For nine years, JewishBoston.com has had the pleasure of following along with one woman’s journey of becoming a single mother by choice. Formerly a Boston resident and CJP colleague, Sarah Feinberg now lives with her 8-year-old daughter, Gali, in Washington, D.C. She fills us in after another year of pandemic parenting—the challenges, silver linings and everything in between.
Last time we checked in, it was just six months into the pandemic (we’re now in, gulp, month 18). What has life been like for you since then?
Life over the past year has been intense, sometimes isolating, a time of creativity, flexibility and exploration. We leaned into social distancing and had a small group of friends with whom we felt comfortable spending time outside. I invested in electric blankets and hand warmers. We bundled up and were able to spend Shabbat afternoons with friends outdoors through all seasons, including winter. Thank goodness we live in the South, where it didn’t get much colder than 30 degrees! We figured out how to bring our TV outside to have movie nights with friends on our patio. And when it was too cold to eat outside for Shabbat dinner, we often ate with close Boston friends by Zoom. We loved being able to connect nearly weekly with some of our Boston “framily” we used to see regularly when we lived there. We also have spent a lot of extra time with my parents and my sister and her family. We have always been city-oriented people, spending our free time hopping on the metro and going to museums. Over the past year, we’ve taken the opportunity to explore different hiking trails and other outside activities.
This was just in our personal lives. We’ve been very affected by the political landscape this year. Being in D.C. during the insurrection was very scary; I was figuring out how to find out what was going on and helping Gali process what was happening without scaring her too much, while still trying to understand it myself. We had gone downtown to see the Black Lives Matter signs and mural on 16th Street. I hadn’t realized the impact the language on the posters on the fence around the White House would have on Gali. And it was amazing to be here for the inauguration even if we were watching it on TV like everyone else. Gali had the day off from school, we dressed up, had special drinks and pulled out our FCTRY figurines of President Biden and Vice President Harris. It was so meaningful and powerful to watch the first female vice president be sworn in together.
How has Gali fared over the past year? Has this summer felt more “normal” for the two of you?
All things considered, Gali has done well this year. She was in-person at her school, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School, three days a week through Passover, and then she finished the year being in-person five days a week. And yet, even with this, it wasn’t normal. She was in school in a pod of 10 kids, which allowed her to develop deeper friendships with a few friends and also kept her apart from friends in other pods or classes. However, this year has been hard on her mentally. She has always been a sensitive child with strong feelings, and these aspects of her have intensified. It’s impossible to know how much of this is her growing and developing and how much of this is a result of living through COVID and all the restrictions it has placed on our lives. Fortunately, her teachers have been very supportive, and I’ve been able to lean on them and friends to help me support her.
One big positive to have come out of this time is an increase in independence for Gali. She learned how to cross a busy street and walk to a local market/ice cream shop by herself. She can now stay home for a few hours on her own. These have been huge milestones that I pushed for because of all the limitations with COVID. This summer has felt a bit more “normal.” Gali has been going to day camps all summer and even got her first taste of overnight camp for five days and nights. She had a good time at her first Jewish overnight camping experience at Capital Camps. She was very anxious in the week leading up to camp because it was a big, new thing and she couldn’t imagine what it would be like. Surprisingly, she was particularly nervous about making friends while I was a little more nervous about what she would eat. When I picked her up, she excitedly reported that she made two new friends that week—win! Those five days were heavenly for me, too!
You’re still parenting through a pandemic. What have been some of your hardest moments this year?
I think the hardest part for me has been helping Gali work through her deepening, growing, intensifying emotions and feelings. The concentration of our time together and the relative isolation added to this challenge. Both Gali and I are social people; we thrive on playdates and social activities and gatherings. Limiting these activities has been really hard on both of us, which only makes parenting harder. In last year’s post I talked about how I became a single parent by choice because of my community. For me, parenting is a communal activity, which has been significantly limited during the pandemic. Yes, I can still talk to my friends, but I had to go out of my way to do so. I have missed having off-the-cuff conversations when I run into people or during kiddush at shul. And I don’t get a break. Gali has been with me constantly with limited after-school activities and limited weekend activities. We just had our first spontaneous playdate after Shabbat service, which used to be our norm. I’m hoping for more of this.
