I have a confession: I’ve done things in quarantine that I hesitate to say aloud.
Last week, it was this: I was so filled with rage that I went out to my car and screamed and beat my hands so hard against my steering wheel that the soft edges of my palms ached for days.
When I say rage, you know exactly what I mean. I mean the kind that comes for you at 9 a.m. when your youngest is whining about schoolwork and your eldest has already told you no a dozen times that day. I mean the kind that comes at 6 p.m. when everyone is cranky and wanting dinner and you aren’t sure you have enough food to make it through the week so you pull open the fridge to see what you can stretch. I mean the kind that comes at 11 p.m. when the dog is barking to go out and no one else will take him, when the laundry is still sitting on the recliner where you left it a week ago, when your partner tosses their clothes on the floor for the hundredth time and is in the mood to fuck and the words well up in you like somebody’s sliced you open and you’re seeping blood: fuck you. Fuck no.
This rage is stealth, and there are spikes in it: another person you know gets COVID. Another piece-of-shit racist cop has murdered another Black man. Another politician says the American people have been given enough to make do but corporations deserve more. It’s the kind of rage that makes you dig your nails into your steering-wheel-bruised palms until they nearly puncture, the kind that makes you scream into your pillow at night until you want to tear it open with your teeth, the kind that shapes you and sometimes shaves a few pieces off, the kind that forever changes what it shapes.
I can almost see you nodding.
Last month in this column, I wrote about how devastating the pandemic has been on caregivers and about one of the overarching sources of our collective rage: so many people, primarily women, have given up their careers and identities to care for children and disabled folks and the elderly because the government has refused to help. Although the media is covering this, most of the stories they focus on are the stories of white, cis, middle-class women. The caregiver stories we most often miss are those that rarely make it into the archives of the United States because they often fall into the overlooked spaces that whiteness and cisness and wealth force them into because whiteness and cisness and wealth bulldoze everything in their path. The stories that most need thoughtful, ethical preservation are the stories of Indigenous, Black, and other caregivers of color; disabled caregivers; undocumented caregivers; queer caregivers; and working class and low-income caregivers.
This month, I began the process of stepping gently—when invited—into those spaces to listen: I interviewed two caregivers whose stories are exemplative of the kind that the United States often overlooks. As I’ve begun to research and gather these stories, I’ve learned that many of them fall into at least one of four categories of emotional response: rage, lust (or lack thereof), grief, or isolation and loneliness. This month, the experiences of each of my caregiver interviewees are distinct, but what binds them to one another, and what binds them to me, is rage.
When the pandemic began, 37-year-old Selene Lacayo, who lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania, quarantined with her husband and three young children, and she learned firsthand how the isolation and lack of social support leaves caregivers abandoned and angry.
“I had no space,” she said. “I stay home, but I work from home as a translator, and I feel like everybody is a priority except for the mom.” Because Lacayo’s husband earns more, “his job takes priority, so I’m the one, if a kid is crying, (I say) ‘come here, I will take care of you,’” she said. It’s also difficult for Lacayo to ask her husband for more support because he’s grappling with his own grief; he lost his mother to COVID not long ago, and because she fell ill and died in Lebanon, “he wasn’t able to be with her. He didn’t get to say goodbye.”
In addition to shouldering the primary responsibility for parenting and her kids’ education and holding down her own job, Lacayo is also in graduate school, writing her thesis. “It’s become impossible to write it because it’s like, two sentences, and then someone needs help with a Zoom thing, or how do I do math,” she said. “It’s to the point that I’m like okay, I have tried so hard to stay home with you, it has been eleven years, and I’m doing this for myself, and I cannot even do it.” Because there is no help and no relief, Lacayo feels like she’s not doing anything well; at the same time, she feels profoundly guilty. “This was going to be my one semester to do the things I needed to do for my degree, and I feel robbed of that, and at the same time, I feel the guilt because the kids also got robbed of one year of their childhood,” she said.
In the midst of her rage and guilt, Lacayo also feels the weight of her own privilege. She says she has a home, she and her husband have jobs, and she was able to visit her parents in Mexico before the winter brought more restrictions. “Do I have the right to complain?,” she asked.
While logic reminds her that she does, Lacayo still feels the tension of her situation every day. “It is really a complicated thing because yes, I want to be here for everybody, and I’m the rock, and all of that, but also it’s like okay, the rock also needs a little break, and I have no break,” she said. On the rare occasion that Lacayo does get a break, she said “it’s just to cry in the car with another friend who’s also having a breakdown.”
To Lacayo and other caregivers like her, crying is a luxury. “I have to have this smile, but it’s gotten to the point that I don’t have a smile anymore, and I cannot just cry in front of (my kids) because I have to be their cheerleader,” she said. Crying in the car or in the closet, said Lacayo, is how most of her friends who are moms are dealing with not having any time for themselves. And each day the pandemic continues is a reminder that the identities, dreams, and desires of caregivers are being sacrificed by our country—and by caregiver’s own partners—every single day. “Nobody tells you you don’t count, but really, with their actions, (they’re telling you) you don’t count,” said Lacayo.
Like so many of us, Lacayo said there is so much she misses about pre-pandemic life. “This is gonna sound privileged but I miss the social stuff,” she said. “I miss my friends, I miss the contact. Being Hispanic, I grew up with people on top of me all the time. I’m missing that. I need that.”
What Lacayo has learned most from the pandemic is the utter absurdity of the expectations that the United States places on mothers. “I think there’s this expectation of moms never breaking, moms never crying, moms always being perfect and being the reason why the family keeps running, and I hate to say that I have to hide from my kids to cry, but I have to hide from my kids to cry,” she said.
