Parenting in the Eye of the COVID Storm

It’s raining, lightly, and the late-March morning is finally warm enough for open windows.

My daughter lost a tooth and wrote a letter to the Tooth Fairy. “Can you draw a picture of yourself on this paper so I know what you look like?”

Down the street, a personal message chalked on the sidewalk, adorned with Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie, awaits a special celebrant: “Happy birthday, Jackson! We miss you!”

This is life in the eye of a storm. Out There is swirling chaos, but here, in the eerie calm, we are carefully recalibrating. Taking stock of what’s left and what to hold tightly when the tempest returns.

Out There, the sheer enormity is overwhelming. Literally beyond comprehension. The distance traveled by a microscopic protein; the number of humans infected, lives lost, and livelihoods vanished; the deepening deficit of ventilators; the mounting tally of lies told: All are escalating exponentially (likely outdated even by the time you read this). The United States, ever chasing hockey-stick growth, has achieved it in the macabre.

It’s all astronomical. A load too heavy to lift. A sadness too deep to bear. A rage too hot to touch. It’s too big for me, and I’m tapping out. I’m opting out of bigness.

Regular American life under shelter-in-place has come to a standstill. While Out There, healthcare workers frantically, heroically, grapple with the growing chaos, and institutions panic and pull their levers of power, the rest of us are adjusting to something strange and unsettling. It’s the stuff of fairytales (Grimm’s, not Disney’s) and John Lynch stories. It is… quiet.

Missing are the planes crisscrossing the sky, the police sirens screaming outside the window, the hurrying. What even is this life without hurrying?

On the parenting front, social media and private conversations are dominated by the impossibility of simultaneously being a productive professional and an effective remote-learning teacher. (Not to mention that there’s a reason people who aren’t teachers aren’t teachers.) No amount of higher education and careful career counseling could have prepared us for this.

I get it. I know all too well the stress of meeting work expectations while also maintaining a home for four kids, of folding laundry during a Zoom call and pausing on an email to help my children navigate Google Classroom.

Still, as “Out There” spins ever more out of control, I’m finding fresh joy in the minuscule, and solace in the intimate.

We break from schoolwork to take a bike ride. The kids proudly announce that they’ve planted tomatoes, carrots, and snap peas in their mom’s garden. My boys, who complain incessantly about school-mandated music class, picked up their guitar and drum sticks and wrote a song. It was terrible; I couldn’t be prouder. Meet the new education, same as the very old education.

COVID-19 is no “respecter of persons.” You can’t bluster or buy your way out of it, and even the young and robust are susceptible. It is the great equalizer, and facades of status are crumbling.

My point is not to sugarcoat or gloss over the pain and massive disaster we face. We, as people, are stripped bare. Our societal failings are exposed: As bigness succumbs to smallness, all we are left with is our humanity. In humanity is grace, and in grace, dignity.

Neighbors compile ad hoc food banks and establish “shopping buddies” for senior citizens.

Anonymous donors buy meal vouchers to local restaurants, hard hit by the shutdown.

A restaurant adjusts its corporate status to become nonprofit, providing under-priced, high-quality meals to people in need.

Thousands of Rosie the Riveters stitch and donate masks to hospitals.

Even Twitter, the Web’s cruelest medium, has been overrun by photos of homemade sourdough.

Last week, a comedy producer in Los Angeles received an unexpected $35 refund. Under normal circumstances, that miniature windfall might be a brief moment of excitement, maybe even a dinner out. Instead, she tweeted an offer: “Does anyone need $35 right now for groceries, medicine, etc? I got an unexpected $35 refund from a utility company so if you’re in need, message me and I’ll venmo you.” Inundated with responses, people reached out to fund her “grants.” Then, more people followed suit, offering random “grants” of their own.

It is all humanity, dignity, grace.

There is dignity in mourning. Grace lies in the care of our most vulnerable. Dignity can be found amid imperfection. In ritual, in listening, in small gestures and simple pleasures: grace.

Three text messages from a friend, apropos of nothing, announce:

I’m making bread with my toaster. It came out well. 

I’ve started using cloth napkins.

I’m playing Hot Wheels with the boys.

On Facebook, another friend, whom I haven’t seen in two decades, wrote,

A moment of beauty: With all the hard work we’ve been doing for Covid-19 communications, and the increased demands on my business, and the increased parenting pressures, and setbacks and discouragement, and focus on mortality, and isolation—my coffee bushes are in full bloom. Beauty, wonderful fragrance, the buzzing of bees, the promise of a future coffee harvest, and a refreshing and needed reminder of the beauty, preciousness, and perseverance of life on our sacred Earth.