When today’s school-aged children become adults who publish studies and stories on what it was like to come of age in a time of world pandemic, what truths will emerge?
What will we all know then that we cannot see now?
It is noon on a Wednesday, and we’re a few weeks into social distancing. Both of my boys are still asleep because they stayed up until 4 a.m. playing video games and watching YouTube. My husband is working remotely outside on the porch, and I have commandeered a spare bedroom as my remote teletherapy headquarters. In between conference calls and client sessions, my husband and I take turns trying to wake the boys, feed the boys, and engage the boys in mind-numbing learning packets produced by their school district.
One boy complies. We watch a Netflix show together about a pioneer minority businesswoman. He writes a letter to a friend and walks it to the mailbox (one mile). He calls my parents to discuss the Netflix show and suffers through a few pages of the aforementioned packet. We call it a successful school day. I feel proud as I return to my record-breaking client load.
Another son sleeps until 4 p.m. but is interrupted by parental nagging every half hour, much to his infuriation. We reduce his homeschooling qualifications to a few math problems and a walk. A three-hour fight ensues. I cannot really even remember what the fight is about, except that it has something to do with the directives from the school being absent or optional, our son’s distaste for unqualified parents administering assignments, and the adolescent opinion that my new haircut makes me look like an old lady. I try to remember that research study that states that when brain scans of those suffering from Schizophrenia are compared to brain scans of teenagers, very few differences are detected.
We eat an early dinner together as a family (which is actually more like breakfast for one kid and lunch for the other) and play our usual round of board games. Tonight’s recreation consists of Rummikub and Chameleon. There is routine bickering over the rules.
In between rounds, and just 30 minutes after supper plates have been cleared, both boys begin to snack on goldfish crackers, chocolate, and ice-cream sandwiches. As evidenced by the wrappers and fizzy water cans I encounter in the frat house underworld that is my living room the next morning, the kids’ snacking continues into the wee hours. I sip my 7 a.m. cup of coffee as I peruse social media.
There, I see that other people’s kids are forming family bands using their carefully honed violin and guitar skills. Some are taking this time to learn new languages or start their own small businesses. Then there are posts from parents like me who are begging for some encouragement since their two jobs working inside and outside of the home have now turned to three as they are attempting to add the teacher role to their list of duties.
I think about how our response to the Coronavirus and its restrictions on social and systemic life has been forming for the entirety of our 13 years of parenting. For me, it happened the moment when I let my kids quit violin lessons, when I started letting them enjoy foods that aren’t “growing foods,” when we got them iPads for their first plane ride two years ago when we visited California cousins for spring break.
The way we are living now has something to do with the power struggles we have learned to avoid, and the pared-down structure to which we have all become adjusted. We have always tried to offer our kids a number of reasonable choices regarding how they spend their time. And now that our philosophy is being tested, we are seeing that kids, or at least the ones of which we are in charge, cannot be expected to choose what is good for them.
It is not that my husband and I are stupid. My parenting ideals are actually similar to those whose kids have spent this time making elaborate Rube Goldberg machines. We know about discipline, extra-curricular activities, the importance of sleep hygiene, and healthy meal plans. We value grit and curiosity. It is just that I do not know how to make these particular platitudes apply to my particular children. Thankfully, school life and (in the summer) day camp life yield a somewhat more functional inverse of the dysfunctional reality we are living now.
Before the “apocalypse,” our kids went to school, did well in classes, completed their homework assignments, and played a recreational league sport every season. They ate balanced meals and some junk food snacks, went to bed at a reasonable hour (after much “negotiation”), and spent a fair amount of time (but not all day) looking at screens. This model was not without parental self-doubt, a reality to which my therapist can attest, but it was a level of insecurity that felt tolerable.
To all the parents who are reaping the fruits of stricter parenting practices and actualized ideals during this time of upside-down living, I am not judging you. I am in awe of you. I wish I were you. I know you are doing the best you can just as my husband and I are truly doing the best we can.
And to all the parents who are doing this alone, in single-parent households, I admire you and I pray for you. This is the supernova of external and internal pressures. It is a responsibility sh*t storm meant to land upon more than one set of shoulders. To all the advice-givers out there, please resist. I beg you. Giving advice assumes that the recipient is ignorant of some prime piece of information. And while I am positive that I am ignorant of many prime pieces of information, it is not information that I need. What I need is compassion and empathy, and the feeling that I am not alone.
My husband and I will crackdown. For starters, we will institute a strict bedtime. Screens will be turned in to charge in our room. We will all suffer greatly as we make the shift, the parents far more than the kids, I promise you. In a few days, the kids will humor us and hunt Easter eggs full of candy, which I have already stockpiled with my stash of toilet paper. The boys will no doubt behead and ingest chocolate bunnies in between rounds of card games after dinner. Some old habits never die.
But what will our boys think of this era when they are middle-aged, like me, and looking back?
I hope that somewhere in their memories of late nights and showerless days, pajama marathons and s’mores and hotdog dinners, constant nagging and Netflix history lessons, pitiful homemade P.E. requirements and exhausted parents, rule adjustments and backyard buzz cuts, they will know that we cared for them the best way we knew how. I hope they will think that their childhoods were wrapped in our exuberant, imperfect love, which was, by some miracle, enough.