairs and ran right at the boy with the rifle, and if we ever forget their names, if we ever forget the wind in that hallway, if we ever forget what they did, if we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then? What good are we then?
Yes, absolutely. Here is truth. Absolute horror. And absolute truth.
Throughout the pandemic, I found myself repeating five words from this paragraph: all children are our children. The words became a mantra that I would whisper when I felt most alone, and also in moments of rage. In ten paragraphs, Doyle’s essay identifies our highest work, as demonstrated swiftly and instinctually by Dawn and Mary. That work is to care for the children of the world. All children. With these five words, Doyle demands that there is something communal in the care of children. This is not work to do alone.
All children are our children.
Like so many, I experienced a sense of abandonment and isolation during the pandemic. I felt acutely that my children were my children, and nobody else’s. My husband and I both tried to manage our full-time jobs with no childcare, and we both did terribly. There was a lot of gloom and thunder in our house. My focus was shattered and I felt perpetually interrupted. I felt guilty for working and guilty when not working. My nerve-endings were hard-wired into the house and while I zoomed for endless hours with my room of black boxes, my largely depressed first-year students, I kept thinking I had to quit the job I loved, which had taken me so many years to find.
This past year we saw our safety net disintegrate. My in-laws, who live a mile away, and had been helping us since the kids came along, dove into their own projects and ventures, deciding to un-retire and go back to work full-time. They were suddenly unavailable when we needed them most. Then there were my parents. My father with his cocktail of conditions, a COVID risk list for mortality: pulmonary hypertension, diabetes, congestive heart-failure, etc.; and my mother, a RN who retired a month before New York reported its first COVID case in order to be his fulltime care-taker. For the new school year, our preschool shuttered its doors, leaving our 3-year-old outside in the sticky September air. And because we worried that the public schools in our area would “go virtual” once the virus started to peak again in the fall, we kept our kindergartner home, hesitant to have her first foray into the public school system be demarcated by plexiglass and temperature checks, only to be thrown onto a laptop in our dining room come October. And so, like those countless other families, we kept the kids at home and tried to manage on our own. Our children were solely our children.
We live in an incorporated Village so the old cliché, it takes a village to raise a child, has always made a type of literal sense to me. But this past year, that child raising village seemed to disappear. I was (am) “COVID conservative” – a term for folks who took (take) COVID very seriously. We stayed home. For me, it was because of a reoccurring fear: if my husband and I got sick—really sick—who would care for our children? I had seen my village fall away, so who would step up if we couldn’t get out of bed? What if we needed hospitalization? Are all children our children? Are our children anyone else’s children? Even the grandparents couldn’t help. This thought alone made me feel lonely in a way I had never known.
One of the college courses I teach is called “Community Learning,” and it seeks to integrate service learning, social justice, and community engagement. For a few semesters, I included “Dawn and Mary” on the last page of the syllabus. I find Doyle’s narrative represents the most instinctual and selfless form of community engagement. It is also among the most common, as most parents would put themselves in front of a bullet to spare their children. Those involved in care professions – teachers and healthcare workers in particular—are committed to putting themselves in danger to care for others. These five simple words state, what feels to me to be an essential ethical truth: all children are our children. Though the biting reality here is that we live in a culture that has not embraced such a mantra. We have the word orphan, we can’t seem to ban assault rifles, and childcare takes a salary to afford even as our childcare workers are underpaid. During the pandemic, families were all too often left to fend for themselves. Their children were their children, and no one else’s.
Yes, these many months without the village have revealed the shadows ever-present in our days. With the loss of social support networks, our household seemed to implode. For many months, we were bewildered with our five-year old daughter, who is temperamentally strong-willed, and who seemed to suffer most without a peer group, grandparents, and teachers. Without her village, she often exploded upon us. Our perceptive and powerful child doesn’t respond to coercion or threats. She’s too smart for reward systems and she challenges authority easily, naturally and frequently. Her emotions are complex. She feels jealousy and heartbreak, and it was clear to us that severed social relations had impacted her deeply. I’ve learned that a child like this is often misunderstood; quickly labeled difficult. And if she’s not the problem, obviously, then it’s her parents. I’ve learned that most adults have a hard time understanding a child like this, that it is easier to pathologize her, or to criticize us. I’ve learned that I am not immune from feeling judged, from feeling shame or some essential failing. But somehow when she threw the etch-a-sketch at my husband in response to his disciplinary tactic, I understood her raw emotion. I wanted to throw something at him too.
