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Not Enough People
I am really struggling lately with isolation, with figuring out how to navigate a world where COVID is here to stay and mitigation is left to the individual. I feel like I could navigate a world where masks were standard, where there was funding for testing and it was the norm for everyone to do rapid tests before interacting with people (or at least when experiencing any symptoms), where there were incentives to upgrade ventilation. I think I could probably even handle a world where even just one of those public mitigations was happening. Instead I find myself having to navigate decision-making in a world where everything is personal responsibility and there isn’t even robust information to assess how risky things really are.
We are now in the third year of this pandemic. Our household is risk-averse. It often feels like we are more risk-averse than most. My son didn’t turn five until last February. So as everyone celebrated their vaccination and ventured out, we stayed cautious. And while protecting him is a high priority, it isn’t the only reason I worry about COVID exposure. I am not technically high-risk, nor immune-compromised–though I would certainly not describe my immune system as robust–but as someone who is already disabled by chronic fatigue and pain, I cannot fathom how our household would manage if either my husband or I faced a case of long-covid. So while it feels like everyone else has decided infection is no big deal and it’s time to go back to “normal” we’re still mired in constant calculations of risk and benefits.
Twenty-five years ago I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak on campus. What I remember him talking about is marriage. He posited that many divorces were caused by social isolation, that much marital strife was, at its core, spouses saying to each other “you are not enough people.” That bit of the talk stuck in my mind because I have long wondered if there was a surreptitious argument for polyamory woven into the sentiment. Aside from that musing, though, the idea that married people need people other than their spouse never seemed that mind-blowing to me. I was nineteen when I heard Vonnegut speak and had yet to date anyone I actually liked. So relying on a partner to meet the bulk of one’s social needs seemed patently ridiculous then and has not become less so as I’ve aged.
Fast forward, then, to March, 2020. At the beginning of the pandemic I was not worried about social isolation. I am an only child. I grew up in a rural area and my parents had few friends. My youngest years were spent in long conversations with sparrows. I would swing on the backyard swingset with my hand gripping the chain of the neighboring swing to move it for one of my imaginary friends. Later, the school year was social but the summers were spent mostly in the company of my parents and books. My childhood isolation was punctuated with trips to town for groceries and library books, but in an era where the library books show up on my kindle with a push of a button (and my husband gets the groceries), I figured I could easily forgo in-person interactions outside my home for months without noticing. Perhaps if I had actually said to myself “it’ll be like being 12 again” I would have recognized the problem.
Now, after more than two years of this, Vonnegut’s words come to my mind increasingly frequently. I understand deep in my core the sentiment “you are not enough people,” because my husband and my son are not enough people for me. For months the problem was the opposite. My husband and child were too many people, too much of the time. I missed the time I spent in solitude at the office, on the train (no, you are not alone on public transportation, but most times you are allowed to attend to your thoughts or your reading largely uninterrupted). I still miss solitude, but have learned to work with what I have. And I have begun to really feel the toll isolation, to feel that I need more people.
Worse, though, than my own isolation is the knowledge that my husband and I are not enough people for my son. I never intended to parent like this. As a child I insisted that I would not raise an only child. I would not inflict my loneliness on another generation. As I entered into parenthood I was excited by all the wonderful interesting adults that surrounded me and would surround my child. I assumed we would expand from there to provide a rich environment of other children. When we made the choice to have only one child, I felt confident that it wouldn’t matter that he was an only child because we would figure out how to get his social needs met. And, then, a few weeks after my son’s third birthday, just as he was beginning to make real connections with some other adults and children, his social world, our social world, collapsed back inward to just the three of us.
We have done the best we can to provide my son with what he needs socially. It is not enough but it is more than nothing. I find myself propping myself up with the line “kids are resilient,” which is true. Humans are resilient, but only to a point, and trauma shapes us.
One might argue that I turned out ok, despite my early isolation. And it’s true that I have spent my adult life collecting amazing people, have managed to always have at least a small community of people whose company brings me joy. It is also true, though, that I am still and will always be the girl who talked to sparrows. I am weird and socially awkward and I struggle with connection. I struggle to feel valued and seen within my relationships. I struggle to maintain connections and I have spent most of my adult life feeling very isolated and unconnected, despite the people in my life, a problem deeply compounded by the pandemic.
I had hoped to spare my child that. I had hoped that his story would not feature loneliness as prominently as mine does. I still hope that, will continue to work toward that goal. But still I am heartbroken at how much of the early childhood I hoped he would have we have missed in the past two and a half years.