The Life-Changing Magic of Having a Second Place to Go
The walls were closing in, the Zoom had lost its charm. After a year as a working parent, all I needed was a room of my own.
We’re creeping toward a strange anniversary, the day in March when our governor was the first in the country to close schools, and I felt my blood pressure swelling to a pound at the back of my skull. I’m a freelance writer, and I’ve been patchworking contracts and gigs since my daughter’s birth nearly eight years ago.
Back when she was two months old, I was ready to end the maternity leave I’d given myself and discovered my planned regular writing assignment had evaporated when my editor was laid off. Once I did start landing new gigs, it felt like self-imposed chaos, interviewing sources over the phone while breastfeeding, writing when the baby slept, which was mostly at night or after lunch when my own mind was a fog. We couldn’t afford daycare for two kids, so I’d get the time I wanted with my baby while I worked, while I carved out a new career path for myself.
I was Having It All. I was gripped with a gnawing fear that with any misstep, the work would vanish, and I would disappear into motherhood.
Years later, as the global plague rattled the U.S. over those first weeks, that same, old fear shot through my body. I was concerned about any of us contracting Covid-19, of course. But more, I thought of the stories I wouldn’t get to write. The gaps that would grow between my work. So, because we were among the first to face shutdown, I pitched a series on mothering in lockdown to every editor I knew. No one bit. Other states were following fast. There was nothing special about my experience. So I downloaded enrichment materials, wore myself out in those early weeks grading the plentiful worksheets sent from school, to keep up the illusion (one I clung to) that we were living through a mere blip. My husband, bless him, once his healthcare job became remote, moved himself to work in the dining room between our two kids through the end of last school year.
He even hung a blanket over the open doorway to my home office. Still our kids would come to me instead of asking him — mere feet away from them — their questions. Our daughter would slip in to have me print some worksheet I’d forgotten in her packet. She’d see me on Zoom calls for work, and hang at the periphery, enough in the frame that friendlier adults would acknowledge her. Despite staring at her own screen all day, she seemed fascinated by seeing me mirrored in mine, asking questions of strangers.
On the wall behind me, hung an old family quilt my grandmother made. Orange, yellow and red over white, it is a sunburst that livened up my Zoom calls, that reminded me of what a woman can make in her own space.\
When I was small, my mom went back to school to train to become a medical transcriptionist and filled evenings with a job cleaning offices at some sort of paper or supply company. Sometimes, I’d sit at the back of my parents’ car as we waited for the office staff to clear out and the cleaning staff to flow in. It was a strange trick, a schedule set to make those who maintained the building invisible. I’d watch my mom head in to be swallowed by tinted office doors. Sometimes she’d bring home notepads, trashed binders, reams of discarded cottony paper rejected by those who worked there. I’d never touched paper so thick. I doodled on the discards, made books with the binders.
Many days though, instead of waiting with my father for my mom to be let into work, I stayed at my grandmother’s house where the bus dropped me off. It wasn’t so much that she babysat me as allowed me a few hours a day to cohabitate in her space.
It was a squat, green ranch on a street full of grandmothers. To one side was a woman of about sixty with a house eerily filled with dolls. To the other, another grandma who had cute dogs and an above ground pool. In between was my grandmother who seemed satisfied with the occasional company of her friends to either side and ample space to herself.
My grandmother’s house, to me, was a wonder. Every corner of it was hers alone, a sort of intellectual-woman’s play palace. Projects were perched all over. There, financial documents belonging to people for whom she did taxes; here, stacks of old newspapers and National Geographics she refused to toss out. Family Circus and Marmaduke comics — one of the few signs she approved of humor — were cut out and taped on her fridge. Her office towered floor to ceiling with documents from her efforts at tracing her ancestry, wedged in with other stacks of fabric and dress patterns and half-done sewing projects. In one corner of her living room were her quilting supplies. On a wall between bookshelves, sheet music piled atop the organ. (She played for Protestants and at a Spiritualist church where a medium — typically a woman — channeled spirits.) She had shelves of books on channeling the dead, palm reading, dream interpretation. She didn’t seem to believe in any of it, just wanted to know about it. In middle school, I learned about Freud, Jung, and William James from her collection.
Piles of photos were strewn around the house featuring tombstones of old relatives, fall leaves snapped through the windshield while she drove (always too fast), photos of her ex-husband in his casket, photos of me, my cousins, her children, framed so our foreheads were cut off. She was always taking pictures and had a shelf of books on the art and craft of photography. At every family event — picnic, wedding, funeral — she was there with her camera, cutting off foreheads, making portraits of people’s necks.
Every day she read the newspaper front to back. When I stayed with her some evenings while my mother worked, she would have me sit with her and watch the Nightly Business Report and NewsHour on PBS. Never once did she put on a cartoon for me, but if I needed some element of the stock market defined, she would do it.
