Love in the Time of Coronavirus
When I moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, from Brooklyn, New York, romance was the last thing on my mind.
At least two different friends predicted I would find love in Mexico. And I just laughed.
The idea of wanting one more person who would need something from me sounded ridiculous. I told my friends, “Time will tell! Maybe someday, when the kids are older. I doubt it, but maybe.”
I moved to San Miguel without much of a plan for myself, besides knowing I needed a radical change from the constant rush and stress of NYC life. I had already enrolled the children in a Spanish-only Waldorf school but didn’t know what I would do for myself.
Once the children started school, I got an online job as a health advisor, since nurse practitioner jobs don’t exist in Mexico. I started to build a social circle for myself. After a time, I got myself a therapist -- a requirement for any good (former) New Yorker.
And my therapist suggested that I start dating. Just casually. Just to explore my options.
I agreed that it might be fun to find an occasional dinner companion -- nothing more! -- and enrolled in Tinder, the most popular dating app in our small city.
Simultaneously, my friend Antoinette and I started doing a workbook together called Calling In the One: Seven Weeks to Finding the Love of Your Life. She wanted to find a lifelong partner. I don’t know why I decided to do the workbook too. Just curiosity, I guess? I had read amazing reviews of the book, hundreds of success stories, and while I wasn't looking for love, I was fascinated by the results it promised.
Well, before either one of us had finished the workbook, we both went on very promising first dates. Which quickly developed into much more.
Sergio and I met for coffee on February 4, 2020. I scheduled a quick forty-five minute coffee break between Spanish class and therapy. He seemed nice, but I didn't think much beyond that. I suggested we meet again soon and hurried on my way.
He sent a photo of our cozy meeting spot to me moments after I left… and was shocked that I blocked his number.
A little later, I wrote to him and thanked him for coffee. And he realized he had sent the photo to a stranger, not me. It was someone else who had blocked him.
The next day, he walked to Centro and chose the perfect terrace restaurant for our next date. He even reserved the specific table he wanted. He met me the next evening in the central garden of San Miguel. I was only a little nervous but as soon as I saw his smile, my heartbeat sped up.
We spent hours talking over a romantic dinner with a view of the parroquia, the famous pink church in San Miguel. Shyly, I finally took his hand. And hours later, I initiated our first kiss -- on the sidewalk of a busy street -- and felt fireworks.
Just a couple weeks later, I changed my mind about having a potential suitor wait six months to meet my children. Despite my desire to protect them, I didn’t want to commit six months to this relationship, only to have their meeting be a disaster.
It was the opposite of a disaster.
On the advice of Antoionette, we planned for just a quick ice cream outing, nothing too ambitious. Short and sweet.
The day of our date, he knocked on the door as we were doing chores. Calliope had been told to wash dishes but was dragging her feet. He went to the kitchen and quietly offered to help. Wordlessly, she handed him a sponge. They washed the dishes together. And by the end of the day, my shy girl was hanging all over him.
Amelie was even easier. She was instantly smitten, and thrilled to command his attention. Walking home afterwards, she climbed into his arms and laid her tired head on his shoulder.
He told me much later he had been nervous to meet them… and shocked to find that he was instantly smitten.
My heart swelled to see their ease together. I had truly never imagined a partner loving my children. My imagination blossomed and I started to imagine much more than a dinner companion, but a life partner. We quickly began spending nearly all our time together.
Seven weeks later, I decided to keep the kids home from school for a couple weeks, maybe. There was this strange virus circulating the globe.
Sergio’s mom came from Mexico City to stay in Sergio’s house -- much safer than an apartment in Mexico City -- and he was soon spending all his time with us, instead.
Then in May we had terrifying break-in when a vandal came into the house through Calliope’s second story window while we were sleeping. Thankfully, we were none the wiser until we realized a purse and iPad were missing the next day. Still, I couldn't wait to get out of that house. We found a new house together and moved in together, officially. And now we've moved again, into a house we adore, and Sergio’s furniture and kitchen items have gradually migrated to the new house.
We are talking, now, about moving his remaining possessions into storage and him letting go of his rental house.
And we are buying a used car together! He has generously shared his car with us throughout COVID but “Frida” has reached elderly ages and is ready for retirement.
It’s hard to express what it feels like to go from being a devoted Single Mother by Choice to being a committed family of four.
I feel a sense of surprise every day of my life, although it is gradually lessening.
