By SHAWNA GAMACHE (Estimated reading time: 7 minutes)
Our world has gotten pretty small lately.
In February, the boundaries of our daily life included school, piano, and the libraries and parks my pre-K daughter and I visited in the afternoon before grade school pick-up. There were weekly playdates, get-togethers with friends and neighbors, and dinners at grandma and pop’s house across town. A few times a month, our world stretched even bigger, including the occasional ferry boat ride to visit a friend on the island, or a hike on the peninsula.
After the tight years of early parenthood, my husband and I welcomed our world expanding again, filling space that had been off-limits when the girls were tiny. We debated flying to Michigan this summer, or maybe a family road trip to Crater Lake.
But then, March came, and, like everyone, we watched our world deflate. For the past four months, our boundary has been the perimeter of our 4,000-square-foot yard, occasionally expanding to bike rides and walks around the block. (We are SO fortunate to have a yard, luckier still to all be able to stay home. We know this. And yet.)
School was the dining room table, a laptop propped in front of my fourth grader, printouts for my second grader, and a steady flow of crafts, puzzles and scavenger hunts to keep the little one busy. Piano is in the living room, perched on the edge of the couch filming my nine-year-old play, then flipping the screen to squint at my daughter’s teacher on her own piano across town.
Playdates are when my daughters get along in the basement or back yard. Date night is when we get the kids to sleep by 9.
I’ve never lived through a pandemic before. But like all parents, I know what it’s like to have my world shrink. My world used to be much tinier than this, those first weeks after I had each baby when I barely left my bedroom, and the months afterward when even a walk down the street sometimes seemed impossible.
The quarantine’s tight intimacy has been strangely familiar, so sweet and so suffocating at the same time. Thanks to those early baby years, I know what it’s like to have my world close in on me and my children, and how to re-craft my expectations around those new boundaries. Luckily, this time around, I have that past experience to guide me. These hard-won lessons of the baby years have helped me find my footing during the pandemic:
Take care of yourself first
It took me a long time to learn how to do this when the girls were tiny. But I’m so glad I finally figured it out. There are no pedicures or dinners out this time around, but we all need self-care more than ever. That could mean lowering your expectations and cutting yourself some compassion at home and work. It could mean shutting the door on the screaming children for some time alone in the backyard. It could mean cereal for dinner several nights a week. Mostly, it means asking yourself at least once a day what you need, and then doing what you can to make it happen.
A few weeks ago, my daughters and I turned a corner of our living room into a spa, complete with calming music and soothing crayon drawings taped to the wall. We took turns soaking our feet while the others cared for us. It was sublime, and very sweet. Especially since the kids helped with clean-up.
The kids are (mostly) alright
When I watch my children doing schoolwork at the table, tearing through the house at 11 a.m., and talking to their friends on Skype, I’m struck by how much their daily lives have changed. But then I have to remind myself the many ways they haven’t. It’s just us, the same five people, together at the breakfast table every morning, just like we’ve always been, holding space for each other and passing the toast.
There were so many times when the girls were tiny that I worried late at night over sadnesses or injuries or mistakes I’d made, and just as many mornings I awoke to their happy faces, their world made new again each and every day. Sometimes my daughters are sad not to see their friends and teachers, sometimes they are anxious about what the future brings, but always they are resilient, ready to start over again tomorrow, open to the joys this strange time brings.
During my darkest days of motherhood, I needed something bigger than myself to pull me out of my funk. For me, that included raising money to build tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness. I ended up getting just as much in return: practice letting others help me with my children, and the opportunity to see my daughters and husband step up and thrive.
Over the pandemic, I’ve felt the same pull to be a part of the solution. My daughters and I joined fellow sewists all over the city in making masks—and we hope to make many more. Being home all day has also given us time for longer conversations about racial justice, and what actions my daughters can take to dismantle white supremacy — from noticing subtle messages everywhere to calling them out. We’ve been reading and discussing more children’s books by Black authors (Ashia Ray’s Books for Littles has amazing recommendations and essays) — my girls especially loved Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia — and exploring Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer-prize winning 1619 Project, which includes photos, essays and articles about the slave trade and its ongoing impact, and her companion lesson plans. There is so much we can do to support each other through these uncertain times. We are all in this together, even in isolation.
It’s OK to be different
From the early weeks of motherhood, I learned just how differently we all parent. In the beginning, these differences can feel really isolating. But the more time I spend as a parent, the more I learn that there is no right way to do it, just the way that works best for your family and its unique needs and culture.
I feel the same about boundaries surrounding social distancing. As long as we are all following state and local guidelines, it’s all good. But that will look very different for different families. Some parents are comfortable with outdoor play dates and bike rides, and some aren’t. Some of us need to stay home to protect vulnerable family members. This is a great opportunity for all of us to practice finding our own comfort levels, voicing our boundaries, and extending compassion to each other.
Step away from the phone
Staying up late scrolling through coronavirus symptoms is sickeningly familiar. I used to spend my nights googling my daughters’ poop colors, strange noises they made, signs of head injury and various behavioral disorders — but the panic is the same. But this is one of those times when Dr. Google probably isn’t going to help, just amplify the anxiety.
When I catch myself investigating the worst possible scenarios for everything, I have to remind myself to take deep breaths and set my phone down. If I’m truly worried, I call my doctor. Otherwise, I need to find a way to sit with this uncertainty — one that won’t make me or my kids even sicker.
Schedule time with others
Early motherhood taught me that friendship is essential for survival. I remember how overwhelmed I was as I packed for that first PEPS meeting, how my daughter screamed the whole time, and I barely registered a word anyone said. But the next week, I found myself looking forward to that time with other parents. They got it. They understood what I was going through.
The pandemic is even more isolating than early motherhood, and it can feel just as strange to reach out and schedule such an unfamiliar mode of connecting. As strange as it is to only see my sister on a Zoom chat, with the internet cutting in and out on her end, that connection still sustains me. As much as I would love to hug my closest girlfriends, our socially distant walks fortify me enough. Even though the dishes overflow in the sink, my husband and I are making more time to be together in the evenings.
Savor the sweet moments
All this togetherness can be grating, and some days I am really overwhelmed. But like when my girls were babies, I’ve tried to take note of the sweet moments. Like kneading bread with my five-year-old when she would have been at school far from me. The lilt of my middle daughter’s voice as she reads me the story she’s been writing during quarantine. The extra time I’ve had to talk with my almost-middle schooler.
This was how it felt when they were tiny: like my children and I were a world unto ourselves. I know the boundaries of that world will expand again someday soon, and we will welcome it with open arms. But there’s a part of me that is so grateful I got to hold them all this close again.