“I cried yesterday.” So began the Whatsapp I received from one of my dearest friends “My partner and I are dividing our time in taking care of the girls. When it is my turn to entertain them, I need to work and I am constantly on my phone or computer. I feel terribly guilty.”
This best friend of mine, my muse as I like to call her, is a young mother of two daughters, 2.5 years and 10 months old respectively. She is one of these rare human beings who are remarkably honest, therefore one way of describing her would be to say that she is highly moral. The other way would be disciplined, and by disciplined I do not mean rigid, but she is very careful that there is a time for work, for fun, for sports and for checking your phone – and this last activity only begins when her girls are asleep. Never before.
However, as we are all in confinement, the lines start to blur: work time and family time have merged into one continuous, messy timeline and one space. As mother nature reasserts her rights and takes back what is hers (just look at the clear waters in Venice!) us humans find ourselves in the most unnatural of positions, perhaps even an inhuman one. We are restricted to remain within a certain number of square meters, where social interactions have been reduced to its minimum: just your family.
Oscar Wilde once wrote: “Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live nor the smallest instinct about when to die.” This quote, besides being beautifully scathing and resonating well with a lot of households these days (I am tempted myself to send it as a Christmas card to some family members if they survive), paves the way for fundamental questions: what does it mean to know how to live? And in our new context of a nationwide lockdown, how does one know how to live with their family ?
As I seek a definition with which I can describe this new life, I am thinking of my new quotidian spent with a one year old baby.
Typical 24 hours with a baby in self-isolation
On good days, I wake up at 4:30 am, hopefully driven by my own internal body clock and not by the eldritch screams of the love of my life. I enjoy a coffee alone – the word alone being utterly important and exquisite. I put the laundry on, take out the dishes from the dishwasher, reply to my work emails, then I read, and I write a bit.
It is already 6:13 am, and I have had my three daily black coffees, taken out the laundry, and now I need to quickly prepare myself before she wakes up. Every time I stand under the shower, I hear faint cries making me believe that I am hearing my baby scream for me, but no – I try to control these voices in my head.
I am dripping and rushing to my daughter’s bedroom. It is 6:22 am. The cries were real. They are always real. Even when they are not, they become real.
At 6:47 am: my partner calls us as he has been sleeping at the hospital. While we are chatting, I am changing my daughter into her day clothes and I am sponsoring my face with Estee Lauder products.
At 7:11 am: My partner and I hang up. My daughter and I are ready to spend the next 13 hours together. Just she and I! I really enjoy this time of the day because it is the only time of the day I feel guilt-free. No one is expecting me to do anything at this time.
At 8 am, I call my mother, who is taking care of her 2 year old grand-son. (My brother and his partner are both doctors in Paris, working long hours in the intensive care unit due to the coronavirus outbreak. They had to ask family members to take care of their two sons. They do not know when this horror will end. And that means they do not know when they can see their children again. They can’t take the risk of spreading the virus to their children.)
My conversation with my mother is interrupted every 95 seconds by little screams from alternatively my side and then her side. We hang up. It is 8:19 am. I am trying to have a proper chat with my daughter:
– “Today will be a better day than yesterday. We are better organized. I think we have a good routine going on now,” I say with sincere hope “and although I can’t give you my undivided attention, I love you.” She smiles graciously at me. Bless this soul.
My first real work emails start coming in. Consequently the multitasking kicks in, at the same time as a sincere feeling of weariness. During the next 45 minutes, I am going to type a sentence, while picking up my daughter who is begging to be held; I will cuddle her for 20 seconds, then put her down as she sounds absolutely revolted to be in my arms – I am so tempted to tell her that she has asked for it; I will then tell her not to eat the plant; I will focus her attention on a toy; she will then miraculously play a bit alone for 3 minutes; and then ask once more to be held. And then repeat. I look at the screen of my computer. I have managed to type one full paragraph in half an hour.
