Home On The Range: Pandemic Parenting

Introspection can be a friend or a foe in this era of self-quarantine. The first few weeks I hoped it would be my salvation and that it would drive me to find ways to improve myself and our lives, maybe even our house! That was just my shocked pandemic brain channeling self-improvement books and disaster prep articles. I might as well have created a sock puppet to talk to about my plans ala Tom Hanks’s volleyball “Wilson” in “Cast Away”. The realistic me, two plus months into self-quarantine, settles for finding the bottom of the chip bag and waiting for the newest update as to whether or not the summer camps or schools open. The bottom of a chip bag is far more achievable because so little else is within my control. Except for not wearing a bra or eating gluten. Those are attainable goals and they’ve been completed.

There’s a dichotomy to my days as of late. The sleep-deprived optimistic me wakes with good intentions and plans for the day to entertain my children while stealthily educating them. Then there’s me at 2 o’clock at two plus months in, handing out contraband snacks, and settling for them retreating to their respective hiding spots with their screens. One fixates over any mode of transportation and the other over history. I found myself saying the other day, “No, please, I don’t want to play Hot Wheels anymore and I don’t care who created the first flag for the abolitionists. I just want to use the bathroom.”

It was well after two o’clock, so a low moment, when I read “The Collective Trauma of COVID-19” (Portland Monthly) and found myself reiterating the thought that runs through my head as of late like an unwanted freeway billboard. I’ve never felt this alone while having so little privacy. This is the parental version of incarceration except my jailers are dressed in glorified pajamas, the interior is Ikea and yard sale castoffs, and I’m just as likely to have someone stare at me while I deficate. My every expression and action is scrutinized and recorded in the two minds of my children that are looking to me for their solace yet I’m adrift as much as them and I have to smile in response to their concern. Find a way to explain COVID-19 yet again. Reassure them that they will see their friends again someday. Hope right along with them that the unknowns that plague us will be answered at the end of this pandemic.

I looked up from reading the article on my phone, checked on the kids digging mud holes in the yard, and took in the cacophony of construction noise that surrounds our house from every direction and the flood of people biking and walking down the “pedestrian friendly” street that passes our yard. People rarely keep an appropriate distance from one another or wear a mask. Lucky for them that the city deemed certain streets to be off limits to cars but very unlucky for us that we have so many people to dodge just heading out the door. We feel like a zoo exhibit every time we’re in the front yard. My son running naked in circles reminiscent of that streaking scene from “Four Christmases” doesn’t lessen the attention either. Like the mom said in the movie, “When he gets to hurtin’ on the inside he shows it on the outside.” That’s true of my son as well.

Aurora Sherman observes in the article, “We’re living through a collective trauma event.… It’s not just stress, it’s not just anxiety,… this rises to the level of a truly traumatic event, and every person’s physical body and emotional psyche responds to trauma slightly differently.”

It echoes my thoughts about my kids and the worry over the long-term consequences to their mental health. It took years within their short lives to bolster their confidence and self-esteem so that they could navigate and tolerate the general public. But after this? My fear is that isolating people that already seek isolation, like many that are autistic, perpetuates a tendency that is going to be an uphill battle to undo. It took years to achieve the progress they’ve made at coping with others so how long might it take this time around? My heart breaks for them over the “what if’s” and I try to not jump head first down the rabbit hole of internet research hoping my fears are unfounded.

We take walks and talk to neighbors from a distance, bike rides, and Zoom chat like the rest of you that are at home. But the video chats have lost their novelty. The neighborhood is well-traveled territory and their anxiety rises closer to the surface every day as restrictions loosen and people edge ever closer to us. Bike rides have become the human version of Frogger when we are forced to jump out of the way to avoid close contact. People laugh at them for wearing a mask and making way for others. I’m proud of them for being vigilant in wearing their masks and mindful of giving enough space from others. Then again, they like keeping away from people but miss the spontaneous urge to hug people. They’re my sweet little jumbles of paradox. They are also, like myself, immuno-compromised and well aware that they are more susceptible to the virus. We don’t let them watch the news or read over our shoulders but they are intelligent and can sense our exhaustion.

