What The Pandemic School Year Has Taught Me About Being a Parent

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And it’s also a year in which I learned—through every late-night email announcing school was shuttered indefinitely due to a positive case—that while a plan is necessary, it is also often useless. People tell you to expect the unexpected in parenting. They tell you to make peace with the fact that there are things you can’t control. They tell you to have a sense of humor because your ability to control who your kids will become is ultimately limited. But this year truly tested the maxim of “expect the unexpected.” No matter how hard I squinted at my Google calendar each Sunday night, shifting pastel-colored blocks to make sure that no child (literally) got left behind, the only thing I truly knew I could anticipate was that something would fall apart. I wasn’t so much dropping balls as constantly picking them up.

But if the past school year was one of unpredictable fluidity, it was also one in which I felt certain things solidify. As the hours I spent with my children necessarily increased, I began to realize that the effects of all this togetherness were flowing both ways. I was much more aware of the progress they were making in learning to read or recite the alphabet, but they were also more attuned to the way in which the stresses of the pandemic were affecting me. During one particularly grim February stretch, in which my husband—due to his work—had been vaccinated but there seemed to be no shot in sight for me (a fact that at the time seemed a cosmic injustice), my five-year-old sidled up to me and, poked me in the arm, and said: “Don’t worry Mommy, I’ll give you the shot.”

It was also a year in which I realized, more than ever, the virtues of some kind of support network. My oldest son attends a school far from our house; prior to the pandemic, we’d had a “go it alone” philosophy, dispatching his babysitter to escort him there and back on the subway every day. But the subway didn’t seem super safe when he was called back to class in September, and so we reached out to families who also lived in the area, some we’d never spoken to before, to organize a carpool. (An added bonus, my seven-year-old boy would now be shuttled in a carful of older girls; education can happen anywhere.) When we began driving the carful of kids in the fall, the streets were still, for the most part, eerily empty, and we barreled up the FDR Drive in the early mornings without a single slowdown. As people gradually began to return to normal commuting rhythms, the drive time lengthened and was, on occasion, torturous, but it never lessened my gratitude for the parents (and sometimes their babysitters) who banded together to man our little life raft.

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This week, when I dropped my kindergartener off for his final week of school, I experienced a different scene from the one I’d encountered in the fall. A trail of 20-something kids followed the teacher into the building, jostling with the bouncy-ball energy that only a full class of kids can generate. Later in the day, the parents attended a “stepping-up” ceremony outside at the school, watching the kids sing songs about being ready for first grade. The parents sat in distanced folding chairs and the kids wore masks, but this time, with some two dozen voices singing in semi-unison, it was much easier to hear them.  

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