Natalia is a cabbage baby: round, surprised, close-set blue eyes, no eyebrows, a flat impish nose, fat dimpled cheeks, thin blond hair, with multiple creases in her chubby arms and legs like the Michelin man.
Natalia is ten months old. Her mother Anna taught her sign language to communicate her basic needs. For “Milk,” Natalia squeezes her hand in an upturned fist, releases her fingers, then squeezes again to tell her mother she wants to nurse. When she started on solids, she learned “Hungry,” by bringing the top tips of her fingers together, then moving her now onion-shaped little hand to her mouth and down again. When she was done eating, she communicated “All Done” by turning her palms down and waving them away and back together again. For “Potty,” Natalia was taught to turn her hand into a fist, stick out her thumb between her index and middle finger and shake her fist, but this gesture was too difficult for her to master.
I started caring for Natalia during the pandemic.
How to describe a pandemic? On a macro or a micro level? Is it the global plague that continues to take hundreds of thousands of lives? The deadly disease that brought the world’s economy to a total shut down? Or the mind-numbing repetition of small, mundane actions: washing of hands; disinfecting door knobs, car keys, counters, wallets; the many times we run back home for a facemask or bottles of sanitizer? Or is it the distance we keep from each other, worsening our anxieties, disorders, and wreaking havoc with our mental wellbeing.
The pandemic is both. The pandemic is also this.
My daughter Jori and I sought asylum in the United States in early 2019, after I faced prosecution for my political and social activism in my home country, Kuwait. As a law professor, a lawyer and a feminist, I strongly believe in democracy, freedom of speech and gender equality, but I couldn’t live by my beliefs in Kuwait. When I advocated for the human rights of The Stateless, more than 50,000 longtime inhabitants of Kuwait deprived of citizenship, heath, education and work, blamed the Sheikh for their tragedy and called him corrupt, I was prosecuted. I condemned the growing problem of femicide (honor killings); I spoke up about the poor treatment of women in Islam; I was vocal about LGBTQ rights in a country where homosexuality is illegal; and I organized protests against the Kuwaiti government’s ban of over 5,000 books. When my imprisonment became imminent, I fled, knowing that my daughter and I would never be safe in Kuwait. In America, I waited a year to get my work permit, but as soon as I was allowed to legally work, COVID-19 brought life as we knew it to a sudden halt.
As the virus raged and reaped lives around the world, I marveled at how the small world around me reacted. Throughout different calamities I experienced: the Iraqi war on Kuwait, depression, divorce, job loss, the threat of imprisonment, and being held in a detention center when arriving in America as a refugee, it still shocked me how during a tragedy our bodies keep on needing, stomachs continue to devour, paying no heed to the larger terror threatening to end it all. A hysteric fear of food shortages left aisles at supermarkets bare, and an inexplicable race to buy more toilet paper than one could consume in a year baffled suppliers and the media alike. Hair kept on growing and graying, with no access to barbers. Babies continued to be conceived. For many, the pressing question was whether they would be able to celebrate their weddings, graduations and birthdays. On the radio, a journalist sounded genuinely concerned when he asked the governor how long the casinos will be shut. The momentary excitement students felt for the prospect of a longer spring break, turned into a dreaded nightmare for parents who struggled to homeschool them. The collective moan about postponed sport games and canceled vacations were satirical and a reflection of how utterly we failed to grasp the magnitude of this infectious airborne terror no one could stop, like Noah’s flood, it threatened to wipe everything in its wake.
Holding a PhD in law and having taught at college level, I applied to numerous teaching positions that were now performed online, but to no avail. I told myself I could do any kind of work, so I worked at Target. It was a temporary, seasonal position, fraught with eight hours of standing at a cash register and hauling massive dog food bags and bottled goods that felt like they weighed 100 pounds from conveyor belt to cart, and feeling it in my knees and my lower back all night. Sometimes they made me sanitize shopping carts. The laborious physical effort of unclenching these hard, stiff, unyielding metal beasts, then crashing them into each other again, spraying, wiping, and putting them in rows for shoppers who came in drones, then abandoned the carts somewhere in my vicinity before they left, in order for me to do it all over again, made me wonder how anyone could argue against paying essential workers minimum wage. At night, my fingers, my arms, my shoulders, my back, my legs and my feet throbbed with a burning ache that would not cool for days. There was the added challenge of wearing an uncomfortable mask that made me take shorter, faster breaths, fogged up my glasses, and made my face itch. I was grateful I was a seasonal worker and had tremendous empathy for workers who had no other choice.
Leaving Target, I was determined to find work that was safer, the constant traffic in the busy supermarket and close proximity to customers made me uneasy. I offered my services on Care.com and Anna got in touch. “I’m a single mother working from home,” Anna’s profile read, “I need someone to look after my infant daughter between eight in the morning until two in the afternoon.” When I first met Anna, she was wearing her wedding ring. I didn’t ask. She said that “the dad” visits them sometimes, and always in the evening, hours after I’ve left. For me, it ticked all the right boxes, I was only going to be in contact with the mother and the baby, the mother works from home, no other human contact. I’d work until two in the afternoon, just in time to pick up my daughter from school and still have my evenings to paint and write – my two true loves in life.
