A Year of Being Small
“So, when are you going to start driving your car?” Some old fart of a man at the Subaru dealership chortled at me a couple months ago, after checking my mileage. I gave him a courtesy laugh, muffled behind my mask. It wasn’t worth explaining that shortly after leasing the car, I gave birth, was housebound with a newborn, and then told to stay home as much as possible because of a pandemic. Sir, I’d love to start driving my car. It would be my absolute pleasure to sit in an hour of Los Angeles traffic at 6pm on a Friday.
When people ask how I’m doing or feeling, the word that most frequently comes to mind is “small.” I don’t feel especially good or particularly bad; I simply feel reduced. I work less. I sleep less. I move less. I socialize less. I travel less. I drive my car less.
I exist in a five miles radius, but I spend most of my time within a matter of a feet hundred feet. I’ve been living this way for over a year. I’m somewhat resigned to this kind of life, and I haven’t quite worked out if that’s sad or smart. Is it surrender or survival?
Physically, I’ve always been small. Growing up I was short and wiry with extra big hair. Even now as an adult, I don’t take up much space as a slight person who stands at 5’3″ on a good day. Yet, people are often surprised at my stature when meeting me in person. “Wow, I thought you were much taller.”
I find that even my once tall presence feels somewhat diluted. Muted. Where I was once rooted in the foreground, I now find myself fading into the background of my own life. For the millionth time this year, I’ve debated whether this shift is caused by the pandemic or becoming a parent. Am I losing my identity or discovering myself?
Objectively, the pandemic is preventing me from going into an office, taking meetings with clients, and spending hours working at coffeeshops. I’m not seeing many friends and, when I do, it’s distanced, masked and outdoors. Depressingly, I find it easier and easier to say goodbye without a hug every time. I’ve barely seen any family. No happy hours, dinner dates, or brunch. No movies or theater. Forget creative classes or performing. I don’t even run errands. I’ve come to hate grocery shopping. I moved Waze off the main page of my phone. I used to wear outfits. What is a vacation? I don’t remember.
In my whole adult life, there was rarely a time when my hands didn’t look dressed up with glossy red nail polish. Now, they are utterly shredded from washing, sanitizing, and endless dishes. Last night I googled “skin fissures” because my body is literally coming apart at the seams.
I’m genuinely surprised every time my 15 month old toddler excitedly points, “Mama!” as we pass the portraits from my husband’s and my engagement and wedding in our hallway. How can he recognize me in those photos? I certainly can’t.
When people talk about having children, they often describe an unfathomable sense of self expansion. Your heart “exploding.” And just like that, everything changed forever. Sure? Of course I love my son more than I could ever express in a blog post, but my life feels like it’s done the complete opposite. Either people are lying, I don’t know how to feel my feelings, or the pandemic is really doing a number on me. Though, ultimately, I don’t think this contraction is necessarily negative. Sometimes you need to step back to ultimately move forward in a real way.
Geographically, I am constrained. Yes, I’m currently under a city and state mandated stay at home order but, even if I wasn’t, I have a toddler. There’s a limited number of places to go and experiences you can have with a young child in tow. And, even if you do find an appropriate activity, you always have to make sure to be back for a nap or bedtime. Straying from the sleep schedule is not often worth it because it usually means sacrificing your own rest –– which is the only thing keeping me together.
Maybe if I had somewhere to go, people to see, or even more childcare I’d be living bigger and broader. Though, I sincerely wonder how different my my daily life would look if the pandemic had not happened. I work for myself from home and I’m on little person time now.
I find myself on the floor a lot these days, or at least hovering very low to the ground. Getting down to my son’s level is important because communicating with a toddler is like trying to negotiate with a foreigner all day. He has things he wants to say; I just can’t always understand him. So, I have to pay attention to his facial expressions, make extra eye contact, see the world from his literal vantage point, and ask him to repeat himself multiple times.
He and I don’t leave the house often and, when we do, it’s generally to take a walk around the block or explore the backyard. This is mind-numbing to an adult, but revelatory to someone who’s under three feet tall and seeing things for the first time ever. Every walk up and down the block is like going to Disneyland for him, and because (when I’m not distracted on my phone) I’m experiencing everything with him, sometimes it occasionally feels that way for me too.
“Dat?” He asks me about everything. I’ve had to really examine every weird seed on the sidewalk and notice small screws in areas of the house I’d taken for granted were being held together by scraps of metal. I’ve been asked to explain the mechanics of how a twist top off the toothpaste tube. I’ve always favored big picture thinking. Being a parent has forced me to confront the things I normally avoid… details.
Where my focus was once on expanding outside myself, spilling out into the world, it is now small, introspective, and narrow. My bigger aspirations have gone quiet and no longer calling at the moment. Or, maybe they are but I’m currently on the other line. I’ll call them back when I have a chance.
Though I’m doing much less of many things, I’m also doing a lot more of others. A higher volume of smaller things. I cook more. I clean more. I sing more. I make more silly faces. I play hide and seek more. I watch Sesame Street more. I walk more. I take more time with skin care. I balance my daily life more. Overall, I care more.
Pandemic and the early years of parenthood have imposed what seems like a giant pause, or even setback, but I trust it to be a period of real personal evolution –– a most excruciating growing pain. Even if your pandemic experience didn’t include a baby, we’re all going to emerge from this changed. 2020 will forever be a cleave. There is life before and life after. There is who you were and who you will become.
The only identity and life I had known for over three decades shrank when my son was born over a year ago. I physically split into two; there was no way around it. I had to make room for another character in my story. Six months later, it was reduced even further by a pandemic.
On the verge of a new year, I know I’m still here; smaller yet fuller –– even when all I feel is empty. But, maybe it’s not emptiness, but rather displacement. What if the big part of me that feels missing isn’t gone at all, but is now living outside my body, giggling and yelling “Garbage truck!”?
If that’s the case, I’m OK to stay small until he gets big. He won’t be this little forever. The pandemic won’t always compress us into the most basic parts of ourselves. I will once again feel the pleasure of sitting in rush hour traffic, wishing it was 2020 and I had nowhere to be.
And honestly, every time I’ve ever stupidly lost my work by accident, forced to rewrite and create it all over again, it’s always a million times better.