Mommying Helps Me Cope with COVID-19 Isolation and Dad Grief
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Guest Post by Adelaide Mestre
As I re-read the article I wrote last year for the Washington Post's "On Parenting" column and thought about what to write for an updated introduction to share it on the Daddying blog, I remembered my dad grief – grief from the loss of my father when I was young. I can hardly relate to it. The feelings I expressed in the original piece below are far from me at this moment. I think because we are all grieving so much right now.
My own personal grief has been set aside while we mourn so many things before COVID-19. Lost jobs; milestones, like graduations or weddings; daily routines, or even simply the ability to make plans. But one thing I know about grief is that it's an ongoing, lifelong process. I'm sure those feelings will return, maybe when I least expect it, but healing is also an ongoing process. And since this piece was published, I have had more time with my daughter, especially while sheltering-in-place.
There were times I thought I would lose my mind. The loss of school was crushing. But the time was also precious, engaging with her education in a way that I wouldn’t have, had I not been forced to.
In many ways, the pandemic made me be the mother I dreamed of being but never had time for. I set up a giant craft table and finally used all the materials I had purchased at Michael's over the years. We baked cakes and cookies regularly. I sat with my daughter for hours and witnessed the acquisition of her sight words and watched, close-up, the miracle of her learning to read. I had even more time experiencing a full heart instead of the ache of longing.
That has been the gift of “mommying.”
The following article was originally published in the Washington Post, October 4, 2019
I didn’t get enough of my father. I won’t let my daughter feel the same.
by Adelaide Mestre
My 4-year-old daughter, Lucia, and I play a game inspired by the classic children's book Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman. It's the story of a baby bird whose mother is off finding food when he comes into the world. Not wanting to be alone, the bird goes to find his mother, asking, "Are you my mother?" to everyone he meets – a kitten, a dog, a boat, even a bulldozer.
First, I play the hatchling who cracks open to find itself alone in the nest. I curl up on our couch pretending to be an egg while my daughter sits on top of me, "I must get something for my baby bird to eat," she exclaims and runs off to another room. Thrusting my nose in the air, I pretend to crack open.
"I’m born!" I say and look around. Then in distress, I ask, "Where is my mommy?" At which point I announce, "I am going to go look for her." I hop off the couch and search the apartment going from room to room bumping into my toddling daughter, "Are you my mommy?" I ask.
She rolls her eyes, "Noooo, I’m a kitten." We go through them all, a hen, a dog, "Are you my mommy?" I ask again. She toddlersplains, "Noooooo, I'm a coooooowwwww."
With no luck, I return to our nest and Lucia comes back to the couch, "Do you know who I am?" she asks. "Yes," I squeal. "I do. I do know who you are. You are a bird. And you are my mother." We are finally reunited. I feel a surprising sense of satisfaction, and then it"s gone.
Lucia and I act out the hatchling and the mommy over and over, taking turns in each role. We enact these separations and try on the idea that we may not come together but then it's affirmed that indeed we do. Each time she rediscovers me, she's happy. Our game addresses a fear that all children have of being abandoned. I relish in her joy at our reunion but our game leaves me feeling sad. When I was 13 years old, my father killed himself. He was gone, and when I looked out at the world, I searched. Like the baby bird, for years I searched, but for my father who wasn't there. There were many candidates. My SAT tutor, an acting teacher, therapists, innumerable boyfriends, and older gay men of a certain age.
Especially older gay men of a certain age. My father was gay, but I didn't know until I was 10. I suspect his hiding a central part of himself led to his despair and his death. When I meet these men, the young girl inside me leaps forward in anticipation of some longed-for connection. She doesn’t dare speak it out loud, but the girl without her dad is there asking, "Are you my father?"
On the subway, I see two gay men wearing wedding bands. A warm sensation floods my body. Gay people can marry. Then I feel a stab of envy, a bitter resentment that they live in a world my father didn't get a chance to inhabit. In an instant, I'm mourning again, not just for my dad but the other life I lost the day my father overdosed – the life where I got to have a dad. If he had lived in a different world, my father might still be alive. I stare too long at a handsome gray-haired man in yoga and a gay man in the cafe with the perfect shade of washed jeans that are just the right width (not too skinny like a hipster, not too wide like my husband's). If we end up in conversation, I ask questions, questions swollen with urgent, pulsing need. Do I make them uncomfortable? Maybe.
Is that what happened with a Cuban friend of my father's? Married and eight months pregnant, I showed up for coffee so we could finally meet. He had read about my one-woman show about searching for my father’s piano in Cuba and contacted me. He knew my dad for two years before he died. According to him, they weren't lovers – just fast friends. He adored my father and when he learned about my show, sought me out. "I'll be the one wearing the red carnation," he wrote in his email before our scheduled coffee.
Seated in the restaurant, I saw a version of my father walk toward me. Dark and dashing, even in his late 60s, slim and fit, with the body of a dancer and olive skin. I loved him even though we hadn't yet spoken. I sat there with an unrealistic expectation in place, a hope I forever have to manage and set aside. He told me stories of my father – a pianist – taking him to galleries and salons and introducing him to all things cultural in Manhattan. I imagined this dear friend of my father's taking me to the theater and the ballet. Since the beginning of my pregnancy, I had noticed my sadness compounding – not only was I fatherless, but my daughter wouldn’t have a grandfather. Here, seated in front of me, was the person who could be both. "I haven’t lost your father after all," he said as we parted, "I have you now!"
But we got together only once more. At his house in East Hampton with his husband, my own husband and daughter in tow. "Are you my father?" was the question between my questions as we talked that day. Could he see it in my eyes? Is that what ended things? I left knowing that would be it. Did I scare him away?
I might as well be a baby bird and he may as well be a kitten, a hen, or a dog. He is not my father.
The other day, my daughter asked, "Are you sad your daddy died?"
"Sometimes," I confessed. She hugged me, "But I’m here now, Mama."
Yes, she is. Instead of a gray-haired gay man, it's my relationship with my daughter that's teaching me what I need to know, giving me what I need. Not the father replacement I wished for, but a tiny, curly-haired, gummy bear-gobbling, sleep-resistant imp with an upturned nose. I have received an unexpected, un-asked for blessing, a kind of miracle do-over. As I provide Lucia with a safe base she can return to, I am made whole.
Playing the game "Are You My Mother?" Lucia learns relationships continue in the face of separations, and so do I. My old wound of being abandoned is healing – finally. It's not always easy. Feeling the love between us reminds me of the immensity of feeling I had for my father and the bond that was broken the day he died. I didn't get enough of him – that will always be the case. But the relationship I didn't get to live out with my dad, I repair in some small measure every day with my daughter. And I make sure, every single day, that she gets enough of me.
Adelaide Mestre is a mommy to daughter Lucia, actress, singer, writer, and solo show performer living in New York City. Adelaide began her career at The Public Theatre, where at 14 she had her first job as an actress in a musical and worked with Joseph Papp. Since then she has performed in numerous theatrical productions, musicals, cabarets, and films including Husbands and Wives. Adelaide has written and performed several solo shows, including: Dead Mosquito at Emerging Artists Theatre's One Woman Standing Festival and Out of Step at Where Eagles Dare Theatre. Her 10-minute play, It's My Amygdala was produced at the Estrogenius Festival and the SoHo Playhouse. Her musical memoir Top Drawer was first presented at the Midtown International Theatre Festival as a work in progress and most recently at the New York International Fringe. Adelaide also teaches private voice lessons to kids and teens in Sag Harbor, NY.