It was really, really hard for me to ask for help and even to expect it. But when the kids stayed home from school last spring -- because, of course it turned from 2 weeks to 6 months, thanks to COVID -- I had to depend on him so that I could work. To my amazement, they quickly grew to adore mornings out with Sergio. He took the children and his mother to their school campus (no one else was around) to play. After a week, my reserved Calliope asked if he could call his mother “Grandma Carmen.” Both children asked if Sergio could stay home with them so I could go out alone on date nights!
When Amelie fell ill with an ear infection in the middle of the night after swimming in a pool, Sergio sat with me at her bedside in the middle of the night. Do long term couples do things like this? It had never occurred to me that I might not always have to worry alone. It was mind blowing.
Sergio insists on driving the children to and from school every day so I can take advantage of the time to work. He washes the dinner dishes every single night. He pushes the children -- and their friends -- in the hammock until they scream with delight. He watched them all afternoon yesterday so I could go to a vineyard with friends.
It is hard to describe is the gradually growing sense of safety and security that I feel. Especially because I didn't experience this as a child. I love the sense of comfort and confidence I see in my children.
Conflict -- inevitable in any relationship, and a guarantee in any relationship during COVID lockdowns -- was hard and scary for me. My parents had terrible fights, ones that were terrifying to me as a child. So anger is hard for me, whether the anger is from me or from him.
But we have gradually been practicing how to handle conflict in a healthy way. I have slowly been learning that he needs time to cool off when he is upset, that it’s not a rejection of me. This has been a hard but invaluable lesson for me! I am also learning that it’s not fair for me to apply a “manual” to him. I can ask for what I want or need, but I can’t be mad at him for not automatically realizing my needs and acting accordingly. Likewise, he’s his own person and has his own needs and wants, ones that don’t always match up with mine. He can say “no” to me without it meaning anything about me or our relationship. He almost never does, but he’s allowed to.
Our future together looks rosy. A one or two-year experiment in life in Mexico seems to have become permanent. As much as I miss my friends and family “back home,” I can’t imagine ever returning to the States to live. I am living my personal fairy tale here in Mexico.
I’ll never regret my unique path to motherhood. Becoming a single-mother-by-choice to Calliope and Amelie with the help of donor sperm was the perfect path for my family. If I had chosen to have children with a partner, we wouldn’t have had this perfect space for Sergio to step into. I’m so glad I had such beautiful years alone with them… and now I’m thrilled to be creating our new family together with him.
Six of the seven suitcases.
We arrived in Mexico on August 6, 2018, with 7 overstuffed suitcases and a giant carseat bag. The plan had been to only bring six suitcases but it was so hard to decide what to leave behind -- the vast majority of our belongings -- and what to bring. By the end, I had so much "decision fatigue" that I was throwing things, willy-nilly, into our suitcases. I brought all the play food, for example, and all the magnatiles. The play food mostly goes unused and the magnatiles get used every day. Lesson learned: most toys are really unnecessary.
Navigating the enormous Mexico City airport with those 7 giant suitcases, a giant car seat bag and a wiley preschooler (plus her more docile sister) was mostly a nightmare. Luckily I had a stash of American dollar bills for tips... but those didn't help when Amelie turned and took off running back through Immigration. Past the soldiers with machine guns. I was on the verge of tears as I attempted to hoist her squirmy self up to the customs camera. Thankfully, immigration officers took pity on our bedraggled group and let us go in the handicapped/employee line. Grateful doesn't begin to describe how I felt.
We arrived in San Miguel de Allende after a night in a hotel and a four-hour drive to a temporary apartment where we lived out of two suitcases before moving into our year-long home at last. It was a relief to unpack but our belongings sure looked skimpy. Mostly in a nice way. I liked feeling freedom from too many belongings. But sometimes I worried that my children didn't have enough things. Over time, I saw that they really were happy with just a few toys. Nowadays, we rarely buy toys and instead use our money on travel and experiences.
A few days after we arrived, my one English-speaking friend from the children's school, Katie, notified me that there was an emergency meeting for parents. Using Google maps, I nervously navigated my way to the meeting's location. I still barely knew my way to Centro at that point. I found my friend and she introduced me to what felt like millions of other parents. I was startled to experience being pulled in for a quick hug and air-kiss on the cheek before even exchanging names. What a difference from New York City, where I never touch even my closest friends!
