Keeping sane in our new reality

I had originally written this column as a cutesy ode to all of the affordable ways Ashlee and I have found to occupy Jackson—the library, the grocery store, the local park and playground, discounted events at the local kids’ gym. From the time I submitted the piece to the time it was set to publish, the world turned on its head, and all of those creative ideas we had embraced now seem like they belong to a different time.

I’m revamping this column in what feels like an entirely new world. This morning, I got up before the sun to try to put in an hour of work for my full-time job, which thankfully has allowed me to work from home since Jackson’s daycare closed; when he woke up, it was breakfast time, dog walk, educational time (ha!), playtime, snack, another dog walk with our neighbor (6 feet apart), lunch and nap, where we are now. I’m at my makeshift office on the kitchen counter feverishly trying to type as fast as I can before he wakes up, while CNN is blaring the latest statistics on the number of COVID cases, dramatically higher than a few hours ago, from the living room. When Jackson wakes up, work’s done until Ashlee gets home. She works as a medical assistant at a local family practice, so the worries about exposure are constant and real.

The world—and our own little world—has changed more than words can say in just a few days. When I first wrote this column, it carried laments of how tough and socially isolating it can be to be home with a toddler alone a few afternoons a week and on weekends; I’d love to see the look my face if I could travel back in time and tell that version of myself that, in a week’s time, I-like millions of other Americans—would be trying to figure out how to simultaneously be a full-time employee and a full-time stay-at-home parent, all in the new age of “social distancing” while the global economy is collapsing! A few afternoons with Jackson seems like a piece of cake. 

Balancing working and taking care of a child while being stuck at home—with the added anxiety produced by a rapidly evolving global crisis—is going to take some time to figure out. But, here are a few of the observations I’ve gleaned from our first week in this new reality: 

Facetime is My Friend

I’ve always been a bit misanthropic and tend to naturally practice “social distancing.” But eight to 10 hours a day alone with a toddler, without the ability to go to stores or visit relatives, is making me crave social connection. I know that, ultimately, I’ll look back on all of this one-on-one time fondly, but it can be a brain drain to have such long stretches of time without stimulating conversation, as Jackson’s vocabulary doesn’t go much beyond “dog,” “car” and “vroom vroom” (though he did say “purple” last night). 

To combat that isolation, we’ve been turning to Facetime. Every morning and afternoon, we’ve been calling friends and relatives through Facetime (or the video-chat function on Facebook for non-iPhone users!). It’s slightly terrifying that, by the time these people next see Jackson in person, he’ll likely be another clothes size larger and have learned lots of new skills, so at least being able to see one another over a screen takes some of the sting out of that distance. 

Structure is Important

When Jackson’s daycare closed, they sent over the loose schedule his teachers use each day, which has slots for snacks, songs, circle time, outdoor time. Though he has no idea what’s going on in the world today, he surely knows something is amiss as “school” is no more. Trying to institute some type of structure is, I hope, going to keep him from being too affected by these changes—and is also helping me stay focused, as we’re all being pulled in about 700 different directions. 

I’ve been aiming to walk him and the dog at 9 and 11 a.m. and again after his nap in the afternoon, which helps break up the day and get him some fresh air (and I can answer some work emails as I push his stroller). Ashlee and I still pack his lunch every night, to keep ourselves in our chore-sharing routine and to help the day go smoother. I also have been experimenting with “circle time.” I have zero idea what daycare’s version is but, as soon as I said it to Jackson, he ran and sat down on our living room rug and looked up at me expectantly. All I knew to do was sing the ABCs and he stared at me like I was a fool who was doing it all wrong! 

I’ve since found a few good YouTube channels that have short, educational-type nursery rhymes. The first day I tried it, he rolled away and started crashing his cars into one another within a minute but, now that he’s starting to recognize the songs, his attention span and inclination toward doing the hand motions is starting to pick up. We’ve also been trying to work on colors and numbers, using a set of foam bath toys; unless it was a fluke, he accurately pointed to numbers one through four today! Score.

