I’ll admit: Sarah Feinberg and I have a weirdly wonderful tradition. Exactly once a year, during the summer, I email her to ask if she wants to have a parenting check-in. And for seven (yes, seven!) years, she’s graciously agreed. Am I a fellow parent or some kind of expert, you might ask? Not in the slightest! I’m just a former colleague (Sarah used to work at CJP) who has maintained a healthy curiosity about one woman’s journey as a single mother by choice.
I’ve been publishing interviews with Sarah since she gave birth to her daughter, Gali, who is now 7. Mother and daughter now live in Washington, D.C., where Sarah is parenting—like so many of you—through a pandemic. In this eighth installment, she generously, and with vulnerability, lets us into her life as a single mom and shares the highs and lows of this very unusual year.
Even though it’s only been one year since we last checked in, so much has happened. (Looking at you, COVID-19.) So, let’s start there. What has quarantining with your daughter during the coronavirus pandemic been like? What has your life looked like since March?
As soon as I realized we were going into quarantine, I reached out to a good friend and asked if we could isolate with their family because I was worried about isolating just the two of us. When I decided to become a single parent by choice, I didn’t take quarantine into account! Community is everything for me, and I knew I could be a single parent because of my community. Fortunately, our friends were kind and generous and welcomed us with open arms. Their son is in Gali’s class, so they were on the same schedule and in the same Zoom sessions. We were with them until the end of the school year—at least two months longer than we ever could have expected. While we all had big adjustments to spending so much time together, it was way better than the alternative of being alone. I had two other adults I could lean on not only for childcare but, more important, for emotional support. We did add my parents and my sister’s family into the mix over time, and we have slowly added in a few other friends whom we interact with outdoors and masked.
Gali keeps asking why the coronavirus had to happen. We have tried to make the best of it with lots of FaceTime dates with friends, although that quickly lost its allure. Gali also made her first foray into Messenger Kids, which I wouldn’t have otherwise introduced but has turned into a great way for her to stay connected with friends and family without my involvement. And watching her first venture into texting has been very entertaining! At the beginning, when it was so new, she would sometimes say to me, “Ima, I just can’t deal with all my messages right now.” Now, as her friends are being kept busy in other ways and not online as much, she has pulled back also.
This time has been challenging for everyone, especially parents. What’s your biggest challenge as a single mom right now? What keeps you up at night?
This past year has been a hard year for reasons beyond the virus. I lost my job last September and have been looking for a full-time position while doing interim work with a couple of great social justice organizations. I have also been dealing with some medical issues for the past several months, which culminated in surgery at the beginning of the summer.
Aside from those really big life challenges, the day-to-day is a lot. Every time I turn around, another friend is sharing an article about parenting through a pandemic, usually with a comment of, “I feel seen.” Most of these articles are written by women focusing on how much of the childcare and homecare still falls to them. None of these articles acknowledge those of us who are doing this alone. I am still the only adult at home who is trying to work, manage Gali’s education and summer activities, do grocery ordering and pickup, cook our meals and keep our home clean. While I’m generally used to doing all of this, like all other parents I don’t usually have a child home all the time. Fortunately, I’ve been able to lean on my parents for help.
Our financial situation is probably what keeps me up the most at night. As we get closer to the school year, I’m adding the anxiety of whether Gali will be exposed to the virus when she’s with her classmates. Her school, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, pivoted quickly and well in the spring and kept her engaged for most of the school day. They’re now planning a hybrid model where she’ll be in person, outside, with a subset of her class one day each week. I’m excited for her and also still nervous about broadening our fairly closed circle.
How are you taking care of your own needs right now? Do you have any time for self-care? What does help from your support system look like these days?