Last year, you lost your job and were worried about finances as a single parent. Has that stress eased at all since then? Do you feel more settled in your professional life?
Fortunately, yes! I spent most of the year consulting with Jews United for Justice and JOIN for Justice. In May I started a new full-time position as the chief financial and administrative officer at the Bender Jewish Community Center. I am really happy in this role and at this organization. After so many years of working in a typical office environment, I’m really enjoying seeing and experiencing the direct impact of my work on our staff, the members, the preschool students and the campers, and having the added bonus of having a fitness center in the building. I love opening my office windows when it’s not too hot and humid so I can hear the joyous sounds of the kids playing on the front lawn. I have joined a wonderful team of people who are smart, caring and supportive. I am excited to see what we all do together.
You dealt with some health issues during the pandemic. How are you doing, and what does self-care look like for you now?
Fortunately, I have mostly recovered from my surgery last summer, and while I had a couple of minor related health issues earlier this summer, I seem to be back to my “normal” self. I mentioned above that one of the perks of working at a JCC is having a fitness center in the building. I have been trying to take advantage and swim at least twice a week. Some weeks are better than others, mostly depending on Gali’s schedule. But having swam right up until she was born, it feels good to be going back to that form of exercise. I have a waterproof MP3 player, so I plug myself in and get a good 30-minute session.
How are you currently relying on your community and support system? I know that has always been so important to you.
This has been the hardest part of the pandemic—not being able to see our community in person each week. We continued to be active participants in a Zoom havurah through most of the year. Gali would get upset if I suggested we miss a week! Close readers from previous posts know we have a close family friend who used to read with Gali after services every week. She has upped the ante and has been reading with Gali twice per week over Zoom—they have nearly finished three books in “The Mysterious Benedict Society” series. We even had a siyyum (completion party) after they finished the last book, and it looks like I need to plan another one. After they read, I usually get to talk with my friend for a bit.
Another friend and I began walking regularly. She’s a child psychologist, so not only did I love catching up with her as my friend, I also picked her brain on how to help Gali. We are lucky to have friends with covered porches or driveways who were happy to let us invite ourselves over for outside Shabbat meals, even in more inclement weather. All of this has helped me manage my sanity and, yet, I, like many, have greatly missed the people we see in person. Over the past couple months, as more friends have become vaccinated, it’s been so wonderful to begin opening that circle up more. Once I was fully vaccinated, we also went back to our synagogue in-person, inside. Slowly we’re beginning to reconnect with the broader community.
Despite living in a pandemic, you’ve had many special moments with your daughter. What are some of the highlights?
Some real talk: At first, this question tripped me up. I was having a hard time thinking about special moments because it feels like we don’t go anywhere or do anything. As many of us have said all year, yesterday, today and tomorrow are “Blursday.” So, I asked Gali to help me out and it turns out we did have many special moments, some bigger and some smaller:
- We reorganized the furniture in her room last summer, and this summer she decided that her room wasn’t “her,” so we found a loft bed on Craigslist and created an 8-year-old room.
- We took advantage of earlier pickups from school to explore special outdoor spaces in D.C.: the memorial for Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court after she died, the white flags exhibit that commemorated those who had died from COVID-19 and the crocheted mural of Kamala Harris on the wharf. We spent an afternoon seeing the cherry blossoms and visiting some of our favorite monuments.
- We actually got real snow this past winter and had a great time sledding and having snowball fights.
- Gali made me breakfast by herself for my birthday and we had a lovely morning together.
- Even though we had to celebrate Purim at home, we still made coordinated costumes that we shared on Zoom with our community. This year we went as popcorn and cotton candy.
- Gali began playing Little League baseball this spring. We spent many evenings playing catch and practicing her hitting. Cheering her on was a highlight of the spring.
