2020: Chapter 39
9 April 2020
It had been less than a week as a single parent without any backup, and Kim Cunningham had no idea how any person survived such a thing.
She knew she was incredibly privileged as a parent. In addition to being married to an actual pediatrician, they had always been in a financial position that allowed them to pay someone to come in and take care of their kids while they were at work. They hired their first nanny—the wife of one of the corpsmen in the ID clinic at Balboa—when Kim returned to work after maternity leave when Sydney was three months old; had the same nanny/housekeeper for all four years in Cairo; and hired Munira to live in their mother-in-law suite above the garage as soon as they moved into a house with a mother-in-law suite above the garage.
And she had lived there ever since. Until a pandemic sent her packing her bags for Michigan.
Kim had spent almost seven and a half years congratulating herself on how good of a mother she was. They liked to joke about how obnoxious their kids were, and sure, they had a lot of energy, had picked up on the occasionally-salty language of their parents, and weren't unfamiliar with getting sent to the principal's office for trying to use physical means of resolving conflicts, but were overall good kids. They were cute, athletic, smart, caring—well, jury was still out on Pup, but she was still a day shy of seventeen months old—and honestly, mostly fun to be around. She knew their schedules, even when she wasn't the one picking them up or dropping them off, knew their moods, knew when it was time to de-escalate a situation before things got out of hand.
It had taken less than a week of doing everything alone to realize she didn't know shit.
Apparently she didn't make Sydney's oatmeal right, which was bullshit, because it was instant oatmeal, it wasn't like there were different ways to make it, and she made it exactly the same way Jeff did. And then Sydney and Jack wanted sandwiches for lunch, but she forgot that Sydney liked peanut butter without jelly and Jack liked grape jelly, which they had run out of and she forgot to replace, and he said that Munira wouldn't have made that mistake.
She had always wanted to be a mother. Her family had always been the most important thing to her, and she had never imagined an adulthood that didn't include marriage and kids of her own. And because she was the mother, and her mother had done the majority of parenting when she was growing up, she thought that was how it was going to go for her.
It was one thing to discover just how hard it was to parent alone without school or childcare. It was another to discover that she wasn't even close to the primary parent. Of the three adults who did the majority of childcare of those three kids, she didn't think she was even number two.
She had hoped that she could use the week to gauge how much work she'd be able to get done without childcare, but it turned out that amount was somewhere around 'look at the work phone long enough to delete emails that didn't warrant further reading.' Taking a week of leave when she was supposed to have been with the kids—plus or minus Jeff; they never knew his work schedule that far enough in advance—in Washington was one thing, but it was far from a permanent solution. She had read that the pandemic and associated school closures have already disproportionately affected women and women's employment, and she was not going to become another statistic.
But it wasn't like she had many alternatives.
It had been Wednesday night, while the house was just beginning to calm down after she sent Sydney to her room for "accidentally" practicing a jiujitsu throw on Jack, that the solution came to her, and it was so obvious she didn't know how she hadn't seen it earlier. During the summers and often when her dad was deployed, they packed up and went to the orchard, the three, and then two, grandparents she had and the acres upon acres to literally around on to burn off energy helping out her mother with parenting four high-energy kids.
There was now a great-grandparent, two grandparents, an uncle and an aunt, an adult cousin, and four younger cousins there to keep her kids occupied while she worked. And it wasn't like she couldn't telework from the other Washington as easily as she did from the suburbs of Washington, DC.
The kids seemed bound and determined to keep her up that night—Pup had been sick, and then Sydney had a nightmare, and it seemed like once she had gotten one kid taken care of, another woke up—and with each passing hour, her determination grew.
They would go to Washington, at least until Jeff got back, and they could play it by ear from there.
She had been following the Roosevelt investigation in the news in addition to her once or twice daily calls with Jeff, and she knew from the news that things were busy and from the exhaustion in his voice that it was taking his toll, so despite being up for most of the night, she waited until almost 6 to call, figuring he would probably be done with most of his work by 8 pm. "I need to go the orchard," she blurted out as soon as he accepted the FaceTime request.
Jeff blinked in surprise at the words, then immediately grew concerned. "What happened?" He asked. "Is someone sick?"
"No, nothing like that," she said quickly. She supposed she should have realized that that would be his first thought. Her parents were both very healthy, but were still 70–almost–and 68, and Jiji would be 97 soon, and it didn't take a medical degree to pick up that this disease disproportionally affected older people. She took a deep breath. "Munira left, and—"
"Munira left?" he asked in disbelief. "What happened?"
"Her son and daughter-in-law needed help with their kids—"
"And she quit?"
"She left on Saturday."
"It's Thursday!" As if she wasn't aware of that fact. "Our nanny quit almost a week ago, and you didn't think that was something to bring up until now? Fuck's sake, Kim! I know you like to keep things to yourself, but we're married now. You can't keep big things like that from me in the hopes that they'll go away on their own!"
She flushed, but it wasn't like his words weren't fair. She did keep things to herself, especially problems she hoped would just disappear on their own. It had never worked out that way in her 40 years, but that didn't stop her from doing it. She opened her mouth to argue that it was the kids' spring break and she already had the leave scheduled anyway, or that she didn't want to bother him while he was so busy with the Roosevelt and the SecNav's visit, but closed it before saying any of that. Those were just excuses, and he was right: he had deserved to know that Munira was leaving as soon as Munira told her. They had talked about that at length in the six months between her moving from Bahrain to San Diego and their wedding. They even had a contract—an actual, real, post-nuptial contract that was filed in some lawyer's office somewhere, because they had gotten married too quickly for any sort of pre-nup—that included the fact that neither was allowed to make big life decisions or career moves without consulting the other. "You're right," she acknowledged.
