I have a confession to make. For the past few days, since we started social distancing, my children have mostly watched television, listened to music, and played video games. And fought a lot. Sibling rivalry doesn’t take a day off even during a global crisis.
I’d like to say I haven’t felt guilty about the amount of screen time they’ve had, but I do. I’d like to say that, because I no longer have a 90-minute commute to work, I now have the time to lovingly make each meal for my children from scratch, but I don’t. I’d like to say that I’ve been calm, patient, and available with my children — but, true story, there has been lots of yelling, slammed doors, and frustrated, fearful, and exhausted tears.
For lots of us working from home and juggling jobs and child care, the hours are longer because they’re dispersed throughout the day. It’s easier to get things done when the kids are sleeping, but, for many journalists working from home, it’s become a balancing act. And when we’re not working, we’re bombarded with anxiety and uncertainty.
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One of my earliest childhood memories is of waking up in the middle of the night because our house was on fire. This was during the civil war that followed Idi Amin’s deadly rule in Uganda. We managed to get out of the building. It’s one of the few memories I have of my whole family all together, all six of us: my dad, mom, two sisters, and little brother. I was five years old. My brother was a baby, less than a year old. In the chaos, we all ran out, and he was left behind. When we realized he was still inside, my father didn’t hesitate. He ran back in and got him out safely. Those seconds or minutes were some of the most terrifying of my life. My father was my whole life, and he was walking into what seemed, to my toddler brain, like an inferno. I don’t know what started the fire. It was common to fall asleep to the rat-a-tat-tat of distant guns. Bombings were part of life. So was seeing bodies in the street and resorting to eating small bugs for protein.
Why am I telling you this? Perhaps because I was a child, I survived that trauma and all the ones that followed. But, in important ways, my father didn’t. Those times in East Africa defined who he became. Frozen with fear. Unable to grieve for all he’d endured and witnessed. As a parent, in this moment, I now understand why.
Even given what I lived through as a child, I’ve never been as scared and worried as I am now — as a mother, as an adult. Parents rightly worry about how this global pandemic will affect their children’s schooling and health; we’re also concerned about finances, our jobs, and what would happen to our children if we were to get sick. And, even before COVID-19, one in three Canadians in the sandwich generation had reported experiencing financial stress because of expectations that they would have to be responsible for their children and their parents.
It’s important to acknowledge that not all of us can work from home. I’m grateful to have the option to work from home with my children. Parents who are front-line workers are sacrificing and working around the clock so that everyday life can continue for the rest of us to at least some degree. The government announced this weekend that some child-care centres will reopen in order to accommodate the families of “health care and other frontline workers, including doctors, nurses, paramedics, firefighters, police, and correctional officers”. That’s a good first step. But what about families of the cleaners, the grocery-store workers?
The kids will be alright, as long as we’re alright. This past weekend, my daughter turned seven. She had been planning her birthday party for weeks, and it took her a while to understand why it had to be cancelled. In the end, we picked up a cake for her when we went out to get groceries. Family and friends called throughout the day to wish her a happy birthday. I posted on social media about her missing her birthday and was inundated with happy birthday wishes from around the world. Parents and others who were finding it challenging to celebrate their birthdays commiserated. I told my daughter that disappointments were a part of life and that we would make the best of it. At the end of the day, she told me that this had been the best birthday yet. Our children are more resilient than we give them credit for. In the meantime, us grown-ups have to continue to process what’s happening, moment by moment, and plan for what will come next.
Nanny Netflix is the best friend we never knew we needed. It’s important to allow room to grieve for what life was like a week ago, because, who knows, next week, we may be wishing for today’s unnerving reality.