The Myth of Soteria.

By: Jen Shoop

I listened to a wonderful interview with Katherine May, author of popular books Wintering and Enchantment earlier this week, and emerged charged, full. She gave words to experiences of pandemic living that, I realized, lay dormant, unprocessed in my mind — not exactly suppressed, but, simply, too wide and unwieldy to shape in any way. She talks a lot about disconnection. About listlessness, wordlessness. About the ways lockdown both expanded and collapsed time. Listening to her was like being greeted at the door of a familiar house and being escorted in. I didn’t know I needed to enter, but I walked inside and thought: I’ve been here before. I know the kitchen will be around that bend, and the grandfather clock will be at the stair. Her words just fit.

They encouraged me to think more directly about a major grief I carry: the deletion, or diminution, of several months of my boy’s babyhood. He was not yet one when we entered lockdown and I feel that I lost the days that followed — those baby days that are typically rich and sweet as cream, with belly laughs and firsts clustered so close together you can hardly get your bearings. Instead of sweetness, there was the acridity and fear of that time. I will never forget the wail of ambulances down 86th Street, its own morbid morse code. Some times, during that long March and April of 2020, barely a minute would pass between them. People were dying, and there were no north stars, and even my unflappable, assured father didn’t know what to make of it. I can think of only one other time in my life where I have felt the net snatched from beneath me in that way, and it was on 9/11, and, aside from the terror of watching the twin towers fall and the Pentagon (twenty minutes from where I was sitting in biology lab in Georgetown) go up in flames, the streets of D.C. were gridlocked with Washingtonians in flight, cell phones weren’t working, and the sky was an ill-starred pattern of helicopters. It was a horror movie. “What’s going to happen?” I asked my Dad. I remember where I was standing: in his study, the one with taupe window treatments flecked with tiny mallards. The pattern seemed absurdly sanguine — almost obtuse — that day. He looked, for the first time in my entire life, worried. “I don’t know,” he said. He’d echo the same thing at the dawn of the pandemic, and then I didn’t get to see him for nearly a year, and I grieve that loss, too. Oh! It is a futile business, these mental subtractions. What possible good can they do?

Still, I return to the till, peering back.

Still, I mourn those days, the way it felt that I was just marching from daybreak to dusk, passing time, to get through. Did I hug my son enough? Did I laugh at his burbles? Did I sing to him the way I normally would? There is a morose part of me that thinks: If only I had been better at subjugating my own worries and exhaustions, I could have been a better and more present mother. I could have saved those days. I figure myself as Soteria, if only I had tried harder. I conveniently forget she belongs to mythology.

I spent an afternoon reviewing many of the photographs from that time, and they tell a different, and more auspicious, story. Perhaps I wasn’t the Soteria I wish I’d been, but I leaned hard into art projects, crafts, and sensory play with my children. We made play-doh and slime. We took baths with Duplos, and bath bombs, and food coloring — not so much for cleanliness, but because it was an easy way to delight and contain two young children. We discovered water beads, and kinetic sand, and artificial snow, and sensory play with beans and dyed rice and soap foam and even, once, dyed (cooked) spaghetti. We built and decorated houses out of cardboard boxes. We baked cookies and painted with with every variety of paint I could find: puffy (homemade and purchased), watercolor, tempura, fabric! We ran through umpteen activities with dot markers. I arranged sorting exercises with letters jaggedly clipped by toddler hands. Household and pantry products became new and often unsuccessful art materials: we used ice, jell-o, salt, shaving cream, flour, hand soap, oats in our productions. We used dot stickers in countless unintended ways — I recall posters on the wall and my daughter selecting which color dot to place in which column, but can’t remember the prompt. We made penguins out of water bottles and cotton balls and caterpillars out of egg cartons and pipe cleaners and used an entire bag of craft googly eyes over the course of three months. We ran through glue like water. We used painter’s tape to create race tracks and villages for Matchbox cars. We made necklaces, we painted nails, we did science projects to varying degrees of success. We used so much baking soda and vinegar that I still feel faintly nauseous at the smell. We grew butterflies from caterpillars and released them into Central Park. We made suncatchers for the windows and necklaces from beads and macaroni and feathers.

These daily activities gave me focus during that wild, unspooled period. They never lasted as long as I wanted them to, but they temporarily delighted us by giving us something to do with our hands. They were about exploration and play and putting out small, makeshift offerings and only now do I see that this was in a sense the exact survival strategy May ultimately espouses: the way out is through enchantment. Finding magic in small things. Using our senses to generate meaning.

