Parenting during a pandemic: A family journal

May 21, 2020

Look in the index of any child-rearing or parenting book, and you won’t find anything referring to raising children during a pandemic. Every family in California is experiencing “sheltering in place” in different ways. In every case, it has upended routines, created profound uncertainties and placed extraordinary demands on parents. We asked Zaidee Stavely, EdSource’s reporter on early education, to keep a journal of her — and her family’s — experiences and to share it with our readers.

May 21 – I have a confession to make. Distance learning is not working well in my house. My fifth-grader is not finishing all of her assignments. And I’m not forcing her to, even in this last week of classes in Oakland Unified.

Don’t get me wrong — my daughter’s teachers have done an outstanding job. Her Oakland Unified dual immersion school sent home two novels for her to read – “Esperanza Rising” in English and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in Spanish. Her math teacher recorded a video explaining how to multiply fractions with such patience and clarity that I understood in a different way than I ever had before. Her social studies teacher is asking her students to write “making history journals,” describing what their lives are like during the coronavirus pandemic. My daughter completed several entries, eager to leave a record for others in the future. For one entry, she shared a photo of our family with masks on and wrote, “This photo is important to future historians who will study this period because it shows how families have to wear masks while going outside and how hard it is to live through a pandemic that seems to last forever.”

But online learning makes my daughter anxious. She’s happy — even excited — to learn on her own, doing science experiments and reading as many books as she can get her hands on, trying to identify birds in the backyard with a book her grandpa sent her. As soon as she had actual assignments from school, though, with due dates, the pressure caused some very intense emotions in our house. The absence of grades didn’t help. The Google Classroom platform, where she can see all the different assignments she has for any given week, makes her feel overwhelmed in a way that in-person learning did not. Seeing herself on video during Zoom class times makes her uncomfortable. I know from talking with other parents that she’s not the only one.

My daughter is hurting. She misses school. She misses her teachers. She misses her friends. It’s scary to live in a pandemic. I can’t help her much with schoolwork while working full time. So I’m not making her finish all her assignments. And I don’t plan to.

A couple of weeks ago she turned 11. I donned a mask, picked up a tres leches cake from a local bakery, and added an edible photo of a drawing of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater that I ordered online — a nod to my daughter’s fascination with Shakespeare plays. We broke a piñata in the backyard — just the four of us: my husband, me, and our two kids. And we invited her friends to come by, say hi, and draw on a big piece of paper for her — from a distance. They all had to bring their own art supplies — colored pencils, pastels, and pens — so they didn’t have to share. I had each friend sign up for a time, so they wouldn’t overlap. We put the paper on a table on our steps, about 10 feet from our front porch. It was great to see friends, albeit with a mask and from a distance. The resulting birthday art is a beautiful reminder that people care about my daughter. I hope that’s what she remembers.

April 7After my 2-year-old’s preschool closed on March 13, the teacher is holding “circle time” online every morning. My child sits on the couch in front of the computer and lights up when our beloved teacher appears on the screen. The teacher reads books aloud to the kids and they sing together, draw pictures and share what they are doing at home. She’s also encouraging them to do offline activities — one day they all planted beans and other seeds in plastic bags with paper towels and water and stuck them to their windows to watch them grow.

It’s beautiful. It’s also heartbreaking.

My child started preschool in February. Our older child attended the same preschool years ago, and the director and lead teacher is now a good friend of mine, so my little one has known her since she was born. This teacher has a gift with children — what I call her magic. She listens to children, encourages them to share their opinions and learn by exploring and investigating. As soon as my 2-year-old started going there, vocabulary blossomed into thousands of words and complete sentences, telling us stories about new friends, and eager to go there every day.

Now, almost every morning my child asks me if there is preschool today. When I say no, I get a head nod. But my child doesn’t understand why we are staying at home, or why we can’t go to school, hug our teachers, play with our friends. No matter how much we try to re-create the preschool experience at home, making homemade Play-Doh, planting seeds or doing science experiments with milk, food coloring and dish soap, it’s not the same.

It’s not the same for my 10-year-old either. She’s in fifth grade at a public Spanish and English dual-immersion school in Oakland Unified. She cried when she found out she wasn’t going back to school this year. I held her. I told her I was sad, too.

Playing with milk, dish soap and food coloring. Photo: Zaidee Stavely/EdSource

These last three weeks of sheltering in place have been a whirlwind of emotions for me. It’s difficult to get work done and at the same time play with my children, help my 10-year-old work on the homework packet her teachers sent home or go online to do math games or practice typing. My husband and I are taking turns spending time with the kids and working. It’s an impossible juggle. I’m overwhelmed.

But the largest, most present emotion for me is grief. Grief that my children aren’t playing with friends, learning from each other and expanding their worlds. Grief that I can’t be near my parents, who live in rural northern California. Grief — and anger — that so many of my daughter’s classmates are struggling much more than we are, as their parents lose their jobs or have hours reduced. Grief that we are all, kind of, alone.

Photo Credit: Zaidee Stavely/EdSource

Taking apart a kitchen timer. Photo: Zaidee Stavely/EdSource

And yet we’re not. There are some small and wonderful slivers of hope. We have that online preschool circle time. My older daughter has a regular online video chat with her friends. She’s been writing letters to her friends and her cousins and her grandma. My kids are getting along better. With no other children around, my 10-year-old plays more with the 2-year-old now, almost allies in this strange new world.

They both keep growing. I found the 2-year-old arranging blocks in a careful line, something I know from reporting is a pre-math skill. My 10-year-old has a new-found scientific calling. The other day she decided to take apart a kitchen timer, to see if she could put it back together again. She’s writing a play and reading all kinds of books — this week it was “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry,” and a novel in Spanish called “J.J. Sanchez y el Último Sábado Fantástico.” We tried family yoga for the first time. We’re taking it one day at a time.

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