A few weeks ago my 4-year-old son accidentally dropped a large board book on my face. He cried, I cried, and once the situation was as settled as it was going to get, I grasped my phone for something familiar to comfort me. Ah, yes: the Instagram Stories of the influencer family who had absconded from an 8,000-square-foot home in the suburbs to their comparably sized lodge in the mountains.
Outside, the older kids sailed around the marshmallow backdrop on snowmobiles; inside, the younger kids did handsprings on some sort of room-length, inflated gymnastic mat. The mom nursed her newborn on an overstuffed sofa with several yards between her and the other members of her family. Meanwhile, in the rural East Coast non-mansion I share with my husband and our 4- and 1-year-old, I felt like I could successfully describe the children’s breath to a police sketch artist. The resentment coursed through me like a potent stimulant. Like most stimulants, the effect was analgesic. It felt vintage, envying bland influencers through my phone’s screen, a throwback to a pre-COVID-19 time. Self-care, I thought.
To be clear, we have it better than many. Our home is comfortable and safe. We still have our jobs for now, and we are able to perform them, sloppily, from the flimsy Ikea desk crammed into our bedroom. The Wi-Fi usually works. The shrieks from our children’s healthy bodies could shatter glass.
Still, the grind of working from home full-time while our young children’s schools are shuttered has ground my husband and me into dust. Our home looks tornado-ravaged by 9 a.m., the dishes self-multiply, the emails never cease, and the next day we get up and do the whole thing again. This marks the first era of my life where “collapsing into bed” is not just a colorful expression. I feel like I’m trapped at some extreme mindfulness retreat against my will, unable to access anything beyond my present moment. As an antidote, I indulge in a soothing practice of something approaching anti-gratitude.
Sure, I have it good, but a nasty voice inside me asks, Don’t some people have it just a little better? Then I allow myself to be annoyed by them without self-judgment. Om.
It’s easy to resent rich influencers flaunting their palatial estates, but don’t think I limit my resentment to distant and obvious targets. Here are some people I’ve resented since this all began: friends with bigger homes; friends with chic, “finished” interiors who aren’t, like me, trapped looking at half-completed house projects; friends with children older than mine and capable of, say, disappearing into Minecraft for hours; a friend who already had a live-in au pair and thus has retained full-time child care; a friend who imported retired grandparents for child care weeks before that was unsafe or illegal; any family that can survive on one income, definitely all child-free people, anyone in a warm climate where it’s fully spring by now, anyone with a pool, anyone who has had the time to have a hobby and/or start a new streaming prestige-drama series, anyone who knows what an Animal Crossing is.
Yes, I might only have access to the parts of their lives cropped for social media, but that doesn’t stop me from cozying up to my bad vibes.
An organizing principle of my life has been that this isn’t the real me. The real me is the better, smarter, kinder version of myself that I’m trying to become. Usually, I chase her like a hologram just beyond my reach. Here in isolation, the hologram has vanished. I dwell only with the items in my refrigerator, the children for which I’m responsible, my husband who is annoyingly perfect except that he lets the kids roam free-range with their lunches, slicking all household surfaces with peanut butter.
“I’m muting anyone with a yard right now,” writes a friend in New York City. It occurs to me that by some social-distancing standards, our life is charmed. Not only do we have a front yard but a backyard, too, our own private patch of “outside” that we’re borrowing from the bank. A decrepit screened-in porch. A second bathroom.
If our resentments are a mirror held up to our desires, what I see myself valuing is somewhat unrecognizable these days. I used to think of gardening as homework you assign to yourself, and now I know that soon, I will deeply resent anyone boasting about homegrown produce. Yesterday, I was overcome with gratitude when my husband came home with two gallons of whole milk; the previous week, the store had only skim. I’ll never know the full picture of someone else’s quarantine, only what they share. I would not wish skim milk on anyone.
Before our state issued a stay-at-home order, we’d beat cabin fever by letting the kids roam the empty, cold beaches in our coastal town. Playgrounds were off-limits, but at the beach they could dig in the sand and build creepy altars from driftwood. The sloshing tide sounded like the recordings they pipe in for you at the spa, apocalyptic but pleasant. I posted about these outings on Instagram, thirsting for interaction from my friends. Hi. We’re still here. Maybe our melancholy beach picnics tipped some friends over into hitting mute. The mystery of the “mute” feature means I’ll never know.
The complex resentment leaderboard I’ve been tabulating in my mind makes less sense as a hierarchy for me lately. It’s come to feel instead like a dense web, a rich tapestry of resentment knitting us all together. For every shitty little beam of envy I shoot out into the world, it’s more than likely there is a twin beam of envy pinging back at me. “We’re all just walking each other home,” spiritual teacher Ram Dass wrote. Yes, no one goes through life alone. It’s just that when some of us walk each other home, we pause to look up the home on Zillow real quick.
It’s been two weeks since my son dropped Hippos Go Berserk on my face. Under a stay-at-home order until further notice, it feels like we’re living the same day over and over. Maybe that’s why it’s been astonishing to watch the shifting borders and watercolor hues of my black eye. If you muted me a while ago, you’d never even know it happened.