When you are a child, the world is full of romance and adventure and possibility. Rocks and twigs are the grist of imagination. May encourages us to reclaim those enchantments. I see, now, that what started as a way to make the time pass evolved into a determined profession of life. We are alive! We are making things with our hands!

If all of this sounds a little woo!, well, I agree. Because nothing can mitigate the memory of those challenging times, and nothing can return my baby’s “lost” days to me. I still wish I’d had the opportunity to take him to all of the mommy and me classes I escorted my daughter to. I feel I’ve let him down by not having more mornings where we’d share a $6 Manhattan muffin and run errands — just the two of us. I know we had uninterrupted access to one another during lockdown, but I worry that the excess cheapened the experience, and his older, more voluble sister was always present and intercessory anyhow. I lacked the mental tranquility to fully soak him up, because I had no breaks, and I was still working in desperate hiccups throughout the day, and I felt simultaneously trapped and isolated.

So what then?

This year, I continue to return to the concept of flow, the intention I set for myself at the outset of 2023. Writing this essay has been an exercise in “flow.” I have been aware of the bruise of the lockdown experience and my attendant grief over the loss of my son’s baby days for years now, but have never had the prompt to inspect it. May invited me to do so. And sitting here, I have let all of these conflicting, fair and unfair, sad and happy thoughts coalesce. I have held them in my hands. I have turned them over. I have let myself feel it all in its wildness, which was scary, because some of it felt like failure. I have tried not to assign any value to these sentiments, or to contradict any of the raw emotions they have stirred. Even if the bruise remains, it feels good to have let the air in.


+Motherhood is a surfeit.

+It’s their day, too. I feel I forgot that for large chunks of lockdown. It was so, so hard.

+A small sampling of some of our sensory play and indoor activities from that period.

Shopping Break.

+A Magpie recommended I check out Old Navy’s new arrivals for some seriously eye-popping finds and WOW, she was not wrong. This navy dress reminds me of Veronica Beard, and is sure to be a workhorse. Also love the look of these $10 tanks and these high-waisted linen shorts (!!).

+I have this one old long-sleeved Patagonia tee I stole from my Dad’s running closet when I was in high school that I still wear ALL the time over my favorite leggings and tanks. I just love the look and feel of an oversized LS tee over skintight athletic wear. This tee and this one deliver a similar effect — I would size up to ensure a really boxy, oversized fit.

+The Magpies have spoken: four self-tanning products came up time and time again when I reached out to you, and I’m going to try them all, but I’m starting with this Isle of Palm mist and the classic Jergens gradual glow lotion.

+TJ Maxx has a fleet of fantastic new arrivals, including lots of “look for less” type finds — this coffee table reminds me so much of the Serena and Lily side table we all love.

+STOP. This $25 jacket is too cute as a spring topper for a little lady. TOO CUTE.

+This Mirth skirt is so chic! I’m in love with the unexpected color pairing, pattern, and buttons down the front. Still also eyeing the scalloped skirt of theirs I shared earlier this week. I love the idea of buying them with their matching tops, but they’d also look adorable with a simple white tank/tee.

+Tarte is offering 30% off sitewide — I have been kind of wanting to try these wildly popular lip balms for a while, and this buffer brush has been in several carts of mine for awhile after seeing multiple beauty TikTok-ers rave about it.

+This pareo is GORGEOUS. Reminds me of the much more expensive styles from Agua Bendita.

+These $40 sandals are so elegant. I had a pair just like these that I wore until the soles gave out — perfect with maxis, jeans, shorts in summer.

+A Magpie wrote requesting patch pocket jeans — these are pretty damn chic, but I’ve also heard so many good things about this pair from Anthro.

+This little woven bag is SO cute. $30 and love that bamboo handle.

+Loom&Co has such gorgeous rugs — I’m new to this retailer but I am swooning over their collection of colorful oushak rugs. How fun would this be for a girl’s room, or even a playful office?

+This engraveable birthstone necklace would be such a sweet gift for mother’s day / a birthday. I want one with my children’s initials on it! The brand also makes customizable “pup” tokens — you can have your dog’s breed engraved on it. Such a cute remembrance of a good boy 🙂

+This sunhat! Oh my goodness. I wish I had a baby girl to put it on! I have received so many requests from moms with daughters who have grown out of toddler sizes and have been asking for good brands for ages 8-12. It’s on my radar and I will try to find more options but The New Society (maker of the aforementioned sunhat) goes up to size 14 in many of their styles, and I love pieces like this cute skirt and these striped shorts. Pink Chicken also has some really sweet finds, and they also go up to a size 14. How adorable is this swimsuit, or this tiered floral dress?