My mom described her own mother as having lived through hell. She was born in 1915, came of age through the Great Depression, and I now realize, her girlhood would have been shaped by the flu pandemic. She had an abusive, unmedicated, mentally-ill father. Despite being valedictorian of her class, when it came time for college, she didn’t get to go because money left to her by a wealthier relative disappeared. She wound up cleaning homes for rich families, then later shared a home with an abusive, alcoholic husband she eventually found the wherewithal to leave. When I was small, she was already retired from a courthouse job earned with top marks on a civil service exam.
The woman I knew had what I learned through her to crave: a space of one’s own. Freedom was a house full of books.
In those early months of our pandemic, our daughter mocked my grubby home wardrobe. For months it was yoga or pajama pants; a professional or workout shirt depending upon my video call schedule. She started asking occasionally what I was writing about. Much as I knew the contents of every school sheet that passed through her hands, because I printed it, graded it myself (before I gave up), she wanted to know what I was doing at my computer in the room behind the blanket, in front of my grandmother’s old quilt.
This child who’d spent her entire first year crawling and playing at my feet during the intervals when she allowed me to work was suddenly very curious about how I spent my days. When I interviewed people whose names she’d heard from the loop of endless news filling our dinner discussions, she had moments of deep confusion.
“Are you famous?” my daughter asked mystified, at me in my daytime flannel PJs. I laughed. No. Decidedly not. Most days, I felt tears in my throat as a mantra ran through my mind: This pandemic will not be how my career ends.
I didn’t want to model for him that dreams ought to be deferred.
I recognize I’m living many people’s childhood dreams, getting to be a writer at all. It’s one I tried to relinquish as I neared adulthood — there were so few authors in this world, who was I to think someone should read my words? And yet, when our first child, our son, was born, a recognition gripped me: I didn’t want to model for him that dreams ought to be deferred. On the train home from work, I started writing a novel, tapping out essays at night or when he napped on weekends.
Words have always existed as bounty for me, a way to touch potential with one’s fingertips. Becoming a mother made me brave enough to reach for them again.
At the start of my grandmother’s decline, she’d needed eye surgery. She was still driving — too fast, often distracted, that was old news — and more recently had started having trouble reading. I have no idea how she ended up married for a time to my grandfather, but I do know her great love affair was not with him but with books. Losing her vision may have been a harbinger of losing the rest of her. But she had cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration — terms she could define from her many medical reference books — and she was about to have her precious eyes sliced open in hopes of restoring her sight.
I was still in high school then, swinging by during pre-op to wish her well. She told me that she had a present for me, which took me aback. I know she gave me gifts for birthdays and Christmas, but I cannot remember a single one. They came wrapped in reused paper, salvaged year to year. I struggled to open them without tearing the secondhand paper I knew she wanted to keep and use again. But with her body propped in a hospital bed, she produced a wrapped package from somewhere nearby. It was a book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
She asked if I’d read it. “No,” I told her. And she winked.
She could have just as well pirouetted. I’d never seen her look so coy, so playful. She was handing me a message.
Inside, I found Francie Nolan, a young girl who loved books, who made space for herself on her third-floor fire escape in the shade of a tree:
Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts… That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.
The surgery went fine; her vision was better for a year or two. She never mentioned the book again. But I held onto it as if I had been entrusted to preserve something. That novel about a book-loving girl has lived on many shelves since, in college, first apartment, the little house we rented when our kids were tiny, and I was scraping out my first days as a writer nursing a child in her first days.
My grandmother died a decade and a half ago, and still, I cart around this book. I’m no longer the poor girl who could identify so easily with Francie Nolan, but I still hold all the desperate yearning of needing to grow where you’ve been planted regardless of circumstance. Maybe because of the ground made more fertile by the women who have quietly tended it, tended after me.
By fall last year, like most of us, I’d begun to feel claustrophobic. I only left the house for more than a walk once a week or so. Hours, days, weeks, melted into one another. I was in a constant stream of intellectual consumption — slurping in news, jumping from email to email, fielding calls, jumbled between a glut of messages from the school, trying to understand epidemiology, attempting to learn the new approach to middle school math for our son, and calls to check on my parents whose care I help coordinate. Due to distance and Covid concerns, I saw them once last year.
I was trapped in one place but stretched so far, it felt like holes might appear. I was an exhausted Swiss cheese woman. I missed my mom.
One cruelty of our pandemic year was at a time of such crisis, so many of us had to keep distance from our own mothers. My daughter, so often, wanted to be right on top of me.
Our school district reopened last fall on a hybrid schedule and my breath caught each time the kids left, masked, off to schools with careful blue dots painted to space children on the playground and with the addition of plastic shields around their separated desks. At nervous intervals, I held them back, kept them home. Like millions of overwhelmed mothers shouldering work and the sudden evaporation of school and childcare, I was desperate for somewhere for my kids to safely go so I could think straight. I was terrified to let them go.
On days they had school away, I packed hours with writing and calls. New faces would peer through my laptop and comment on the quilt over my shoulder, and I’d explain my grandmother made it. I could see them picturing a polite granny, not a woman who taught herself how to make what would become an heirloom just to prove she could.
