The guilt of pandemic parenting

The guilt of parenting during a pandemic is heavier than any weighted blanket available on Amazon, and unlike a weighted blanket which is designed to reduce anxiety and improve sleep, it ratchets it up, and gives your brain more to consider as you lay awake, completely aware of how badly you’re failing at just about everything you’re doing right now.

Where I live, we’re in Week 3 of pandemic parenting, meaning while mom and dad work full time from home, we’re also providing full-time care to our children, which includes some educational instruction.

(I’d like to pause here and acknowledge that our pandemic situation is privileged. Privilege, in this case, looks like general good health, two parents, two pay cheques (for now), food in the fridge, an ample (but not excessive) amount of toilet paper, a bit of a backyard, and more sunny days than rainy ones. There’s even an uncertified therapy dog who is happy to absorb all of the angst and fear that comes from being locked up with your loved ones for days on end.)

I always wanted children, but I also knew that stay-at-home parenting was not my jam. I love grown-ups, and swearing, and solving grown-up problems. I love leaving behind my dirty laundry and mismatched socks in favour of a quiet office that I share with a five-year old orchid that blooms semi-annually. I love the sound of the office HVAC system, and I love my other office mate, a tiny blue space heater that only sees use in summer because the HVAC system lives in Opposite Land. I love going to work, I love being at work, and I love coming home from work to see faces I would die for — faces that I’ve missed so much and thought about so many times during the day. I love the car ride home from daycare because I get to hear all of their ridiculous stories. I love sharing adventures and kid gossip at the dinner table. I love weekends because it means I can stay home with my people because I miss them so much.

I always wanted children, but I also knew that teaching was not my jam. My mother is a teacher, my sister, too. I watch both and shake my head. Where they excel, I would flounder. Judging by my parenting style, if you put me in charge of a class full of 7-year-olds I would take turns bribing them with Dino-Sours and threatening to cancel Christmas. Adults, with their manners and passive-aggressive side-eyes, don’t scare me, but children are wise and cunning. Eventually they’d figure out that my threats are as empty as the bag of Dino-Sours that I inhaled in the cloak room. At which point I’d probably just run behind a plant and hide because 1. children are terrifying, 2. I have zero teaching tools and no desire to acquire them, and 3. unlike my sister and my mother, I lack the ultimate secret weapon: A teacher voice.

I always loved the routine provided by school, daycare and work, and the thrill I got from stacking all those perfect little glass jars so they balanced so perfectly and shone so beautifully that even the stiffest wind couldn’t knock them over. And yet here we are, in the midst of a pandemic, my glass jars of routine and sanity shattered on the driveway, and I am stuck in my house, working full time, parenting full time, and teaching, too.

I’ve got to say, I’m not a huge fan.

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 7.39.19 AMPandemic parenting means that I never get to miss my children, and they never get to miss each other. They are always here, always in my business and in each other’s. They wrestle constantly, stopping only when someone gets a bloody nose or a knee to the nuts, and when I suggest a directed drawing, some Reflex Math, or a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo (online, obviously), I’m met with a deep sigh and a “no thanks, I already know about hippos.”

Knees to the nuts it is, then.

And despite how much I joke about my lack of parenting skills, I always secretly thought I was pretty good at it. Until yesterday.

During my oldest child’s first Zoom videoconference with his class he opened up: “I miss everyone so much. I only ever get to talk to my little brother who argues all the time, or my mom and dad, and they’re always working.”

I overheard his comment while up in my office. Working.

And that, dear friends, is what parenting in a pandemic feels like — a heavy, weighted blanket of guilt — guilt that is bottomless and causes breathlessness even as I write it down.

 

Hey teacher, how about you pick the teams?

In honour of Pink Shirt Day how about we do something completely radical?

For one single day let’s cancel gym class, unilaterally — in every city, everywhere.

Or, maybe we could do something slightly less dramatic. Maybe we could implement a few minor changes. For starters, how about we end the time-honoured tradition of forcing children to line up while their peers select them for a team; a process that inevitably ends up with one child being the last selected, over and over again until he or she can finally opt out of gym as an elective in Grade 11.

Because really, what is this selection process if not socially acceptable bullying? Sure, it was how things worked in the 1980s when I was in elementary school, but that was before we wore pink shirts and used cute acronyms to describe ideal behaviour.

The fact is kids want to win. And while they may wish to be “Safe, Outstanding, Accountable, and Respectful (SOAR),” when you throw them into the Hunger Games Arena (or gymnasium) and tell them to pick their dodgeball team, they’re going to do the exact same thing we did when we were 10 and pick the kids who can throw hard and run fast. And the rest of the kids are going to stand in an ever-shrinking line with their cheeks burning just waiting for this humiliation to end.

I’ve written before about being a parent to child of many skills and talents, most of which are cerebral rather than physical. I adore my thoughtful, artistic son, the one who happily climbs trees and folds paper airplanes; the one who, if given a choice between a visit to the dentist and a stint on a soccer team, would choose his teeth every time.

But he must participate in gym, and generally he’s fine with it, though he cares little about whether he wins or loses. On this day, however, he cared. On this day he came home from school and told me of a day that “started off great, and then got worse.”

It was Tuesday. Gym day. His class was to play dodgeball, and two children were selected to choose teams.