+I’m not a big graphic sweatshirt person but I keep thinking about this Prince x Sporty and Rich sweatshirt, now on sale. I just love the retro vibes, the color — !

+These shortalls are currently in my cart for micro this summer. SO cute. They remind me of the Busy Bees’ George shortalls that my son lived in for two summers. I think he’s too old for them now but I love the slightly shorter leg length.

+Thinking ahead to summer…these inflatable pools are just the best. A really thick material, hold their inflation, and such fun patterns/colors.

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18 thoughts on “The Myth of Soteria.

  1. It’s been a crazy few years, that’s for sure. It was a dark time, as my husband was/is very high risk and we spent a good amount of time in the hospital (not covid related). The silver lining is that it is somewhat normal to wear masks, which we need to do anyway as he is immunocompromised. I don’t know if this is any comfort, but (maybe because I’m an introvert) your craft and play sessions at home sounded even better than running errands or going to Mommy and me classes, even though it surely put you under more stress as a Mom. Play is really great for kids. Thankfully kids are also super resilient, and the main thing is that they are loved. It is so nice to see some things slowly getting back to sort of normal. We still can’t go into a restaurant, but we’ve started seeing some people again, and the kids are back to in-person school and doing extracurriculars.

    1. Hi Jane – Wow, I have such empathy for how difficult COVID must have been for families with immunocompromised members. Another Magpie wrote in along similar lines below and it made me reflect on how many different (and more challenging) experiences people had during COVID. I’m glad we’re emerging at the other end and that you’re able to see more people now. What a strange, other-worldly time.

      I love your reframe of the craft/play sessions at home as possibly being just as meaningful. I’d not really thought of that. Thanks for showing me a different side of the prism.


  2. Much like your encounter with May, I found myself plunged into pandemic processing reading Elizabeth Strout’s latest Lucy Barton novel (are you a fan of the series? Such rich characters, I think!) which is set in NYC & Maine in 2020. Whew! It took me by surprise and I’m not sure I’m ready for fictional Covid times given that we are still feeling the emotional effects of its reality. I also find myself constantly comparing my January 2023 newborn to my June 2020 baby — omg the difference! Friends and family have been traveling to visit us, neighbors drop by, I go on little adventures with my babe… it’s just so immeasurably different. It makes me think of what I missed the first time (not even just missed, but suffered? The isolation!). At the same time, I can’t IMAGINE returning to work in April. It feels like an insurmountable problem, actually. I had the privilege to stay home for a year with my first — granted, working from home in a pandemic, but a privilege nonetheless. So I don’t know — it’s all complicated, to say the least. Maybe, as you suggest, we can focus on appreciating the distance to work through it all.

    1. Hi Susie! Wow – that is such an interesting experience (the inverse of mine), and I’m sure it has led to a lot of reflection. I hope it also has demonstrated how strong you are! Like, you navigated COVID times with a newborn, knowing nothing different, and you handled it!

      Oof, the return to work. I’ve had so many friends go through that transition and it is challenging, I know. No easy words of comfort, but just — give yourself grace! Know you’re doing what you’re meant to do! I also love a reframe a friend gave me: any time I’ve been weepy over a transition, I remind myself: “this just shows how much I care.” So it’s really a beautiful thing, the heart-ache and all.


      1. PS – Yes, I really enjoy Strout! I think I read the first and second but may need to tune into the third. She has a great, unique timbre to her novels — like they’re colored in charcoal or something? I don’t know. A specific tonality. It’s impressive.


        1. Thank you for your kind & thoughtful words! ❤️ definitely revisit the series, because I think the third (Oh William!) was my favorite!!

