Pressing the Bruise
Remembering what it felt like when it felt the worst
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In a few weeks, I’ll be publishing a Q&A with Maximillian Alvarez about his new book The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke. In the introduction, he writes:
What will we remember, and how will we remember it? When the strange experience of enduring the (first) COVID-19 pandemic coagulates into history, whose voices will go on the record? Who will tell the story of what happened here? How will they tell that story? What will they focus on? And what will we care to listen to?
… Will we forget all the things that mattered to us at the time—all the ways we experienced and felt about what was happening to us? Will we wash out all the raw, human stuff—the kind of stuff you’ll find in this book—and leave only a clean, bloodless record of key dates and figures? Or will we carry with us the memory of something more? And will we use that memory to do good, and do better?
I read the book this August, and I underlined that part twice, like the sort of underline that threatens to overtake the text, and put stars up and down the page. Will we wash out all the raw, human stuff — the kind of stuff you’ll find in this book — and leave only a clean, bloodless record of key dates and figures?
I mean, we’ve already started to, haven’t we? Both in the way we treat the ongoing pandemic, but also the way we’ve memory-holed so much of those first weeks, those dark months, that first year and, even, in some cases, the even more difficult second. The pain, the trauma, the grief — it’s all still there, but the way we’ve organized the world demands we go about as if it is not.
When I first started talking with Scribd about writing a sort of oral history of parenting during the pandemic, that’s what I wanted to recover: the raw, human stuff of that time, in a way that would document just how angry and scared and radicalized all of us (caregivers or not, but especially caregivers) felt in that moment.
I didn’t want it to be book length, because 1) I didn’t have the wherewithal to write a book at the moment and 2) I wanted it to arrive in a slightly more consumable form. I also didn’t want it to be newsletter-length, or even feature magazine length, because both offered insufficient space to even get close to the spectrum of experiences I wanted to include, and the amount of detail I wanted to be able to provide in order to make the stories themselves feel immersive, addictive, compelling. We’ve already had so much incredible reporting on parenting in the pandemic — like, entire special sections of papers and magazines!! Those pieces had combined small snippets from several parents’ lives. I wanted to combine LARGE snippets from EVEN MORE parents’ lives.
What Scribd (which, if you’re unfamiliar, is a subscription service that combines eBooks, audiobooks, and also access to a whole bunch of magazines under one roof) offered was a sort of halfway: the ability to go long (like, 20,000 words long) with magazine-style editing/fact-checking. I was ultimately able to include thirty-three people’s stories — some of just a few paragraphs long, others several thousand words. I think of the length as that of a non-fiction novella.
My editor was on board with this idea, but I think she kind of wondered how I was going to find a whole bunch of caregivers who were willing to talk, at length, in vivid detail, about a part of their lives that was that challenging and complicated and painful and (periodically) joyful. But I sent out the ask — will you talk, in depth, about the nitty-gritty of pandemic parenting? — both here and via my Twitter and IG, and over a thousand people answered. Some people were regular readers of the newsletter; other respondents had never read a word of my work. All felt compelled to talk.
That’s something that came up over and over again: the compulsion to talk about it, and by it I mean all of it, everything that was said and unsaid, all of the things you had to swallow or forcefully forget, the detailed tedium, the unspeakable exhaustion, the feeling that you couldn’t keep doing what you were doing and yet had to wake up every damn day and do it again. They talked about the pandemic, but they also talked about what it felt like to parent through Uvalde, and Black Lives Matter protests, and January 6th. They talked about what it felt like to parent under duress.
I had asked everyone who volunteered to try to give their experience a headline, or a book title, just to summarize what felt the main current of their experience. I also asked for some broad descriptive strokes: if they were parenting alone or with someone else, where they were located, whether they were trying to work for pay while caregiving/remote-school-supervising, whether they or someone else in their immediate family had to leave the home every day, how old their kids were, any massive changes that happened over that first year, etc. etc. I also asked about race, economic background, location, sexual orientation, and if there was anyone in the family who was disabled and/or had special or medically complex needs.
No piece or book can cover every experience, but I wanted to get as close to a diverse emotional and financial set of experiences as my constraints would allow. I narrowed the initial 1000+ responses down to around 100 from all different sorts of families and backgrounds. I also reached out to a handful of people who had changed their minds about whether or not to have kids (or whose decision not to have kids had strengthened) because of the pandemic, because that was a view that felt important to include as well.
In that initial survey, I’d asked people to indicate the way they felt most comfortable sharing their story: they could respond, in writing, to a list of questions (in their own time, at their own pace) or they could schedule an hour with me. About 70 of the “final” 100 were people who said they would like to do written answers, and about 30 wanted to be interviewed in real time. I sent out one email to the written answer people, telling them first of all that there was no pressure — this shouldn’t feel like a burden, and if they felt like they no longer had the time or wherewithal to fill it out, it wasn’t letting me down, or screwing up my project, or anything of the sort. For the people who wanted to be interviewed, I sent out a link to a Calendly (which I love) where they could schedule an hour of time (it also generated the Zoom link, amazing) — and also sent them a general overview of the questions I’d be asking, just to make it feel less intimidating.
For each Zoom, I told interviewees ahead of time that we’d be doing it with the camera off. I didn’t want either of us to feel like we were “dressing up” in any way, but I also think it’s a lot easier to sink into memory when you’re not also thinking about how the other person is reacting — it helps approximate the feeling of journaling out loud, or going into a sound booth and recording a story that no one’s ever heard. I also tried mightily to turn off one of my worst reporting impulses, which is to try and relate to/add to whatever a person is saying, the way you would in a give-and-take conversation. Instead, I just tried to really, deeply, extendedly listen — and also ask very basic follow-up questions, like “and how did that make you, personally, feel?” after the interviewee matter-of-factly described something pretty major that had happened in their family. (I think mothers, in particular, spend so much time attending to and managing the feelings of other family members that there’s often very little time to attend to or even acknowledge their own).