With the help of a seasoned psychologist who specializes in art therapy and draws from the wisdom traditions, we managed to shift our perspective on our struggle. Because of this person and an hour every two weeks on zoom, we had someone we could talk to. This person, who actually seemed to think we were decent parents who cared about our children, this person who seemed to understand our daughter’s temperament, and to see her strengths, this person became someone to talk to. She widened our village by one. She cared for us, and she cared for our children.
I feel reluctant to put these thoughts down on paper because of how I rode out the pandemic with a particular privilege. I maintained employment, was able to sustain mortgage payments, and order groceries online. My family was safe at home. I had a backyard with a garden, a swing set, and fruit trees. Hell, I even have my own office shed in the yard, with a space heater; the walls are painted Birds Egg Blue. I found time to exercise and to sleep. I was able to connect with a perceptive therapist. And so, I feel confusion (and I think, underneath, shame and guilt) when I attempt to reconcile the outer circumstances of my life with the inward spirals. Despite the fruit trees and the Birds Egg Blue, I found myself emotionally destroyed, often languishing in despair. And when we heard about a local mom who one day packed her bags and left, I quietly empathized. When you become a parent, you sign up for it all, though when I signed up, I never imagined the dissolution of the village that had always sustained me.
In locating children and families as foundational to their policy, the Biden administration seems to be taking steps to more fully embrace the mantra that all children are our children. As Heather Cox Richardson writes,
To my mind, though, what jumps out about Biden and Harris is not their focus on either jobs or Black Americans, but rather their attention to the needs of children and mothers …. Experts estimated that the American Rescue Plan could cut child poverty in the U.S. by more than half.
These policy changes offer a start to addressing an immense structural problem that the pandemic revealed and scarred us with. It is start. And all starts matter. And that start has already touched my life, as we recently learned that our family won a Universal Pre-K lottery for our 4-year-old next year. The funds allocated are part of the COVID relief bill, part of the new administration’s efforts to support families and children. We won the lottery and our son will have a good place to go that would normally cost my weekly take-home pay from my full-time college teaching gig. While this feels immense for us, it also screams of contradiction. How can there be a lottery for universality? How is that the American village has neglected so many children for so long?
This essay is hard for me to write, as it digs up ugly feelings of personal failure. I know many are ready to move on and forward, but this year forced me to witness feelings that will not easily be forgotten. Parenting small children without support for a sustained period of time is a particular experience that, fortunately, history has not always damned us with. It is both revelatory and damaging. It is not easily forgotten.
And so, I write this essay for my fellow parents who cannot easily forget, and those who might also be confused by the paradoxes of pandemic parenting. For the families that didn’t win the lottery. For families that cannot afford trustworthy childcare and are questioning what kind of a village leaves such fundamental needs in the care of a lottery. I write for the parents whose strong-willed kids don’t listen, throw things, tantrums, and challenge authority. And I write for those many many months without a break.
I write this essay for all those moments we lose our shit and feel like we’re doing a crappy job with our careers and our kids. I’m writing because I have a void of patience and am shaky about what happened. I’m writing to tell you how I feel confused by the maw of parenting advice that I just can’t seem to integrate. I write to recognize the alarming failures of empathy on the part of many of those we love most. And for all the ways this past year broke you, it broke me too. And in many ways, it continues too, even as we are now reconstructing our village with the help of vaccines, and hopefully, more “village-centered” policies on a structural level.
This is what I can say: I believe that all children are our children, but this past year, I felt that my children were only my children. I suppose this is another way of saying I felt abandoned and lonely. And this loneliness surfaced something structural, something cultural. A fragility in our networks. Those same networks that don’t provide maternity and paternity leave. Those networks that whisper, buck up mama, it could be worse. This insistent whisper brought me back to a tender time in my personal history. To that week I spent crying after my son was born because that week my husband went back at work within 19 hours after my home birth. Four years have passed, but the words that one of his co-workers said to him that moment, when I called crying, with a toddler and a newborn and a bleeding, aching body, are seared into me. That person, who should have been an ally, said to him with impatience: can’t she just pull it together?
Well, I’m writing for you out there who just can’t seem to pull it together.
All children are our children.
Yes, I am crushed. But I suspect I am not alone.
Jesse Curran, PhD, is a poet, essayist, scholar, and educator who lives in Northport, NY. Her creative work has appeared in a number of literary journals including Ruminate, About Place, Spillway, Leaping Clear, Green Humanities, Blueline, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. She has also published two chapbooks of poetry, Elegy & April and Double Stroller Dreams (Finishing Line, 2019 and 2021) and is the mother of two bright stars, Leona and Valentine. www.jesseleecurran.com