The Tenth Circle
Motherhood in the Time of COVID-19

As a middle-aged white woman with socially progressive but fiscally conservative politics and a fashionably cosmopolitan sensibility, I have spent the last two years aggressively surveying the media landscape, honing my editorial voice, waiting for my moonshot. Some nights I lie awake in bed imagining my name immortalized in print, anticipating Maureen Dowd’s looming retirement or Jennifer Rubin’s untimely death.

I carry with me everywhere a hardcover Moleskine™ notebook and calligraphy pen, which I use to inscribe said notebook with perceptive thoughts about things that are relatable yet urbane. I’ve yet to find a fence too unpleasant a seat! Just the other week, I consolidated some topical thoughts in this pithy headline: “Let’s be clear: Joe Biden is no worse than my husband.” Others are more abstract; take this exemplar from the week just before: “Sure, the pay gap is real; but the GAP is also real.” An early draft of “Karen is #MeToo, and I’m With Her” earned generous praise when I assigned it as a reading for my writing students at City College, Sacramento.

I am especially adept at being both insightful and relatable. Just like every other rich-enough American woman, I’ve cherished my routine of early morning jogs and exactingly precise Starbucks mobile orders. Yet the moments I treasure most are my sundry encounters with the underclass: I’ve spent the last seven years feigning moderate enthusiasm for my dry cleaner’s oral memoir as an Asian immigrant, which I receive in serialized 30-seconds-tops installments of broken English every other week. I’ve shared countless jokes with the African-American lady who rings me up at Costco, whose capital-B Blackccent I’ve repurposed to enliven many an anecdote with colourful sass. I routinely summon my depleting recollection of high school Spanish for the benefit of any and all service workers, and I relish those among them who indulge my requests for impromptu tutoring.

But despite all my worldliness and grit, I was just as unprepared as anyone for life under COVID-19. In fact, perhaps I was even less prepared than most. You see, I’m not only an elite newspaper columnist. I’m also, apparently, a mother.

This fact surprised everyone—even me. You see, I had grown too comfortable paying people poorer than me to teach, feed, pamper, discipline, advise, entertain, humor, console, look after, converse with, explain things to, answer questions from, be around, and just generally acknowledge the existence of my children. In this way, I’m truly no different from any other woman in America. But as an editorial columnist, being forced to actually spend time with my kids has been, in a word, devastating.

I find myself questioning everything: Did I remember to take Brayden out of the bath before settling into this cheeky Merlot? Does Skylar actually know how to work the stove, or does she just expect the Bagel Bites to cook themselves? Was I wrong to title my column about mothers demanding both paid maternity leave and equal pay “Double dippers most foul”? (The short answer: no. The truth is always strange, and fiction always fiction.)

The weight of motherhood has taken on a new burden with the stricture of social distancing, as the minimum wage(ish) jobs of my personal assistants have been deemed “nonessential.” Nonessential? As far as the government is concerned, these jobs don’t even exist! Cash leaves no trail, so good luck at the unemployment office, Sweetie. As far as I’m concerned, you should have been saving what you weren’t paying in taxes.

Alas! Here we are…See ya, Maria Garcia! So long, the name I spell “F-o-n-g.” I alone am left to suffer the humiliation of piping my bitter drivel into the newsroom as cold, digital packets of binary; meanwhile, countless wax-sealed envelopes of timely missives wither away on the windowsill, as all the carrier ravens shelter in place indefinitely.

This is an age of curséd ethical quandary. Shall I send my children away this summer to a camp of strangers to earn their immunity? Or shall I shuttle them off on a Spirit Airlines flight to Nana and Pop-Pop instead, and hope for a generous windfall come flu season?

Either solution is only temporary. Mothers of America, I ask you: when will our Maria Garcias, our Fongs and Yvonnes, our whatever-names-we’ve-decided-are-normal-enough-for-our-children-to-reliably-pronounce, when will these darker angels be free to care for our children again? I submit that it should be our decision, as proud mothers, whether precious Reagan’s cough is just an allergy tickling her throat or the traceable source of an outbreak on the other side of the tracks.

That this is the singular instance in my career when I’ve written on a matter that affects me personally is an irony far too bitter to have been lost on me, Dear Reader. Even an unsoiled N95 mask couldn’t spare me from the crippling affliction of motherhood this pandemic has brought upon my career as an elite newspaper columnist who is now, apparently, a mother of three. Put down the toilet paper, my dear—you can use the lifeless opinion pages to wipe your posh bottom. My diary of epiphanies has transmogrified before my eyes into a running obituary of ambitions yearned and abandoned, inspirations delivered then deferred.

It is not too unlike motherhood itself.

Penelope Bell-Jackson
Opinion Contributor at Thinq | + posts

Penelope Bell-Jackson is an elite newspaper columnist and quite the gourmet. She writes incisive social commentary, despite being a mother of 3.