I only understood about half of what was being said but with a help of a friendly translator, who helped me and another brand new American parent, I came to realize that the school's land had been taken over in a coup! What an introduction to life in Mexico. I had no idea if this was typical or not. I was impressed by how calm and respectful everyone seemed to be.
Luckily, Katie knew someone who had just purchased property with a vacant school on it, and our school was able to take it over. A couple weeks later, the children and I went to help prepare the new property. Painting and scrubbing was a nice introduction to the new school for all three of us. I still felt like an idiot whenever anyone spoke to me in Spanish -- my Spanish speaking was moderate but my understanding felt poor -- but it was good to be able to wordlessly work alongside others.
The first day of school was very hard. Calliope was joining the first grade class, despite completing first grade in the United States, because the Waldorf school required children to be seven to start first grade (and she had just turned seven). She was actually the youngest in her class. Little did I know, repeating first grade would be a tremendous gift for Calliope. It allowed her to focus on learning Spanish (and making friends) without being overly challenged by academics. It actually bolstered her confidence immensely and solified her mathematics skills.
The first day of school included a "bridging up" ceremony for new first graders. In front of the entire school community, each seven-year-old walked across a flower bridge, holding the hand of an older student, away from the kindergarten teachers and towards the first grade teachers. My poor, shy girl was quietly crying across the circle from me, not understanding a word of what was being said. I ached to take her in my arms and comfort her but waited helplessly across the circle with Amelie instead. The kindergarten teacher escorted Calliope across the bridge -- she was too scared to take the hand of an older student -- and delivered her to the first grade teacher, Yolanda.
Then Yolanda and her student teacher escorted the first graders directly into their classroom and closed the door behind them. There was no chance to hug her goodbye. I felt terrible. I hadn't anticipated this separation, and thus, hadn't said goodbye before the ceremony. My poor girl: a new country, a new school culture (Waldorf), a new language. And now, no chance to formally separate from me before a very long first day.
I delivered three-year-old Amelie, sobbing, into her teacher's arms and headed home. It was Amelie's first full day of school in her life. She had only attended preschool two mornings a week before, and her nanny and nanny-share-buddy, Leo, always went with her.
Oh, my aching heart. I could barely get anything done all day, worrying and waiting to pick them up.
To my relief, they both seemed fine at the end of the day. Exhausted, yes, and clingy, but not traumatized. Thank goodness.
I continued dropping them off and picking them up by taxi for that first week -- each crying at drop off each morning -- and then switched to the school's van service near our home. To my surprised relief, they both seemed to like the van and there were no more tears at drop off. It turns out that transitioning in a parking lot was a lot easier than being personally delivered to their teachers. Who would have guessed?
They were exhausted each day after school during that first month. I could hardly blame them. Those days that I went to school for a parent meeting, I was exhausted too. All that Spanish! And not just "ordinary" Spanish like greetings and ordering food in restaurants. Oh no, this was high-level, fancy pants, pedalogical Spanish. Anthroposcopic was my favorite. I don't even know what that means in English!
Calliope, especially, was moody in those early days. Amelie, too, but it was easier to see that it was just plain exhaustion for her. By October, the dark moods started to lift. Amelie started to speak in Spanish -- her class was only Spanish-speaking. Plus, she had had a Spanish/English bilingual nanny, Susie, back in Brooklyn, so she had had more exposure to Spanish. And Amelie is a born mimic. To her, figuring out to speak Spanish and charm others was just a game.
Calliope, my more cautious and reserved little soul, was more reluctant. She would only speak in English at school, but mostly didn't speak at all. Luckily, her initally-stern-appearing teacher turned out to be a warm and loving gem of a person. I felt so lucky! She truly understood Calliope, how hard to push and when to relax her standards. And Yolanda had another teacher working with her all year, Manuel, so there was an extra person to help Calliope as needed. And they both spoke English fluently. Best of all, the "handwork" (knitting and sewing, for first graders) teacher, Theresa, is American and speaks English to all the children during her art class. And Calliope is dextrous and creative beyond her years, so she had a class where she she was a shining star among her peers. This bolstered her confidence in school. And in October, a bilingual girl (English/Spanish) joined the class and Calliope had a true friend!
With the children more settled at school, it was time to figure out what to do with myself. Looking back, I wonder why I didn't give myself more time to relax. It was the first time in more than 15 years that I was neither working nor in graduate school. But I was so accustomed to the grind of full-time work! I didn't know how to relax.
