Some of my favorite moments as a family are the nights when a summer storm knocks the power out for a few hours. Not long enough for the house to get unbearably hot, but long enough for the kids to gather around the coffee table laden with mismatched candles.
There's a simplicity in these moments that is rare in the modern world. Some families go camping, some enforce tech blackouts. We wait for the power to go out. Regardless of how we get there, the togetherness is comforting. Just us. No outside distractions. The spontaneity of it all seems to bring out the best in us. Jokes will be made, laughter will ensue. Stories will be told. I always marvel at how we come together, the five of us. This beautiful little unit. And as quickly as it began, it ends with the roar of modern comforts coming to life. The jarring reminder as they scurry for their devices that their world stretches far beyond the walls of this home.
I had been preparing for COVID, in the way that moms do. Researching how to keep us all safe and healthy. Stocking up on medicine and supplements. Trying to figure out how to keep a traveling husband and a college aged son safe at home. When a storm is approaching you gather your loved ones, you get out the candles and flashlights. You prepare to hunker down.
Quarantine came swiftly. My son came home for a spring break that stretched until August. My husband's company went virtual. I was relieved we were home, grateful. Worried for those who couldn't. Pained for those who had to walk into the storm. There was fear and anxiety in the early days of quarantine. I disinfected and preached about our bubble to my kids and extended family. The daily questions of whether (insert activity) was safe hung in the air. Would I do more damage by keeping my kids home? What would the long term effects of quarantine be on them? I landed on a triage mentality. Physical health and safety first. Keep us alive and healthy. Stay home so the world is a little safer for those who can’t.
I distracted myself from the anxiety and stress by ordering jigsaw puzzles. By making lists of games and apps for what would surely be our Family Game Night. I ordered a large box of chalk, envisioning hopeful messages we would place along our sidewalk. Hikes in the woods, exploring new hobbies were all things I fantasized doing with my kids.
I didn't romanticize the situation. Rather, I dealt with the gripping fear with a plan. Activities designed to bring us together and foster resilience and new skills. With an appreciation for simplicity. We’d make the best of the situation and come out better, stronger.
Nine months later, that plan mocks me. The puzzles were put away after they sat for weeks untouched. There were a few hikes in the woods. A few trivia and game nights. But they weren't weekly. They didn't sustain us the way I'd hoped. I watched my friends post their kids' driveway chalk art, their sourdough starters, their family craft projects.
That's not us. It never was. My kids were never the well dressed kids who posed for sweet Instagram worthy photos. They were never the kids who wanted to play with the nostalgically simple toys. We have never donned matching pajamas around the Christmas tree. As much I as I love seeing other families do these things, it’s not us. I’m the mom who let them run around in mismatched clothes with disheveled hair. I let them choose their passions and their activities. Even the ones that I didn’t understand. Not so much free range parenting, but “free to be you” parenting.
And trying to change that in the midst of a pandemic that had turned our world upside down was not realistic or helpful. While other kids were using quarantine to learn new languages on Duolingo, mine were watching YouTube and playing Roblox. Part of me wished they had used this time to better themselves. Had I failed in parenting them through a pandemic? I felt ridiculous even asking myself this question, yet it lingered. It was ridiculous because it was hypocritical.
I hadn't exactly written my novel during the days that melted into each other. I hadn't learned a new language. I bristled at the suggestion that I should be more productive during this time. So why was I expecting this of my kids?
Parenting has a way of humbling you, even when it takes you nine months to see it. No, pandemic parenting looked nothing like I expected. It was a lot of mundane days that didn’t look too different from a lazy pre-COVID summer day. It was hard days of navigating each kids struggles with the limitations of pandemic life. It was moments of laughter and deep discussion and unscheduled time spent around the coffee table together.
Nine months later, I realize it’s the intangibles that matter most. The things I can’t take a picture of or quantify. My kids, like so many all over the world built the soft skills that will serve them in life. Resilience. Deeper compassion. Sacrificing socializing and “normal” teen life to keep their grandparents and their communities safe. They learned, more so than before, that one person’s actions have consequences. Especially during a worldwide health crisis. They learned that change is inevitable and things happen that they can’t control. And a storm only lasts so long before the lights turn back on.