I had something else ready and scheduled for today but ended up having a lot of thoughts (which I’m not entirely sure I’ve managed to articulate coherently) ruminating over the weekend.
I try to be “authentic” in this space. To write about the good and the bad, the easy and the hard. Some things don’t need to be discussed in a public forum, of course, but I think that the struggles of parenting – generally and then more specifically in the context of a global pandemic – are of relevance and critical significance. We are currently raising the next generation in a time of near-constant upheaval and immense stress. As parents we feel both the pressure to insulate our children from that upheaval and stress (while not over-insulating them – being left to determine how to best address their unique concerns and frustrations honestly without adding additional burdens to their young lives), while we parents navigate our own suite of challenges.
It feels a bit like Cirque du Soleil asked us to headline their tightrope act without sending us to circus school first.
Here in Nova Scotia we’re back in quasi-lockdown and I am in survival mode.
In a few hours my two children will log on for their first day of online learning in 2022. And, in a few hours, I will log on for my first day of online learning in 2022. I will be attending Grades 1 and 5. Again. Simultaneously.
I will no doubt spend hours jumping between bedrooms – helping with QR codes, reestablishing Wifi connections, keeping the younger one in his seat (except when he’s supposed to participate in morning calisthenics…when he’ll insist on staying in his seat and I’ll have to convince him to leave his seat – and yes, this is as frustrating as it sounds); I will undoubtedly also help untangle headphone cords, help locate the red crayon required for a group craft, and supervise and count down the 80 jumping jacks listed on the daily physical education log.
This is in addition to making sure (with my husband’s help) that they have clean clothes, are fed, get time outside to play and exercise, do their chores, get enough sleep, brush their teeth and generally ensure their many emotional and physical needs are taken into account.
Can I be brutally honest? I am dreading all of it – from crayon hunting to calisthenics to cooking to gearing them up in winter garb (yes, they dress themselves; and yes, it still feels like a Herculean effort to help them get out the door and even more of a Herculean effort to help them deal with all the wet gear when they come back inside).
Not because any of this is overly difficult or intellectually taxing. But because I am bone-weary.
Two comments last week really stood out. First, someone mentioned how wonderful it is that I seem to be able to find both joy and fun in parenting (a reference to the insightful book by Jennifer Senior called All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood which, incidentally, I read before a global pandemic zapped many of us of so many sources of joy and fun). Another commenter expressed appreciation that I identified just how long the days can feel.
It’s true – I do look for joy and fun; I take the kids skating on outdoor ponds and we bake cookies and go on family walks and we decorate Christmas trees together. But it takes effort and energy to create these moments and there are still a lot of hours to fill.
Full disclosure – many of those hours are neither joyful nor fun.
By Saturday morning I was exhausted.
Due to strong winds and significant snowfall, we lost power twice in a 24-hour period (including during the night, which woke me up). When the power came on at 6:30 am, I wasted no time and indulged in a long, hot shower. Then I carried hot bowls of oatmeal from the microwave and did something else (I think?) to contribute to breakfast preparations. The kids were already fighting, that much I remember. Likely over who got the spoons out of the drawer or something along those critical lines.
And then I signed off parenting for the day (because I’m fortunate enough to be able to do this; I think about the millions of women and men who juggle parenting alone and I feel guilty for needing to “sign off” parental duty when that isn’t an option for so many).
But I did sign off, collapsed on the bed and slept from 9:30 am – 12:30 pm. Aside from some run-ins with the flu, this is basically the latest I’ve “slept” in for over a decade – including during periods of sleep training and jet lag. Then I got up (ate some delicious food my husband had prepared) and went for a solo walk, ending up with a spontaneous invitation for tea with a friend – where she served me piping hot chai in a multi-coloured polka-dotted mug (that couldn’t have screamed of “joy” more loudly if the mug had its own set of vocal cords and a megaphone).
This friend is at the opposite end of the parenting spectrum; her children are all grown and she and her husband were alone this Christmas, for the first time since becoming parents several decades ago.
