Mother’s Day 2020: An Ode to Past Lives

Mother’s Day 2020 was like most days during the pandemic: it was a hard day and a good day. For Mother’s Day, I reclaimed a little piece of myself. I went for a bike ride.

It had been almost three years since I’d ridden my bike. In my past life in San Diego, riding my bike was a huge part of my life and a huge source of joy. I rode my bike everywhere. I loved going out on a Sunday afternoon in the sunshine and meandering between my apartment and my meditation group meeting, where I would eventually end up. I would maybe go to Evolution Burger, a vegan fast food joint, and get a California burrito, climb my favorite tree across the street in Balboa Park, share a little bit of burrito with the squirrels, then meet a friend for coffee in Hillcrest. I loved the ride home, up and down all the hills (biking in San Diego, with all the canyons, is always uphill both ways). I love that I knew the bike paths so well and knew where all the hills were, exactly how hard I’d have to pedal and where I could cruise. I loved the feeling of accomplishment of getting to the top of a challenging hill, like Golden Hill where I lived, the steep slope east of downtown.

I especially loved the stretch heading south on 30th street between North and South Park, a perfect hill, where you could just glide. No breaks, just cruising gently down the hill at ease, just fast enough to still be in control. It was particularly spectacular in late spring when the jacaranda trees that lined the street were in bloom. There is almost nothing more glorious than riding down that hill, feet not even touching the pedals, at dusk after sangha under the jacaranda trees. The feeling of joy and freedom of riding down that hill, my inner child alive and nourished, is imprinted on my heart, in my body. Sometimes, when the glee overtook me, I would actually say out loud, “Weeeeeeeeeee!”

After I got married, I moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina. It wasn’t safe to ride everywhere – no crosswalks or pedestrian signals or bike lanes, no other cyclists on the road which means drivers are not looking for cyclists. But I would ride a couple times a week on the Cape Fear river trail. It wasn’t what it was in San Diego, as I had to put my bike on the car to get to the trail rather than just taking off straight from home, but it was still good. It was better than nothing.

The summer before I got pregnant with Daphne, I had a good spill on my bike on the river trail when I crossed a wooden bridge that I didn’t know was wet and my bike slid out from under me. I wasn’t seriously injured, just a really sweet skinned knee – the kind I probably hadn’t had since childhood –  and what felt like mild whiplash, some scrapes and bruises. But a few months later when I found out I was pregnant, it was enough to keep me off the bike. 

Then I had a newborn. Then, we moved again, and the bikes were in storage, and I had a baby who became a toddler, and I didn’t really have time to go on bike rides by myself, didn’t really have the space to prioritize figuring out a system for her to bike with me (or figuring out the local trails, which ones I would feel safe and comfortable with). Etc etc. 

On Mother’s Day, I rode for the first time in three years. And I was hoping to touch that joy that I knew, that I can still feel as I call it back, cruising down 30th, over the bridge by Balboa Park, sun setting across the Bay. The freedom, the lightness, the magic.

I didn’t touch that joy. I couldn’t get there. But I touched something. I touched a past life. I touched a part of myself that I needed to reclaim.

When you become a parent, you sort of blow up your identity – perhaps especially as a mother, but that’s the only part I can speak to. Nothing is the same. Things you liked before, maybe not so much now. Things you liked before, you forget how much you liked them because you don’t have the time or space to do them. You don’t look at things the same. Sex isn’t the same, peeing isn’t the same. Sleep is most definitely not the same, three years later, and I’ve heard from some moms that it’s never really the same. Most things are never really the same. You are not the same person. It’s kind of like in a dream when you go home but it’s not really your home – that feeling. The feeling that the foundation has fundamentally shifted – and if you have born a child and given birth, it quite literally has. Bones have moved like tectonic plates to make room for that little – then big – being, and your structure is never the same. And I don’t mean this in a “get your body back” kind of way. There’s nothing to get back. There’s nothing to return to.

When I think back to my former self – which is hard to do without romanticizing too much, as I know I had challenges then too – I felt lighter. I was single then, and I was able to care for myself.  When I needed to rest, I rested. I slept a solid 8 hours every night. I meditated every morning. I went for long walks and runs. I listened to whatever music I wanted, not just Baby Shark on repeat. On a Sunday, I could just set out on my bike into the city and meander aimlessly, doing whatever called me. I do miss those days of being able to give myself the care I needed to thrive. I miss the aimlessness, the wandering, that is hard to do when you are chasing a toddler.