I tell myself to make the best of it, try to find the fun, try to enjoy the time with them. The general self-imposed guilt that I could blame on my upbringing or societal norms yet it’s my choice as to whether or not I listen to that voice in my head. Sometimes I feed her chips and she shuts up. Because heaping piles of platitudes don’t heal the cabin fever or worries anymore than the reassurances over life returning to what it once was. I don’t want life to return to what it once was because I want us all to take this chance to embrace the discomfort and fear to make something better for each of us. I hope we discover a life improved for all of us. Whether that’s better air quality or a larger interest in holding our political representation accountable.

I try to distract each other from the “warties” (as my son likes to say) and surprise them with inexpensive activities from scouring the internet or the memories of my childhood. They ask me for stories about being poor and despair over other kids sleeping outside. My son’s astute estimation of disbelief was voiced as, “So they sleep outside like camping – but FOREVER?!”

His sister responded, “Yes (the indulgent laugh of the sage 9 year old), yes, it’s called “houselessness”.”
Brother, “I ‘dought ‘dat meant their house burn-ed up.”
A shake of the head and condescension, “No, no, it means they’re poor and no one will give them a place to live.”

As amusing and satirical as their exchange was, I listened and felt a pang of shame over my past homelessness, a pang of guilt that they didn’t quite grasp what they were discussing, relief that they have never experienced that level of poverty and wondered how they would react if I shared.

“Did you guys know that I’ve been homeless before?”
A chorus of, “WHAT?!”

So I shared some of the factual events of my life without the terrifying details and regaled them with the wildness of living unexpectedly out of a car or a trailer. I leave out the humiliation of eviction, kids shunning me once their parents knew who my father was, the teachers who whispered about me and hid their belongings thinking I would steal from them. The particularly cruel teacher who would call out the names of the kids receiving free lunches and make us line up at the back of the room and wait for the others to file out lest the paying kids had to stand next to us in line and suffer the injustice of waiting on us lowly welfare recipients.

Instead of those details I tell my kids about some of the odd things we did as children to amuse ourselves despite our poverty and they look at each other like their mother has just been replaced by an exotic animal. That we would use cardboard boxes to sled in the snow. Collect sowl bugs, scare them into rolling up into their nicknamed form of “rolly polly”, and flick them to race one another. Or the forts we constructed out of abandoned tires and milk crates from the grocery store that my mother worked at. How yard sales were our department stores and new shoes came from K-Mart or Payless Shoes. Socks were only for winter and blisters from shoddily made shoes were compared like badges of honor. And the golden era of cable television that lit up our world when I was freshly out of the first grade for the summer. My parents scored HBO for free on accident because “somehow” the neighbor’s antenna worked for our house as well. I watched “Conan the Barbarian” and “Risky Business” so many times that I could quote the stellar cinematic masterpieces by heart the following school year. Camps, babysitters, and kindergarten were a luxury not afforded to a latch-key kid like me of the ‘80s.

Part of that reminiscence was sharing with them some of the tamer shows I used to watch as a child of their age. A pattern quickly emerged from this foray. Much like the well established Disney pattern that my daughter identified as “castle logo, parent dies, challenge overcome, everyone gets married”.

We would get about ten minutes into a new-to-them old show and I would turn it off due to it being A.) “too scary”, B.) “too old” or C.) , in my own words and the theirs, “inappropriate”. One of those shows being “Little House on The Prairie”. What in the WORLD was I thinking?!

I pitied the pioneer mom as we watched the show and I shuddered. Outhouses, no running water, a lack of modern medicine (no antibiotics!), no phones, no wi-fi (deep shudder). Yet they did have liberal legal use of laudanum and the great outdoors at their disposal to entertain their children. Mine can’t manage to go on a hike without us having to run away from others and avoid those that refuse to keep their distance or wear a mask. Then I remember the legal use of laudanum again and wonder if the local government should just hand out THC gummies and masks instead of PSA’s about staying at home. Maybe if we’re all paranoid enough we’ll keep our distance because the hallucinations tell us to and we don’t want to leave lest we miss our grocery delivery.

