Life with a toddler and a first-grader has always been busy. But like a lot of families, we’re now also balancing work and school under the same roof. At the beginning of all of this, my husband and I tried to establish a routine and stick to it. We illustrated our lofty ambitions on a large poster board and taped it up in the kitchen. The poster kept falling off the wall — no doubt, a foreshadowing of its imminent demise.
Experts say kids need routine. But it turns out, sticking to one in the midst of a pandemic is not so easy. While we wade through a perpetual cloud of uncertainty — now lengthened at least through June, as Gov. Charlie Baker has announced that all Massachusetts schools will remain closed for this school year — many of us also have (too many) Zoom calls to attend. Throw in the capricious nature of New England spring weather, and scheduled outdoor time can often end up being spent indoors. Still, any sense of predictability is good, according to Bedford-based psychologist Melinda Macht-Greenberg. But in times like these, parents, don’t beat yourself up.
“Because some days, you’re going to throw the entire routine out the window and say, ‘We’re just having pajama day,'” she said. “So there needs to be a new kind of balance of how to be able to give kids enough reassurance that comes from predictability, but also flexibility, because we’re all taking on new roles and doing things that we haven’t necessarily done before.”
Macht-Greenberg specializes in helping families navigate trauma and stressful situations. She said although she is concerned about the long-term mental health impact this strange new reality will have on families, she emphasized that people are resilient.
“And I think that every day, as people wake up and feel this sense of anxiety, they can also pair that with a feeling of, ‘Okay. I know how to do this. I’ve been doing this. Every day is not amazing, but some days can have silver linings.’ And I think that people will begin to see as it goes on day after day, that they have the coping skills to be able to manage and to be able to support their kids and to keep their kids safe,” she said. “So I feel like resiliency is a big part of human nature that counterbalances a lot of the anxiety and other pieces.”
Having “anchors of normalcy,” she said, is another thing parents can build into their kids’ days, like tea parties for little ones or board games and Friday pizza nights. These activities can make a nebulous timeline feel more grounded and give kids a sense of reassurance. Because let’s face it, all of this is weird. Even our toddler knows it. And we’re fortunate for having the safe vantage point of only calling it “weird.”
But to Macht-Greenberg’s point about resiliency, it appears my first grader, Lily, has accepted this new life more seamlessly than her parents. Early on, she realized she didn’t necessarily have to change out of her pajama pants for classroom Zoom calls.
Lily does miss her friends and teacher and her favorite pencil, which is in her pencil case at school. Nonetheless, there is one perk to remote learning: more family time. My child actually enjoys Mom and Dad playing teacher.
“You guys are with me a lot. I have more company. And I get help, but I can do lots of stuff on my own. … I still need you,” she said, wagging her finger at me.
Macht-Greenberg said while this new juggling act is hard, the whole experience is breaking down the silos of our work, home and school lives — and that could be a good thing.
“I think as those things merge and come together, that we’re going to need to have much more cooperation and partnership among those three different entities so that there isn’t going to be able to be this wall between work and home — because work is now happening in the home,” she said.
It also means parents will have to become stronger partners with teachers in our kids’ educations. And our children might learn a thing or two watching us at work, something I noticed while interviewing Lily. The tables were turned when she started holding an invisible mic and lowered her voice to mimic mine.
“I’m a reporter. My name is Cristina Quinn,” she said, giggling.
“Yup, that’s pretty much all I do. That’s my job,” I replied.
“Yup, just talking into a microphone randomly. Just, ‘WGBH News.’ Yes. I work with a daughter. Two daughters. One’s very smart and one’s really little.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.