That day, when I set out on my bike, I didn’t find joy. I felt choked by tears that wouldn’t quite come out. I felt so heavy – the weight of 9 weeks of isolation, 9 weeks without outside childcare, of struggling to do the most basic self-care (showering, eating, resting, let alone meditating or creating). The weight of a global pandemic, of massive human suffering and death. It felt like a long way to go between that place and the heart bursting joy, the joy I knew from those old paths.

It is hard enough as a parent, and now we are in this pandemic. Any amount of self-care feels like a major struggle. I am almost never alone (and I really need alone time to recharge). I feel like I have to fight to take a shower or workout, let alone do something like relax. When I do have time, there’s this rush to make use of it, a struggle, always a struggle.

The pandemic is characterized by extremes. Any tickle in the throat is a warning sign that it could be death. Either you are completely alone or desperately needing alone time. Either you are craving human contact, or you are completely touched out. You have all the time in the world to write, or you are writing in the scraps of time between Legos and Mickey Mouse and Elmo and Baby Shark. But you need to write, even if it’s just in the scraps, because it is one of the tenuous threads tethering you to yourself. 

I stopped in a garden in a park that I was riding through, and there was a big beautiful oak tree that reminded me of my old favorite tree in Balboa Park, which is not an oak. This tree was not a good one for climbing, but it had a very inviting trunk, so I rested my bike and rested myself at the base of this tree, and listened to a guided meditation.

I tried to relax, and I tried to release, but there is so much to let go of.

The weight of those nine weeks – or two years, but especially the nine weeks – felt like sedimented layers that need to be pulled back, chipped away. The layers between me and that joy that felt buried in a former version of myself. I only hoped it was still there somewhere inside, buried.  I couldn’t let go enough to get there in one ride, or one-ten minute sit against a beautiful tree, two hours, alone.

A few people have said to me recently, “You need to take time for yourself,” which is not very helpful and painfully true but impossible. I would LOVE some time for myself more than just about anything right now. Parenting during quarantine means months of no outside childcare, which is obviously what the moment has called for. But this is not the way we were meant to care for children. Or ourselves. No outside childcare makes it really hard to care for ourselves. Parents need breaks, and quarantine has meant no breaks. And with a toddler in particular you are on. All. The. Time. (they can’t really play independently yet and really need to be watched because they constantly endanger themselves).  Which means, we are breaking. I have definitely been breaking. 

A male professor recently mansplained to me how to get by as a parent in graduate school using small chunks of time. I have gotten through two years of graduate school – including passing oral and written comprehensive exams – while pregnant and raising a small child, so I am well aware of how to make good use of my time, thank you very much. To succeed in those conditions as a parent demands that you become hyper-efficient with any amount of time you get, because there is really no time. If we had been in person and not on Zoom – which is where all of us are all the time these days – my response would have been different. I smiled and nodded on Zoom, biting my tongue, not wanting to get into it, partially because of the sheer exhaustion of it all – the Zooming, the parenting, the pandemic, the schooling. Partially because I was on mute and it was too much trouble to interrupt him. I might have said, Yes, you may have children, but they were not babies or toddlers in the midst of a global pandemic. And YOU ARE A MAN. I am the mother and I am the primary caregiver. Yes, my husband and I are both at home right now – or were until this week – but I am still the primary caregiver. I am still bearing the brunt of the childrearing, house cleaning, dinner making, etc. I am still carrying the mother load.

I do not have small chunks of time. So I don’t need you to tell me how to use them.

When I  finally had our sitter come back, I went for a bike ride again. Bringing her back for three hours – and risking what that meant in terms of potential increased exposure to coronavirus – was my Mother’s Day gift to myself. Normally when she comes, I work on my dissertation proposal or consulting projects. But that day, I rode again.

That day, I touched that joy. That heart-bursting, electric, 5-year old kid on a bike joy. It is still there, I am happy to report. I am happy to know. Don’t get me wrong – there are lots of joys of being a parent: your child’s face when they see you when they wake up in the morning. Splashing in puddles. Jumping on beds. Rediscovering things for yourself when they discover them for the first time. It is magic.  But it is also nice to know a joy that is yours, that existed before you were a parent, that still exists, just for you, in you.

On those bike rides, I reclaimed a little piece of myself. I reclaimed the person who loves to ride her bike, who loves to feel the strength of her body as she pedals, who loves to feel the wind in her face cruising down a hill. The person who loves to be alone. I returned to the 5 year old still living within me and the pure unbridled joy that she knows, that is just for her. It is wonderful discovering the new joys that come with being a parent. It is also wonderful to rediscover the old joys that are still there, buried under the heavy layers and past lives, buried under the weight of parenting in the pandemic. The old joys that still serve.