I got an online job as a health advisor to new parents. I hoped it would allow me to work half-time, but they never fully launched so work was scarce. My friend Jackie had had good luck building niche sites for Amazon so I decided to give that a shot, and signed up for an expensive online course.
The initial challenge was that I couldn't think of an item to build my niche site around. It had to be at least $50 but not already have competition from other niche sites. So all kitchen items, for example, were out. There were tons of websites devoted to them. Finally, the instructor of the course took pity on me, after hours and hours of researching items, and suggested... toilets.
I started building a niche website called, I believe, TheBestToiletReviews.com. (In case you were wondering, TheBestToilets.com was already taken.) I kept trying to prod myself into completing next steps but the trouble was... I hated it. I hated everything about it. Friends suggested I give up by I hated to waste the money I had invested. So instead, I spent hours and hours NOT working on it and not leaving the house because I was SUPPOSED to be working on it.
Finally I threw in the towel. What an enormous relief. I immediately felt so much lighter.
The company that hired me to work remotely as a child health advisor was looking for more sleep consultants so I got the idea to train to become a child sleep consultant. It made perfect sense: my life had been completely transformed by sleep training my own children. I had felt so empowered by seeing the tremendous changes in them when they got the sleep they truly needed. Moreover, as a pediatric nurse practitioner, I had seen the negative effects on children of inadequate sleep: poor school performance, hyperactivity, obesity and excessive daytime sleepiness (yes, children can be both sleepy AND hyperactive -- it's quite common, actually).
I was accepted into the 5-month training program with the Family Sleep Institute, the only training program that seemed to be both evidence-based AND inclusive of all training styles and families. The online training and reading turned out to be really fun! It was great to be learning and studying again. I had always been a good student and it was great to return to my roots.
In the process of turning my focus to the sleep training program, I also started to feel less lonely. I deeply missed our daily visits with Amy and Emily, back in Brooklyn, but Amy visited in February with her two children, my children's best friends and nanny-share partners for seven years, and somehow that turned things around for me. It was like my emotional tank got filled and that kept me going until April, when my other dear friend from Brooklyn, Emily, came to visit with her daughter. Then in May, my childhood friend Emily (a different Emily) came for three weeks with her children and husband, and my SMC friend Denise came with her son. By the time they left, it was just three weeks until we returned to the States for six weeks of glorious summer with our loved ones.
But I was also busy building community in San Miguel. I had a group of neighborhood mom friends, mostly with younger children, and Jackie, friends online since we were pregnant with our oldest children and in-person since our visit to San Miguel the summer prior. We actually had a little group of moms with donor-conceived children living in San Miguel, ranging from 2-6 people at any given time! It was great because we all committed to going out every Saturday night together, often including other friends and visitors as well. I loved having regular social plans and having affordable babysitting to support it! In NYC, babysitting ran me $20/hour, which made the very thought of going out become stressful. In Mexico, it was more like $4/hour. Much more doable! And San Miguel de Allende has an amazing number of restaurants, many of them quite good, so there was no shortage of new places to try.
I was also making friends with other English-speaking parents at the children's Waldorf school. As my Spanish developed and my confidence grew, I got more friendly with the Mexican parents as well. It was important to me to be friends with Mexicans as well as Americans but I was intimidated -- I felt like a child, and not a very bright one at that, when I tried to keep up with group conversations in Spanish. I stopped going to most of the school meetings, realizing that they were not worth the cost to my confidence.
By the time we returned to the States at the end of June, we were feeling much more settled in Mexico. And also very, very grateful to be within our beloved community again. Despite that gratitude, though, I knew our "experiment" of life in Mexico was not yet complete. I knew I wanted at least another year. The first, and hardest, year was over. It was time to start reaping the rewards of all that hard work.
to be continued...
San Miguel de Allende's famous pink sandstone church (that my children refer to as "the castle" -- they think it's the one in Disney movie credits)
Brooklyn besties Leo and Eleanor come to visit.
But San Miguel pals like Mika and Teo are amazing too.
San Miguel mama friends are wonderful, also.
Calliope's classmates and teachers after a performance for parents.
Feeling all the community love and Amelie and Mika's joint birthday party.
Churros in Mexico City with beloved Brooklyn friend, Annabelle
May visitors: childhood friend Emily and SMC-NYC friend Denise and their families. (Calliope was SUPER happy to have her photo taken).