Because I’m recovering from surgery, I’ve been focusing on things that help with healing. I go on daily walks around our apartment complex; it takes about 15-20 minutes to do one loop, so I try to do that at least twice a day. I’ve also been spending more time in our garden this summer than ever before. I get such a sense of accomplishment from seeing our plants grow, flower and produce vegetables! I’ve been pickling a lot. We’re spending a lot more time with my parents and my sister’s family. And instead of friends coming over to hang out, we FaceTime during meals. We have a family friend who reads with Gali over FaceTime twice a week; it’s so helpful to have other people she can talk to and confide in.
As the only adult in our house, I’ve doubled down on connecting with my people who aren’t local. I reconnected with my two best friends from childhood, and now we have monthly Zoom get-togethers. I watch TV with another friend over the phone almost every week. These touchpoints at night after Gali goes to bed have been so critical to keeping my sanity. While my connections with my longtime friends have strengthened, I’m also realizing I need to refocus on my local people who are also so important to us and whom I’m no longer seeing every week.
What about silver linings—has anything surprised you about having this much time with Gali? Any special moments you’ve shared?
I’ve tried to approach this as a special time when we’re lucky to have so much time together—time we wouldn’t have had and time we won’t get back. Gali turned 7 in April and I tried to make the day extra special since she couldn’t have the sleepover birthday party she had been planning. Over the summer, I’ve tried not to have a strict schedule, taking advantage of not having to rush anywhere in the morning. It’s been nice being able to let Gali follow her natural circadian rhythm of staying up later, sleeping later and still having extra time to snuggle in the morning.
We also started having movie nights on Sunday nights. We’ve been watching classic family movies from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, which has been a blast for me and so entertaining watching her through them! Gali got really comfortable riding her bike and spent hours during the spring riding around our friends’ neighborhood. She also discovered design and architecture; she’s been building houses and accessories out of cardboard boxes for her dolls. She’s a whiz with the hot-glue gun! Just this week, we completed a big project that Gali has had in the works for months—she had been asking to rearrange her room and had definite ideas of what it should look like. We finally moved everything around to fit her design. She was so proud of herself and so happy with how it turned out. It’s really fun watching her continue to exert her independence and to know that now that she’s old enough, I can follow her lead too!
Let’s ask Gali: What’s the best part about being home with your mom? What’s the hardest part?
Gali said: “The best part is more time with her. I like having a relaxed schedule in the morning during the summer. The hardest part is learning from home because it’s a little challenging for me and a little boring to learn online.”
After we talked last year, you had about six months of “normalcy” before the pandemic hit. What were the highlights of the fall and winter? What was going well in the life of mom and daughter? What felt challenging?
Gali started first grade and was thriving! She really connected with her teachers, her classmates and her studies. Outside of school, I introduced her to “Little House on the Prairie” and we have slowly been working our way through the book series and watching the TV show. She’s developing an interest in history, and it’s been good fodder for discussions about gender roles, the different kinds of people who make up America and lots of other ways of life that are anachronistic to our lives today. We continued our annual tradition of a “Day of Yes,” during which we do what Gali wants, which last summer included going to the Museum of American Indians, at the time a new favorite. We got to celebrate a few friends’ b’nai mitzvah, and we celebrated my parents’ 50th anniversary with a weekend of local celebrations and then a family trip to Mexico. It was really wonderful to have that time together!
Gali thrives on challenging me. If she doesn’t like something I’ve said or asked her to do, she pushes back and questions my request or decision. And as she gets older and her vocabulary grows, she gives me a run for my money any time she’s not happy with a situation or with me. This can be taxing and often requires some mental gymnastics on my part. But I also know it’s a good developmental trait that she doesn’t take everything at face value and is pushing to express her own opinions. Lately, a lot of things don’t make sense to her as we’re getting into more complicated ideas; figuring out how to explain everything to her satisfaction keeps me on my toes.
Last year you said you were interested in potentially growing your family. Is that something that was on the horizon before the pandemic? What about now?
I’m always thinking about it but haven’t done anything to move the thoughts into action. At this point, I need to get resettled in my professional life before I can turn my attention to something this big. And now, with the pandemic, I’m able to mostly keep all our balls in the air because it’s just the two of us. But I still have hope.
