We were out for weekly family pizza night when my phone buzzed with the push notifications that made COVID hit home: Sick celebrities. No NBA. No flights from Europe. We finished our pizza and ordered extra wine. We took the kids out the next night, too, sitting beside the open window of our neighborhood Chinese restaurant. The news was too much to comprehend, we couldn’t concentrate, and none of it felt real yet anyway. Days later the mayor of San Francisco would announce a citywide shelter-in-place and we’d join fellow parents across the Bay Area and later the country in wondering how, exactly, we’d get through it — whatever it was — with our one- and three-year-old daughters.
I still wonder how, exactly, we got through the worst of it. Until that week in March we built much of our family life around dining out. Weekly visits to PizzaHacker, with its cavernous dining room and chalkboard-painted walls, were a sacred ritual. We left the car at home and jumped on the bus for the earliest weekday reservations at Nopa, my pre-parenthood local, so we could squeeze three cocktails in before bedtime. Both of my girls spent late nights in their stroller bassinet tucked under a table at Bar Tabac in Brooklyn, previously the scene of most Sunday nights of my 20s, while I drank healthy pours of red wine and listened to live music pretending it was just like it used to be. It almost was.
We had our misses, too: a Sunday evening at Zuni Cafe where we dared tempt fate by ordering the one-hour roasted chicken and paid for it with spilled milk, three plates of shoestring fries and a hastily boxed meal to go. A shattered glass and a very quick exit at a barbecue restaurant in Kansas City. One particularly epic double meltdown at Arca in Tulum that still managed to be the best meal of the last trip we took together two weeks before the world changed.
I never minded the tough nights because they made the good ones worth it. Our toddlers sitting starstruck, enamored by chefs working in an open kitchen. One kid sneaking a bite of broccoli to mixed reviews, then watching her face light up after a taste of salmon from my plate. Even buttered pasta tastes better at a restaurant — any three-year-old knows this.
Suddenly it was gone. My family hunkered down at home as restaurants covered windows with plywood. My daughters’ brief love affair with restaurants was over just as it was starting. They missed them, too. My oldest asked when we could go back to PizzaHacker before she asked when she could go back to preschool.
Motherhood is a life of startling changes. Nothing is predictable. Everything’s under control until the moment it isn’t. In this way, the upheaval of those early pandemic days wasn’t a foreign feeling; it was another set of unfamiliar guardrails put on my life due to circumstances mostly outside of my control.
After my first daughter was born, to simply make it through a restaurant meal was honoring my sense of self. Snuggling her close in a carrier, dropping crumbs on her head, I invited her into my life, the only one I knew. As she grew, she introduced her baby sister to the same pizza crusts and guacamole that made up her earliest restaurant memories. This was our family’s rhythm, and to live in it reminded me that I didn’t have to lose an important part of myself simply because I chose to be a mother. This is what the pandemic took from us.
My girls are two and four now. For Mother’s Day on Sunday, they say they can’t wait to go eat outside at “a real restaurant.” I know they’ll pick at their plain pasta and bicker and maybe spill their milk. I know they’ll each ask to use the bathroom at least twice, just so they can step inside and stroll past the kitchen to the back of the restaurant, to look at the tables, to take it all in. My husband will offer to accompany them, to leave me with a rare moment of quiet and my Mother’s Day champagne. But this time, I think I’ll join them.
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