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The Lost Year: Marriage, kids, 2 jobs, maskless customers, and #BlackLivesMatter in the rural South

“The first couple weeks, I sucked at life. I sucked at everything.”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

A lot of Americans weren’t able to quarantine themselves from the world to the degree they might have liked, especially people working in service industries. Anna (not her real name), who lives in the rural South, works part-time at the front desk of a resort and full-time as an administrative assistant at a college. The resort closed down for much of the spring but opened back up in June, and she’s been on the front lines of the ongoing argument over just how much America should reopen.

But Anna has had much more stress in 2020 beyond even that. Her youngest son has respiratory problems, which makes Covid-19 a bigger threat than it would be for most kids. Her husband is an immigrant who hoped to return home to deal with a family emergency, only to learn his native country wouldn’t admit any travelers coming from the US. And the year’s protests over police violence further underlined the realities of her life as a Black woman living in a majority-white area.

But in talking with Anna, I was amazed by how thoughtful and frequently funny she was in describing what sounded like a year she had to grit her teeth to get through. “As far as not collapsing, I feel like I fail every day,” she said, shortly before she started telling me her story. And later, she added, “I do what I can, but if you’re not doing your part, it invalidates me even trying.”

So here’s Anna’s story of a stressful year, as she told it to me.

My husband and I have been married for going on five years. This is the most time we’ve spent together. We’ve had to relearn each other and get used to each other’s routines. We’ve had to completely reorganize our lives. The month of March, I didn’t think my marriage was gonna make it. Every little thing he did, even if he didn’t do anything, I was just done. “Don’t look at me. I don’t want to hear you breathe. Leave me alone.”

My husband still works full-time at the resort [where I also work part-time]. They closed at the end of March and opened back up in June. I have been working throughout all of this at the college. Thankfully, I can work from home. We have two young boys, ages 2 and 3.

I didn’t know what to say to my kids at first. A 2- and 3-year-old, if they’re sick, I blow on it and give them a kiss and give them a Band-Aid. So, what do you say? When day care was closed, I told my 3-year-old the building was sick and had to get well. His immediate thought was, “Mommy, let’s go to Walmart and get a big Band-Aid.” They know there’s a sickness. That’s all we say: “The world is sick.” I kept telling them by Christmas, when Santa Claus came, that it was going to be better. I think that I’m going to say when Santa Claus comes next year, it’s going to be better.

The first couple weeks, I sucked at life. I sucked at everything. The kids wanted their mommy. I was like, if I’m working, I’m sucking at motherhood, which means that I’m sucking at being a wife. So I was like, “What I’ll do is attend my meetings, spend time with the kids, try to spend time with my husband, then just work at night when I can.” I would be up until 3 in the morning, with my first meeting at 8.

Have you ever been so exhausted you get sick? That was how I was. So I had to make a schedule. I love my husband, please know that. But he had never really had to be the kids’ primary parent. I’m the one who did it, because with his job, he wouldn’t get home until 3 or 4 in the morning. But [early in the pandemic] I was like, “You’re not working, and I’m working. So this is what you’re going to have to do.” And it took us a couple weeks, but we got there.

My kids know [that] when mommy has the door shut, she’s in a meeting. It’s actually kind of cute. When they see my laptop open, they’re like, “Are you in a meeting? Is that Dr. Burke?” (That’s my boss.) They’ll go to day care and say, “I had a meeting with Dr. Burke today,” and their teachers are like, “What?” I would take two hours every day, and we would go outside and burn off energy because 2- and 3-year-olds are crazy. But it’s not summer or spring anymore, and we’re in the mountains. I’m looking at my watch, and it’s 39 degrees out.

I have been in therapy since April. It’s been so nice to have someone to talk to that doesn’t know me. It is difficult some days, just feeling isolated. I was so used to saying, “Hey, let’s run to the city today,” or, “Hey, let’s go to the beach.” Why not? We had nothing else to do. And I couldn’t do that. My kids didn’t go into a grocery store until June.

My 2-year-old has respiratory issues. I didn’t know what coronavirus was, but when they said it’s a virus and it’s a respiratory thing, that was all I needed to hear. We went in our house. Most people here did not do that, and they’re still not. When quarantine first happened and we weren’t given a choice (and even Walmart closed at 7), people felt like their liberties were being taken away. I would rather go without for a short period of time than be sick or have my baby dead. Do I get sick of wearing masks? Yes. But do I wear one? Absolutely. I still take the boys out and do what I need to do, but I’m being smart with it.

This is, if I’m being frank, a white Republican area, and anything outside of that bubble, you’re just an outsider. When our governor decided we were going to go on quarantine, it was only supposed to be for two weeks. Two weeks, and then life is going to go back to normal. I feel like the people here were so livid at him making that decision that no one took it seriously.

I’m gonna be honest with you: The resort is just rich people who don’t have a real concept of what life is like outside of money. When everything opened back up, it became a money thing. I know that everyone was sick of being in the house. With two kids, I get it. But I felt like they opened a little too quickly. The decision was made based off money, because if you go to a Motel 6, they have plexiglass. If you go to this four-star resort, there’s nothing. If you decide that you don’t want to wear a mask and you want to get in my face, there’s nothing I can do. I think people are out of touch with reality. I do what I can, but if you’re not doing your part, it invalidates me even trying.

I know our country runs on money. But even for Thanksgiving, the resort was sold out. That baffles me. You’re allowing 1,000 people into a building? When cases are spiking? I think a lot of this is a legacy issue. [For a lot of our guests,] their father and their father’s father had it this way. And a lot of that stuff was passed down, including that sense of entitlement. You know, “We’ve been coming here for 40 years, and we’re the reason you have a job.” And I’m like, “You’re not, but thanks.” [Laughs.] Certain people teach their kids that this is how their life is and how it’s supposed to be. So when things don’t go their way, they make sure they let you know that.

There was a tennis tournament [at the resort] and #BlackLivesMatter was one of the sponsors. They put up a billboard on the side of the tennis court. A lot of people were very upset about that! If I’m being honest, even here at the college, I’m one of the very few Black workers here.

I think people forget the movement is about the lives and not necessarily the organization. They don’t know how to differentiate between the two. I’m just, like, have your opinion, absolutely. But you having that opinion is showing me that you devalue my life. I’m raising two little Black boys, who everyone is, like, “Your kids are beautiful and precious.” But when are they no longer that way? When do they become a threat in your eyes?

The college started a book club about racial justice. It’s what they came up with to address the issue on campus. I appreciate the idea of it, but even the book club made me more aware of how unaware people are. We heard how it’s the media’s fault that we’re so divided by race.

And I’m thinking, I got stopped in Walmart because they wanted to make sure I had purchased [the pull-ups I was holding]. My husband got pulled over so they could ask him how he could afford the car he was driving. I understand that’s not your truth, but you can’t be ignorant to everyone else’s. You have your experience. You can’t tell me my experience.

My husband is an immigrant. He’s here from [a country in eastern Africa]. He has heard every negative comment you can think of. He works at the resort. He’s been in the states for about 15 years, and his accent is still very thick. People treat him like he’s less because of his accent.

He had a sister pass away, and with Covid, we Americans aren’t allowed into hardly any countries except for Mexico. But even if he could have gone home, I would not have allowed him to out of fear he wouldn’t be able to come back into the country. That’s without Covid. That’s just because of our administration. I’m terrified for him to leave the country. Heck, sometimes I’m terrified for him to go to work.

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