The best and worst year of my life
I found out I was pregnant in November of 2019, just a few months before the coronavirus sent the world into a collective upheaval. My husband and I had been trying to conceive for a little over a year, so although we knew it was a possibility, we were pleasantly surprised if not cautiously optimistic. I was teaching, and the flu that year was rough. Students and staff alike were hit in droves, we didn’t have enough subs, schools all over were closing due to illness, and I was walking around with a happy secret trying not to touch anything.
In the early days, the coronavirus was nothing more than urban legend to me, something only faraway continents were contending. Aside from the news outlets I follow, my Twitter feed mostly consisted of jokes about it- a friend shared a photo his dad had texted him of a Corona beer exclaiming he had the antidote; several others mused if you had eaten or drank at x, played with y as a kid, or used the bathroom at z, then you were immune to the virus- that sort of thing. All jokes aside, I admit that I told myself for a long time it’ll never happen here.
I told myself that in December when I threw my husband a surprise 30th birthday party at a local dive bar where we crammed 50 of our closest friends and family. I told myself that when we spent New Years Eve in Knoxville bar and restaurant hopping and attending a UT basketball game. I even told myself that in February as I badgered my husband to book accommodations for a baby moon in Charleston. Now, a year later, all of those things seem like a lifetime away.
Then one weekend we were making our monthly Sam’s Club trip and it happened. I must have been in an untouchable baby bliss bubble up until that point to have missed it, but people around me were panicking. Carts were piled high with water and toilet paper and hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes and Lysol spray and non-perishable food items. As I eavesdropped and people watched from a distance, I heard an adult daughter read to her elderly parents from her phone a list of provisions and how much of them they should be procuring. At one point she said, “they say you need two weeks worth of food and water,” and that’s when it hit me. Shit was getting real.
I made a comment to my husband, something along the lines of everyone losing their minds and gearing up for the zombie apocalypse, and he just looked at me like, duh, and said, “haven’t you been paying attention?” In fact, he informed me, we were there to stock up on water and toilet paper as well. My husband is a relatively level-headed man, and if he was so moved to start buying household items in mass quantities, I knew this was not a drill. It blew my mind that we were actually in a situation where the prospect of not having direct access to such things for two weeks was not only a possibility, but a looming threat. (I am proud to say, though, that we have never been the assholes who bought every last package of toilet paper or every last case of water, even when we had the chance.)
I could no longer live in denial. As I looked around the packed and panicked bulk store, everyone and everything became dangerous. It seemed like all I could hear was people coughing, none of whom were covering their mouths- just straight open-mouth hacking all over the books, the electronics, the tissues, the wine, the clothes that had by then been desecrated from their neat and orderly stacks into ransacked piles of discount shirts and pants. And the free samples, forget about it! I put my hands in my pockets and got the hell out of there as fast as I could.
Just a few weeks later, I was in the final hours of a teacher work day when the governor gave a press conference announcing that as of the following Monday all schools were to be closed for in-person learning. It would be impossible to exaggerate the number of unanswered questions and therefore the level of ensuing panic. How would we ensure all our kids had access to technology since we were not a 1:1 device school? How would we deliver instruction completely electronically? What about our at-risk kids? And what about THE TEST oh my god THE TEST?!
I know it’s been a point of contention, but what schools were able to do essentially overnight was nothing short of a miracle. Our district was no exception. Our last day with kids was ripe with checklists and the collection and distribution of materials of both the physically tangible and the electronic variety. The kids were amped to say the least, thinking they had just been given the gift of a three week vacation (the school closures were initially only supposed to last three weeks, hahahahahaha!) and the staff was all in a tizzy.
But I had a somewhat different agenda that day. I will admit that I felt smugly confident about remotely administering a solely online curriculum. The vast majority of my coursework was done electronically anyway, and what wasn’t could be easily converted. I didn’t care about collecting books or passing back papers. I had bigger fish to fry. That last day of school before remote learning became the new normal was the same day as my 20 week ultrasound. So I spent the day lecturing my 7th graders about how to manage their time and hyping them up, then I dipped out early and headed for the hospital.
I was wearing some silly teacher-humor festive St. Patty’s Day tee shirt that was a little too stretched over my growing bump, and I was nearly peeing my pants by the time they called my husband and I back. But none of that mattered once the ultrasound technician gelled me up and flipped on the screen. Because there she was.
We didn’t know she was a she yet, of course, and wouldn’t until the day she was born. We wanted to be surprised. We didn’t have a preference- we just hoped for a healthy baby. Nevertheless, there she was- her perfect nose and her sweet little hands and feet and beating heart. She held her hand to her face the entire time and her legs wide open- something she still does when she sleeps at 7 months old. The tech quickly swiveled the screen as she waved the wand over the sex organs so as not to ruin our surprise, loaded the images of our tiny perfect alien baby onto a disc, and sent us on our way.
I had a prenatal appointment directly after, and I was dying to ask my OB how to handle the imminent pandemic as a pregnant woman. His advice at the time was pretty simple: don’t hug or shake hands with people, practice good hand washing, don’t gather in large groups, don’t travel. And just like that, my baby moon dreams were dashed. He didn’t seem too worried about dining in at restaurants at that point, but I added it to the growing list of no-nos anyways. In the coming days and weeks that list grew exponentially not just for me but for everyone as we learned more about the science behind the virus.
We left the doctor’s office and went straight to the grocery where we bought a two week supply of food. That would be the last time I stepped foot in a grocery store until our baby was nearly two months old. (My husband took over that duty in order to limit my exposure since I was pregnant. I remember when he’d come home I’d listen in awe as he described the safety measures put into place to protect the shoppers- plexiglass, floor tape foot-traffic arrows and space markers, sanitizing stations.) That was also the last time I went anywhere in public that I didn’t have to wear a mask. From that day forward, each day inched further and further away from the life we had known and closer and closer to the new brand of normal.
I had been delivering remote instruction for about a week when our state issued a lockdown, the first in a series of “stay-at-home” orders. Now my husband was working remotely as well. I finished out the school year teaching from our home office while my husband worked via VPN from our kitchen table. We took turns preparing meals and picking the music we played, and everyday at two we took a break to watch the governor’s press conference about how everything was going to shit. I rode my peloton. A lot. And when my belly got too big to ride safely and comfortably, we took walks after work instead. We went for random drives all over the tri-county area. I can’t even tell you how many television series we devoured during that time.
Aside from my pregnancy, I don’t think there was anything special or unique about our quarantine, although my husband may contest that being locked down with a pregnant woman was quite the experience as he had no way to escape me. And while the birth of our sweet girl has changed our lives completely (the whole ‘first time parents in a pandemic’ story is for another time), in some ways our routine hasn’t changed at all since we started this journey almost a year ago. My husband is still working from home and I never went back to work after I had the baby. We still cook together, play music, take walks, and watch too much TV.
In some ways, too, I’m still in my untouchable baby bliss bubble, and I’m well aware how privileged and truly lucky I am to be there. In a year where over half-a-million people have tragically lost their lives due to the virus in the United States alone, I get to say that I welcomed the most incredible little person I’ve ever known into the world. I get to say that I spend every day making her laugh and hearing her giggle and watching her grow and helping her learn. I also get to say that I’ve had an opportunity to rediscover myself and my passions and interests and re-determine what I’m going to do with those things. It doesn’t seem fair.
But if I’ve learned anything from the last year, it’s that my heart can break for the world and be grateful for my small corner of it at the same time.
Jordan Peden is a writer, wife, and new mother who quit her day job to pursue her passion. She is based in small town, Ohio.