After that brief viewing of the first episode of the Ingalls family (interrupted by the realization that the show was horrifically racist and historically inaccurate) it occurred to me how much I could relate to the mother, Caroline, and her emotional state. Obviously I wasn’t having to sleep in the outdoors and keep wolves away from my kids. Instead, I’m cut off from family and friends as she was. I have the advantage of modern communication but it doesn’t replace the embrace of friends or someone holding your hand. I’m not trying to keep wolves away but an invisible virus that could easily kill my kids just the same. Yet the lack of physical contact and proximity of any help was affecting Caroline all those years ago as much as it is all of us in our current existence.

The additional pressure she must have felt is being felt by all of us parents, like myself, to be the sole source of reassurance and support for our children’s well-being and education. No small feat back in the pioneer days or now. Yet there are homeless families having to contend with caring for their children during this pandemic with just as little, if not less, resources than the Ingalls family. There are Navajo families, a reminder of what my ancestors have experienced, having to survive this pandemic without running water or resources that were promised, by and not delivered for, hundreds of years ago by our government. I have the benefit of an education that I fought for and resources beyond their imagining in that era or still inaccessible to some families in our own times.

Yet, much like Caroline, I’m experiencing an intense form of loneliness and fear that I’ve never encountered in my life. I glimpsed it as a mother of a newborn as I struggled through postpartum. As I tried to put words to what I was experiencing and the spell of those labels didn’t fall into place until years later. Autism. Tongue-tied. Medical PTSD. Trauma.

Much like then, In my thoughts I find comfort. In my mind throughout the day, out of boredom and self-preservation of my sanity, I look for the humor even in the darkest emotions to remind myself that I can laugh and to show my kids that it’s ok to have many feelings at once. That mirth and misery can coexist.

I happen to notice my reflection and comment inwardly “pandemic pounds” and smile at myself. Weight and body image have always been the enemy of women and in comparison to the fear of this virus the insidious trivialness of them is even more apparent to me. People are starving, incapable of keeping a physical distance from each other due to poverty, and forced to work jobs that put them at further risk because those that can afford to stay home have a choice to do so when they do not. We all desire the same things and are experiencing a life we could not have anticipated, for most of us, only a few months ago. Yet we hear of arguments over toilet paper and people hoarding junk food in case their last moments are not flavored with processed foods.

I watch my kids play MineCraft and build a city together, build elaborate cities on our floor out of cardboard and train tracks, construct forts out of tents and pillows then battle over their stake in the land. It’s their escape into their own controlled world where nothing unexpected can happen because every brick is of their design and choice. They explain their building plans to me and lose themselves in their virtual world for a brief respite. Just like I watch travel shows and try to hope that I’ll see those places someday.

That all of us can resume our pursuit of dreams in the physical world and no longer have to rely on the virtual one for our support. I’m not stuck in a wagon, a tent on the street, my neck under a knee of an unjust civil servant, a jail cell, a house without plumbing or sewage, or an internment camp. Yet all of us are in our own form of lockdown until the pandemic passes and comparing levels of pain and discomfort is only a distraction from what needs to be the focus. We need to listen to the scientists and medical professionals that have been sounding the alarms for months and who are working tirelessly to save us. We owe it to ourselves and our kids to listen when others would not and to learn from our mistakes. What if we were to choose kindness and action instead of apathy and resignation? What if the next time someone wanted to troll someone online they bothered to fact check instead?

The kids were worried about the robin “Mama Bird” that we have the pleasure of watching nest outside our kitchen window. She built her shelter stealthily amongst the highest blooms of the rhododendron bush above the branches that I hadn’t had the chance to remove. My laziness is her gain. The brittle dead growth is the perfect defense against any raccoon approaching. Too heavy to be supported by the limbs they’ll fall. Any squirrel will be heard scampering since the limbs leading to her precipice will snap even under their feet as well.

She stares back at me as we observe her. We wonder aloud if she worries about us staring. Just then she turns and faces us with her tail feathers. We laugh and go back to what we separately were occupied by but my thoughts return to those, much like her living among the elements or struggling to provide for their kids, are trying to eek out an existence and make the best of what they have for their children. Let us all hope that we see an end to Twitter bickering and our energies used instead to fix our wrongs and put right what we have broken. Let us all be allowed to breathe and exist without the level of fear we are toiling under needlessly because of the callousness of those in power.

“The Collective Trauma of COVID-19”

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