Pre-pandemic, this would have been a simple ode to the child observation class, at San Francisco City College, where, weekly, in a room full of small furniture and things that children would find delightful — figurines of animals, wooden trains, those beautiful expensive Waldorf rainbows, cloth dolls, a play kitchen, and acres of bilingual children’s books — I was gently taught, and gently learned, how to be a mother. The class was free and quite simple: You brought your baby and sat her on the soft ground, and you watched her — you watched the other babies too. We parents and caregivers would talk with each other about the things that we were struggling with and the reading we had been assigned (I have always loved school), but casually, sitting on the floor with our children, and then we would move aside and watch our children without interfering (unless, I should add, they seemed like they might injure themselves or another child), watch them attempt the small stairs of the wooden play structure, tug a toy out of another’s hands, stumble and fall and get up — okay! The first class, talking to Teacher Nancy as people filtered into the classroom, I went to right my baby after she tripped. “You can wait and see,” said Teacher Nancy. “Let her get up herself. Let her see if she really needs you.” My daughter blinked, surprised, looked at my face, and didn’t cry. She got up. She seemed pleased.
I loved it, this practice, the permission it gave me, to let my daughter crawl, then walk to the edge of distance between us I was comfortable with, and then just a little further, feeling the cord between us physically, and feeling the thrill of it, the child I made in the world. On the playground I let her climb up the stairs to the slide, let her slide down by herself (Whose baby is this? was the glance that other parents gave each other, one I learned to ignore). The practice of getting out of my kid’s way was harder than it looked, requiring me to quell the urge to swoop in and fix it — explain the toy, carry her up the stairs — even if the situation didn’t need to be fixed, as it often didn’t.
From Teacher Nancy, from the other parents and caregivers, and from my own daughter, I learned what kind of mother I wanted to be. To be that mother was a state of gentle awareness and constant adjusting, of experimenting and messing up and trying again, with playfulness, tenderness, and good humor. I was not always, not even often, this kind of mother, but I pointed my awareness there. The class — free, I will mention again — was a small, good thing. In San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities on earth, the toddler music class at the community music school near me was $18 a session, and even the children’s bookstore that hosted thrice daily storytimes for small children started charging admission. We had the library’s offerings, and the rec center’s, and we had Teacher Nancy. (Not nothing, the four-months-into-quarantine mother knows — but not a whole lot, either.) The class was an acknowledgment my government made that caring well for a child is both a skill and a social good.
Then, the pandemic. As a person who is prone to depression and anxiety, I’ve found these last months to be literal manifestations of both — danger is everywhere! Why bother leaving the house? I might not have left my bed if my daughter had let me; instead we went to parks, where I instantly forgot everything I had learned with Teacher Nancy in the face of invisible, transmissible danger, calling her back with a note of panic in my voice if even a dog in full innocence approached her with its happy pink tongue. It was today — today — I remembered the kind of mother I was trying to be when I watched her struggle to fit her feet into the legs of her pants, and realized my impulse to jump in and help had run inside me unchecked. The oatmeal she used to feed herself I now spoon carefully into her mouth. I tug her shoes off before she can puzzle out the step after undoing the strap. I carry her up the stairs. She has learned to say now “Mommy can do it” — and without thinking, Mommy does it. I’m keeping her safe. I think I may be keeping her too safe.
We are living through, I know, unprecedented times — but for an individual human life, what time has ever been precedented, safety assured, the path clear, the future certain?
When I thought about having children — it was my desperate wish to have a child — I knew we were living in a burning world. Still, picking apricots one summer from my in-law’s tree, unable to stop myself from biting into the warm fruit and wiping the gold juice from my chin, I thought: Being alive is worth it. In that moment, I imagined so vividly handing the fruit of the tree to a daughter, handing fruit after fruit to a daughter and watching her eat them. That summer, I thought that no matter what kind of world the girl comes into, for the pleasure of eating a single apricot on a summer day, it’s worth it. And she came, so easily, so gladly, her lips brimming from the earliest days with a smile.
And now, here we are: a real, living child, the world more aflame than I had imagined it. Only a few weeks ago, the drone of the helicopter began as curfew struck in full daylight — the street from my window eerily empty, other streets of my city filled with brave people, I told my daughter, fighting to make things better. I worry about bees dying; the arctic bears starving; about the air, land, and water polluted beyond their ability to sustain life. I worry equally about my daughter — a child, a teenager, an adult — living in a society that restricts her ability to live fully in her body and her ambitions, a society knit through with such deep inequity it makes honest, joyful, moral life impossible for all of us. The cliché of motherhood is true: The set of her cheeks and her rotund belly, her pitter-patter run, make strangers — children — suddenly intensely familiar and beloved to me. My worries are not just for her. And then of course, there is the Virus.
So far, I have dealt with the daily restrictions with far less grace than my daughter has. She feels what she is missing: “You want to go to Thatha’s house,” she says to me in the bath (her use of pronouns flicker between she, I, and you) or “I remember Nana” — but she will accept a substitute hug from me, or a diversion, or the promise “we’ll see them again soon,” a promise I pray will be true. Some days are still hard for her, even though she is so little — she can feel it, the isolation. Still, all days, even the hard ones, hold the kernel of evident joy and pleasure, from the wind on her face on the back of my bike, the dark, cool grass of Golden Gate Park under her soles, the immensity of the ocean we sometimes visit, from the books we read tucked in bed together on slow mornings, the nose-to-tail length of the cat under her gentling hands, from the feeling of my arms around her tiny self, my fingers tickling the soles of her growing feet. She is slippery in her play, making seemingly easy tasks difficult by making a game out of them. But to meet the game she offers with play rather than frustration is to remember something about the kind of mother I want to be. I would be wise to follow again the lead of my daughter.
But how? How to be a good mother when I am frightened, when I am sad? We are living through, I know, unprecedented times — but for an individual human life, what time has ever been precedented, safety assured, the path clear, the future certain? This is not a platitude, though I know it sounds like one. It is instead a challenge I want to meet. It is a moment in my mothering that demands greater awareness than I have so far given it. Where can she run, and where must I hold her back? How can I entrust my child to the terrible world? And yet, how can I not? These equations tilt in the pandemic, but they have always been present. I don’t know the answer. I know that through the spring the blossoms on the apricot tree revealed pale green fruit, swelling and ripening on the branch. I will try to meet this moment for my daughter, for my country. This summer, I will hand her a ripe, sun-drunk fruit. ●
The winner of two O. Henry Awards, Shruti Swamy‘s work has appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. In 2012, she was Vassar College’s 50th W.K. Rose Fellow, and has been awarded residencies at the Millay Colony for the Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and Hedgebrook. She is a Kundiman fiction fellow, a 2017–2018 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, and a recipient of a 2018 grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She lives in San Francisco.
Her debut short story collection A House Is a Body is available now.