I took off my coat and settled in by her fire and talked. We discussed the good gifts of God surrounding us – the generosity of neighbours, the collective spirit to endure and help each other through these challenging days, our beautiful town. We talked about how stunning the trees looked, glistening white under the heavy snow and how simple things – like the giant inflatable teddy bear on her lawn – can bring such joy (seriously, it’s adorable). And then we discussed the weight of life lately, especially as it relates to parenting in a pandemic. I told her how hard it can be to articulate the exhaustion – not knowing when this will end, yes, but more generally the 24/7 responsibility that is parenthood. Harder in a pandemic – with playdates canceled and schools closed and support networks unexpectedly fractured. But hard before, too. The weight of responsibility can feel enormous, our identity as “modern” parents uncertain.
Today we are far less clear about what “parenting” entails. We know what it doesn’t entail: teaching kids mathematics and geography and literature (schools do that); providing them with medical treatment (pediatricians); sewing them dresses and trousers (factories abroad, whose wares are then distributed by Old Navy); growing them food (factory farms, whose goods are then distributed by supermarkets); giving them vocational training (two–year colleges, classes, videos). What parenting does involve, however, is much harder to define. The sole area of agreement for almost all middle–class parents – whether they make their children practice the violin for three hours a day or exert no pressure on them at all – is that whatever they are doing is for the child’s sake, and the child’s sake alone. Parents no longer raise children for the family’s sake or that of the broader world.Jennifer Senior
Well, in a few hours I will help teach my kids math and geography and literature. As for vocational training, during the first lockdown, we taught Abby how to do laundry; this week she got a crash course in scrubbing toilets.
They clean their rooms and help prepare their own breakfasts, make their own beds, and do quiet time in their rooms each day – we’re trying to raise them to be independent thinkers, team players, and to have practical skills for the real world.
Before the “sacralization” of childhood…parents’ hearts weren’t expected to double as emotional seismographs. It was enough that they mended their kids’ clothes, fed them, taught them to do good, and prepared them for the rigors of the world. It was only after parents’ primary obligations to their kids had been completely outsourced – to public schools, to pediatricians, to supermarkets, to the Gap – that the emotional needs of their children came sharply into focus.Jennifer Senior
I want my kids to be happy and well adjusted – don’t we all? But their emotional needs are hard to gauge when they face a set of challenges I’m not sure how to help them navigate. Their emotional needs are hard to gauge when they’re fighting (almost) constantly – most likely out of boredom/fear/frustration because they have essentially been cooped up for weeks on end with events canceled and friends isolating due to COVID exposures and inclement Canadian winter weather. Their emotional needs are hard to gauge when the rigor’s of the world are 3-ply masks and “no, that’s canceled” and hand-sanitizing stations and segregation from friends at school.
I’m doing my best but it simultaneously feels like too much and too little.
And then there is the guilt. Always the guilt. I got to “sign off” for a day, enjoy food prepared by a spouse, and sip tea from a mug that looked like it got caught in a confetti explosion.
I truly feel gratitude for all of that…and yet I still feel like I’ve had a face-to-face encounter with a freight train. And that it leveled me onto the tracks.
When the first lockdown happened, in March of 2020, it was scary and daunting – but there was also a sense of determination to get through this, together. Used to regular work travel, suddenly we were all together as a family around the clock. Yes, there was some doom-scrolling and I laid in bed and refreshed news sites over and over in those early days. And yes the kids watched a Disney movie every single weekday for several months (thank you, Disney+ from the bottom of my heart). But mostly we settled in and decided to make the most of a hard situation; we donned life jackets and boated out to an island (picnicking with sheep and collecting treasure from a shipwreck), we visited some lighthouses and then some more lighthouses and then our favourite lighthouse of all (multiple times). We drove the world-famous Cabot Trail (and saw more lighthouses). We hiked – woodland trails, beaches, bike paths, the streets in our neighbourhood. We saw waterfalls and visited anti-submarine bunkers from WWII, and went downhill skiing for the first time. We played games and taught life skills. And it was hard and exhausting, but there were so many moments of joy and fun.
