Goldilocks, COVID-19 and the Three Bears — A Parable for a Family’s Pandemic Journey

Three Little Bears

Author Cathrin Bradbury describes her pandemic journey with her family through the parable of 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears.' Photos: Bears (Victoria_Novak/Adobe Stock); Forest (aluna1/Adobe Stock)

Once upon a time, there were three bears. Mama Bear, Baby Boy Bear and Baby Girl Bear. Mama Bear enjoyed white wine, especially during the jagged years when she and Papa Bear were splitting up and moving into separate dens. Sometimes, as her fairy-tale family came apart at the seams, Mama Bear would hold forth on the institution of marriage with her friends. They’d sit around on the broad-viewed balcony of Blond Bear’s den and Mama Bear would get stroppy about love and marriage.  

 “The nuclear bear family unit is messed up,” she’d begin, holding her second glass of Pecorino as the night breeze gently ruffled her neck fur. “It’s the least co-operative living arrangement ever created and has long since outlived its benefit for bear society. It’s time” — Mama liked to drive home a point — “to blast the whole outmoded construct sky-high.” Mama didn’t know a pandemic was about to do that in ways she could not understand or imagine. 

Back in the fairy-tale days, each of the four bears had their own bed, chair, bowl of porridge, laptop and iPhone; a cosy bear setup, although sometimes things were too hot or too cold or too big or too small, which could make the four bears fractious. One day a blond named Goldilocks wandered through — bouncy curls, lively personality, snappy overalls, the whole getup — looking for something that was “just right.” After she left, nothing was just right, and pretty soon Papa Bear moved out to a condo nearby. 

In those early, post-separation days, when her family was still evolving from four bears to three, it was a new kind of life. Humbling was one way to put it. The baby bears often seemed angry with Mama, like it was her fault they were no longer a family. Mama was doing everything she could to keep them happy and on track and felt like they might have been a teensy tiny bit more grateful. She did her best to keep this thought to herself. When Baby Boy Bear came home after university to lie on the couch for a year before he set out for the woods to work and travel, Mama maintained a cheerful demeanour.

“How was your day?” she would call out, as she arrived home from work lugging bags of organic honey and blueberries for dinner. 

“Mama, why are you always grilling me?” he would say. 

“Well, why are you grilling him?” Jungian Bear asked at Mama’s weekly therapy session.

“Pardon me?” Mama tried not to bare her teeth.

“When you say — ‘How was your day?’ — are you looking for the answer to that question? Or are you really saying, ‘Do you intend to waste your life in my den and become a feckless drifter who will make me miserable for all my dying days?’”

After that, Mama talked to Baby Boy mostly about hockey. In one of his off-the-couch periods, Baby Boy travelled to the mountains of Guatemala, and one night he FaceTimed home, sounding light with happiness. “Mama, I’ve met Sweetheart Bear.” She heard the awe in his voice from 5,000 kilometres away and marvelled at how love can find you. Soon after that, he found a good job with a Canadian company and worked remotely as he and his sweetheart prepared to move to Toronto. 

The news from Baby Girl Bear in these bright days when the world felt knowable was just as good. She’d set up her own bachelor cave, small but well-appointed, got a steady job in retail, and thrived under the routine. And guess what, one of the guys in shipping turned out to be her sweetheart and moved into her cave. “My baby bears have love and work,” Mama Bear liked to say in this period. “They’re all set up.” 

This turned out to be false hope. 

Somebody once said to Mama, or maybe she heard it in a movie, “North American bears expect happiness and are shocked when unhappiness comes. But most of the world is used to unhappiness and is surprised when happiness lands in their life.” The idea that all happiness is fleeting was instructive, especially when the next thing that happened was COVID-19. 

Baby Girl Bear had to stop work and go into lockdown in her small cave three times. Her routines were upended and replaced by endless exhausting existential uncertainty. The former joy of retail service eluded her, especially when customers roared at her because they had to wear masks. Wearing her own mask eight hours a day made breathing in and out feel like an effort. It felt like there was no relief. It felt like no one cared. Things became dire for Baby Girl. She stopped trusting anyone, especially the government, and the upshot was she decided not to get vaccinated. 

