Am I a Failure?

by Carolyn Rahaman

“Mama. I have a question. Four plus six is ten.”

I stare at my four-year-old son for several beats before I say, “That’s right,” and then ask, “Was that a question?”

He trots off. I turn back to my Word document. What was I doing?

Right, I’m doing revisions on my novel. There’s an important theme at the end that isn’t fleshed out well enough at the beginning, so I’m reading through and looking for opportunities to make it more prominent. Several of those opportunities involve adjusting the world-building, so I need to hold it all in my head enough to make sure I don’t contradict myself later.


“I’m working, sweetheart.”

“I have a question. When caterpillars’ skin gets too small, they build a cocoon.”

I have no idea if that’s how that works. “Okay. Can you go play by yourself?”

He trots off. I open my homeschooling document and add a note that we need to talk about what questions are.

Okay, what was I doing?

Just before the Illinois shelter-in-place order, I launched season six of my short story podcast, meaning I had to write, record and edit audio in order to put out an episode a week for the next few months. I was also outlining in preparation for writing a second draft of a novel for Camp National Novel Month in April. And then I heard back from my agent with what I hope will be the last round of revisions before we begin submitting another novel. Things were busy, yet hopeful. Fulfilling.

And then Covid-19 hit.

In addition to my writing, I’m CFO of a small not-for-profit, which had to close its doors in March. I’m scrambling to maintain payroll while we’re bringing in less income, and I’ve taken over responsibilities I don’t usually have in an effort to keep our more at-risk employees at home. Meanwhile, on top of his full-time job, my husband has a teaching position at the University of Chicago this quarter, which is suddenly all online with pre-recorded videos and extra office hours over Zoom. Both of our workloads have doubled.

All that, and we have no childcare.

“Mama, I need a Band-Aid.”

Suspiciously, I ask, “Why?”

“No reason. Don’t look at my foot.” He tries to hide his torn toenail behind some blocks. I wrap his toe in a pikachu Band-Aid, and he tells me all about pikachu.

No work is getting done.

I cling to my writing. Should I only do eight episodes of the podcast instead of twelve? No, people have told me that they’re looking forward to the distraction, and consistently putting out content helps my brand. Should I not do Camp NaNo? That would throw off my whole timeline for this novel. Should I write to my agent and tell her that the revisions that are so close I can taste them—the revisions about to launch my career—will have to wait? Because I’m busy? Absurd.

How could I possibly justify not doing these?

“Mama, do all animals have eyes?”

Hey, that one is a question! And I know the answer. “Coral don’t have eyes. Or jelly fish. Or some salamanders that live in caves where it’s too dark to see.”

He trots off.

A New Yorker cartoon scrolls across my timeline. There’s man in a small boat, rowing on a troubled sea, a thunderstorm raging overhead. The caption reads, “This is it…The time to finish your novel.”

I stare at it far too long. I print it out and tape it to my computer. I write my agent an e-mail.

It’s so easy to see the ridiculousness in this cartoon. So much easier to see than the ridiculousness of the expectations I’ve put on myself.

“But!”, the internet says, “Shakespeare wrote during a plague.” Tolstoy wrote with something like a dozen kids in his house. If I don’t finish these revisions in quarantine, it’s not because I lacked the time, it’s because I lacked the discipline.

Maybe if I stay up late. Maybe if I get up early. Maybe if I’m better at setting limits about not being disturbed while I’m working. Maybe if I do mindfulness exercises before I start writing so I can be entirely focused on it, then I can have a truly productive fifteen minutes before I’m interrupted. Maybe if I drink more coffee so I don’t collapse with exhaustion as soon as my son goes to sleep.

None of these work, because—obviously—I am a failure. I don’t want it badly enough.

And then someone posts an internal memo from the Canadian federal government on Twitter. I read it and cry. Crying is not uncommon these days. I print it off and tape it to my computer beside the cartoon.

It says, “You are not ‘working from home,’ you are ‘at your home, during a crisis, trying to work.’”

I am trying. During a crisis.

It goes on, “You will not try to compensate for lost productivity by working longer hours…Your team’s success will not be measured the same way it was when things were normal.”

“Please don’t worry,” says the reply e-mail from my agent. “You aren’t disappointing me.”

As painful as it is to let go, right now is not the time for my revisions. Right now is the time to fight for my employees’ safety and livelihoods. Right now is the time to check on my mother who had, and then recovered from, Covid-19. Right now is the time to check on my husband, who’s been working in the other room for six straight hours. And right now is the time to be present for my son, who has slept with the light on for the last two months.

“Mama, I want to see a sloth. Can we go to the zoo tomorrow?”

“No, sweetheart. The zoo is closed, and we need to stay inside. Maybe we can go next month. Okay?”

“Okay. Write it on the list.”

I add it to the whiteboard list of the things we’ll do after quarantine: visit the zoo to see a sloth, visit the aquarium to see animals with no eyes, go to the playground, do my revisions.

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