Pinch me, to wake me up, because I must be dreaming. The moment of school closure has caught up with us. Shaking our heads in disorientation and disbelief, parents among the early adopters of the self-isolation life (saving) hack are sending frenzied WhatsApp messages to arrange class Zoom meet-ups so their children are rescued from playmate-deprivation. Keeping up with the flurry of online teaching and amusement resources, posted by anxious problem solvers, is a job in itself.
While I understand we are all dealing with acute levels of anxiety, to me, all this feels like overkill. We are only a week shy of the Easter holidays, during which most of us are glad to take a break from the familiar faces at the school gate. By the end of the longest term of the year, we have all but run out of small talk. It might just be my family's temperament, but even my children welcome the cessation of noisy routine. This weekend, they seem no less tired—if demob happy—than at the end of a normal term, albeit they understand that they are living in interesting times.
When I explained to my youngest that her big birthday party would not be going ahead after all, she said, with characteristic pith, "It's because of Corona, isn't it? Corona is an idiot. It cancels everything." From the mouths of babes. I'm delighted to have inculcated an aversion to Cancel Culture in one so young.
Outside times of international emergency, the long Easter holidays are a chance to catch up with ourselves, to sleep a little later, and take life at an easier pace. By the time they are over, the children are revved up to get back into the excitement and challenge of school, just as I am replete with pent-up writing projects, pining for the solitude of my desk in daylight hours.
Problem is that, this time, the "holidays" may not come to an end. Schools are closed "until further notice," with indications that this will mean re-convening in September. It is near impossible to process such a lengthy lapse in the routines which sustain family and working life.
My children and I may be stuck in semi-permanent staycation mode, while their father holds down his job from a messy kitchen office, taking conference calls in the master bedroom. I want his employers to adjust their expectations so that I can work, too. All parties are establishing new agreements with one another, and may have to fight from our respective corners in a civilised manner.
Much as I wouldn't—given a choice—choose to neglect myself to keep the system running, as a mother I don't have that choice. I want us, and our wider society, to come through this. Each of us has a part to play, even if it's just staying home for all but food shopping or providing core services which can't be rendered via a computer. It is a simple manifestation of biophilia: love of life, for its own sake, flawed and rapacious though our species is.
My mum's Mothering Sunday message to me was a reminder of the way my two grandmothers gave their all to keep their families going through poverty, revolution, and war, in the hope of better days. Better days ahead are what has always kept people going. I feel compelled to do the same—selflessly, if not gracefully—while my mind clangs busily with critical slants. What remains of me as an individual I will pour into snatched moments I have to write.
Silver linings. At last, my husband is getting a taste of what it is like to fit your outward-facing work in around the exigencies of domestic life. He, too, is now mired in that immanence which inspired such aversion in existentialist philosophers. I was always keen for him to know how that shakes down.
His employers have effortlessly taken possession of the lions' share of his time, while it falls to me to rove around denuded supermarkets and corner shops in search of something we can all eat. When civilisation reverts to the mean, men become money, women become food. Of course, the occupation which brings in the broadest side of bacon relieves that worker of unpaid—however core—duties. Women's unpaid work has always been a sop to capitalism, or whatever male-centred political system happens to be the order of the day.
Today it is sunny. We feel hopeful, with good reason, that making wise choices will avert the collapse of our healthcare system, and the economic engine which powers it. Not everyone read the memo at the same time—specifically the crowds flocking to National Trust gardens and areas of natural beauty, prompting closures and official admonishment. They didn't get it in time, and the Prime Minister, now himself contagious, ordered a suite of measures on Monday night. All non-essential journeys from home are now banned, subject to a police fine.
Meanwhile, those with firm ideas about a woman's place being in the home—from Left and Right alike—are getting busy setting us up to absorb the economic fallout and keep a struggling society running on unpaid labour. I worry for the happy homemakers now trapped indoors with abusive male partners, as their prospects of temporary refuge and economic independence dwindle.
My mind cannot find the sides of this limbo, yet. My grandmother, whose sayings keep returning to me, would have brushed this off as entry-level upheaval. "One day at a time, sweet Jesus," in the words of the old song. Atheist and Communist apostate as she was, she loved that song, and now it's playing on a loop in my head as I dispense cuddles, wipe surfaces and worry.
So far, we are all okay. Rattled, and prone to spates of urgent smartphone research into such matters as whether, if you can't buy bleach or disinfectant, vinegar really kills viruses (spoiler: it doesn't, but soapy water does as it dissolves the fatty sheathe around this extremely nasty virus), we are nonetheless alright in ourselves.
In fact, I'm finding the prospect of simplification of some aspects of daily life a relief. Of course, that relief is dependent on having an economic cushion, something the precariat, who are dependent on the gig economy and zero hours contracts, cannot claim.
Change is overdue. Here's hoping that, as we move into the next phase of the pandemic—the real crunch time, if Italy is anything to go by—we will all have the inner resources to weather a heavier buffeting, which is rumbling towards us down the tracks.