Five days ago, I got the first shot.
I walked into a RiteAid in the city of Orange, CA on a late Friday afternoon. I was surprised to discover I was the only person in line.
It took a few minutes to get the paperwork in order. I sat next to the pharmacy counter in a beige plastic chair. I wondered if the people shopping for vitamins and painkillers and toothpaste even knew the vaccine was administered there. It felt as though I was in my own little bubble, while all those around me had no idea that lives were being saved a few feet away.
The pharmacist called me into a small room with another beige plastic chair. Before I could speak more than a few words, the needle was in my arm.
Fifteen minutes later, having taken the required pause before leaving, I emerged into the southern California sunshine.
I was sobbing before I reached my car.
I have done some hard things at almost every stage in my life. At 45, I left a marriage with a three and a four year old and not much else save an Ikea toddler bed, for reasons that belong in another piece. A few months after I left, Trump won the election. And a few months after that, my ex stopped keeping any semblance of a custody schedule. Within a year, I realized that I was going to be the sole custodian and the sole provider for two little kids for at least the next fifteen years.
The night that I realized that I was on my own as a parent— that he wouldn’t see them more than a few hours a month, if that, because that was all he could seemingly handle— I had the initials of my children tattooed on my wrist with interlocking diamonds between them, writ large. I wanted my children to know that they would have a place where they belonged forever, and that they were so precious I would never, ever leave them.
I wanted them to know they mattered so much that it was written on my skin for good.
The first year of single parenthood was brutal. I thought at the time that it was the hardest thing I had ever done.
But I managed, cobbling together pre-school tuition in Brooklyn, along with rent, continuing to scale a company I was running, and, it should be said, paying alimony and, I later discovered, Tinder date and vacation money, to someone who rarely showed up.
I did it through the Women’s March, through divorce mediation, through talks at Makers and keynote speeches and appearances on CNN. I found help in my parents and in-laws, and a few dear friends.
On the surface, I made it look effortless, because that’s what the job demanded.
Underneath, I was barely getting by. Some days, I felt like I was walking around raw, without skin, in unbearable pain, unable to figure out how to keep going beyond getting up and doing it, grieving not only for myself but for the future I thought my children would have as a family.
I was broke and I was broken all the time.
Despite that, I just kept going, because there was no other choice.
After a while, it became a new normal, and every moment I wasn’t working revolved around the kids. I gave up on my own life beyond my identity as a thought leader and activist. I left everything else-- friendship, love, intimacy, connection beyond social media-- behind in the dust. There just wasn’t room.
I was it for these kids, and they needed me because they had no one else, and that was that.
Late at night, I would sit in the hallway outside their bedroom, listening to them breathe, praying for their safety, afraid to tell anyone as the tears ran down my face that I was scared all the time that I wasn’t enough, that they would be damaged for good by only having me, that being the only failsafe was terrifying every moment of every day.
It was that way for a long, long time.
By early 2020, we were living in Southern California, having relocated two years prior for a fresh start and a good public school district. My ex had seen the kids three times in those two years. I was finally on a path to recovering financially from the divorce, and the kids were thriving in a new school with good friends, and though we were battling daily with the emotional impact of the trauma of Trump, we were managing.
I had begun to resign myself, too, to the fact that we are loud and imperfect as a family unit. We argue and we play and we are rowdy. My kids are passionate and so am I. But we had found a rhythm in life, in school and soccer practice and basketball matches and sunshine and hiking and beaches, and we were healing from all the things that had driven us out of New York.
In February of 2020, though, I began to get inklings that we were in for an awful year.
Shortly after a big professional event the first week in February in Los Angeles, a close colleague of mine got sick after her flight home. Then her family got sick. And this wasn’t a minor flu— it came with a horrific cough, breathing problems, high fever, and it lasted for weeks. By the time her two teenagers had it, she was trying to get tested for Covid, but because they hadn’t been to China, she didn’t qualify.
I remember the next few weeks as bare panic. When the kids were in school, I was preparing for what it would take to survive inside for, oh, a few months? Maybe until summer? We were in the middle of moving. I got keys to the new house and started stocking it with a freezer and pantry full of staples. I moved the entire kitchen on my own in my trunk to cut down on time we’d be exposed to movers. I took my kids on one last run to Trader Joe’s in gloves and masks.
And then, on March 12, 2020, I went to parent teacher conferences at the end of the school day. One teacher remarked to me that she thought folks were “overreacting.”
The next day, a Friday, the kids stayed home. Sunday, we moved. By the next morning, school was closed.
We were in, the three of us, for the duration.
In the back of my head was always the nagging fear: what would happen to my kids if I got sick? I couldn’t be hospitalized, because if they were exposed, who would care for them? Who would care for them if, god forbid, I died? Before we’d left New York, I’d decided that life insurance was a mandatory expense, so at least there was that. But what about their upbringing, their precious hearts, their future wellbeing, their lives?