Work Can Wait

The first day I was home with Jackson, I was trying to frantically answer emails and complete work tasks while figuring out this new education and play schedule, as I was eager to show my employer I wasn’t taking this work-from-home arrangement lightly. I quickly saw that was impossible. With all of these new pressures, none of us is going to be able to give 100% to each of our responsibilities—and certainly not at the same time. 

What I previously completed between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. now may get done between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., and I may just need to strangle that anal-retentive thing inside of me that wants to constantly keep a clean inbox. It’s going to take some work, but I—and, I think, any working parent in today’s conditions—need to continually remind myself that my work can wait, and that taking that approach doesn’t make me a poor or lazy worker. Instead, learning limits and understanding new ways of working can, I think, make you a more committed and innovative employee (and parent). 

Today, I got to experience my first video chat with my boss with Jackson in tow. I brainstormed ahead of time for a setup that would involve the least amount of stress and decided on putting my laptop on top of an overturned laundry basket on the floor, knowing that, if I was sitting on the floor with Jackson instead of at the kitchen counter or dining room table, he’d be much more likely to play with his toys and give me a few minutes. Partially right. He was mildly curious about the woman on the other end of the video and would edge his way into view, smile and run away every now and then. Then he started crawling under my legs. Then he dumped a 64-pack of crayons on the keyboard and pressed his eye into the camera and laughed. Then he tried showing my boss his belly. She appreciated the levity he brought, and I appreciated that there were no tears. It was the first of what I am sure will be many!  

Social Distance Walks

A neighbor of mine and I have been taking Jackson and our dogs on an afternoon walk every day, eager to break our cabin fever; she used to bring her dog down to run in my yard several times a week but now we make sure to walk several feet apart from one another as we stroll our neighborhood. When Ashlee gets home, we often take them out again and it’s really striking to see so many neighbors keeping their distance as they also stretch their legs and look for something new to look at outside of their four walls. In a way, it even builds a sense of community.

I’ve seen families with kids running around with pens and paper, seemingly completing a scavenger hunt. Others have blocked off sections outside their house for a life-sized chalkboard game. Though we’re all trying to stay away from one another, we’re also in the same boat—trying to entertain and educate kids, while navigating new dimensions as parents and employees. In a time filled with so much anxiety and uncertainty, that shared sense of reality is a real morale booster. (And that this is all happening as spring is arriving is the only silver lining I’ve been able to find!)

Journaling for the Future

I’ve always been a newshound. I was 15 when 9/11 happened and I remember racing up to my bedroom when school let out to put a blank tape in my VCR to tape the world-changing news that was happening in real time. Now that I’m a parent, I want to help capture the momentous times we’re living in for Jackson because I know these weeks (or, likely, months) are largely going to shape the America that his generation grows up in. 

Since our first day home together, I’ve taken a photo of him (I take a million every day anyway!) and written on it with an app “Day 1,” “Day 2,” etc. Whenever all of these restrictions are lifted and we start figuring out a new normal, I’m going to put all of the photos together to see how much he’s changed during this time. I also keep a journal for him that I’ve been writing in since Ashlee was pregnant. Previously, I would jot down a few thoughts every couple weeks—just keeping a record of things happening in our lives or major milestones he hit. Since this all started, I’ve been eager to write in it each night, recapping what we’ve been doing as well as what’s been going on outside of our little enclave. If Jackson grows up with the same passion and appreciation for world history as I do, I hope this provides him a realistic look at this moment in history, and his own role in how his family is weathering these changes. 

The biggest thing I’ve seen, and which Ashlee keep reminding one another, is that we have to take this all one day at a time. And be thankful for what we have, which for now is a super-stressed, discombobulated little crew—but it’s a happy and healthy one, and that’s all that matters.

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