In previous updates you’ve shared that Gali has developed relationships with her donor siblings. How have those relationships evolved this year?
Since Gali has been on Messenger Kids, it’s been wonderful for her to have the freedom to connect with her kid friends, adult friends and family on her own, without me in the middle. One of the people she’s been regularly messaging and video chatting with is one of her “diblings.” This is a lovely silver lining to the pandemic. I continue to connect with the other parents on Facebook. Before the coronavirus, we had talked about getting together this summer in person; hopefully in the future we’ll be able to.
There’s a lot going on in the world right now. How do you talk to Gali about current events, from the virus and racial justice to the presidential election? What is she curious about?
We live in Washington, D.C., where national politics are our local politics. Gali hears it all and we talk about it. Many of the books we read before bed are children’s books about civil rights, activism and women’s rights. Sometimes I bring up topics and sometimes I wait for her to ask questions. I don’t shy away from any questions she asks. It’s important to me that she knows and understands our white privilege and that there are many people who experience life differently because of the color of their skin. She gets it and is often incredulous when hearing about things that happen to Black people or when women aren’t allowed to do something. While it was too risky for me to participate in the Black Lives Matter marches at the beginning of the summer, we did participate in weekly Friday afternoon vigils organized by local houses of worship. We talked about why it was important.
A couple weeks ago, Gali announced to me that she had decided what she was going to be when she grows up: president of the United States. Aside from the fact that she doesn’t like getting up in front of groups of people, I love that she believes this is a natural option for her, just like being an architect, a teacher or any of the other professions she talks about.
How have Jewish tradition and rituals kept you grounded this year, especially during the pandemic?
We continue to observe Shabbat every week. When we were isolating with our friends, we started a tradition that each week had a different theme for Shabbat dinner. For example, one week was LEGO week and another was superhero week. We would decorate the room and plan the menu to fit the theme. We found that this gave us something to look forward to during the course of the week. Now, we often spend part of Shabbat with my parents and sometimes with impromptu outdoor picnics with close friends.
For a while, our synagogue didn’t have virtual services on Shabbat morning—something that’s a mainstay of our week. Friends started hosting a service on Zoom during Passover and we’ve been participating ever since. They structure it in a way that encourages each of us to sign up and participate in the service. They specifically ask that children help lead certain parts. Gali, who usually won’t go on the bima, has been volunteering to lead Ashrei, Ein Keloheynu and Adon Olam. It’s such a joy to see her take this on and to witness the pride she experiences each time she does. Our synagogue now has livestream services, which we also participate in, followed by “kiddush” with the Zoom group. Gali always makes sure we can participate—partly because of the grape juice and treat she gets, but also because she really enjoys going into breakout groups and talking with the other participants.
Looking ahead to an uncertain year, what are your hopes for Gali as she starts second grade, in whatever form that takes? What are your hopes for yourself?
It’s simple: that she continues to grow, learn new things and mature. I don’t think these hopes are so different than if these were normal times. I hope that through this period she maintains her love of learning and continues to be kind and a good friend. I hope she’s able to maintain her overall positive attitude and not get too frustrated with the off-campus learning. I hope we find ways to keep her active and moving her body.
For me, I hope my professional life stabilizes. I hope the healing I’ve been going through physically finishes. Not having these two big aspects of my life in flux will be a big relief.
It’s a dark time in our country and world right now. What gives you hope?
Seeing the small and big acts of kindness that individuals around me are engaged in and being part of a community that looks out for each of us. A friend created a WhatsApp group toward the beginning of the pandemic; one of the amazing acts of kindness is that people often announce when they’re going to Costco or Trader Joe’s and offer to pick things up. They share articles of inspiration and we all cheer each other on through both positive and challenging moments in our lives. I have single parent friends in our apartment complex who also offer to pick things up from the store for the rest of us. I also joined a Facebook group dedicated to sharing things for free with each other to reduce landfills and build community. Each of these small acts of kindness give me hope in this very troubled world.