I sent panicked texts to my friend Ana and her husband a few blocks away: would they care for the kids if I got sick? Would they be responsible for them if I needed them to be until my family could sort out how to handle next steps? Yes and yes. “We will never leave you without help,” they promised. I sent emergency contact numbers over WhatsApp.
Still, it nagged: I was it, I was all of it for my kids, and what if I didn’t make it?
And the reality of being it and all of it for my kids sank in quickly in the day to day. For the first nine months, I cooked every meal we ate. I alone was responsible for dishes, laundry, cleaning, money, work, earning, clothes, homework supervision, emotional and psychological support. My company lost 90% of its revenue over the prior year in the first quarter of 2020, and the same was true for my income. I couldn’t sit in my home office for longer than twenty minutes without interruption. I had a book manuscript due, but couldn’t find more than 15 minutes at a time to write. I was exhausted, every minute of every day— and increasingly, really, really angry.
As it wore on, I thought about what we do to single mothers in America. How we underpay women in every profession, how we deny universal childcare and we deny healthcare and we deny emotional and social support. How we arrest mothers who leave their children in a playground across the street from a minimum wage job they need to be able to feed those same kids. How there are no social safety nets for any of us. How we are expected, relentlessly, to just figure it out on our own, and we are punished then if we are among the most marginalized when we have to do unthinkable things in order to just get by.
And it’s not just us who suffer— it’s our kids. By the summer of 2020, I realized that what I was telegraphing to my kids was a mother, a model of womanhood, that was constantly harried, exhausted, enraged, tapped out to the last drop by the end of the day, angry at demands for one more story or one more snuggle, and that these were my children, who actually needed me more than my thousand-things-to-worry-about brain could process. The ever-present underlying anxiety was only exacerbated by neighbors who were maskless non-stop and traveling and sending their kids back to school without any precautions, while I worried about literally dying and leaving my kids with nothing. I worried about dying at home and what it would mean if they found me. I taught them, in one panicked moment, how to unlock my phone, dial 911, and give our address. I worried about my kids ending up in the system. I updated emergency contacts in my phone. I connected my parents with my local friends in the event of the worst possible outcomes.
All this fear, panic and anxiety translated into rage. Rage at a system that lets so many of us down, that abandons so many of us, let alone the most marginalized among us. Rage that we value mothers and children so little that we will pull every financial and social rug out from under us when we need it most. Rage at a president and his enablers who just let people die, who just let mothers and fathers and children die, while standing by and doing nothing. Rage.
And all the while, I tried to be loving, patient, kind to these kids. To yell less and snuggle more. To find new ways to play, to laugh, to connect. To meet their own fears and struggles with compassion. To help them process living through death and loneliness and indoor birthdays. To put myself aside, to put them first, to keep going.
Every night, by the time I crawled into bed, usually minutes after my kids fell asleep, I felt completely broken.
This coming Friday, March 12, 2021, I will have done this, every day, for a full year, alone.
And yet, there have been moments of joy. We adopted a puppy mid-way through. We obsessed over Hamilton and learned all the songs. We had pillow fights and danced in the kitchen. We anticipated the newest animated movie releases and built forts and sometimes for a week slept in the same room, all together. Stuffed animals took on whole personalities, including a bear who loves bananas and sneezes really loudly in my kid’s face at bedtime.
We evacuated our home for two wildfires during this time. We lost an extended family member and a friend to Covid. The second in command of my company died of cancer while we were under lockdown, and my kids saw me grieve her death loudly, through sobs, for several days.
We kept going. Always, we kept going.
So when I pulled up to that RiteAid last Friday, and realized I was going to survive this, that we were going to survive this, all at once I was consumed by the gravity of what it meant to have survived this, and also, for 525,000 Americans and their families, what it meant to not have survived it, too.
The weight of it swirled around me as I walked into that nondescript drugstore in a California suburban strip mall.
Life changes sometimes in an instant.
In a chance meeting, in the single moment where you know you can’t stay any longer in a marriage, in the pink cross on a pregnancy test or the image on a sonogram, in the prick of a needle in your left shoulder by a harried pharmacist.
In an instant and in a year, it all changes.
I know that I am capable of amazing, unthinkably hard things now.
I know in my bones what I am made of.
I live in a triad of survivors spanning two generations of warriors.
I have done this, with two little kids at my feet, dancing on my own.
I have emerged out into the sunshine, tears streaming down my face, to the shining faces of my children.
I have faced down death and loss and fear and so much grief, and I have continued to live— both with and for them.
I am here now, driven forward for good to fight for a better future.
I am stronger than I ever knew was possible.
I have survived this.
So, by the way, have you.