Pandemic Mothers by Helena Duffy

Collegium Researcher Helena Duffy

More than ever I am surrounded by my ‘Holocaust mothers’ (the focus of my TIAS project). I used to get a break from them by going to conferences, writing articles on unrelated topics, or even going to the swimming pool. I loved my Finnish lunch. Early and boundless. And, unlike anything else in this country, affordable. And followed by a cup of coffee. Well, actually two cups of coffee. A stroll by the river. Then another cup of coffee at the main library. Coffee, proximity of books and sense of my own anonymity were so conducive to writing.

But things have now changed and I am mostly stuck at home with the ghosts of women wearing 1940s dresses and hairdos and fussing over their children. They are in my kitchen making gefilte fisch or kugel. They are working with margarine in the absence of butter, replace double cream with condensed milk. They chop liver. They make the best noodles in the world. They still observe the kosher rules and the Shabbos and take pride in being able to feed their families with the little that there is to feed them with.

When I was little, my grandmother often told me about Jewish life in prewar Poland. One image that has stuck with me is that of a mother chasing her kid with a half-peeled banana in her hand. Bananas were a rare treat in my communist childhood. How easy were they to obtain before the war? And was it the same mother as the one from the well-known Jewish joke? This one is running along the beach in Tel Aviv, waving her arms in the air and shouting ‘Help, help, my doctor son is drowning!’ I like to think that yes. That she and her child were somehow among those Jews of Czestochowa who survived, and who, after the war, found their Promised Land full of bananas. Nice and ripe.

So Jewish women cared about their children. Or so do stereotypes teach us. Don’t all mothers do? Ok, perhaps they do less so or in a less obvious fashion. They are not ridiculously overprotective or overambitious in relation to their children’s education and professional success. In this sense, I am a Jewish mother. I panic over a grazed knee and prioritise my child’s learning over the book (about Jewish mothers) I am writing.

Last week, I had to take a decision. Send my child back to school or educate him myself at home. At least Finland gave me the choice. Much more concerned about Ofsted ratings, an English school may not have done so. Living with three Zoom meetings a day all taking place in my kitchen seemed like hell. But living without them and improvising as a K2 teacher will be ever greater hell. Or shall I send him back to school after all? Three hours a day to myself (hurray!) and no need to cook lunch (hurray!). And the danger of catching coronavirus in a country where I have few friends and hardly speak the language. Would my son know to keep a safe distance from the mates he has not seen for two months? Would he wash his hands after and before lunch, and then again and again? Or will he stick his mate’s pencil in his mouth as he is trying to find the common denominator for the two fractions he has been asked to add?

What to do, I ask myself as I am reading Ilona Karmel’s The Estate of Memory. In the hard-labour camp of Skarżysko in Poland a woman is giving birth. Should her ‘camp sisters’ drown the newborn in a bucket of water or try to smuggle it out of the camp risking their lives?

Professor Hanna Meretoja says we shouldn’t compare the pandemic to war. She is right. Not in the way the governments have done. We will prevail, we will meet again. And yet I weep listening to the Queen and then to a Radio 4 programme about Vera Lynn, during which the presenter uses the opportunity of being on air to say a few words to his own mother, a resident in a care home. She’s too frail to get to the phone and he hasn’t spoken to her for a week. But our brains work by analogy and, even if it is not for political reasons, we compare bad things that happen to us to what we know or at least think we know. It is a coping strategy. We have been through this already and we will get through this again. We will prevail. We will meet again. I feel ashamed of musing about wartime food shortages when I have to do without Italian pasta for a week. And yet I do.

Since giving birth or even before that, I have been taking these decisions. Should I have that drop of red wine or will it harm the foetus? I often ask my mother for advice but don’t always follow it. Should I have my kid vaccinated against measles, rubella and mumps? Should I leave him in hospital although the midwife has just whispered in my ear that there is nothing wrong with my child and I should ask to be discharged? Should I send him to school during a pandemic or risk being chastised by Daily Mail readers as a mother dangerously playing with her child’s future? Should I deprive him of the much needed contact with his peers and of the opportunity to learn in a group? My motherhood, I feel, is still owned by others. I am not mothering. I am acting on behalf of often ill-informed experts and those who have no regard for the experts yet like to pronounce their views on Facebook. They all want to take decisions about the welfare of my child. But I will be the one dealing with the consequences of these decisions, whether they turn out good or bad.

I go to the BBC page where, as always, I find solace. You can rely on the BBC and I am glad the government, too busy with the points-based immigration system, hasn’t dismantled it yet. We start with math, then go through prehistoric Britain and finish off with some stuff on homonyms and personal pronouns. Now for some French. A trip to les Calanques. A reading comprehension based on Roald Dahl’s novel is followed by writing a short story about two young women getting lost in an amusement park. An experiment with light and the following day one about friction. We ride our bikes on the beach, over gravel, down a forest path and then on tarmac. Which is the hardest? We shine torches on objects. Wow, light reflects in a metal spoon and gets through an IKEA glass. In ten days, we have covered a lot of ground and I am enjoying myself. I set my son several tasks and go upstairs to work. Then lunch. I cook while checking his work. We eat. Playtime. Worktime. A bike trip to the Littoinen mill where we both learn about capitalism at its best and how linen is produced. A walk in the woods. Then our daily piano practice. Some Tintin on DVD. Finally, we are reading Harry Potter in bed.

No, this is not war, but, whatever the circumstances, being a mother means taking decisions about your child. It means being instructed and then judged by others. And dealing with the consequences of your choices yourself. How easy would it be to ask my son: Do you want to go to school? Here are the pros and the cons. You decide. He does. He wants to stay at home. But it is really me who has decided and it is me, the pandemic mother, that will be ultimately responsible.


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