Over the past year, in the midst of the pandemic, I happened to publish and publicize a novel about motherhood called "Impersonation." This is to say that I embarked on a Zoom book tour.
My kids marooned at home as they always were, and ensconced in YouTube or Tik Tok, I sat facing my laptop up in my attic, most of which was a teeming mess of boxes and old furniture. I did, however, decorate a corner of the room -- the only part that would be seen on-screen. There stood an immaculate bookcase with a curated collection of literary fiction, and an assortment of art and quirky postcards, and even a favorite piece of fabric. I hoped it looked more like a pretty office in New York or Portland than 10 square feet of cleared-out mess in a suburb half an hour from Boston.
My novel is largely about the hazards of artifice — the masks we wear as mothers and writers and women — and yes, I see the irony of my faux office. It is apparently easier to display authenticity through a fictional character than in front of an audience of readers.
The narrator of my book is a stressed-out single mom and ghostwriter who is tasked with writing a “mom-moir” (a memoir of motherhood) for a more privileged woman. My narrator is more comfortable hiding behind others who are ostensibly far more successful than publishing as herself. But being a single mom in this particular economy and politically fraught time often gets the best of her.
I got to talk with a lot of readers, mothers specifically. I was glad to hear that so many found kinship with my imperfect narrator in feeling that they too were failing as parents. This is not to say that fathers did not experience the same anxiety, just that I did not speak to any. A number of times, I found myself listening more than talking. Mothers deserved to be heard.
Now that vaccines have arrived and COVID numbers are dropping, most parents in this country are hopefully exiting one of the more challenging (to put it mildly) 15 months. Some of us are left disoriented. What now? Are the kids all right? After so much time spent facing fear of this new disease, isolation, a steady unweaving of our social fabric, illness itself, and mass death, we wonder about the impact on our children and whether we did enough.
I worried about my kids’ mental health. Mine was shaky at best some days, and more than anything I wanted my kids to feel loved if they couldn’t feel safe.
We mothers can be so hard on ourselves. I know that I am. At the beginning of the pandemic, I insisted on regular indoor exercise via an online class with my 14-year-old twins. We had a daily schedule: a regular wake-up time, things to do, chores, free time. But as the months wore on, my teens wanted to make their own decisions. They saw through my imposition of some false normalcy. Things were not all right. Nothing was all right. There was no hiding this fact.
With no small amount of parental ambivalence, I stepped back. I let go of screen time limits and pleading with them to eat healthier and clean their rooms. I admitted that I didn’t know what to do for them, and so gave up on certain fronts. To be honest, I worried about my kids’ mental health. Mine was shaky at best some days, and more than anything I wanted my kids to feel loved if they couldn’t feel safe. Before long, we all grew a little lethargic. Our souls grew lethargic, numb in the face of this thing that seemed as if it could go on forever.
It was all too much. Everything was and is at stake: often our children’s and our own health and mental health seemed at odds with our ability to pay the bills. How do you work and parent simultaneously? In typical times, about 70% of mothers who live with their own children work. As of January 2021, only 35% of this same population of mothers was still working.
So many nights I left my kids on their own as I climbed the stairs to my attic and continued my book tour, more grateful than I've ever been to have work, as well as kids old enough to entertain themselves.
"It's going to be OK," I heard myself say one night to patrons of a Midwestern bookstore, having no real sense of this statement's truth. "You're doing a good job with your kids," I told strangers the next night, and they seemed so glad to hear this. I felt glad to say it. No one else was saying this. We mothers have needed some parenting ourselves. One interviewer even used the words, “group hug” as we all reached out toward our screens as if to embrace each other. It was corny and perfect.
As we stumble our way back to some kind of new normal, hoping that a raging variant does not take hold here as variants have with devastating results in India, South American, and elsewhere, some may want to keep wearing masks and others might throw the damned things away. We may not be ready to go to a movie theater or host a birthday party, and that is just fine. Let’s be gentle with ourselves. Let’s validate instead of judge each other. If we have nothing else in common, let’s remember that we love our children and do want the best for them, no matter our setbacks and challenges.
I am not a person of much religious faith, although I greatly envy the steadiness of conviction shown by those who are. I will admit that this past year or so has planted within me in a new seed of faith: blind belief. It’s going to be ok. You’re doing a good job with your kids. It seems the only way.
Editor's note: Heidi Pitlor will be in conversation with Tom Perrotta for the paperback launch of "Impersonation" at Porter Square Books — outside and in-person — on July 15, 2021.