Ping. I turn from the ungraded papers, unfolded laundry, and unsigned petitions piling up around me toward my phone, suddenly chirping out from under a teething toy and an adjustable toddler mask. A text from my mother. Her immunoglobulins are acting up—well, falling down. Her white blood cells are disappearing.
Now of all times, they’re disappearing? She’s been living with an immunodeficiency for years, but “the numbers” have always held steady. Sometimes they’ve even edged upward, to the great perplexity of her medical team. Couldn’t they have held on a little longer? Say until the messianic advent of The Vaccine that promises to save our main streets, our schools, and our Parents with Pre-Existing Conditions?
“Wait a minute,” I say, waking from months of housebound inaction. “I’ve got immunoglobulins! I’m giving them to the baby; why can’t I give them to you?” I know it sounds weird, gross, reverse-Oedipal—or maybe just regular-Oedipal. “But what do you think? Breastmilk on your breakfast cereal?”
It was the least I could do. But it was also the most I could do. What an idiotic six months.
“Mom,” I’d choked, earbuds falling out of my ears, phone falling out of my pocket, newborn squirming out of my arms, “I think they’re going to close Elijah’s school.” The day was Friday, March 13; Elijah (not really his name) was a two-and-a-half year-old extroverted lunatic; and his brother Ezra (not really Ezra) was eight weeks old, colicky, refluxy, and generally unimpressed with the world into which he’d been born. I could barely keep both of them in view simultaneously, much less calm, entertained—even safe.
Their other mom was, and is, an emergency physician working overnight shifts in a hospital with a drastic shortage of “small” N-95 masks…you know, the ones that tend to fit women. Seems no one had thought to order them. And now there was nowhere to get them.
As I looked at the oncoming disaster—half days and whole nights alone with an inconsolable infant and a toddler whose world had just disappeared, mornings of stripping my virus-drenched partner in the driveway and once (okay, it was a mistake) fogging her with Lysol at the back door—I heard my mother say, “give us two days.”
And in two days, as if this were a thing people did, she and my stepfather trekked up I-95 to help for “a few weeks.” They stayed till July.
Remember March and April? Those days before contradiction became the ordinary state of things, even before “pods,” when one still thought one must be missing something, or grossly underslept, or just a genuinely terrible parent, when faced with the dual imperatives to work from home and homeschool from home, or maximize online learning while limiting screentime, or take care of one’s kids without schools, babysitters, or grandparents?
Well, I couldn’t do it. Feeling guilty, confused, and inadequate, I accepted the help no one was supposed to need. My partner cooked as my mom ironed her scrubs. Elijah wiped his nose on his grandmother’s sleeve while Ezra clung to his grandfather, the only person in the world he liked. We went grocery shopping for them; they did everything else for us.
This was not what one would call social distancing. This was not what any authoritative source would call acceptable behavior.
“Keep visits to the grandparents virtual for now.”
“Your kids can make a birdhouse with Pop-Pop on Facetime!”
“Cookies are more fun to bake when you’re looking up Nana’s nostrils on the phone the baby’s eating!”
The advice was unanimous, yet there I was, the worst person alive, not only accepting daily assistance from my septuagenarian parents, not only subjecting them to screaming baby germs and half-potty-trained toddler cooties, but also bathing them in pathogens from a major urban hospital. How the hell was everyone else doing this without grandparents?
The worst thing is, I can’t even say these were grandparents in the best imaginable health. They’re strong, energetic, zippy people, but Buhpah had had a bout with pneumonia during the holidays and Nonnie had that dormant immunodeficiency disorder. “Isolate your parents,” said the internet, the CDC, and most of our friends. “Keep them the hell away from your kids and especially your partner. At least if you want them to survive this.”
So we tried—sort of. We sat them down, thanked them for their superheroic care, their running toward us while the rest of the world ran away. But, we said, we could make other plans. There were other angel-humans: one babysitter, a bunch of siblings, a former student-turned-godparent. All of them were willing to break quarantine protocol to help (and all of them eventually did).
But the parents wouldn’t go. They filled their cabinets with snacks and their living room with toys. They adapted lesson plans from half a century of high school teaching into an impromptu preschool curriculum. Elijah came home every day clutching the rocks he’d painted, banging the sticks he’d collected, and singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “Who Put the Bomp.”
In the meantime, I sterilized the laundry and wiped down the mail (oh well) and tried to figure out our beautiful, miserable Ezra. He was always hungry but not good at eating. He was always tired but not good at sleeping. His mama bounced him on a yoga ball for days and tried not to fall asleep driving. His mommy cut out dairy and soy, drowned in probiotics, and nursed so much that everything hurt. Both moms dreamed about switching to formula but Ezra had all these allergies; he hated bottles; and we were in the middle of a pandemic. Surely the kid could use some antibodies. So breastmilk it was.
Suddenly it’s September. Our campus is half-filled with fastidiously masked undergrads, lining up twice weekly for nasal swabs and unmuting themselves momentarily to say “thank you” after class. Mama cares for patients spewing racist invectives at the only person willing to treat them. And the infant and toddler are back to a school run by a team of fierce women, many of them past retirement age, who mask up, sanitize, and get on with the work of loving other people’s babies.
Meanwhile, fires devour California. Police murder black parents and children in their homes, their cars, their streets. The state consigns prisoners to mass illness and death; ICE ghouls sterilize migrant women; essential workers risk their lives for minimum wage jobs. “The Virus” is blamed for the manifold failures of capitalism, American individualism, white nationalism, the carceral state, and the nuclear family—now tragically closed in on its sad, inadequate self. Protests fizzle as we’re all ordered back to work, back to home, where the work is and the school is and the playgrounds are, and where women labor disproportionately. The universe in one point.
Into this unworlded world comes that text from my mom about the disappearing blood cells. Out of it comes my sheepish offer of bags of frozen breastmilk. “I know you’re going to hate the idea,” I say. There’s probably never been a more squeamish person under the sun than my mother.
“Honestly,” she fires back, “I’d be willing to nurse from a goat if it would help.”
“Give me two days,” I say, all grown-up and in charge.
Could this actually work? I ask Mama Emergency Doctor. She has no idea. I check Google Scholar. Nothing conclusive. So I write to our lactation consultant, knower of all things, savior of desperate mammals. While I’m waiting to hear back, I pump a few extra times, feeling giddy, solar, finally useful. Holy, even, like some many-limbed, bidirectional goddess: giver of life up and down the generational line. I’m going to breastfeed my mother.
My phone hiccups, the staccato way it does when two messages come in at once. One from Ezra’s teacher: he’s been drinking less and eating like a maniac. “Send fewer bottles and more avocado.” And the other from the lactation consultant: really sweet idea, but it’s not going to work. “The adult gut will kill the immunoglobulins,” she says, “and they may not even be the right ones.”
I text my mom. “I know, honey,” she says, having done her own research. She asks if I need anything from Costco. I go back to writing tomorrow’s lecture, weirdly crestfallen.
I had known it was a long shot. An icky long shot. But I’d wanted so badly to help. To deserve the help she’d risked her life to give. To be the thousand-armed goddess this stupid, broken system is expecting us to be.
Mary-Jane Rubenstein teaches religion and science studies at Wesleyan University. She has written books on wonder, the multiverse, pantheism, and the new space race.