“That’s stupid!” snapped Mama on the phone, and Baby Girl said, “You are impossible to talk to,” and hung up. 

Meanwhile Baby Boy, as a foreigner in Guatemala, couldn’t get vaccinated because there weren’t enough vaccines for Guatemalans — “just one example of the glaring inequity of world vaccine distribution,” said Mama (wine, balcony). “Bears there are protesting in the streets to get the vaccine. Bears here are protesting in the streets not to get the vaccine,” she said. “How did my nuclear family get to this place? Two unvaccinated baby bears in a world pandemic, one can’t, and one won’t. Grrrowl!” 

When Baby Boy FaceTimed a few days later to say they’d booked flights home (they’d have to test negative before they boarded and quarantine for 14 days once they got here), her elation was cut short by what came next.

“So, Mama,” Baby Boy began. “Sweetheart Bear feels uncomfortable when you talk about her having cubs. We’d like you to ease up on your cub agenda after we move in with you.”

“I do not have a cub agenda.” Mama couldn’t seem to put a paw right. 

“Mama, it’s all you talk about. The truth is, Sweetheart isn’t sure she wants cubs.” 

“Grrrrow-ouch.” Mama disguised an involuntary growl by clutching her carpal tunnel-ravaged wrist and complaining about her constant pain. “Too much fishing for salmon in the river to feed my family,” she said, deflecting and guilt-tripping at the same time. “But what about you, Baby Boy. Don’t you want a cub?”

“I want whatever Sweetheart wants.”

Mama struggled to adopt the smiley-face expression she used when virtual work meetings became irksome. Because what she was thinking was: Maybe I will need to drive a wedge between Baby Boy and his sweetheart so that he can find some other bear to have cubs with. She was not proud of this thought.

“A lot of bears are deciding not to have cubs,” her friends said at one of their balcony sessions. “Climate crisis, deadly viruses, uncertainty about the future. Going cubless is a modern choice.” 

Later that night, as she sat in her den, Mama Bear looked sadly down at her front paws and wondered where she’d gone wrong. She had a memory of sitting alone like this not long after Papa Bear moved out, the baby bears in their bedrooms with their laptops, and their doors closed; socially distanced by their desire to be apart from Mama, who, let’s face it, could be at the end of her tether some days and not the easiest bear to be around. She’d worked hard since to be a better Mama but needed reminding sometimes. “Work in progress,” she said out loud.

“Baby Girl,” she began on the phone the next day. “Can we go for a walk and talk?” 

As they roamed the city parks, they chatted about this and that. Fur styles, mostly, and how long it had been since they’d had a decent grooming. After a while, Mama attempted to move them toward the subject of vaccinations, in a neutral fashion: “I think you should tell your doctor about being an anti-vaxxer.” Baby Girl was quick with her response. “This is what I’m talking about! I am not an anti-vaxxer! Why do you use that negative terminology? I just don’t feel confident about these COVID vaccines.” 

This back-and-forth created tension. But then Mama remembered her $150-an-hour therapy – “hold on to what is being said” and “avoid creating binary choices” – and resisted the urge to give advice. As she listened, she began to understand how badly Baby Girl needed to talk without everyone becoming furious with her. Mama thought about the way liberal-thinking bears everywhere said things like, “Those anti-vaxxer yahoos should be muzzled and put in cages,” sounding like the anti-vax bears they disparaged. And how frightening that must sound to Baby Girl. 