Strolling the cobblestone streets of beautiful San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
When I started my job as a pediatric nurse practitioner at a progressive public elementary-through-high school in Brooklyn, NY, I thought I might never leave. At the very least, I thought I would stay until my then-theoretical children graduated from elementary school.
It seemed like the perfect job for me. It was two blocks from my apartment. The politics of the school were amazing, with a focus on prioritizing racial and economic diversity as well as social justice. The teachers were warm and devoted, some of them spending decades at the school. Admissions to the school were through lottery, but as long as I worked there, the odds were high that my future children would be able to attend this gem of a school. I was providing primary care to children ages 4-19, including reproductive health services to adolescents, and seeing a dramatically reduced rate of teen pregnancies in our community as a result. I was treating many asthamtic children, addressing their symptoms as well as starting them on preventative medicines to improve their long-term outcomes. I was making a difference. And it felt amazing. I was happy to work long hours to achieve these results.
Thirteen years later, it was feeling far less ideal. My commute was now 45 minutes or more, by subway and on foot, dragging a tired child behind me. The demands of the job had increased radically. My popularity meant there was an ever-increasing demand for my clinical services, while at the same time, the advent of electronic medical records and other new documentation requirements meant my administrative work had increased exponentially.
I was exhausted. My child was exhausted. I was missing my baby at home with the nanny. I was almost never fully emotionally present with them, because I was racing the clock throughout the day. It was a battle to get out of the apartment in the mornings -- especially with the nanny often being late herself -- and to get home in time to relieve the nanny at the end of the day.
Then I rushed them through dinner and into bed at night so I could cook dinner, eat, clean up and fall into bed exhausted at night, only to get up at 5:15 the next morning to start the cycle all over again.
I was also rushing through my patients during the day, anxious to keep up with the ever-growing pile of paperwork. Our funding was always in question, and we got laid off several times, only to have funding reinstated when our devoted patient families fought on our behalf. I was humbled by their efforts, but exhausted by the stress of job insecurity.
One day my beloved medical director made a comment that I mistakenly interpreted to mean that our program's medical assistants would be laid off. One day of working solo without my assistant was miserable -- swabbing a sore throat for strep before dashing back to the waiting room to check on the latest patient to arrive. An eternity of working alone was intolerable.
A switch flipped. I was done.
I started looking for other jobs and even had an interview for a similar job with another, more well-funded and stable organization. I realized I couldn't start over, doing the same job again, just in a new and more geographically distant community, no matter how stable the organization.
A couple of weeks later, I had an evening off and went to get a pedicure, blissfully alone. My pedicurist was Mexican and we cheerfully chatted together in Spanish. A lightbulb went off. I loved speaking Spanish.
I remembered a conversation I had recently with my older friend, Scott, who was beginning his retirement and talking excitedly about the places he would travel. I remembered thinking wistfully that I didn't want to wait until my own retirement to travel. I wanted to travel now, with my children, while they were still young enough to want to travel with me.
I remembered my years' long "conversation" over Facebook Messenger with my friend and fellow single-mother-by-choice, Jackie, about our desire for immersion travel with our children. We had traveled together the previous summer to San Miguel de Allende. I had always thought "immersion travel" meant trips during my glorious summers off from work.
But now I started to have a different dream. What if I gave up everything -- my newly remodeled apartment, my beloved community of friends, my devoted patient population -- and moved to Mexico?
It seemed like a crazy idea. And yet. I knew I had to do it. I had to make the leap.
I got in touch with Jackie and shortly therafter, to my amazement, she decided to make the same leap. She already worked remotely so she didn't have to give up her employment but just like me, she packed up her home, sold or gave away most of her possessions, and flew her family to Mexico.
Saying goodbye to the only life my children knew wasn't easy. It was particularly hard to say goodbye to Amy's family -- we had shared a nanny and raised our children together every day for seven years -- and to Emily's family -- we lived in the same building, were both single mothers, rode the subway together every morning and often shared meals. I couldn't speak as I silently, tearfully said goodbye to each. They weren't just my friends, they were our family.
But I knew that the time we spent together, as precious as it was, didn't make up for the hours and hours of stress and exhaustion every week. As much as I loved being in their lives, it wasn't enough.
So on August 6, 2018, we boarded a plane with 7 overstuffed suitcases and flew to our new lives in Mexico.
to be continued....
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and certified life coach for parents. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.