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Challenge: Pandemic Parenting

2020: A divorce, a death, a homeschool mom, and clarity on what matters most

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My marriage, which had been a near-roommate situation for years, ended in 2020. Living together 24/7 without the distractions of work-travel, school, and the kids’ activities forced our hand. He was a good person, I was a good person, but after thirteen years together, we’d gotten to the point where we were bringing out the worst in each other. We might’ve kept going through the motions for years, maybe even until the kids—12, 9, and 6—were out of the house, if forced togetherness hadn’t finally made us look our marriage (and each other) in the eye.

My mom, my first true love and my biggest cheerleader, was diagnosed with cancer in May of 2020 and died the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. After her diagnosis, she moved in with us, and I took care of her lovingly most days, but on at least two, I let her see my impatience. I’ll always regret that. Am I practicing magical thinking, hoping that, since I’d once been her baby, her two-year-old, her smart-mouthed teenager, and her adrift twenty-five-year-old, she saw my brattiness for what it was: An emotion safer to show than my grief or my fear of living in a world where she wasn’t? Mom’s death was an unavoidable reminder that I was next, that life really did end at some point.

In March 2020, my kids’ schools went fully online. Doing all of my six-year-old’s schoolwork with him, as opposed to just homework, I realized that he had issues beyond being, “Such a boy!” or “The wild one,” of our three kids. He literally could not sit still and focus. Reading an eight-page kinder book would take all afternoon and leave us both in a frustrated rage. Soon after lockdown started, I took him to a psychiatrist where he was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medication. Our schoolwork battles are (mostly) behind us, and he’s now a confident and enthusiastic reader. The homeschool-mom role I hated with every fiber of my being? It was a gift.

Over the summer, my nine-year-old daughter watched me care for my mom and struggle with all-day, every-day parenting. She absorbed the silent tension between her parents. As I watched her gauge the vibe in our home, I realized she had assumed the role of fixer. If her brothers were acting up, she’d swoop in with a funny voice or an offer to help. If her dad was irritated about something, she’d fling her arm around his neck. Seeing her trying to inject levity into the grief minefield that was our home in 2020, stopped me in my tracks. Fixer is a heavy mantle for nine. So, I did my best to remove it. I gave her more time and space to play, see friends (in our pod), be silly, and to act out a little herself. Quarantine gifted me with months of side-by-side time with my daughter, and from that intimate vantage point, I saw that my roll-with-the-punches, “easiest” child was too responsible and needed my help to reclaim her childhood.

Quarantine forced me to pay attention, to give attention to the things I’d been too scared to face. I had to live full-time in my marriage to find the strength to end it. I had to help my mom die to choose to live my own life less passively. I had to see how my son was doing (or not doing) his schoolwork to get him the help he needed. I had to watch my daughter, over weeks and without distraction, to pick up on her pattern of trying to smooth over adult problems before I could lift her up and set her down on a more appropriate track—one filled with TikTok, slime, and sleepovers.

2020 demanded I learn lessons I didn't want to learn. She was the cruelest and best teacher I ever had.

Read more of Denise's writing on parenting

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