“I wonder,” Mama said, interrupting her friends on the balcony not long after her walk with Baby Girl. The conversation had turned to the idiocy of the 12 per cent of Canadians who refused to get vaccinated. “I wonder, whether or not we agree with one another” – Mama Bear’s voice was suddenly too loud – “if we need to go beyond binary equations and find a place where ego and non-ego are less opposed in this vaccine conversation.” Everyone stopped talking and stared at her. “You, know, a place where things aren’t too hot or too cold. The middle way,” Mama stammered. She found, not for the first time when she repeated things Jungian Bear said, that it was like trying to explain string theory, and her words drifted into the night air like the thinnest trail of smoke. 

(Speaking of Goldilocks, the story of the three bears is sometimes described as the “dialectical three,” where the first option is wrong in one way, the second is wrong in another, or opposite, way, and only the third option – the middle path between opposites – is just right. It’s called the Goldilocks Principle and is used in biology, economics, psychology and astronomy. Stephen Hawking said, “Like Goldilocks, the development of intelligent life requires that planetary temperature be just right.”) 

Things got darker still. Sweetheart Bear was not allowed on the plane to Toronto after airport officials rejected her paperwork, and Mama was as sorry as a bear could be about the whole driving-a-wedge thing. Meanwhile, Baby Girl worried about her brother bear, and about another lockdown in Ontario. “I can’t do it, Mama. I can’t survive another lockdown.” Mama was overwhelmed with an urge to hibernate. “I just need to sleep for six months,” she said to Jungian Bear, her eyes drooping. But like any parent who knows when to let go and when to hold on to their baby bears for dear life, she got to work with lawyers and doctors as her sisters and friends rallied around to help. 

Baby Boy Bear and his sweetheart did make it home on their second attempt. Mama rejoiced, until Baby Boy said, “Mama, I have to tell you something.” He was very sombre when he spoke, and Mama muttered to herself, What next? 

“Yes, Baby Boy,” she said, looking into the eyes that were as blue as the first day she stroked the fur on his tiny head. “What is it?”

“You are going to be a Grandma Bear. Sweetheart is pregnant.”

Mama cried so hard she surprised herself with her big joy. She really bawled her head off. Baby Boy couldn’t stop laughing. “And you know what, we figure we’ll live here with you in your cave for a couple of years, because you know all about raising cubs.” Mama dried her eyes. Two years, she said to herself. She imagined what freedom could look like after 40 years of toil. Greece, say, where she’d thought she might live on a sparsely populated island for six months after she retired; or maybe Ireland, where she had distant cousins. 

“So,” said Blond Bear, whose lustrous coat Mama sometimes coveted. “Isn’t it interesting that after all this time you will be the Four Bears all over again. Just the way you started.”

Mama hadn’t thought of it that way, although it was true that when the cub was born, they would be four bears. Six, when Baby Girl and her sweetheart came over. Also, Mama forgot to mention, her nephew and his sweetheart had recently moved into Mama’s basement apartment with two cats. “Oh, and Aunt Bear,” her nephew said, “We’re getting a new dog!” A dog, thought Mama, fondly remembering the precise and quiet home she’d had to herself all through COVID. A dog could be a step too far. 

Then Mama thought about the bears she knew who were trying new things since COVID slid its way into the world. A lot of them were creating room in their homes for their adult kids or grandparents or siblings, sometimes moving to places that would accommodate their extended families. Gradually, Mama opened her heart to a new idea: They might be the four bears again, but this time they would be an open and sprawling family designed to invite bears in instead of a closed and small family designed to keep bears out. 

“COVID has changed the way we live together,” Mama said to her friends on the balcony as the nights got colder and the pale fall moon hung in the sky above them like a hat on a hook. “The lockdowns, the quarantines; kids and parents moving in with each other again. All of us welcoming and making room for each other.” She took a breath. “You know, carrying on together, whatever lies ahead.” 

“It’s made us think about what matters and what doesn’t,” said Blond Bear. “Not the way bears live now, but the way bears want to live now.” The friends nodded sagely to each other, and then moved on to the alarming decline in honey bees, the best place to buy berries and the crazy price of caves. 

A version this article appeared in the April/May 2022 issue with the headline ‘Just Right’, p. 58.