He looked ready to keep arguing, but instead exhaled a loud stream of breath, rubbing his hands over his face before dragging them through his hair. It was definitely too long at this point; she doubted he gotten it cut since getting to Guam, and the move had left blond hair sticking up in all directions. In another conversation, she would have teased him, told him that he was in his 'golden retriever' stage and reminded him how easy it had been to maintain a buzzed haircut while they were in Iraq.
But this wasn't the right time for that.
"Okay," he said with another sigh. "Let's talk through this. You can't keep working with the kids at home without having someone watching them."
"No," she agreed. "And I will not be one of the million or so women who has been forced to quit her job or take a leave of absence because the schools are closed."
"No," he agreed. "Your job is too important for that and you're too good at your job." She appreciated the fact that he could still compliment her when he was mad at her. "Facts and assumptions. Fact: we need an adult to watch the kids during working hours."
"Assumption: there's no one around here," she said. "I think all the daycares are closed, but I'll check at Bethesda. Someone had to have made a consideration of the fact that doctors and nurses have to keep working during a pandemic."
"I'd rather not have the kids in daycare during a pandemic, but if that's what we have to do, it's what we have to do," Jeff said, exhaling again. He disappeared for a second; she heard a can being opened, and when he reappeared, he had a beer in hand. He took a long drink before speaking again. "I'd prefer to stay with the nanny route," he continued. "Ideal is to have a live-in, but I don't know if that's even close to feasible, much less getting one in before things pile up too much for you at work. Problem with a daytime nanny is that they could bring COVID in. Which brings to the next fact. Actually, let's call it an assumption: Kevan didn't like the idea of Reiko coming to the orchard, and I doubt he'd be feeling more charitable with you bringing three kids."
"Mom will overrule him," Kim said. "And what he didn't like was that Reiko had been partying up until the day she agreed to leave. I haven't gone anywhere except the grocery store and the SIPR at the office, and it's been a week since I went to the office."
"Fuck," he said. "SIPR. How are you supposed to keep up on classified information from the orchard?"
"Fuck." She hadn't thought about that. She had been checking the SIPR twice a week since they went to telework, but in normal times, she was usually on the classified network for a few hours a day. "I don't know where the nearest SIPR terminal is. Wenatchee? Yakima? Okanogan County might have one. Maybe Border Patrol or ICE?"
"File that under assumptions: no SIPR access," he said with a sigh. "Will you be able to do your job without it?"
"Not well," she admitted. He rubbed his eyes. "I'm sorry I'm dumping this on you," she said, and she truly was. He looked like life had beating him up pretty well without having to think about childcare from fourteen time zones away.
"Don't apologize," he said, "especially considering you should have dumped this on me a week ago."
"Okay, ass," she shot back. "I'm not sorry, then."
He gave a short laugh. "That's more like it." He frowned. "Me being stuck out here is only an assumption," he said. "Let me talk to Seh in the morning."
"Let's make that the last possible solution," Kim said. "If you're this busy with three doctors actively working, what's going to happen if you leave?"
"If they need someone else so bad, they can get someone from the hospital," he argued. "But we'll see what Seh thinks. She has small kids, too, so she'd get it."
"What's her husband doing?"
"He's on terminal leave. Perfect timing on that one."
"No kidding." He took a long pull from his beer before his eyes widened. "What about my parents?"
"What about them?" she asked with a frown.
"To help out with the kids," he explained. "Mom and Pat retired last year. They had all sorts of travel planned for this year, but that's obviously not happening."
"You want me to call your mother and ask if she would mind me dumping three obnoxious kids off for some indefinite baby-sitting?" she asked in disbelief.
"Well, I was thinking that they could come live in Munira's apartment," he said. "Also thinking that I could be the one to call and ask, since they are my parents and all. And they're only, what, two hours away? It wouldn't even really be 'moving in.' Just like a long-term hotel situation. With three obnoxious grandkids."
She didn't know why she hadn't considered Jeff's mom and step-father as a possible solution, but she found herself nodding. "That could work. If they're willing," she said quickly. Honestly, even without considering that she was relatively tethered to classified information to do her job, it was a better solution. Montgomery County was starting up virtual school on Monday; she assumed Okanogan County would be doing the same, and descending on the orchard would mean asking her mother to proctor Sydney in addition to Kevan's four kids. "Okay," she said. "I'll hold off on buying any plane tickets until you talk to them."
"Okay," he agreed. He gave an apologetic smile. "Sorry I yelled at you, but seriously, your track record for doing this fucking sucks."
"You knew who you were marrying," she shot back, then smiled. "But you're right, and I'm sorry."
He nodded. "I love you."
"Love you, too. Get something to eat if you haven't done so yet. And get some sleep. You look like shit."
He gave a short laugh. "Have a good day, Kim. Try not to kill any of our children."
"I'll try, but it's a daily challenge," she warned. "Have a good night."
She wandered out to the kitchen to find Sydney and Jack sitting quietly at the table, Sydney with an ever-present book in her hands and Jack squinting at nothing, still trying to wake up. "Morning," she said, kissing each on the top of their heads. She listened for a second and when she didn't hear Pup, decided to let her keep sleeping instead of risk waking her by checking in. "Ready for breakfast?"
She tried to picture her mother-in-law in that morning routine, and decided that there were definitely worse scenarios.