And then this summer we slowed down because…we were tired. We rolled up our sleeves and got vaccines and stayed home, not so much because of the pandemic, but because we were running out of steam. We adventured when we could muster the energy – we roasted marshmallows over the fire and went fishing and some of us played in poison ivy (sigh) but we also took more naps and guzzled more coffee…and slowly moved into survival mode.
Laying in bed at 12:30 pm on Saturday, I realized that I’m “outed:”
- I’m gamed out – I’ve played Sorry and Chutes and Ladders (I even made a life-size version of Chutes and Ladders last year – see picture here). I have played literally hundreds of games of UNO. I’ve played Crokinole (including by candelight during last weeks’ power outage) and Codenames. I’m tired of games.
- I’m played out – I’ve played dressup and Shopkins and LEGO and hide-and-seek. I want to hide, on my bed, for a month.
- I’m adventured out – see above.
- I am Harry Potter-triviaed out; I have, not a word of a lie, answered at least 100 Harry Potter trivia questions in the last week. Of the “stump-JK-Rowling” quality. Abby, bless her, loves this activity and it’s something I can do. I try my hardest to come up with the right answers (and breathe a sigh of relief when it’s a multiple-choice question). Do YOU know the name of Nicolas Flamel’s wife; the middle name of Harry, Ron, and Hermoine; which Weasley twin was born first; the first and last name of the people Harry, Ron and Hermoine transformed into using Polyjuice Potion in The Deathly Hallows; the name of chapter 9 in the 7th book? Well I do…and my brain is ready to explode.
- I’m read out – I’ve read book after book after book. I’ve read picture books and Magic Treehouse Books. I’ve read about red-headed Anne’s and girls living in the Alps and a friendly giant with enormous ears. I’ve downloaded audiobooks when I couldn’t read another word. And there were still hours left to fill.
- I’m guilted out – I have incalcuable advantages – healthy children, a supportive spouse, loving family – and know so, so many are struggling at levels that are literally almost beyond imaging, but I’m tired of feeling guilty that, despite my advantages, this still feels hard. How can I be so blind to all my blessings? Why can’t I only focus on the good? Why does this all feel so hard?
I feel like I’ve stubbed a toe when others have amputated a limb…but my stubbed toe hurts.
Years and years ago I came across a book whose tagline read something along the lines of: “Stop surviving and start thriving.” I never got around to reading it; the title threw me off. About the same time we found ourselves in a time vortex; our 2-year-old was sick with pneumonia and survival was literally the only thing on our minds. For three straight weeks I knew neither the date nor the time of day. Time lost all meaning – there was just sickness and antibiotic doses and doctor’s appointments and weariness. Sleep sometimes came at 3 pm; hot showers and food could happen at 3 am.
We survived and that was all that needed to happen. The thriving had to wait.
More recently, I wrote about my decision to stop my Bible-in-one-year on day 311. I didn’t know what to read in 2022. I’m tired – emotionally, physically, and spiritually. But then I felt drawn to read through the Psalms. They are full of joy and praise! But equally, they are full of lament (from this morning’s Psalm: “I am weary with my moaning…“)
I don’t want to complain right now – I have so much to be thankful for. But I do need to lament. When we complain we gripe; we give voice to anger or dissatisfactions. When we lament we mourn; we express sadness over what we longed for and the current reality. As one source put it: A complaint often turns into an outburst. A lament is a sorrowful prayer.” And also, I think, an expectant longing for hope.
In my first day of reading I came across Psalm 1:4 [talking about people of faith]:
And they will be like a tree planted by a river of water that brings forth fruit in their season.
The woods out my back window are currently heavily laden with snow. There is no obvious outward growth during this long winter season. They only need to survive; stay rooted and firm during the howling winds, falling snow, heavy ice. But inside they are developing structure, becoming hardy…and when the spring comes, they will be renewed, turn green, stretch upwards and thrive.
It’s hard to strike the right balance – on a public blog, with our friends and loved ones and with ourselves. We want to find joy and practice gratitude and celebrate the successes and blessings we have but I think it is also human and natural (and spiritually and emotionally healthy) to lament. And then to hope.
Happy Monday, friends. May you find both joy and time to lament (if needed) today.