Emerging Scathed: Navigating another new normal, with a toddler by my side

Nonfiction story

Greta winds up and flings a single corn kernel to the caramel-colored cow with an open mouth. She misses, terribly. “Here you go,” I say, laughing, tossing a fistful of corn past its outstretched, glistening tongue, flailing like an arm searching in the dark. 

We’re at The Farm in Sturgeon Bay, finally. It is summer in Door County, finally. I thought this day would never come.

“Here-e-yo,” my almost-two-year-old says, mimicking me, again launching a kernel out of sight, but definitely not into the cow’s mouth. 

I’m cracking up, giving the cow another pile of kernels. I want to reward this gentle creature for making our day. I’m so happy. In fact, I could just climb the wire fence and wrap my arms around her giant neck for engaging with my toddler.

Last year we didn’t venture to The Farm until September for fear of COVID-19. Greta was barely one. She was leery of the animals, and we were leery of the other children and adults, quickly escorting our timid girl from one animal to the next while she just shook her head and refused to pet them, feed them. My husband and I laughed. 

“It’s okay, Greta,” we reassured her and ourselves. “It’s your first time.” 

But I was so disappointed by the experience. It seemed to reaffirm the isolation, loneliness and lack of community we had. Feelings that only grew as 2020 wore on, turned to winter and became 2021. No playdates. No story times. No day care. No swimming lessons. No trips to the grocery store. No local moms to vent with, to share tips and stories with, to assure me I was doing OK by Greta.

There’s a saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I wanted my village, the village that exists beyond immediate family. Because, yes, we saw our families here and there until the vaccines arrived. We were very lucky in that respect. But so many of our interactions with Greta’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins were overshadowed by fear and stress, interrupted and called off by COVID tests and slight coughs and two weeks of isolating after potential close contacts or before planned gatherings.

Though the vast range of pandemic experiences, fears and attitudes toward the virus is extreme, I’m certain everyone ploughed through stretches of days, weeks, months, perhaps even a whole year now, when they felt very much alone. I know I did. I fell headfirst into a giant pit of despair this past January, pasting torn magazine pictures of a desolate landscape, wildfire, dilapidated house and weeping woman into my journal when I found the time. Writing, “Pandemic Burnout. Lonely. Isolated. Empty. -6 degrees. I feel exhausted. Unimportant. I don’t know how I’ll make it to the end of all this.”

Yet somehow, I managed to feed and clothe myself and my darling girl, to bake with her, paint with her, pull together some sensory bins of bubbles or beans, throw out the yoga mat and get in a couple poses while she did her best downward dog at my side. When the weather allowed, we went to the parks, the lake, the playgrounds – sidestepping other hikers and avoiding other bored families. When the weather didn’t allow, I pulled my bundled girl on a red sled through the trails of the Crossroads, tears stinging my cheeks. I just wanted to get out of the house. 

I look back on those days as the darkness before the dawn. Because, hallelujah, these last couple of months have felt so different for us. We went on a playdate to the beach the other day. A bona fide playdate. Greta threw sand in Lake Michigan beside a new friend while I drank a fruity seltzer on a beach blanket with an old friend. 

A friend I hadn’t seen in over a year came to our back porch bearing iced vanilla lattes and a stuffed bunny. Greta was enamored, leaning against her legs and gazing up at her with a smile. A relative from California came by during a recent visit. He took Greta’s hand and said, “Want to jump on the trampoline, Greta?”

“Yeah,” she answered. Off they went while I ordered pizza and had myself a minute. It was incredible. 

She’s finally experienced wait service (outdoors) and the overwhelming collection of picture books at the public library (my favorite place in the whole wide world). Finally.

I’m so relieved that Greta will emerge unscathed from this pandemic. I know how lucky we are. This pandemic took away more than resources and support for others – livelihoods and loved ones – and continues to do so throughout the world. 

Therefore, I’m scared to get too comfortable. Our family still has reason to be extra vigilant, and I don’t want to slip up. Along with that, my daughter is not yet vaccinated, and I can’t pretend I’m not worried. Yet we are remerging, slowly and cautiously, staking claim on the village we were denied bit by bit. 

I’ve learned just how fragile and precious my world is since March of 2020, how little control I actually have. But for now, it’s summer in Door County, and we are at The Farm.

I feel such overwhelming gratitude for that giant cow Greta is failing to feed, for the tiny goats scampering to the petite milk bottle she holds in her chubby hands, for the baby chicks working hard at pecking out of their shells so my little girl can gaze at their fuzzy feathers, for the sheep tickling her palm with their pink tongues and sending her into fits of squeals and giggles, and for the woman who invites my daughter to pet the ginger kitten her son is holding.

“You don’t hold it by the neck,” he explains with great authority, “but by the butt.” 

“Yes,” the woman agrees, directing a mock-serious nod to me. We share a smile, and Greta rubs the kitty’s soft backside.

“Thank you,” I say before taking Greta’s hand and leading her on. 

Sally Collins is a librarian at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. She lives in Sturgeon Bay with her husband, daughter and cat.

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