I know I’m not alone when I say I can’t wait for 2020 to be over. It has been a hell of a year for most people and one that few will be sad to see end. I was thinking the other day how much of an aberration I hope 2020 will be and that all of the parenting challenges thrown our way this year will one day be a distant memory.
But is parenting through a year like 2020 really all that different than parenting in any other year? When it comes down to it, I think this year actually may have just been a microcosm of the entire parenting journey — ups and downs, uncontrollable influences, trial and error, mistakes a plenty, innumerable lessons and lots and lots of love tying it all together. Here are a few of the takeaways from 2020 that I think Ashlee and I are bound to keep experiencing each year that we grow and learn as parents.
Be ready for the unexpected
Naively, I left work March 13 thinking this shutdown would be a few weeks. I stopped back at my office a few weeks ago to pick something up and, eerily, all of the calendars in the dark building were still flipped to March and my coffee cup from that Friday afternoon was still half-full (yuck!). I never would have expected the pandemic to still be raging as we enter 2021. And when this year started, never would I have envisioned a global health crisis shuttering most of society and shaking up life as we know it.
My rigid, in-office work schedule became a hot mess of a work-from-home-with-a-toddler experiment. Ashlee’s work took her to the COVID floor of the local hospital, leaving us wondering what was around the corner for her health every day. And amid all of this uncertainty, Jackson blossomed unexpectedly before our eyes: his vocabulary exploded, his personality flourished, and a few weeks into the pandemic, it felt like we were parenting a little boy instead of a baby.
The unexpected has popped up even in our everyday moments. Last week, in the midst of my daily Zoom call with my co-workers, Jackson ran into the frame yelling into the camera “Big poopy!” over and over to let everyone know his latest accomplishment, leaving me mortified, red-faced and trying to talk louder over his chorus. While on a call the other day, I looked at the video monitor and had to stifle a shout when I saw that, instead of napping, Jackson was playing with a mysterious substance on his hands (lots of our unexpected moments revolve around his bodily functions). He’s unpredictable — just like life — so we’re learning to just roll with it. And fasten his diapers extra-tight.
Just keep swimming
This year has shown many of us our resilience. This spring, Ashlee was beat down physically, mentally and emotionally but every day suited up in her PPE and went back to the hospital because that’s just what she had to do. Frontline workers everywhere, across industries, have done the same, just pressing on to get done what they needed to for their jobs, themselves and their families.
New work-from-home parents like myself have likely tapped into patience and strength we didn’t know we had. After 10 or so hours juggling an incessantly speaking 2-year-old and a full-time job, I want to crawl into bed or into a bottle of wine, but if Jackson insists on a 6,342nd rendition of “Jingle Bells,” I belt it out like it’s my job — because it is.
Like the motivational tagline of “Finding Nemo,” we’ve all learned to “just keep swimming” this year — a skill that I think will be vital through the many years, and challenges, to come.
While pushing ahead has been a necessity in 2020, so too has been slowing down. We’ve all dealt with stress differently this year; my go-to coping mechanism has always been to snap into overdrive. At the beginning of the pandemic, I created daily lesson plans for Jackson, took him out for walks every two hours, had nightly FaceTime sessions with family and woke up before 6 a.m. and stayed up late to ensure I was putting in enough hours at work. And I got burnt out quick.
I soon saw it was more important for Jackson to have an attentive, sane parent at home with him than a day full of engaging, exciting and educational activities. He can learn just as much sitting on the living room floor with me with his toys spread out to all corners than he could from my alphabet renditions at his easel, which always ended in tears anyway.
And I can learn even more about him by slowing down and just being entertained by him rather than always trying to entertain him. He loves to play “zoo” by setting up his animal figures but likes to keep things exciting by having his crocodile “bite” all the other animals. For some inexplicable reason, he knocks all of his cars off of our TV stand and says they “bumped their heads” and need a kiss and a visit from his fire truck, ambulance or police car, which he understands “help people” (a future EMT in our midst?). When we get ready for a walk, I always gravitate toward using his stroller because it’s less stressful than chasing him throughout the neighborhood on foot — but when I do, he runs with a freedom I haven’t felt for decades and an exuberance that is exhilarating to see.
Parents feel so much pressure to teach, shape and help their kids but 2020 has shown me that we have just as much to learn from them as they do from us — and we can only really see it if we slow down.
Keep your perspective
The year 2020 will forever be associated with loss: of life, of jobs, of routines, of the comfort of certainty. The pandemic has defined this year in all of the worst ways, wrecking the economy, upending the world of education, shuttering countless businesses, ratcheting up anxiety to unprecedented levels, and sickening and killing millions. But, does Jackson know that?
His version of 2020 has been pretty different: He gets to spend hours every day of one-on-one time with Mommy — reading books, crashing cars, chasing each other around the house. Now that Mom’s nursing classes have gone virtual, he gets to see her every day when she gets home from work — building forts and playing the “tickle monster” game. He’s walked every inch of his neighborhood through several shoe sizes — waving to the local Regional Rail train, picking up sticks, getting a farmer’s tan and bleached blonde hair in the summer and now picking out his favorite Christmas decorations. He’s learned to bake cookies, throw a ball like a champ, say hundreds of words, cut the grass with his toy mower alongside his moms and later rake the leaves when it turned cold. Sure, he has to wear a mask when Mommy takes him to Target, but he always gets a new Hot Wheels car (only the $.99 ones!) if he keeps it on without complaints. And oh, the pizza. He has gotten to enjoy A LOT of takeout pizza.
People say seeing Christmas through the eyes of a child can bring magic to the season; Jackson’s wide-eyed reaction to the first time we turned on our Christmas lights this year was a testament to that statement’s truth. But that idea doesn’t have to just be limited to the holidays. Sure, 2020 has been abysmal but, looking at it through Jackson’s eyes, it was a year full of learning about life, of finding wonder in the things we take for granted, of seeing how much he is loved. He isn’t fazed by the tragedies of the world. One day, he will be. But until he’s not, while he still has that childhood innocence, I want to see the world like he does. I want to notice the small things, I want to follow my impulses no matter what others think, I want to bounce back from tears quickly.
Jackson has shown me that how I see the life around me is entirely in my control — a parenting lesson that I hope will persist long after the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31 and we put 2020 behind us.