This morning, I’m sitting on my yogurt-stained couch sipping coffee with a superhero mask on my face. My toddler son is crouched behind me playing my head like a bongo drum. Yesterday, I allowed his six-year-old brother to draw on my face because it gave me twenty uninterrupted minutes to close my eyes. During quarantine, my parenting strategy is to tolerate whatever minimizes screaming, fighting, and destruction.
A few years from now, nostalgia will probably overshadow the stress of this strange time and leave me longing for endless hours of chasing my kids in circles, tossing water balloons in the backyard, and afternoon showings of Frozen 2. But right now, I need a damn break.
All my friends with small children are struggling too. With no school, daycare, or grandparents they are scrambling to keep family life functioning. Around the same time COVID-19 escalated in the United States, a dear friend from graduate school and his wife adopted a two-year-old boy and three-year-old girl. A few days ago, he sent me a video message at four o’clock in the morning. In the video, he’s sitting on his couch in a dark living room. “The sweet joys of silence. I never thought I would enjoy a quiet house this much,” he says. I recognized the exhausted look on his face.
Parents want what many people living alone during this time are complaining about: to be alone in a quiet house. I daydream about having time to prepare a fancy dinner without a two-year-old crawling on the table. I want to read a good book or magazine without being bombarded by my six-year-old with questions about scorpions. I want to drink my morning coffee without worrying my two-year-old will toss Legos in my mug. More than anything, I need silence so I can listen to what is going on inside me. I need to give attention to my thoughts and feelings. I’ve been too distracted to know what is happening in my inner life.
For six years, I’ve been a stay-at-home father. I’m accustomed to the daily grind of tantrums, diaper changes, and chasing loose toddlers. But the past three months have depleted me. I’ve transformed into my worst parenting self: quick to yell, too tired to talk through things, snapping over the smallest thing. Quarantine with small children will reveal what you are capable of as a parent. No one wants to fess up to the ways they have unraveled in front of their kids. We keep these shameful moments buried and dare not talk about them for fear of judgement. Maybe the healthiest thing to do is to speak of them. I’ve done too much shouting and forcefully grabbing limbs. I hope my children have no memory of it.
This pandemic is pushing all of us to our limits. I’m trying to show myself grace and remember no one is their best self. On the other side of this pandemic, I hope a larger conversation about how we support families is taken seriously in circles of power. My family’s position is one of relative privilege but those with very few resources are suffering. It is foolish to think the suffering of other families who don’t live in our neighborhood or attend our kid’s schools will not impact us too. If anything, this pandemic has reminded us how interconnected we all are.