Just do the next right thing | Impossible decisions in pandemics

Words by Marissa Marangoni

Two weeks into quarantine, I settled in to watch Frozen 2 with my son. I knew it would buy me about 2.5 hours of lying on the couch and doing nothing (besides, you know, worrying about the state of the world). I didn’t expect to get sucked into the movie, but I did. And it was all because of Anna, singing after sleeping on a rock all night in a very dark place (because of course, you would sing after doing that), to “just do the next right thing.

I assume I am not the only parent out there who feels like nearly every single decision I’ve made since March involves weighing life and death. It’s a lot, and it’s too much most days. Anna struggled with decisions, too. Should she go rescue her sister or go save her town? That’s pretty life or death, and the decision paralyzed her — until it didn’t. The decision to take my son back to his babysitter was no different, and I delayed making it — until I couldn’t.

We lasted for 10 weeks in strict quarantine before we hit a wall in my house. My husband worked during the day while I parented. The minute he finished his 9 to 5, he started his parenting shift, and I traded my mom duties for my 5 to midnight, or later. I’m fortunate that my hours are flexible.

The hardest part of staying home, working and parenting full time for the first time at the same time was that there was no end to our days. There was no downtime, and sometimes, it felt like there was no room to breathe either. 

My day largely revolved around the constant feeding of my 4-year-old until it was time for dinner, at which point I left the parenting scene to eat at my desk and work until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Then it was to bed and up and back at it — again and again — with no end date. I remember telling friends over texts that I figured I could manage until June — but after that, I didn’t know what would happen. I never thought we’d find ourselves in the same situation in June. 

Working on his selfie game under Mom’s desk.

The day I knew we had to send J back to childcare was my waking-up-from-sleeping-on-a-boulder moment. It was one of many days where I couldn’t drag myself out of bed for longer than I’d like to admit, tried to keep my kid alive and somewhat entertained, failed to function as a real adult except for obsessively sweeping the floor, and then it was 3:00 and I wasn’t sure how. I’d planned a video chat with J’s babysitter and her two girls, thinking that it might make him happy to see some faces other than mine and his dad’s. 

The call started off all right, with J excited to show off the marble run course we’d been building. The girls showed him their stuffed animals, and things seemed to be going well. I breathed a sigh of relief, as J is notoriously bad at video chatting. Unfortunately, after about 10 minutes, in mid-conversation, J left. I ended the chat after calling to him without response. When I went to his room, I found his green chair full of stuffed animals and his firetruck bed empty.

Across the hall, J was curled into a ball at the foot of my bed, sobbing, his little fingers digging into his eyes. I asked him what was wrong and got nothing, and gently moved his hands from his face, then asked him if he wanted me to stay. He nodded, and I pulled him into me, wrapping my body around his. He just kept crying. 

We laid like that at the foot of my bed, in the middle of a pile of dirty laundry, next to an old farting dog, as J continued to cry. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I asked him what was wrong. He sniffled something about marbles and then said his friend’s name. His fragile little ribcage kept falling then rising against my hand. This went on for 30 minutes when he calmed down enough to tell me that he was having a sad day.

What J did during the daily 2:00 briefing from the governor.

Seeing my 4-year-old cry like that shook me. I wanted to cry with him. Let’s be honest: I wanted to cry most days back in March, April and May. But this event made the decision I’d been mulling over for weeks very clear: he needed to go back to his babysitter. J’s mental health was declining, and it was time for me to shit or get off the boulder (metaphorically speaking, of course). I was a depressed parent with a depressed preschooler. That’s not supposed to happen.

At first, J was happy to be with me all day every day—he’s my biggest fan—but around Week 7, things started to shift. He didn’t want to play outside. He didn’t want to make “masterpieces” with his markers or “objects” with his tape and crayons and scissors. And he flat out refused to brush his teeth himself, which, prior to quarantine, was one of his favorite things to do.

Depression is — and has been — a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From what I can tell, it hasn’t been a part of my child’s life, so when I held him and he sobbed into his own sticky hands, I knew we had to send him back.

My husband and I weighed the pros and cons. Well, mostly, my husband weighed the pros, and I spent a while drowning in the cons. What if one of the other kids got the virus? What if one of their parents got it? What if J caught it? What if he was okay, but then he gave it to us? What if we finally saw my parents and then he gave it to them? 

We’ve spent a lot of time together not getting dressed for the day and not making beds.

And yet, if he stayed home, he’d continue to be sad. If he stayed home, I’d have to keep my membership to Team No Sleep. If he stayed home, he would be safe from germs, but at some point, he wasn’t going to be safe from his loneliness. My husband and I would, inevitably, completely fail at fulfilling all his social and emotional needs because we already were—and at the expense of our own. 

Deep down, I knew that keeping J home with us would send him further into the dark, and I’d go right along with him. So, after 10 weeks, we decided he’d go back to his babysitter. Like Anna sang, “I won’t look too far ahead / It’s too much for me to take / But break it down to this next breath, this next step / This next choice is one that I can make.” We decided we couldn’t look to the future for guidance because we couldn’t see that future. Are we taking risks? Yes. Are they reckless? I don’t think so. 

J’s return to the sitter and his small friends turned him around immediately. He came home after his first day lighter and brighter. He went right back to telling chicken butt jokes and stabbing holes in Amazon boxes with scissors and pencils. 

I know some of you are still dragging yourselves through the endless shift changes of working and parenting. I know others of you had to send your kids back to daycare as soon as it re-opened—and some of you never stopped sending them because you never had the option. I wish we all had options, even when the options feel like burdens.

If you’re having to decide whether to send your child back to daycare (or school), know that you’re not alone. You’re not a bad person for keeping your kid at home, and you’re not a bad person if you send your kid back. I didn’t know if sending J back to his babysitter would be a good move until I knew that keeping him home any longer would be a bad one. I think that’s a big part of parents’ struggles right now: we don’t know until we know. 

It is much easier to make a decision about a situation when you’re not currently in that situation, or when you know you won’t be in it later. The problem is that we are deep in the situation, and we aren’t sure when we’re getting out of it. We’re being asked repeatedly to make choices for our futures that impact our present in ways that we haven’t had time to truly understand. Parents are being asked to do the impossible—and are actually doing it.

This is hard. 

I promise to bring you some light in future letters, but, for now, I want to tell all of you out there in parenting positions that you’re doing a good job—no matter how guilty, downtrodden, and frustrated you feel. Parenting during this pandemic often feels very, very lonely.  The good part is that despite that feeling, we aren’t alone. We’re a team—and I’m right there with you, just putting one foot in front of the other until it’s possible to do something more. Like Anna sang, rising from her boulder nap at sunrise, the only thing we can do right now is to “just do the next right thing.” We all know, of course, that it isn’t as simple as that, but it’s a start.

Marissa is the co-author of Urine Luck, but sometimes she writes about things other than bathrooms. Marissa has been writing for The Devil Strip since August of 2015.