I saw my own image reflected back on Zoom calls. The red, orange, yellow that passed through her hands brightening the space behind my head like a screaming sunlight halo. It wasn’t a presence exactly, but a tangible reminder that a woman who helped shape me had once had a place in the world that was hers alone, where she could learn and create whatever she wanted.
My own world kept shrinking.
By Christmas, I’d begun falling asleep at night with detailed fantasies. In the spring, there would be a vaccine, and I would rent an office outside of our house. Nearing nine years of working tucked somewhere in our home so I could be available for children as they got off the school bus, ready if someone was sick or forgot a lunch, to do the laundry between calls, evidently, to be readily accessible if a global pandemic befell us — I needed out. I envisioned the most extraordinary space my mind could muster: a multi-room office with space for me alone, reading and writing whatever struck my interest. I became fixated on having a pocket in the world that was mine in a way that my grandmother’s home had been hers.
Of course, I’d known people who were gravely ill with Covid, suffered a tragic loss in our extended family. Worried daily as my husband went back to work at the hospital. I understand now that when the grief closed in, I dreamed of leaving the house for another reason — it could be a sign this season of fear, sickness and death could be coming to a close. That there would be time again, with our mortality so close to the surface, for my little dreams in the time I have.
Once school opened back up in January our middle schooler wanted to stay remote for a month despite the reopen, to proceed cautiously. But given the tighter limits on movement at the elementary school, we decided to let our daughter go. It was as if a switch flipped. After school, she thundered around the house, quoting her teacher’s jokes, rattling off test scores, laughing about ways they’d played at recess despite their socially distanced blue, playground dots. It was as if in all the ways she’d been forced to fold into home, had chosen to sink into me as she tried to make sense of this past year, she’d also somehow grown herself into this freer, happier form of herself.
By the end of February, Covid cases continued receding and in turn, scattered email alerts from the district reporting cases in my kids’ buildings have generally ceased. The safety protocols seem to be working. Our son returned to school. My husband was vaccinated. I joked I was “the left behind.” The rest of the family was now regularly out of our pandemic habitat. Even when I was alone, I felt the press of rarely leaving the place where we’d been so on top of one another throughout 2020.
A friend sent me a Craigslist ad for a 300-square-foot office in the next town over. It’s a single room with exposed brick on one wall, a door I can lock behind me, and none of the other office rooms are filled. The wifi is strong. The night I signed the lease, my little family helped me fill it — tottering into the empty building in masks and with armloads of books. All my precious mementos from our house that marked “the place where mommy works” flowed into an empty room and transformed it into mine alone. The quilt, for now, I left at home.
On one wall now hangs a poster of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On another is an Amanda Gorman quote. On my shelves, books on religion, philosophy, political science, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
On my first day here, my husband packed a lunch for me in our daughter’s Rosie the Riveter lunchbox. Inside on a napkin, he wrote “We are proud of you.” At home, chores immediately started redistributing; emboldened somehow by having carved space for myself, I stopped letting as many default to me.
My work hasn’t changed — I’m still patchworking essays and features between publications, my career hinging upon the blessing of generous editors. I can’t be counted among the 5 million women who lost or left their jobs in 2020. The “flexibility” — cobbling together work I can pour around my kids’ needs — that left me suffocated-feeling at times, also granted me a path to keep going.
But now, this place, my office — detached from our house or any of the incidentals of our family’s daily lives and needs — represents a precious freedom, a boundary around what is mine.
I wish post-pandemic, every mother could have a refuge like this.
As such, it is a profound privilege purchased for me by my kids’ (now vaccinated) teachers. It was modeled for me by my grandmother, and in a way by my mother, who always pushed at me to desire more for myself. It is a thing, this space, this time, in great deficit for most American working mothers right now experiencing the primal scream of a broken system that dumped a generation’s unpaid labor at their feet as the world shutdown.
I wish post-pandemic, every mother could have a refuge like this.
I’ve had four days here, two interrupted by having to take our kids for dental work, so the bounds of my time are still porous.
Each night, our daughter has asked when she can come see my office again, for me to turn around and drive her here just to see it. She’s filled with sweet curiosity about the novelty of this place. As long as she’s lived, I’ve been in some corner of our house trying to work or working around the times she’s needed me. It’s as if she’s become concerned her mother will become someone else because somewhere else.
Yesterday, after her dentist visit, she hadn’t had lunch yet and school was nearly over, so we came to my office to eat, and so I could finish my day. Since she’d been here to help me move in, I’ve added a second-hand minifridge and two plants. She poked around, touching the pen cup she knew from my former home office, and plunked herself in a chair that came with the place.
I got her set up on the wifi so she could do some of her schoolwork, and I settled behind my desk. As I opened my email to see whether a story of mine due to publish was online, I heard my daughter sigh.
“When I’m a grownup, I’m going to have an office of my own,” she said wistfully, glancing around the little room. Then she refocused her eyes on her computer to get back to her own reading.