When the first anniversary of the pandemic lockdowns passed earlier this month, many of us likely took a moment to look back on all the hardship and weirdness of the last year and — if we’re lucky — the lessons it taught us. I often think about all the things I’ve learned as a parent during this time, but it occurred to me that I rarely consider what my 2.5-year-old has learned from this experience. Sure, he’s reached countless learning milestones: first words that have turned into first sentences, recognizing letters to knowing how to spell his name, going from clumsy-footed to racing me down the street. But, what has the pandemic really taught him about this world? Here are a few observations.
Life doesn’t have to be rushed. Before lockdown, Ashlee, Jackson and I all left the house most days by 7 a.m. Me to work, and Ashlee to drop off Jackson at daycare and head to her work. After I picked Jackson up in the late afternoon, it was a quick walk with the dog, dinner, playtime, and bed. We moved quick and relaxed little. Both are still a reality, but Jackson has also learned that life can be simple and slow. Some days we spend a solid hour before we brush our teeth in the morning chasing cars around the living room, reading book after book and jumping on the couch.
Trash men are the best. Before the pandemic, Jackson had never seen garbage collectors in action, as he was in daycare every weekday. After seeing the excitement of the truck and workers outside our house the first Wednesday he was home, every week after he would run to the door as soon as he heard the telltale signs of their truck, eventually bringing with him his miniature trash truck, which has now grown into a fleet. Back then it was squealing and pointing. Now it’s, “Trash trucks are coming!” He loves seeing his “trash truck men” so much that we made them Christmas cookies and even rearranged his new part time daycare schedule so he could be home on Wednesdays.
Crowds are the worst. If this had been any normal year, we would’ve spent lots of time taking Jackson on adventures: Sesame Place, the Wildwood boardwalk, water parks, hayrides, ice skating. Instead, we got a big blow-up pool for the backyard this summer and made snowperson after snowperson in the front yard this winter. He’s part of a generation that will be defined by more than a year away from people. What will he think when life finally starts to resemble our normal again? Because, for him, big crowds are completely abnormal.
He can be independent. Earlier this month, Jackson and I were at the playground in our neighborhood when, suddenly, he stepped into his independence. Up until then I had to go everywhere on the equipment with him: up the steps, over the bridge and certainly down the big slide, where he would only step up to the top if we held hands and I quickly plopped him on my lap. Suddenly, as I went to climb the bottom step behind him, he turned around and yelled, “No, Mommy! Stay here.” And off he went, up the steps, over the bridge and down the slide completely by himself, waving as he went. While those little steps toward freedom are natural, I’m sure, it had me wondering if perhaps all of the time he spent at home with his moms in the last year has him itching to stretch his legs a little early, to stand on his own after all this time being safe and protected in the center of our little world.
His parents don’t know everything. While he may be stretching his legs a bit when it comes to independence, Jackson still comes to Ashlee and I for just about everything: to kiss his boo-boos, for reassurance there’s not a bear loose in our upstairs hallway (don’t know where that came from), to cut his hot dogs into triangles (harder than it sounds). That’s why the many moments in the last year where Ashlee and I have clearly been strapped for answers — and certainly for patience — have probably been discomfiting for him. Parents’ infallibility is, ideally, something that kids don’t have to realize until they’re a bit older. But it’s doubtful that the frustration, anxiety and confusion we’ve felt and surely exhibited over the last year went unnoticed.
Scary things can happen. Ashlee and I spend a lot of time telling Jackson monsters aren’t real, so it hurts to know that, even at his young age, he can see that the world isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. Jackson quickly acclimated to wearing masks last year, but in recent months started questioning why, and I tried to explain in as light a tone as possible that there’s a sickness going around — he coughed a few times as a joke — and that we’re just trying to stay safe. As parents, our entire identity is built around keeping our kids protected and shielded, not just from the impact of the darkness of the outside world but from even knowing that pain exists. That’s been a tall order during the last year. While we’ve had to introduce Jackson to the idea that scary things can be real, I am extremely grateful that he isn’t a few years older, as the masks, isolation and sheer stress of the situation will likely have reverberations for years to come for an entire young generation.
Family is constant. The world around us has been in a whirlwind this last year and Jackson has certainly felt that being separated from family and friends, out of school for half-a year, and having routines thrown out the window. But what has been constant is our little home. Our living room rug is always filled with toys. We pounded the pavement around our neighborhood for probably hundreds of miles to the point where he knows and labels certain trees. One of us will always be here when Jackson wakes up and we will always put him to bed. Of all of the hard lessons this last year, I hope that’s the one that sticks with him: The world may be unexpected and a little bit scary, but he’ll never face it alone.