Pre-pandemic choices weigh heavy as the start of school approaches.
by Caroline Langerman
I was bending over to peek in the oven when I saw my 5-year-old’s bare feet on the kitchen floor. A berry cobbler had been my quarantine wish for this steamy, stormy Sunday afternoon, and I’d ordered four quarts of blackberries for delivery. Managing three young kids in a pandemic had put me in a pretty serious relationship with Instacart. I lived with a baby on my hip, an eye on the backyard, an ear in the playroom, and my thumb poised to “accept” or “reject” the substitutions of a well-meaning shopper.
Our doorstep had become a cauldron of not-quite-right items in absurd quantities. I ordered one garlic bulb and received one pound — seven bulbs. I requested one heirloom tomato, hoping for a big knobby-kneed explosion that I could slice with mozzarella, and received a group of tomatoes so small and green they could have been mistaken for bouncy-ball prizes at the pediatric dentist. Once, I received four slices of bread, wrapped in plastic and twist-tied — did my shopper imagine me making exactly two sandwiches? I cooked shrimp that I didn’t realize hadn’t been deveined and declawed. “The vein is the digestive tract,” my husband said, with a terrifying crustacean poised on his fork. “But it’s edible.”
It was past my son’s bedtime, but I couldn’t resist sharing my success. “Want to see my cobbler?”
He stepped forward, incredulous that his stall tactic was working, and I pulled the pan from the oven like a Mommy-magician. Blackberry juice bubbled at the sides of a golden crust. “It’s a Kindergarten Cobbler. Anyone who eats it will be ready for kindergarten!”
This fantasy was for my own benefit. John had turned 5 on a recent June morning and was now tall enough to see up on the stovetop, where secret things steamed. His thighs bumped the roof of his kid-sized table, where I’d never imagined he would eat salmon and spinach. Thinking it’d be easier for him, we’d gotten him a turtleneck style mask, but pulling it over his larger-than-average head was hard for his larger than average hands, and the dinosaurs often got inside out.
He beamed at my masterpiece and went back upstairs. A good sign of readiness! But a moment later, his footsteps returned.
“I need to say something into Mommy’s ear.”
Now I had the ice cream out on the counter, and things were getting awkward. But his specificity was alluring. I brought my ear to the stairwell, and he knelt down.
“When I talk to God,” he asked, “do I have to talk out loud, or do I talk in my mind?”
This wasn’t as pure as it sounds — I had given him God on another sleepless night the way you might offer an iPad on an airplane. Still, the question had my heart bubbling like the blackberries.
“In your mind,” I said, thinking it wouldn’t be long until he really leaned down towards me. He nodded, as if he’d already known but now had permission to know it. And this instruction-following, this methodical seek-and-confirm, was the reason why, back when life had been normal, we’d decided to throw him to the Kinderwolves, as I’d started to think of it. A boy with a summer birthday presents a Sophie’s choice: let him turn 6 in preschool, or send him to kindergarten and let him be newly 5 along with the kids who turned 6 in preschool.
“Can he do his day?” a school administrator had asked, pointing to moments of transition, attention span, a general roll-with-it-ness. My self-interest rejoiced: He could do his day! And if he could do his day, I could finally do mine!
But once Covid turned everything upside down, pre-pandemic decisions we made about child care and education seem like shopping lists for stuff that is longer in stock. The carefully selected nanny, the painstaking decision of which school to attend, the children we spaced so they’d have the “right” amount of attention, the house that would work for now, the involved grandparents — they’re all on back order. The very idea of “readiness” seems discontinued, recalled. My 3-year old is riding a two-wheeled bike but wetting her pants again. My 7-month-old is exclusively breastfed but lives in a car seat. My 5-year-old has the vocabulary of a teenager and the social skills of a snail. And here I am, trying to make substitutions on behalf of tiny, helpless customers who can’t accept or reject what I’m delivering.
After he went upstairs to talk to God, I scooped ice cream into my ridiculous grown-up bowl, feeling very childish indeed. Another recent evening, he’d asked, “Will you come in to see me after you have dinner?” And I said yes, brushing his bangs across his forehead, knowing that I wasn’t coming back. But was it really lying, if he’d be asleep soon, and I had a pile of dishes to get to? If I loved him so much?
There’s this dance we do, where we want absolutely all of our child: let me hold you, let me sunscreen you with lion’s whiskers, fork over your fears and wishes so I can gobble them up and caption them. But then, our own self wrestles up and wants them gone, nudging them out of the room or onto a screen or into a socially distanced and disinfected school bus so we can get back to our own fears and wishes. Will I wish I’d gone back into his room one more time “after dinner”? Will I be able to bear that he might be better off if I’d ordered him another year of preschool? That the only thing protecting my “young 5” from the masked and remote Kinderwolves is his heartbreaking compliance and the fact that everyone else is struggling, too?
On the brink of school starting, in the middle of a pandemic, I feel less like a mommy-magician and more like a confused delivery person, unsure of what my child needs and in what quantities. I grab a cartful from one aisle and nothing from another. I’m counting out seven garlic cloves and twist-tying four slices of bread. I look upon his freckles appearing in sweet little areas of his face — one under his eyebrow, one above his lip — and try to make peace with the weird mix of stuff I’m leaving at his doorstep.
On the first morning of school, I take a picture of his smile: pretending it’s proof of delivery. I hope, in these strange circumstances, he’ll still find a way to roll up his sleeves and make something good. The world has been tweaking recipes for a very long time. SP
Caroline Langerman is a writer in Charlotte. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Town & Country and others.