It took Natalia two weeks to fully trust me, to play with me for hours without crying for her mother, to sleep on my shoulder while I rocked her, singing Rock-A-Bye Baby over and over again until the words swam in my brain with the same rhythm of my swaying body. She screamed like she was being murdered during diaper changes, and while I washed her hands over the sink after eating something greasy or sticky.
Caring is demanding in the sense that it is a lot of emotional labor; a baby is precarious, volatile and moody. Babies don’t know what they need, and don’t know how to ask for what they don’t know they need, so, they just cry.
I arrive at Anna’s house at 7:48 a.m. She stands behind the door; she already unlocked it for me, Natalia is in her arms. Anna’s face is dark with exhaustion, “She hasn’t slept at all; I almost killed her last night!” Anna says in her thick Polish accent. “I don’t know what she wants, she won’t stop crying, she won’t stop crying!” she adds, almost breaking down in tears herself. Her face pale and bony; her eyes sunken and fatigued; the shadows under her eyes, two deep bruises; her hair greasy and unwashed; her satin nighty that barely covers her upper thigh hanging off her skinny frame, ghostly white, one strap falling off her shoulder and threatening to reveal a nipple.
One morning when I arrived a few minutes earlier than my usual time, Anna was running around the house with nothing but a thong on, it made me wince and not know where to look. “How is she not cold?” I thought, the Cleveland January snow piling up outside.
When Natalia had slept through the night, Anna gave me a detailed update on what she ate, “She had a whole tomato yesterday, can you believe it? A whole tomato?” she’d say in amused disbelief. “She pooped twice yesterday! Can you believe it?” Anna would say. “The first time at 2 p.m. as soon as you left, and the second time at 7 p.m. right before her bedtime.” She then proceeded to describe the size and the texture of the poop.
“How did I get here?” I think. “How did I become a nanny?” My heart pushes, a bloodied fist against my tired chest. I say to myself, “Flip the thought,” and in my mind I hold my new positive thought, “I’m grateful I have a job, I’m grateful I’m healthy, I’m grateful my daughter is healthy, I’m grateful I live in a safe, warm apartment, I’m grateful I have a fridge full of food, water, electricity, and a car.” I repeat this three times a day to get through the day, but it can all disappear in a moment when I hear Anna say on the phone, “Natalia is with the nanny,” her voice heavy with privilege and disdain. “Caregiver.” I want to correct her, I don’t.
Towards Friday of a particularly taxing week, when I’ve argued with Jori for the third time about how she’s always late getting ready, which makes me late getting to work after dropping her off at school, I feel a tremendous urge to just give up. The pandemic has drained us emotionally, the isolation has been hard on both of us, but harder on Jori, she’s fifteen and had to adjust to so many changes. First, the school closed and all classes were online. She went for months without seeing her friends. Then the school reopened and students returned to in-person learning. Then COVID cases rose, and the school closed again. Then they reopened with a hybrid system, doing in-person classes two days a week, and online learning three days a week. Then the school re-opened again and they went back to in-person learning all week. I yell at her in the car, she cries. Babies don’t know what they need, and don’t know how to ask for what they don’t know they need, so, they just cry. After dropping her off at school, I cry because I sent my daughter to school crying and feel the sadistic lashing of “I’m a bad mother” that never tires of striking me day or night.
I wipe my tears, blasting the AC directly into my face to cool the redness in my eyes, nose and cheeks, “be professional, be strong.” I order myself harshly.
“I almost killed her last night!” Anna says, waiting for me as soon as I open the door. And I try, I try to find in me the empathy, the compassion that this moment needs, but it’s hard. I reach out to take Natalia from her, whose eyes are red and puffy from crying and lack of sleep, she grabs tighter at her mother, hides her face in her mother’s neck and feigns crying. My arms fall to my side like drowned oars.
I notice a large, framed photo perched against the bookcase that wasn’t there before. A wedding photo of Anna and her husband – Natalia’s dad. The two of them holding each other and smiling, the city’s skyline, their backdrop. Anna wore an elegant cream, midi dress and professional-looking black heels. Her husband in an expensive-looking black suit. Tall, handsome, salt and pepper hair, the exact close-set blue eyes, and flat nose as Natalia’s. The photo was the only sign I’ve seen of him; there was never a pair of men’s shoes, a man’s shirt lying on the floor, or even a whiff of cologne. A month later, the photo was gone. Anna’s diamond wedding ring flung carelessly near the bathroom sink, then near the kitchen sink, then gone.
I want to ask Anna if she’s okay, but I don’t want to cross a line. I want to tell a friend that I’m grateful I have a job, but my soul feels lacerated. I don’t reach out in fear of being called too dramatic. I want to say to Jori, I’m worried we’ll keep missing each other, that there was a time when she was a baby, and I was the sleep-deprived, exhausted mother who could not enjoy her. I want to tell her I want us to enjoy each other’s company before it’s too late, but everything is so hard, the day passes so quickly, there’s always so much to do, we’re always so stressed, and before we know it, she’ll be gone to college and I’ll wish I was better, a better mother, a better person. I want to hold her and say, “I want us to try.” But I don’t say anything because I know I’ll cry and that will upset her. I understand loneliness better now; it’s when we fail as people to give each other what we need.
*The name of my employer and her daughter have been changed.