When my first daughter was a year old, we visited friends and heard about their plans to leave their son with their parents for a weekend, so that they could go away alone together. I couldn’t understand them – we loved going on holiday with our little one! Years on, and a child further, I thoroughly understand the need for time and space away from the children. My boyfriend and I cherish the two weekends a year that we leave our girls with family and head off for some adult time together.
What may surprise some people, is that work, for us, is also a break from our children. For years I followed the stereotypical pattern of hating Mondays and yearning for Friday evenings. Now, I look forward to both days. Friday is the start of the weekend, of having fun together as a family. Monday is a return to adult life, to intellectual challenges and a tantrum-free zone.
Work and parenting are both challenging, but it is usually doable because they are alternated. It’s like juggling two beautiful, shining metal balls. You don’t want to drop either because they are too precious, but they are too heavy to hold at the same time. If you juggle them, then one is always up in the air while the other is in your hands, and the weight is manageable.
The announcement that the schools would close was like looking up in the air and seeing both those balls plummeting down at the same time, their full weight about to hit. Work and parenting are now supposed to happen in the same space, at the same time. Exactly how challenging this is, depends a lot on the age of the children. A teething baby leaves you no room for negotiation, while a teenager can be expected to get on with things themselves. But on the whole, most children need frequent help. This is the reality of a ‘corona day’ in my house, with children of 6 and 9 years old:
We have breakfast together, and the children go to play. This is the best chance to get a decent bit of work done. At 8:30, ‘school’ starts and I go to give them their timetables, set up my older daughter with the laptop and find my younger daughter her maths exercise book and her maths ‘tiger’ with advanced exercises. As my six-year-old can’t handle tasks of longer than half an hour, I will need to be back at 9am. I go to my laptop in the study, and start to work. Creak, goes the door, it is my older daughter. The laptop is doing something funny. I sort out the problem, then come back. I have just got back into my programming problem when the door creaks again. This time, it’s my younger daughter. She can’t remember which pages she was supposed to do in her ‘tiger’. I go and show her. A few minutes after my return, my boyfriend, who is sharing the home office, asks if we can shift timings later, as he has had a request for a meeting just when he should be giving the girls their snack. We compare meeting schedules and work out a solution. I turn my attention back to my screen, and see the clock. It’s 9am, time to explain the next lesson. As this one is accompanied by an interactive instruction film from school, I will need to spend most of the time sitting next to my daughter, pressing play and pause, and making sure she’s watching rather than using the sofa as a slide.
This is pretty much how the rest of the school day goes, with the exception of the times when my boyfriend has no meetings and can take over supervision. The demands of his work, including a packed meeting schedule, mean that we can’t simply split the day into a ‘mummy’ part and a ‘daddy’ part, which would be far more relaxed – and effective – for everyone.
At 2pm, ‘school’ is over. This can be an oasis of peace if the girls play happily, or it can be a string of fights that need sorting out. Later in the afternoon, I am in a video call when I see my younger daughter sliding into camera shot. I look around, but my partner has gone downstairs for his own video call, so I mute my microphone and ask her what’s up. She wants me to come and read to her. I agree, but once I am done in the meeting. This is no good – she wants me to read to her now. She starts to howl, then storms off, slamming the door, leaving me with a combined feeling of relief that she is gone, and guilt that I’m not properly there for her.
The enforced togetherness grates on the children too – they are used to escaping the restriction of Mummy and Daddy’s set of rules for the different rules of school, daycare, Scouting, swimming. My older daughter misses her precious moments of autonomy cycling to and from guitar lessons. Being stuck all day with the kids is something we all moan about, being stuck all day with Mummy and Daddy is probably much worse. We at least get a child-free evening.
Fortunately for us, after almost a week of this, my boyfriend’s job was declared essential. We now have a mix of hectic home days and days of blessed normality when the girls are at school and we can work through undisturbed. The relief is mixed with guilt that we are so much better off than most families. Such as those where the man (and it does seem to mostly be the man) is required to work as normal while his wife has to tackle home-schooling and her own work simultaneously, single parent families, those who also have to travel to work, and the heroic group of people who are on the corona front-line while still keeping their families going at home. If we are finding it hard – and we still are, despite the daycare days – how on earth are they coping?
The good news is that none of us is alone in this. While with many parenting issues you can feel as if you’re on your own, in this case a large part of the world is visibly in the same boat. It didn’t take long at all for informal support networks of parents to spring into existence, exchanging links to school materials, tips for fun activities, online books explaining corona to children, and even offers to play games with them via video. What amazes me most is how open parents are being about how hard it is. In my first few years as a parent, I battled with the feeling that I was a failure, because all the people around me seemed to be breezing through parenthood. It was only when I got to know a few parents better that they lowered the mask and revealed that I wasn’t alone in feeling overwhelmed. With the corona virus, people seem to be dispensing with the mask entirely (ironically). Perhaps it’s because this situation is so obviously outside of anyone’s control, but even parents I don’t know well are being totally honest about their stress and uncertainty. It is so comforting to be able to share your feelings of frustration and helplessness, and feel not judged, but understood.
Another important source of support is the other parent. My boyfriend and I started off by trying our best to be positive, to take on the biggest share of the burden, and to give the other peace and space to work. Isn’t that great? Except that by day 3, we were screaming at each other. The reason was that we were doing our utmost to shield each other from the stress of the situation, only to see that the other one was still stressed out. It felt like all that effort counted for nothing, whereas the truth was that this crisis is simply too big for us to block out. At the same time, attempting to be brave and soldier on meant that we weren’t asking for help where we needed it. End result: overload. Now, we are trying to be more open about our stresses and strains, and lower our expectations to what is achievable under these circumstances. While finding the right balance remains difficult, at least it is now a shared undertaking, rather than individual attempts to be a superhero.
The final source of support is perhaps a little unexpected. The children. Our girls are finding it hard, but they are facing things with an amazingly positive attitude. Within the limits of their age and understanding, they are doing their best to cooperate and to make things as easy as possible. They brighten up our day with creative drawings and funny little jokes, and regularly come to offer hugs and kisses. Other parents tell similar stories – but the loveliest example I have heard so far, is the father who found this note from his daughter:
“Dear Daddy. Have a good day at work. I understand it is hard to work. Have a nice day. Do your best, love xx. Well done.”
That is the love that will bring us through corona – together.