- We snuck into a local country club and got to watch their Fourth of July fireworks up close. Gali was nervous we’d be caught!
- Sunday night is movie night. I put all my devices away and we eat dinner on the couch and snuggle.
One last thing: This year, Gali began a new way of communicating with me when she had big things or hard things to say to me that she was struggling with. She has been putting pen to paper and writing a note that she leaves under my pillow for me to find. Sometimes these notes were expressions of her feelings and sometimes they were apologies for how she’d been behaving. Always they were heartfelt, touching and opened the door for important conversations between us.
Let’s check in with Gali herself: What’s something special you enjoyed doing with your mom this year? What has been the hardest part of the year for you?
“Day of Yes” because I got to spend the whole day with my mom. She wasn’t working and I wasn’t in school or at camp. The hardest part has been since my mom started her new job because my grandparents or other people need to pick me up when my mom is busy at work.
You were already doing an annual “Day of Yes” even before the film with Jennifer Garner came out this year! What did “Day of Yes” look like this year?
Gali’s fourth “Day of Yes” was the day before she left for camp. As she often does, she drew out a map of all the things she planned for us to do. For the first time, we didn’t accomplish her entire list! And, for the first time, going shopping was part of her plan. I think the highlight for her was going to Target and being able to pick something out knowing I would have to say yes. She hasn’t been this sneaky before! Other than that, and lunch at her favorite restaurant, Chipotle, the day was spent at home. We started the day with a movie and did crafting together. She wanted to go to museums, but none were open on Monday. She asked to have dinner with her cousin, aunt and grandparents. Everyone showed up for her and gave her a great send-off to sleep-away camp.
Do you plan to take any actions to grow your family in the coming year or two? I know you’ve thought about it, but various circumstances (like the pandemic) have gotten in the way.
It’s still in the back of my mind. I still hope to foster parent. But between my employment situation and the pandemic, I’ve made no progress in this area.
Does Gali still interact with her “diblings” (donor siblings) online? What kinds of questions does she ask you about it?
Gali interacts with one dibling who she’s connected to on Facebook Messenger for Kids. She doesn’t often talk about them or ask any questions. Although, recently, she has been noting that we haven’t seen any in a while. I think, for her, this is just a normal part of her life. Over the summer, though, as she attended different camps for the first time, she encountered kids who had a hard time understanding that she doesn’t have a father. She has complained to me several times that kids, understandably, assume that there is a father but not around. Because our family is normal to her, she’s incredulous that they don’t understand that there is no father at all. She may find it frustrating, but I think it’s wonderful that she thinks it’s so normal.
What role has Jewish tradition and ritual played in your lives this year?
Jewish traditions and rituals have always guided how we live our lives. This year, in particular, they gave us structure in a very amorphous time. Shabbat became the one time during the week we could count on connecting with people outside our little family. The holidays gave focus to our activities—Sukkot was the perfect pandemic holiday because we were already planning on eating outside with friends, we lit Hanukkah candles virtually with some and outside with others, we still got creative with our Purim costumes to share virtually with our community, and the Passover cleaning was especially important given how much time we were spending at home. Our synagogue, Ohr Kodesh Congregation, helped us get in the spirit for Shavuot by bringing its usual ice cream truck in advance of the holiday and reinstituting its annual picnic lunch after services. These touch points anchored us.
Looking ahead to the Jewish New Year (and, frankly, an uncertain pandemic future), what are your goals for the year for you and Gali?
My goals for Gali are to continue to develop her ability to be open to new experiences and new foods, help her learn tools for managing her emotions and generally to have a positive attitude. For me, I’m aiming for stability and continuing to move toward a new normal.
Let’s end on a note of gratitude. What are you most thankful for this year? And what helps keep you going?
I asked Gali this question and she said: “My friends and family. Being able to have playdates with my friends and having sleepovers with my cousin and having a lot of dinners with Saba and Savta (her grandparents).” For me, I am also thankful for our family and friends, as well as our broader community, which has figured out creative ways to gather and be “together” during this pandemic.