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Challenge: Back to School 2021

Holding two things at once

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Going “Back to School” is full of contradictions.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled -- I’ve been at home with my kids for 18 months straight, so, yes, it will be really nice for all of us to get a little space. But on the other hand, humans are pretty adaptable, and I’ve adapted to being with them all the time. I know I’m going to miss them, as much as I yearned for some peace and quiet and a chance to catch my breath, let alone actually get some work done.

I’m happy they will be with their peers and teachers, happy to not have to attempt supervising zoom school remotely and doing my own job at the same time, and yet I will certainly miss the simplicity of having lunch together at home, us all being under the same roof all the time, and of sleeping in in the mornings because “school drop off” took place right downstairs.

But it’s the other contradictions that have me more undone.

The contradictions like: “The pandemic is over!” versus the fact that I have two under-12-years-old kids who can’t yet be vaccinated, so it’s not over for us. The fear of COVID-19, particularly the delta variant, is quite real for my children as reports come in from all over showing children's hospitals filling up with cases and complications.

And then there’s the contradiction that we’re supposed to just “go back to normal” right now, while so many of us are still so raw and vulnerable after the world events of the past year and a half.

We’re supposed to be cheerful and excited, yet also cautious and on high alert.

We are holding the contradiction that we are telling our kids that it’s safe to go back to school, yet so many parents -- including myself and my spouse -- are feeling unsure if that is true.

How about the contradiction that the very things that will keep our kids safer from COVID-19 -- open windows, open doors, students entering and exiting from all different doors all over campus to reduce crowds -- are completely antithetical to the things we’ve been doing for the past many years to keep them safe from school shootings (locked doors, closed windows, limited/secure entrances and exits)?

How do we explain these many contradictions to our kids?

I’ve learned in therapy that life is all about holding two things at once -- two feelings, two perceptions, two perspectives, sometimes two realities. For me it has sometimes meant holding two babies, holding two of their hands crossing the street. Holding two hearts and doing everything in my power to keep my children safe, and still letting them go off into the world.

Over the past 18 months, we as a society have been broken wide open. I’m not ready to close back up and go back to normal. I like this more honest, nuanced, and vulnerable world. I’m more than ready to leave behind the illness and death wreaked by COVID-19, but I don’t want to lose the softness we’ve all had to share in its wake, the sympathy and empathy and willingness to talk about things that are hard instead of just saying, “I’m great” when someone asks how we are.

Can we hold both of these things at the same time? Can we show our children how to be both scared and excited? Anxious and secure? Sad and happy? I hope so, because that is a lot more representative of the world we are giving them.

Emily Barth Isler's debut novel is "AfterMath," from Carolrhoda Books, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group.

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