And yet just like the pandemic, the expectations for mothers and other caregivers have no reprieve. “I’ve reached the point that nothing is making me look forward to (anything),” said Lacayo. “Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? I just don’t see the light anymore.”
Rage is central to the pandemic experience for many caregivers in part because it is easy for anger to build under pressure when there’s no relief. Anonymous, a 44-year-old white woman in North Carolina, told me that in addition to managing the tremendous stress of the pandemic, she’s also dealing with the pressures of an imbalanced marriage, online schooling for two kids, both with autism, and the realization that “I am not now, nor have I ever been, straight.”
But the fact that she’s queer and still closeted, said Anonymous, is the least of her problems right now. “It’s like tough shit,” she said. “Why would I tell anyone? I can’t even get a shower daily.”
For Anonymous, the real source of her rage is the disconnect between the emotional, physical, and mental workload she’s handling and her husband’s inability to recognize how much she does and how necessary his help is to alleviating her stress. “My husband ‘knows’ how much I’m doing with the kids, how much pressure I put myself under, but he still won’t do much because apparently so much of what I do is just what mothers do,” she said. “He thinks mothers are inherently better at that stuff than fathers. No matter how often I tell him, he doesn’t get that we don’t do it because we’re better at it, but because someone fucking has to.”
Another big problem, said Anonymous, is that to her husband, she’s been completely subsumed by the role of mother. “My god, when he was watching Aliens with the oldest, he was like ‘I think you’ll like this,’ because of the theme of motherhood/protecting, not because Ripley is a badass or because Sygourney (sic) Weaver is hot as hell,” she said.
And yet the final trigger that constantly pushes Anonymous into a state of rage is her anger at herself. After undergrad, she got an MFA and put herself into debt because “I believed I had potential, and that I could use that opportunity to work hard and make something happen for myself and rise above the poverty, addiction, mental illness that runs in my family,” she said. “I thought I could make myself happy.”
But that happiness was elusive, said Anonymous. “It all crumbled. I made one wrong decision for myself after another and now I feel trapped in this life. I love my children, but I have to choose my love for them over my love for myself, every day…Like we each only get one life, and I’ve forfeited mine because I couldn’t get my shit together and get help in navigating my own mental illness (which I still have such a hard time claiming). I’m so mad at myself for being weak, for letting my dreams slip out of my hands.”
For both Lacayo and Anonymous, finding ways to release that rage and find peace is difficult. A friend of Lacayo’s knew she’d been struggling and told her their in-laws had a beach house that was free for the weekend and offered it to her to give her an opportunity to relieve some of her constant stress and work on her thesis. Still, Lacayo said she felt guilty over the privilege of having access to such a gift, so she’d make sure to put it to good use as well. “So I’m going away for the weekend, but it’s not to relax,” said Lacayo. “It’s to do my (thesis) work. But you know what, I’ll take it. I just need to keep up.”
Anonymous, on the other hand, admits that she feeds her anger. “I bitch a lot under my breath while making breakfast and coffee,” she said. “I seethe. I shut down. I play too much Animal Crossing or spend too much time learning French on Duolingo. I alternate eating too much sugar with drinking too much coffee and smoking too many cigarettes. I escape.” But she also said she’s trying to incorporate some healthier practices too, like yoga, meditation, and regular writing. “It’s about the only time I feel like myself, or feel good being myself,” she said. “I can also use my writing to explore who I am, to claim who I am, in ways I feel like I can’t in real life.”
When I listen to these caregivers and read their words, I think about how many millions of people across the country are just like them, just like me. So many of us are seething and sobbing and pounding the steering wheels of our cars with our fists. Stories like Lacayo’s and Anonymous’s are just a few of the millions of stories we have historically let slip through our fingers. I hope that in some small way, the project to hold onto them begins here. As I said last month, no one is coming to save us, so we, in turn, must save ourselves.
But salvation isn’t always the same as resolution. This archive will not save us from our rage. Nothing will. In the big wide expanse of the world before, there were a hundred methods of escape, but here, still stuck in the grips of the pandemic, still stuck in our homes, rage comes for all of us eventually. I can still feel it in the soft edge of my palm when I make a fist. I’m sure there are places in your body where you feel it too.
This archive, these stories, at least, will use the seething, the sadness, the pain in the soft edges of our palms as something to build on instead of just something bent on destroying things. It’s not a resolution for what ails us, but it sure as hell is a particular kind of resolve.
The interviews with Selene Lacayo took place over email on February 20, 2021 and via Zoom on February 22, 2021. The interview with Anonymous took place over Twitter DM on January 28, 2021 and via email on February 20, 2021. All identities of caregivers who choose to remain anonymous for the purposes of this column or the archive are recorded but will be kept confidential in archive records.
For more information on the larger archive project, please visit the Patreon for Submerged: An Archive of Caregivers Underwater. If you have a story to tell that you think should be included in this column, please fill out this form, send a DM to @wearesubmerged, or tweet the #wearesubmerged hashtag.
Megan Pillow is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. She is co-editor of The Audacity, a new newsletter by Roxane Gay. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in, among other places, in Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Paper Darts, Brevity, Passages North, The Believer, TriQuarterly, and Gay Magazine and has been featured in Longreads. She has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, for Best Small Fictions, and for Best of the Net. Megan has also had stories featured on the Wigleaf Top 50 and the longlist, an essay honored as notable in the 2019 edition of The Best American Essays, and a story honored as distinguished in the 2020 edition of The Best American Short Stories. You can find her on Twitter at @megpillow.
Photography by: Hatham