The Pandemic Made Me Realize How Many Small Things I Took for Granted as a Mom

Milk pouring out of my son's sippy cup onto the floor was enough to throw me over the edge during the pandemic. It's a lesson I won't soon forget.

tipped over toddler cup and a growing puddle of milk on the floor
Photo: Michael Phillips/Getty Images

I'll never forget what it felt like to be in the midst of stay-at-home orders: I was on my hands and knees on the kitchen floor wiping up the milk that just poured out of my son's sippy cup. I must not have screwed on the top tightly enough. Milk, that precious commodity, started spouting from it like a geyser.

I remember the stab of desperation I felt. I couldn't afford to lose that special liquid. With four growing, milk-loving children in my home, we typically go through gallons of milk each week. At the height of the pandemic, we had to ration to one jug per week and some of it spilled. Wasted.

It made me think of the dark night years ago as a new nursing mom when I'd knocked over the breast milk I'd just pumped. My forearm had upended those plastic cups brimming with warm sustenance in my haste to grab their yellow lids. Bleary-eyed and half-asleep, I'd watched in horror and exhaustion as all my hard work had trickled down, slowly falling from the counter onto the floor—drip, drip, drip.

I felt that same sense of loss as I cleaned up the sippy cup spill.

As a fortunate mother in a booming economy, I've luckily never had to worry about being able to procure milk for my children. If I wanted lactose-free 1 percent milk, I had my pick of brands at the local grocery. I completely took this fact for granted, distractedly throwing the still-wet containers in my shopping cart without a second thought.

At the height of the pandemic, however, I didn't even go to the grocery store. My husband donned a mask once a week and foraged in the empty market, the loudspeaker reminding shoppers like him to only buy one like item, tape marking his stance 6 feet apart in the checkout line. At times, we decided it was too risky to even do that.

That night, the familiar refrain from my own childhood, "Don't cry over spilled milk," ran through my head. And yet, I cried. I took a few paper towels, also a precious commodity, and soaked up the drips splattered all over the wood floor.

"It's OK, Mom," my then 6-year-old daughter said, while drawing at the kitchen table. Her sensitivity radar never misses even the slightest shift in my emotions. "It's just a little spill!"

"I know, love," I replied.

But to me, in those moments, it was never just about the milk; it was about the ability to sustain and protect my family. It was my worry over the world's food supply. It was my fear that we would come down with COVID-19. It was a stark terror wondering if I, like so many others, could succumb to the disease and never be able to take care of my four children again. What would happen to them? How would they cope without their mother?

The truth is, I don't worry about my own mortality. I've come to terms with the idea that if it's my time, it's my time, a mantra I replay in my head with increasing frequency. After all these years, I'm well aware that I've already had an amazing life. But it's my kids, my husband, their loss, that sends me into panic attacks.

I finished wiping up the spill, grabbed the empty sippy cup, and stood up.

"See, Mom? It wasn't so bad!" my daughter said.

Perhaps that's how I'll eventually feel about the pandemic and this time spent at home. Perhaps my own family will be OK and I'll mourn the thousands of others from afar. But looking back, I will remember those moments when it was hard to maintain perspective when every moment at home— masquerading as life as usual—my former sanctuary was tinged with fear.

We weren't at home to relax. We were home to survive. The milk mattered, and it represented so much more then and now, as new and different problems plague our world.

But now, as I did then, I continue to do what I know how: I kiss my daughter on the top of her head. And I pray that she is right.

Zibby Owens is a writer, mother of four, and the host of the award-winning podcast, Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.

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