  3. On this subject, I highly, highly recommend this piece in the NY Times about the Columbia University covid-19 oral history project. Basically the author read the entirety of the yet-to-be released project archive and concluded that we all still have a LOT of processing to do about the last three years. It is a very affecting read and I haven’t stop thinking about it since:

  4. Love this post and how that time in all of our lives was one of chaos, perhaps bliss, and solidarity because we were all going through it together on some level. For me this time was actually a sacred time of sorts because I was learning to adjust to my new normal. I had been diagnosed in Dec 2019 after we got back from AUS my first trip down under. and to hear this news in Dec and then to only drive an insane lengthy commute for 3 months was, looking back, the best possible thing that could have happened to me. To learn and unlearn how to manage my body and my health and to relearn things. Basic things your children learned as toddlers and hopefully only has to learn once. Traffic getting to appts was fabulous because it didn’t exist. and thankfully the 19 of March 2020 visitors were allowed that week as my partner came with me for an unpleasant procedure which confirmed my diagnosis from Dec. But the rest of the appts I had to do alone. In 2019 that fall my Mom came with me. but visitors weren’t allowed much beyond mid-March 2020 so I had to do all the things alone. isolated and also WFH with FHM. and reconnecting with friends from grad school in a collective group text to keep tabs on each other and also to let each other know where to get TP or hand-sanitizer or the curfews as LA had many riots that summer. and with my former coworkers and giggles and gossip sesh on Zoom with my bestie from undergrad. the relationships deepened that year for a number of reasons. I like your line on finding magic in small things. being more appreciative. that year FHM and I spent our anniversary going through all the cards and mementos from our dates over the years at home in front of our fireplace. and going to see the moon, I think there was something going on 12/21/2020. and the howling each night from all around our neighborhood. humans coming out at night to howl collectively that we were in it together. and the snack bin we placed on our neighborhood mailbox station for the post office workers who had to continue to work. and my Mon beer night zoom seshes with my undergrad friends. the birthday gift cards my grad school friends and I all got in a habit of contributing to. and so many more beautiful things. difficult convos. and learning my new normal. I still live for the day I can walk in heels all day again.

    1. and because I had started treatment in Jan 2020 and at my infusion site in Feb 2020 it was really only one month of me seeing the nurses in masks. It wasn’t until this month I actuall saw the face of my physicians because this whole time we’ve been in masks.

    2. Hi Michelle – Wow! That is a lot to move through / work through and I love that you found some (many) silver linings in spite of it all. So much of this must have been difficult for you, and I admire your spirit. It feels like it was a time of major self-growth for you. It’s true what they say, I guess: growth happens in discomfort.


  5. I feel similar loss about my youngest! Our early pandemic was not as scary/isolated/cramped as yours since we live in the suburbs. In fact, looking at our photo album from the time, it could be any other year. ALTHOUGH…our youngest was born at the end of February 2020 and hardly anyone got to meet her before lockdown. My parents live right down the street, but our other daughter was immune compromised at the time and her oncologist advised against seeing anyone. So we didn’t even see them after mid-March, besides yard visits standing apart (how to explain to a 2yo??) when the weather permitted. That makes me really sad and I wish we would have decided it was worth the risk. So many missed newborn snuggles! And when we finally did have them over (May?), the baby cried if my mom tried to hold her. For several months afterward! They are now the best of friends, but it feels like such a loss regardless. And all the other family and friends that didn’t meet her until much later.

    1. That must have been so hard – – not only emotionally, but functionally, in that I’m sure you would have welcomed the help/support. Wow. What an intense time. So tricky if you navigated it with really young children.

      Thanks for the solidarity, friend…glad we are beyond it, and happy to be working my way through some of its unsavorinesses so I can move onward!


  6. Jen, I have read your blog for nearly fifteen years and this is my first comment. Thank you for your words and your bravery in sharing them. Your writing about motherhood is always achingly beautiful and poignant. By some kismet, you seem to share your invariably moving insights just when I need them most on my own journey as a mother. I gave birth in April 2020 and then again in March of 2022 and find myself almost unable to process the frenetic blur of those two pregnancies, births, and infancies that bookend the worst of the pandemic. Thank you for the prompt to confront and reflect on that time, as intimidating as the prospect may be!

    1. Oh Natalie! Hello!! Thank you so much for letting me know — and for your loyal, tenured readership, too. I am so deeply satisfied when I hear that other mothers have borne the same swing of emotions. It makes me feel less alone, and even slightly propped-up in my maternal ambitions. Thank you for the solidarity. Hope this post does prompt some time to sit with the uncomfortable mix of emotions you carry. I found it therapeutic to write this piece. I didn’t even fully know I had those grinding emotions inside.


  7. Just a heads up, the plumping version of the Tarte lip balms are going to be 50% off during Ulta’s 21 days of beauty sale.

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