On April 12, I eagerly got in line for my first COVID vaccine, rolled up my sleeve, waited my 15 minutes and snapped my obligatory vaccine selfie — I was immensely relieved and grateful that this light at the end of the tunnel had finally arrived. Then, 11 days later, Jackson was diagnosed with COVID. 

To rewind a bit…As spring got into swing, COVID cases started upticking in Jackson’s daycare. He had his first (negative) nasal swab in early April after a direct exposure in his class and then, as case after case was reported, the school shut down for a week mid-April. While there was no reported direct exposure in his class, after what we thought was his ubiquitous daycare cold didn’t dissipate after a week, we opted to get another test — mostly because we wanted insurance so we could send him back to school when it reopened the following week, as we were 99% positive he would be negative again. 

When Ashlee called to tell me the results, she first asked if I was driving, which to my anxious mind meant she was about to tell me someone had died. I’ll admit, I cried an irrational amount when she said Jackson was positive. Logically, I know the statistics about kids and COVID and intellectually understood that Jackson’s symptoms were likely not going to be any worse than his run-of-the-mill cold. 

Now that I’m out of the drama of that moment, I see that the reason for my overreaction was three-fold. 

As most parents would agree, any threat to your kid is panic-inducing. My heart still skips a beat whenever Jackson faceplants while running (often, as evidenced by his banged-up face!). When his daycare sent us an incident report that a classmate bit him, I wanted to go have words with that kid’s parents. That Jackson’s health was entirely out of our hands and up to the whims of a virus that we’ve all dreaded for over a year instilled deep, deep fear. 

It also made me feel hopeless. We had spent 13 months at that point trying to keep our family safe — the masks, the hand washing, the staying away from family and friends for months, the weird new normal we’ve all found ourselves in — and it all felt like it was for naught. The emergence of the vaccine had convinced me to finally be hopeful that there was a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and a sudden positive darkened that light quickly. 

And selfishly, I knew that Jackson’s diagnosis meant at least another 10 days on house arrest with me. He had already been out of daycare nearly two of the previous three weeks because of COVID exposures there and I was nearing the end of my rope working from home with a 2-year-old co-worker. On top of the fear and frustration, I was dreading another couple weeks of trying unsuccessfully to juggle two full-time jobs simultaneously and give my all to both. 

So that night, Ashlee and I wallowed (after our COVID tests, both of which came back negative), and then the next day, I put on my parent pants and tried to snap myself out of it. Like most new challenges of parenting, I tackled it the best way I knew how: with a list. I picked up the bucket list Jackson and I made for our first week back home together earlier that month and we went to town adding ideas of at-home activities to pass the time and quell the stress. 

And, also like with most aspects of parenting, my expectations were far different from reality. On our next weekday home, I set up an obstacle course in the backyard comprised of toys and random objects from around the house: a balance beam made of a spare piece of wood set over two chairs, a pop-up tunnel, a maze of buckets for Jackson to throw tennis balls into, a kids’ version of cornhole and a few other DIY items. I was rather proud of this creative concoction — until I turned around to shout “Ready, set, go” and Jackson had wandered away from the starting line, put a bucket on his head and was running blind through the backyard laughing. I got him to try a few of the obstacle course challenges but it mostly devolved into us throwing balls at one another and racing from one end of the yard to the other. 

I unearthed some birthday balloons from our attic and blew them up, thinking he would enjoy trying to keep the balloons in the air in the yard. That lasted three seconds, until one balloon floated into our neighbor’s yard and Jackson melted into tears. On a particularly hot day, I broke out these fancy, newfangled water balloons that fill 60 at once from a garden hose — but quickly learned our nozzle solidified to the hose over the winter, leading to a comedic turn of events that involved me trying unsuccessfully to fill the balloons with straws through the kitchen sink while Jackson, unnoticed, poured several entire cups of water all over the kitchen counter. 

And on it went: Mother’s Day crafts that went awry, kinetic sand disasters, an afternoon in the baby pool that turned into me having to squirt a plastic slide with a mini water gun for 60 minutes straight. Our time home definitely wasn’t what I expected it to be — but in all the best ways. 

I am incredibly fortunate to work for a company that offers additional COVID-related PTO so I took a handful of days off while Jackson was home so that I could completely unplug and just invest in him; usually, he’s home with me two days a week while I’m working, and that time is spent running for hurried walks in between meetings and trying to answer emails while flipping his grilled cheese. Being able to actually disconnect from other responsibilities allowed me to focus just on what Jackson needed — lots of love, attention, fun and a few tissues — and that helped me shift my perspective on what Jackson’s COVID diagnosis really meant. 

Yes, it was scary that he was sick, but how lucky are we that his symptoms didn’t progress further, when they have for so many millions of people over the last year. Yes, I was frustrated that this pandemic continues to drag on, but, as evidenced by my and Ashlee’s negative tests, the vaccines really work and that means we’re in an entirely different place than we were at this time last spring. Yes, working from home with a sick kid is hard and stressful, but I’m so lucky to have an employer that values flexibility, and a supportive spouse and family.

But mostly, our forced time at home made me feel beyond fortunate that I’ve spent so many hours just Jackson and I over this last year. The art projects and backyard activities may not have looked like what they were supposed to, but they accomplished their job: Jackson was able to have fun, be silly, get creative and see how much his parents want him to be happy, while I distracted myself enough from the stress to see it in a new light. 

COVID hitting home like this was certainly a wakeup call: to live with hope, gratitude and in the moment. And sometimes you’ve just got to put a bucket on your head and have fun.