I asked caregivers to try and transport themselves back, as best as they could, to the physical experience of the first few months. What was the texture of each day? What made you feel battered? What sent you over the edge? What was the thing that really felt like a low point, and what felt like a moment of levity or brief relief or even bliss? I tried to make them feel as present in the past as possible, so that that past would come alive in their words.
Then I took those recordings and sent them to be transcribed (I knew, when I took on the project, that I had neither the time nor patience to transcribe the number of interviews I wanted to do; transcription is expensive but I can write it off as an expense + Scribd was paying me well enough to help offset the cost). I ended up doing around 25 verbal interviews and received about 50 written responses; I collected them all in a big Scrivener file, and then I began editing.
For “as-told-tos” like these, you take the whole mess of 5000+ words (either transcribed or written) and try to edit it down to a length that somehow conveys the heart of what you’ve been told, without significantly altering the voice or content, without losing the pulse. Every time we tell a story, we’re already doing this self-editing; I think of this as just another process of refinement, but I spend a lot of time thinking about each cut paragraph, each time I look at two sentences that are kind of saying the same thing and have to choose which one says it best, each time I add a “but” or “and” in order to just make one idea flow into the next.
Sometimes you put an em-dash between two sentences just to give it that pause that you felt when you heard that person say it. Sometimes a person was telling a story and got deep into a sentence and the grammar got kinda weird (this happens to me when I’m talking on podcasts ALL THE TIME) and you have to think, as the steward of these stories, how to clarify it without changing the meaning, or making it sound like a polished soundbite. Sometimes you have to decide which part of a really long explanation about a health condition or break-up or custody arrangement makes most sense to include that also feels fair and adequate. It is really, really hard, but I also really, really like doing it.
In the end, I had to cut some of the stories altogether for being too similar to others. I always feel bad cutting an interview, but there was some measure of solace in the fact that pretty much everyone I talked to — and everyone who submitted their answers — told me they had found some measure of catharsis in just participating. I didn’t experience quite the same sort of catharsis, but I found the entire experience deeply moving. It’s an honor to be trusted with other people’s stories, but it’s also an honor to just sit with the complexity and contradiction of it all — how you can be so enraged and so grateful, so exhausted and so alive, addicted to your children but also desperate for a moment without them.
People told me things they said they’d never told anyone, or never even knew they felt until given the opportunity to put words to a moment. They told me about cheating partners and losing parents and resenting their friends and burn books they’d amassed of coworkers who refused to give a shit. They told me about moments of strength and resilience, and they told me about other moments, seared in shame, when they became their worst selves.
The stories are messy and bloody and human, which is exactly how any story of two years and millions dead should be. I don’t think they’re indulgent or flagellating; they’re not trauma porn or even, I’d say, dramatic. A lot of them will move something inside you and you won’t even realize it’s happened until you’ve reached the end. We forget, I think: we’re still broken. Our families are broken, our community is broken, our bodies are broken, our societies are broken. Some might be starting to heal, but others are very much not.
We know this on an intellectual level, but sometimes you need to touch the bruise to feel it in a way that makes inaction feel downright offensive. Because this isn’t just a matter of restoration or recognition — it’s about memory. Memory as the drumbeat of caregivers’ experiences and others’, memory as the motivation for the sort of structural change that will ensure that it never happens, not like it did, not in the way that it did, again.
I ended each interview with a simple question — one that doesn’t really show up in the final piece, but that felt essential, both for me to understand the full experience of pandemic parenting, but also to cap a discussion that was often cut through with sorrow, or regret, or anger.
I asked: What delights you most, right now, about each of your kids?
The answers were, naturally, delightful — but what I loved the most was that feeling that as parents, as caregivers, can contain multitudes: totally fed up with the way things are, totally mystified by our kids’ behavior, totally furious about how our labor and time is treated on a familial and societal level, and still remember that part of the reason we care is because kids are humans, too, weird and wondrous, deserving of lives where they feel worthy and beloved and precious.
And that’s what hope comes across, alongside that drumbeat of change. We can, and must, do and be better for one another. Not because we deserve it, or because one story is more tragic or relatable than another, not because our suffering was more legible or because we have kids or don’t, but because we are human, and just like those kids, whose caregivers described them with such palpable joy, we, too, are worthy and beloved.
And that’s how we can choose to vote, and legislate, and act, and plan, and give: as if each one of us is precious. What would a society built that way look like? How would it feel? How would it change the whole way you go about your day, your year, your life — the plans you feel capable of making, the safety you feel confident in trusting? It wouldn’t feel much like what we have now. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t imagine, and authentically build towards, a world built on that fundamental belief.
Here’s a link for a free 60-day trial of Scribd so you can access THE MOMS ARE NOT ALRIGHT if you don’t already have a subscription. **I also have ten free one-year Scribd subscriptions** to give away to ten people who tweet or Instagram this newsletter or the Scribd Original itself (just tag me at @annehelen or @annehelenpetersen when you do). I’ll select ten at random in the next two days and DM you the code.
My special thanks to every caregiver who spent the time to sign-up, answer questions, and be patient with the timeline for this story. I appreciate all of you. You’re all doing fucking great.
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