When my fourth child was on the way, I felt well-oiled as a child-rearing machine, grizzled against the horrors of sleep regressions, strange rashes, and Play-Doh in hair. Emergency C-sections? Been there. Husband out of town for a birth? Done that.
But then, just as the fog of first-trimester exhaustion was lifting that fourth and final time, a different cloud settled overhead, a pandemic cloud, casting a darker shadow than I had seen or known.
My daughter was born into a world shut down, a hospital with halls as empty as the schools where her brothers should have been. Just when I thought I knew what I was doing, I got a whole new parenting experience: raising a pandemic baby, who is now a thriving pandemic toddler.
And it’s not all bad.
I didn’t love giving birth in a mask, but I did actually love the peaceful, visitor-free recovery that followed. I didn’t love that my older three children were all out of school for the foreseeable future when I brought my newborn home, but I did love the moment when my five-year-old puffed out his chest and presented the new baby to his entire virtual class, all the little squares of kindergarten faces on the screen smiling and cheering and utterly happy for him.
As a fourth child, I spent a lot of time in the car, or on the sidelines of my siblings’ sporting events. I had assumed the same story would play out for this girl, but it didn’t. There were no soccer games or piano recitals to rush to — instead we spent long afternoons outside in the yard, the boys running around with neighbors, the baby on a blanket in the grass, breathing in the fall air, watching the clouds, free from her car seat.
It wasn’t all bad.
She’s almost a year and a half old now, toddling around, pointing and hooting at things, showing off a spicy personality that would never betray her somewhat closeted life thus far: she hasn’t been to the zoo, to Costco, or even to our favorite local taco place (though she’s had the takeout of course). Maybe the fact that our house is a zoo has helped, but she doesn’t seem worse for what she’s missed.
What’s more, my husband, who travels for work a few nights a week (recall the missed birth) was off the road for the first year of our baby’s life. I’m not great with math, but that’s a lot more hours he got to spend with her and with all of us, finishing his Zoom calls and heading to our playroom rather than to the airport.
The pandemic’s dark side is abundantly obvious in the big fears and losses, as well as the heartbreakingly small ones. Still, retrospect has made me grateful for the slow days of my daughter’s babyhood.
I’ve never been halfway out the door, late for a party, peeling her off my hip to hand her to a babysitter, like I was too many times with her brothers. I’m fairly sure she’s still never heard the sound of my hairdryer.
I’ll be glad for the return of the minor: flag football games, followed by art classes, followed by hot tacos in a booth.
And of the major: for my brother, a doctor, to come up for air. For the big, loud family wedding we’ve been awaiting. But as the squares of the calendar refill with color, I’ll still hold dear those plain white empty ones, the days for the yard and the clouds and the quiet, which, as it turns out, fed us just as well.
Hampton Williams Hofer lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes and raises babies. Her work has appeared in Flying South, Walter Magazine, Architectural Digest, and Food 52, among others. Family aside, her great loves are a South Carolina beach, a Roger Federer backhand, a Charlottesville lawn, and—most of all—a good story.