Let’s be honest: I’ve never considered myself a super strict parent, but, until recently, in our home there were certain rules we stuck to religiously with our seven-year-old only child. Screen time was limited; bedtime was set; snacks were eaten at the table or counter only; meal times were consistent and enforced; baths happened on a regular schedule; homework was done first; no, you could not, under any circumstances, play with my phone. No, you could not have an iPad, even on an airplane.
The pandemic has undone all of that, and more.
When [gestures] *all this* started, I tried, like so many of us, to keep things under control, thinking I just had to maintain some sense of normalcy for a few weeks. We adhered to our standard household structure as part of my effort to keep things as they had been.
Pretty soon it became clear that nothing was how it had once been. And I realized that holding tight to our pre-pandemic rules was actually starting to work against us. Our family’s rules were well-intentioned; they were about maintaining some sense of order, which I liked and I still believe in. (I am the parent after all, and have never been one to let the kid rule the roost!) But they also, it turned out, were about… well… saying NO. And now we were in a whole world of no and it seemed cruel to pile on. No, you can’t go to school. You can’t see your friends/ teachers/ cousins/ grandparents. You can’t go to dance class/ swimming/ soccer. You can’t walk around unmasked. You can’t go to the playground. You can’t go visit… anyone. NO no no no no no no. And even worse than that? We couldn’t — and still can’t — definitively tell our kids when any of this will change.
So I’ve taken a new tack: saying yes whenever I possibly can. Yes, sure, you can have crepes for breakfast on a Tuesday at 8:35am even though my work is calling and I’m on deadline. Yes, you can watch yet another episode of Abby Hatcher. Yes, you can cut up your clothes and draw on them so you can look like a cast member of The Descendents, you can interrupt Mom’s precious hour alone at the end of the day, we can make whipped cream for the hot chocolate and drink it even if it spoils our dinner. Yes, you can stay up until 10:30pm reading with a flashlight in bed. Yes, you can take a raincheck on changing the hamster’s cage. Yes, we can have a disco party in your room even though it’s bedtime. Yes, you can play whatever app on the iPad, and you can use my phone to Facetime whomever you want.
Many parents say they’ve been saved by The Schedule during these quarantine times. Me? I have veered in the other direction. I want to find every opportunity to hand over the reins to my daughter. After all, she has so little else right now.
So every afternoon, once school ends, we enter free-for-all territory. What do you want to do? I say to my daughter and I let her guide the ship. Should we draw? Eat? Walk? Chalk? Bake? Watch a movie? She has been glued to Zoom all morning, she’s been alone in her room while her father and I frantically try to squeeze in our own work. She’s been doing exactly what the teacher says. She has control over so little in her life that I am trying as much as possible to brace myself for whatever she proposes and say, Yes! Yes. Sounds fun.
And, unsurprisingly, some of our most joyful moments of this year have come from those yeses. One Saturday morning, we both woke at 5:30am. Instead of insisting we go back to sleep, we snuggled into her bed with the laptop and watched episode after episode of The Great British Baking Show. Another day she made a mess in the kitchen inventing her own sourdough while I made a real one (hers did not rise). Yet another day, we went on a hike as a family and later, she took my phone (a former No F**king Way!) and used iMovie to make a short film of our day.
Does it always work out? No way. Some days I have to say: no, you can’t stay on the computer all afternoon, you can’t bang on the piano keys at 7am, you can’t jump on the furniture. I am in charge! Some days I just don’t have the bandwidth. I’d rather lie under the covers and cry, or veg out in front of the TV. Some days I just can’t believe we’ve been living this way, isolated, for almost a year and I feel on the brink of losing it. On those days I can’t follow her every fancy. And then there are days when I feel so anxious about what all this time indoors is doing to her that I force her outside kicking and screaming and we have a horrible walk around the block.
But I am eager — desperate — to give her whatever actually is possible, even if it is very little. And what’s happened is that we actually see that there’s still life to be lived in these small pockets of yes. We are trying, every day, to find them.