“Read it back to me one last time.”
“Je reste à la maison. Je joue, je regarde la télé…”
“Okay, ‘I stay home. I play, I watch TV’ is good, just add ‘a little bit of’ before ‘TV.’”
“Un petit peu?”
“Perfect. What else do you do?”
Blank stare. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a rhetoric question, I was hoping Mark was going to come up with another stuck-at-home activity because it’s a bit short for a first French assignment.
“So, we added ‘It’s still cold’ and ‘when it rains there are worms on the driveway’ and we hit ‘send,’” I told Feng later. “I mean, what kind of homework is that? He has to write a daily journal in French, no prompts given! First of all, he doesn’t have much vocabulary in French. Second, it takes him forever to type because surprise, surprise, second graders don’t master Word—and he’d need the French multilingual keyboard for accents. And third, we can pretty much do a copy and paste job for the next god knows how long because every fucking day is the same!”
In Ontario, school closures came as a complete surprise on March 12. Originally, the plan—the official one, anyway—was to close the schools for two weeks following the usual March Break. Many Canadian families take the opportunity to travel to sunny destinations, especially to Florida, so this was a way to enforce a 14-day coronavirus home quarantine.
Mark came back from school on Friday, March 13 with two storybooks. “I told the kids to bring home whatever they wanted from the library,” the teacher explained in an email sent on Sunday. “I’m sorry, I didn’t give them any work to do… we were all caught off guard.”
We didn’t hear anything from the teacher or the school board for a couple of weeks. Fourteen days after Mark’s last school day, his teacher sent a not-so-subtle email to inquire if any family was sick with the virus.
When school closures were extended until May 4, the school board started to connect with parents again—we officially moved into “phase II of Learning at Home,” hence occasional homework and tons of “suggestions to cope.” It has now been confirmed that school will not start again on May 4. I don’t think Mark will step into a classroom before September… and that’s the optimistic scenario.
“Do you know why your school is closed?” I asked him when I came back.
“Duh. The coronavirus.”
He seemed to be somewhat relieved when I explained that most kids around the world were in the same boat. I also addressed his fears because I had noticed he seemed scared every time I was stepping outside. “The air is not toxic,” I said. “Going outside is not dangerous per se, it’s just that we’re trying to avoid contact with other people.”
I started to take him out for walks when the weather isn’t too cold. “Wow, the playground is still here!” he noted the first time, surprised to see how normal everything looked “outside.” We practised giving passersby a wide berth, which isn’t difficult in our residential neighbourhood. Still, he doesn’t spend much time outside—it’s not really spring yet in Ottawa and we don’t have a backyard.
Most of my friends without kids commiserate on being stuck at home with a little one. But if there’s a good age for a first pandemic, well, it’s seven years old. Mark is old enough to understand we’re facing a strange and unprecedented situation. He can also keep himself busy and he is more independent. He has always seen us working from home and he is used to a certain level of freedom when we’re backpacking. I’m not too worried about disruption to learning—sure, maybe we won’t complete the Grade 2 curriculum but he is reading, writing, doing math and learning all kinds of skills with us.
However, Mark still a kid and this is the first time he is completely cut off from his peers without any opportunity to socialize. Even when we’re travelling, we take him to playgrounds or he finds news friends at the beach.
The first couple of weeks, he didn’t complain much about being home. Then he started to say he misses recess, his friends, going out, doing activities—but still, he has been relatively easy to live with.
But for how long? He is getting bored and frustrated. I get it. I am too.
I quickly realized there was no way we could replicate a school day, not even a half school day. In my fantasy, homeschooling would have included trips to the library, museums, social interactions and plenty of books. Forget about public places, it’s just difficult to follow an educational program consistently and Mark doesn’t have any textbooks. Yes, I’m fully aware that “there’s so much available online!” but he already spends enough time in front of the TV or with the tablet.
Yes, tablet and TV, the two evil “Ts,” because we can’t be his friends or teachers 24/7. Technically, we’re both out of work, but even though I’m not making money I’m still working—updating my resume, networking, looking for clients who aren’t too affected by the pandemic. We still have to run the household—grocery shopping is not optional and it’s not a smooth process, for instance.
The pandemic hasn’t made me short-tempered so far but I lack stamina.
We have our own anxiety, fears and sense of hopelessness to manage. Even if at times, we’re trying really hard to pretend it’s kind of like a staycation, it’s not for all the reasons you know too well.
Like many families, we’re doing the best we can. We give each other some space and we spend time together. We give Mark the comforting structure kids need—no matter what, there will be food, bath time, hugs and jokes, stories, reminders to PICK UP THE GODDAMN LEGO and other routine highlights. We focus on practical skills, like cooking or crossing the street safely. Feng teaches him math, I answer all questions and focus on French-language skills.
We try to give him a sense of normalcy even though nothing is normal. I don’t lie to him. Yes, it sucks. No, it’s not a regular thing that he somehow missed when he was a baby. It’s okay to be frustrated. Not everybody is dying. We’ll get through this.
Not Instagram-worthy parenting but love regardless.