It was Friday March 6, 2020. At the time, it seemed like any other Friday, which in our house, we call “Mommy-Susannah-Simon Fundays.” In the olden days, Fridays included a fun activity to the playground, park, library, museum, etc. On Friday March 6, I took the kids to the aquarium. (We had bought annual passes as a family Christmas treat).
That day we stood right next to other families (strangers!) to see fishes, sharks, and hippos. We thought nothing of it. When my daughter had to go potty, I pulled the double stroller into the largest stall. With my almost 4-month-old son snoozing in the top seat, I helped my almost 3-year-old go potty. Then she stood next to me while I went. That’s when it happened. My daughter did something so gross, I can’t even believe I am putting it into words.
She licked the toilet. She licked a public toilet as a global pandemic loomed.
At that point in history, social distancing wasn’t yet a thing. Nothing had been shut down. We had only been told to wash our hands and stay home if we were immune compromised. Yet, terrifying stories were coming out of China and Italy. The news was telling us that a few cases had come to the USA. Six days later, our country would shut down and life would change. There wouldn’t be aquarium trips (so glad we bought that annual pass…) There wouldn’t be Mommy-Susannah-Simon Fridays. It was about to become Mommy-Daddy-Susannah-Simon all days. We’d only be taking trips to the backyard. But that was March 12.
On March 6, I stood in a bathroom stall at the aquarium screaming at my toddler. “Why?! Why would you do that?! We don’t lick toilets! There might be a pandemic and you’re licking toilets!” I took paper towels and wiped down her tongue and then made her drink all the water in her cup. If you were in the Adventure Aquarium bathroom that day, I’m sorry. I was THAT crazy mom screaming about pandemics and toilets. You may have judged me and my gross kid, but be honest, you would’ve done the same. Actually, if you are a parent, I’m pretty sure you’ve been there. Let’s face it: kids are gross.
I’ve never been a mom, or a person for that matter, to worry about germs. Touch a gross railing? Eh, wipe off your hands. Bodily fluids? That’s part of the parenting deal. Eat a little dirt? That’s just building immunity. But this crossed a line. This was germs on another level. This bathroom moment marked a milestone for me. It was the first time I was personally scared of COVID-19, or about the transmission of germs, or about my family getting seriously ill. This was the first time I was scared for our safety. But as we know, it was not the last.
In fact, I do not know if I will ever stop being scared about germs now. Will I ever causally think about entering a public bathroom? Will I ever be safe in a crowd? Will I ever go out again without hand sanitizer, mask, and wipes? Will my kids become scared of being close to other people?
In the early days of the pandemic, no one knew how COVID-19 was spreading, just that it was spreading (and spreading fast here in New Jersey). We were not yet told to wear masks. We were told to stay home, to stay 6 feet apart from others, to wash hands, and to wipe everything down. We closed the church building and moved to online worship with 3 days’ notice. We stayed home. We pulled our children from daycare. We ordered groceries online. We wiped down our mail and groceries. We washed our hands until they were raw. We saw no one. We were scared.
At home, my husband and I scrambled to manage our fears in front of our children. At work, I tried to manage my fears in front of my congregation. I proclaimed: Do not fear! I preached about the hundreds of times that the Bible announces: Do not be afraid!
But I was afraid. I was afraid of something I couldn’t see or manage or control. I was afraid of something invisible in the air, but visible in destruction. I was afraid for my young kids (what if they got sick?). I was afraid for my husband and I (what if we got sick and couldn’t care for our kids?). I was afraid for my parents in the high-risk group (what if they got sick and we are 6 hours away?) I was afraid for my church family (what if this spread through our church? What if I couldn’t be with someone while they died? What if we made the wrong decision and people fell sick or died?)
I have a soap dish that reads, “Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” I bought it a few years ago as a joke, thinking lightheartedly about the presence of germs. Yet now, it serves both as a constant reminder of what I fear and the one who tells me not to fear. Germs may be everywhere (behind that mask, on the railing of those stairs, on your child’s sticky hands), but Jesus is everywhere too. So yes, I fear, but I also have faith that God sits with me in my fear. In scripture, time after time, God appears to mere flawed, fearful humans such as ourselves and proclaims: “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be afraid, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10). What we often fail to see in these verses is that the Bible doesn’t say “do not fear” because there is nothing to fear. No, God says, when we are fearful, God is with us. When we are fearful, God is beside us.
It is now August 17. We have been living fearfully with the reality of COVID-19 for 158 days. Some days, the fear still feels heavy. Other days, the fear feels manageable. On none of the last 158 days have I not feared. In fact, I need a healthy fear. If I do not fear, I am not cautious. If I do not fear, I forget a real danger. If I do not fear, I put others at risk.
And so, day by day, week by week, month by month, we manage the fear. 158 days into the pandemic and we are not fearfully locked inside wiping down our mail. Instead, we go out with caution and precautions. We wear masks. We wash our hands. We go to playgrounds and beaches, staying far away from others. We have sent our kids back to daycare, where numerous precaution guidelines are followed. Yet we are still distanced from beloved family and friends; we still worship exclusively online; we still order groceries and supplies for pickup only. We’re not as fearful, but we are just as cautious.
“We wash our hands and say our prayers because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” These days we are saying extra prayers and washing extra good because it’s nearly impossible to control what two small children (now 9 months and 3 ½ years old) will touch, lick, or dive into. For no matter how much modeling and instruction we do, kids will be kids (and kids will be germy).
And so it happened again, 5 months later. Last weekend, my daughter and I had a special girls day out in Smithville Village, where we could have safe outdoor fun. For nearly the entire day, Susannah followed all the social distancing rules: she wore her mask on the train ride; she washed with hand sanitizer after the carousel ride; she held my hand in a store and didn’t touch a thing. Then … she had to go potty.
So once again, we made our way to a public restroom. We wore masks. We put down our own toilet liner. She went. Then I went. That’s when it happened. She laid down on the floor and tried to shimmy under the door. I caught her dress and pulled her up screaming: “Why?! Why would you do that?! We’re in a pandemic and you’re laying down on a bathroom floor!” That was me again. I apologize if you happen to be in the Smithville ladies’ room that day. I was THAT crazy mom screaming about pandemics and bathroom floors. There and then, I took off her dress, washed her down in the sink, and put on new clothes. When we got outside, I made her use the hand sanitizer over top of the soap, just in case.
So, I have learned a few things: I cannot control the germs. I cannot control my kids’ propensity for being gross. But I can take precautions. I can pray. I can trust that God is in control. And most of all: I can never ever enter a public restroom again.