At 9:20 am: I am outside pushing the stroller and having my morning team call. If I want to focus, I need to put her in the stroller or in the car seat. As our virtual team meeting starts, you can sense the different energies between the colleagues who have children at home and those who do not. The latter seem completely full of it. They deserve to have children, I mumble to myself. Inevitably every morning, when it is my turn to talk, I am in a panic mode explaining that I am unable to work properly and warning my colleagues that the worst is coming our way. I sound like this ludicrous person who feeds pigeons and thinks that she has been blessed/cursed with this prophetic task to inform the masses that a cataclysm is on its way. I do not care. I have done my job to warn the plebeians in this call that chaos is coming; it will soon be there.
It is 10:12 am: I go to the market and while I stroll down the alleys, I avoid everyone as if I were in a computer game. I hold my breath each time I am too close to someone, and I wonder what I am going to eat. I will eat pasta. I always end up eating pasta.
It is 10:27 am – I am home, the cat screams at me as it wants to go out while my daughter is peacefully having her little snack. Once she is done eating, she looks like she is ready to party. I need to work.
I start typing, she starts whining. We go back to this never ending choreography of baby whinges, baby gets picked up, baby whines, baby gets put down, baby puts something disgusting in her mouth, baby cries because it cannot finish digesting the disgusting object, baby gets distracted by something and calmness arises and lasts for 3 minutes max. And then everything is played out again.
Finally 12 o’clock rings. It is time for my daughter to have some solid food. She takes one bite and then purposely puts the rest on the floor – on a good day. On a bad day she spits it back at me. At the same time, I am cooking my pasta and checking my emails. I sit down and try to eat my spaghetti, but I get interrupted by an ogre who wants my pasta. I give her some and half is slapped on the wooden floor; a sacrifice to the gods I have blasphemed against in the last 7.5 hours of wakefulness.
When we are both finished, I start kneeling down to pick up her food. From her high seat, I feel her little hand gently caressing my head with a huge grin. Behind this adorableness, I know she is patronizing me. But I can’t blame her. I quickly wash up everything. As I fervently will her with my mind to take a nap and allow me to relax a bit and dream about having a cigarette and a flute of champagne, my daughter decides to open the bin full of her diapers…
I could continue describing all the next hours; they are more or less similar to these ones, with the insanity levels slyly sliding up more and more. Nothing I will do will be done properly because it is impossible to multitask.
Multitasking is the stupidest concept ever glamorised! It was made to believe that it was a magical power that we women possess. But it was in reality a clever stratagem for having us end up do more.
In this confinement, it is the constant multitasking that exhausts me the most. I dream of having one task to do. One task to completely focus on. One task that I could repeatedly do over and over again and I would know the outcome. In this completely extraordinary context, I wish I were Sisyphus.
The myth of Sisyphus
We all know his story even if the name doesn’t ring a bell. Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra who had been punished by being cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only for it to always roll back down when it was close to the top. Repeat ad infinitum until the end of time – or until your infant goes to nap of their own accord, whichever comes first.
He had one activity to focus on. One thing to do. And even if he knew the outcome, he had no choice but to eternally push this boulder onwards and see it tumble back down. Kuki Shuzo and then Albert Camus wrote: “one needs to imagine Sisyphus happy.”
When Shuzo and Camus pronounced that sentence, there was a sense of provocation. How can we imagine Sisyphus being happy in a life where everything is just a never ending unique activity; an infinite repetition of deception?
Camus, who was as brilliant a writer as he was a philosopher, believed that there is no reason for hope – because our destiny is mortal. Yet, we should not despair. We need to accept that life is ephemeral, therefore absurd.
If this confinement shows us one thing, that is how life is indeed absurd. In the way that Camus defines it: we have never been more confronted with the bounds of our own mortality than during this pandemic. And how we casually use this word in our everyday language, stripping it of any sense. This context makes it very hard to give a sense to our life.
Camus has been often pictured as a pessimist, but that is a huge misinterpretation. He actually encourages us to celebrate life. However – Camus is full of subtleties – he means to celebrate life as it is and not how we want it to be. That is why we can imagine Sisyphus happy; Sisyphus accepting his condition and actually being content with it.
And in these absurd days, I definitely can imagine this deposed Greek king reveling in the knowledge of his certain destiny. He appreciates being left to focus on one thing and doing that thing alone – not having a little person following him around everywhere he goes, even when he goes to the throne…
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