When I found out I was pregnant in early January, I felt a sudden sense of connection that struck me as almost universal. The ground shifted and I was sucked into the profound, life-sustaining force of motherhood, time-tested and shared by women globally. When I came up for air, my mind quickly started reckoning with the personal limits this would put on my body and movements. In many ways, I felt like I was going into a 9-month quarantine.
In my elective quarantine, I had to first let go of my favorite drug: adrenaline. No more hard trail runs followed by too much caffeine. No more ski slopes or happy hours that go a little longer than expected. Soon, no more marathon days of work, daytripping from the Bay to LA and San Diego. The world had a different hue now. I was more cautious, more vulnerable.
Fast forward four months, and the novel coronavirus adds parallel layers to these feelings — and pushes them to a truly universal extreme. We’re all more vulnerable these days, and must collectively limit movement and social pleasures for safety. I find myself both grateful for, and frustrated by, my novel double quarantine. I’m in the most beautiful room I have ever set foot in, but the walls are closing in.
The virus forces us to face realities we haven’t contemplated before, while it simultaneously resurfaces some of the essential moral questions that make a life. Before getting pregnant, my husband and I talked a lot about the morality of the decision. I’ve worked in climate change politics for a decade and am concerned about overpopulation and how global warming will exacerbate already unacceptable levels of income inequality. We wondered if adopting was our best outcome. Yet ultimately, we couldn’t over-rationalize the decision. Emotionally, intuitively even, we want to have children, and we want to have them together. And when we did choose to rationalize, we thought of the generations of people who opted into this fundamentally hopeful act during times of war, famine, racist oppression, nuclear anxiety, and yes, existential climate angst.
This pandemic can undoubtedly add to the angst about welcoming a new life into a world of skyrocketing unemployment, political incompetence, and unpredictability. Yet as other born optimists will agree, it also offers another opportunity. The world will be different after this experience. We will necessarily reorder and reorganize our public resources — and we will be given an opportunity to reorder our private ones as well.
First, in terms of public response, we know that democracies tend to get more active after a crisis. Structural problem solving and preparation may for a brief period triumph over typical, short-term decision-making. To that end, big thinkers like Elizabeth Warren are fighting in the Senate to come out of this stronger — with more protections for Americans like paid leave and accessible healthcare. (She would have made a great president, cough).
As a recent NYT opinion columnist asks, “If private industries can be shamed into providing sick days for employees, will they take those benefits away when the panic passes?” And if California’s Governor Gavin Newsom can pledge to place thousands of people experiencing homelessness in hotels to protect against contagion, how can people later be returned to tents? When we actually prototype and see what’s possible, entrenched interests will have a hell of a time convincing people that these policies are impossible.
Second, on a personal level, the novel coronavirus can teach us a lot about ourselves and our interdependence. “It reminds us, first of all, of the deep human vulnerability in a world that has done everything to forget it,” wrote philosopher Corine Pelluchon in Le Monde at the end of March. “Our lifestyles and our entire economic system are based on a form of excess, of omnipotence, consecutive to the forgetting of our corporeality.”
The forced antidote to routine excess has shown up in basic ways over the past few weeks, including cooking what’s already in our pantry. In its simplest form, I’m looking afresh at what I do with my energy. Instead of busying myself with “necessary” errands, I’m reaching out more — to be of comfort and to be comforted.
This is no longer my singular quarantine. I’m in this with my Boston-based parents and 94-year-old Gramps, who I’m missing and talking to with more frequency and attention. I’m in this with a handful of friends here — all new moms — who got on a video call so I could ask them vulnerable questions after group prenatal classes were cancelled. I’m in this with hundreds of Bay Area neighbors who pooled their money so that struggling restaurants can bring meals to front-line hospital workers. And I’m in this with that crazy Frenchman who kept up his training during confinement by running a marathon on his 23-foot balcony.
I sit here mourning that my movements are yet more limited and that my OB appointments are lonely and more stressful without my husband there. But it’s also true that through this experience, we can weave together a stronger tapestry of local and global community. Our baby might have a more civically alive, generous world to join — and if there’s even a smidgen of truth in that, I’m at the very least more at peace with this double quarantine.