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How It Happened

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

The COVID Granny Diaries

"I just wanted to say 'thank you'. . . for everything," said my son-in-law in a heartfelt tone as he handed me a bouquet of flowers at the Dunkin' Donuts in Mystic, Connecticut one Sunday night. Because of the virus, the coffee shop is closed—we just meet in the parking lot on Friday and Sunday evenings to pass my granddaughter, Nova, from one to the other and back. I am not sure how much longer we will be able to sustain this weekend "swap." The virus is making a monstrous comeback in other states. Our little parenting bubble may be forced to go back to total shutdown.

Nova and I have been alone together for most of the past five months, ever since the schools shut down in New Haven, where she lives with my daughter, Caitlin, and her husband, Scott. When we made our sudden decision, I was already burning up US95 between there and my home in Providence nearly every day because Caitlin had broken her arm and needed help.

I was still teaching the spring term at Brown. I didn't know it yet, but within the next week, the faculty would be told to shift to online teaching and given two weeks to get ready. I had a three-year randomized controlled trial finishing up in Uganda and I was gearing up to write the final report, which was due in four weeks. I was working with the World Bank to produce a research guidance on female entrepreneurs and I was already running a few days late on that. So I was feeling really stretched.

But then the world stopped. Caitlin is an emergency medicine doctor. With New York quickly convulsing into crisis, the ERs in Connecticut were beginning to feel the disaster, too. She was to return to work as soon as her arm was strong enough to intubate a patient. We could see that Cait was about to go into a harrowing, life-changing event, one in which she would not even be safe herself. Her hours were going to be even longer and more random than usual.

Standing in their apartment one afternoon, with keys already in hand to return home, I said, "Maybe I should take Nova back to Providence with me today." This situation was no place for a small child. But it was also no good for a member of the (ahem) "high risk group," such as myself. If I was going to take over where the schools left off, I couldn't be exposing myself to the virus by letting Nova come home occasionally to a house where Cait brought god-knows-what from the front lines every night.

Scott, Nova's father, works full-time as an architect. Within days of the outbreak, he was put on a job for the Department of Defense refitting factories in the area to make emergency medical equipment—a mission with importance we felt personally because Cait was working with minimal PPE. He was on call 24/7, so we couldn't even be sure what would happen if he had Nova and got an emergency call.

So it was all or nothing. Nova came to live with me. She and I had spent so much time together since she was born—I was her weekday caregiver for the first six months—that she was comfortable with me and my house. For the first two months, she seemed OK. She understood what we told her about the virus. I reassured her she was safe with me and explained we wouldn't even be leaving the house for awhile. I told her that her mother and father would rather be with her, but they were doing important work. At least one of her parents Face-Timed with her every day.

But in May Nova began to have inconsolable crying spells. The virus was receding in Connecticut, so I decided the balance between our safety and her heartbreak was shifting—she needed to go home. Her parents were still working, though. Scott, Caitlin, and I discussed it over and over. At first, it just seemed too risky. But as the region began to re-open, it seemed worth it to at least have her come home on weekends. That's when Scott and I started making our Friday and Sunday night rendezvous.

The past five months living alone and around the clock with a small child have been humbling for me. I was a single working mother, beginning when I had two very young kids, so I thought I was tough enough, but the nature of this assignment was different. I was spending every waking hour with Nova; there was no relief at all. I was also doing all the laundry and all the dishes. My house was impossible to keep straight.

I expected looking after Nova while trying to keep working would be stressful, but many challenges, as it turned out, were also of a cultural and psychological nature. My kids are politically aware millennials who hold very strong feelings about raising Nova in a more gender-neutral way. I, of course, agree with this principle and, in fact, believe that at least some of Cait's politics come from her childhood with me.

At the same time, I want my granddaughter to have some of the pleasures I had as a child, which includes things like playing dress-up and dolls. Finding her things to do that will meet with her parents' approval has not only been a challenge, but has led me to reflect on the impact of my own upbringing in a way I have never done before.

Like other families, we shared the absurdities of "life in the time of coronavirus," like being expected to home-school along with everything else. I grumbled each week when I had to move the living room furniture for a virtual ballet lesson and put Nova in a strictly-stipulated ballerina outfit with a bun in her hair (you can see that the gender-neutral rule has some flexibility when Nova wants something badly enough).

The day-to-day interaction with Nova, with only ourselves to constitute an in-person social setting, has also been an interesting experience. I have learned a lot about the unique growth pattern of every emerging human. She picked up some stuff from me, with mixed results. (Very early on, she started doing this weirdly patronizing little chuckle that I realized with mortification was coming from me.)

And in the middle of all this, my book, essentially the capstone of my life's work, was released in the UK and the US. I was surprised when Andrew Hill at the Financial Times, as he was interviewing me about The Double X Economy, expressed interest in how I came to be minding a small child alone as my contribution to the war effort.

Readers of this blog have sometimes showed more interest in my personal stories than in the economic posts. So, I am thinking my experience will be of interest, as one of the poignant glimpses we are collectively having into the private lives of others while we struggle to live in this isolation—and danger. I will share my stories and insights here and will try to make them whimsical, humorous, and not too ponderous.


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