“I was chosen first, which never happens,” he said, making me sigh.

But then his team started doing poorly, and another boy on his team took the loss seriously.

“He told me that I was the reason we were losing. And then I heard him tell his friend that he couldn’t believe I had been chosen first out of all the kids in the class. AND HE KNEW I COULD HEAR HIM!”

“What did you do,” I asked him.

“I turned to them and said, ‘hey, guys, I’m RIGHT HERE!’ And then they turned to me and said, ‘whatever.'”

What I heard from the story was that my son had been chosen first, and that another child was jealous. My son was steamed, and addressed it in the moment. The moment passed, they went back to class, and completed their day, but not without my son learning a harsh new lesson.

I’m not concerned about this child of mine. He is smart enough and has enough great friends that it doesn’t matter if he plays soccer or hockey, if he’s on the winning team or the losing team, or if gets picked first or picked last. Each day he comes home to a place where he is safe, he is loved, and if he ever feels like he can’t fight his own battles, he knows his home team will spring into action.

But I am concerned about gym class, especially for the kids who might not bounce back so easily. I bet if you did some research you’d discover school-aged bullying happens in a few key venues: The playground, online, and in gym class. We can’t cancel the internet, though it’d be nice to kill the comment section for a day. The kids need fresh air, so we can’t cancel recess. And as much as I personally would have liked to kibosh gym class to avoid the torture that was volleyball, I understand that kids need this, too.

However, in the 30-plus years since I was in elementary school, plenty has changed. Our kids are learning in entirely new ways and using new technologies. Cursive writing is dead, and report cards don’t even have grades anymore. Yet by all accounts gym class has stayed the same. Sure, physical activity is necessary. Sure, dodgeball may end up teaching more relevant skills than, say algebra, so I get we can’t cancel it. But in honour of Pink Shirt Day, maybe the bright lights among us can do something to make gym class slightly less cruel.

Maybe today on Pink Shirt Day the teacher can pick the teams.

 

 

 

 

Call me, maybe?

It usually starts with heavy breathing, but if you wait long enough, you’ll be rewarded by a few tremulous and stuttered words.

By eight years of age, children should be able to facilitate their own playdates. To do so, however, requires endless amounts of coaxing, encouragement and lessons on that old-fashioned machine called the telephone.

Our family is still in possession of what telecommunication companies call a land line. Regular callers on this line include: My mother-in-law, the Canada Revenue Agency telling me that I owe back taxes, people from India who want to help me disable a very bad computer virus, and Diane from Big Brothers Big Sisters, letting me know there will be a truck in my neighbourhood next week.

And now there is a new batch of callers to the land line — heavy-breathing eight year old boys.

Teaching children how to talk on the phone isn’t as simple as you might expect. Kids learn by example, and they don’t see many examples of people talking on the phone anymore. I communicate with one of my best friends multiple times each day, and yet I haven’t heard her voice in over a year.

That makes my heart hurt a little.

My children will never know the frustration of sharing a single, harvest gold, rotary dial telephone with a cord that doesn’t quite make it down the hall to the bedroom.

They won’t understand the agony of having their older brother answer the phone, hold the receiver two inches from his mouth, and shout, “DANNA, THERE’S A BOY ON THE PHONE FOR YOU, I THINK HE LIKES YOU! IS HE YOUR BOOOOOOYYYYYYFRIEND?”

They’ll never experience having their older sister answer the phone shortly after 8 p.m. only to say: “Sorry, Danna can’t come to the phone right now. It’s almost her bedtime. Oh, and will you please tell all of your other friends to not call so late? You will? That’s great. She needs her beauty sleep. Grade nine is so tough.”

It’s for these and other character-building reasons that we’ve opted to hold on to our landline and finally teach our children how it works.

Any good lesson starts with a plan, so together, my child and I come up with a suitable script. We decide to write down our address so that after he’s asked his friend to come over, he can explain where “over” actually is.

That settled, he begins the mission and dials, which takes several tries. Careful, though, because when the number is officially dialed, the child will immediately begin speaking.

“Wait until someone picks up, bud.”

But people never pick up these days and he’s caught off guard by voicemail. He panics,  hangs up, and lobs the phone onto the couch as if it bit him.

“YOU DIDN’T TELL ME WHAT TO SAY,” he shouts, accusingly.

“Just say your name, who you’re calling to speak with, and your phone number,” you explain, all while mentally kicking yourself for not simply texting his friend’s mom like you’ve done every other time.

And so he dials again. And waits. And when the beep sounds he reads his script perfectly, except instead of his phone number, he recites his address. He realizes what he’s done at the last second, hangs up, and throws himself and the phone onto the couch in melodramatic agony.

“UGH! This is so HARD!”

This kid perseveres, though, and you’ve got to give him credit. He gets back up, grabs the phone, dials like a boss, waits, states his name, phone number and reason for calling. And it’s perfect. He did it. He raises his hand, drops the mic (phone), you grab it on a bounce and give him a high five.

In a few minutes, you reap your reward. The phone rings. And there it is, the beautiful sound of heavy breathing.

Just wait for it, and be patient. This is beautiful. They’re figuring it out.

“… Hi… this is Billy, can I speak to …”