During the COVID lockdown last spring, I had an epiphany. For the first year of pandemic restrictions, I saw things one way, and then another parent’s comment in the chat group for my 2nd grader’s class caused a shift in my focus, and suddenly, everything looks different.
When I close my eyes and allow my mind to drift back over the twelve months following the first COVID lockdown here in Ukraine, all kinds of adjectives come to mind, paired with a string of scenes, some surreal, some comically chaotic. Me, walking my dog in downtown Kyiv, the normally bustling streets eerily deserted, while I glance furtively about in the chilly, overcast weather, wondering if I’m really supposed to wear a mask when the closest person is at least half a block away. Our three oldest kids sitting at a card table piled high with textbooks and notebooks while my husband and I take turns trying to cajole or threaten them into doing their school assignments while cooped up at home for weeks on end—all while the three younger ones keep trying to invade the “school room” with their rowdy playing. Taking videos of kids doing YouTube exercise routines to send to their PE teachers, and turning it into a family dance time with a toddler in the mix! There are so many ways to describe that year, but “unusual” seems to fit best.
With all the unusual circumstances came new demands and requirements that parents all over the world have felt. Thankfully, both my husband and I work from home, so we were more available to supervise our children’s distance learning than some, but even so, it was challenging. During the first lockdown in spring 2020, our eldest son diligently worked on his assignments, taking pride in amassing points on the online learning platform his school introduced. However, our second and third children were extremely reluctant to do their work, turning every school day into a twelve-hour ordeal that left all of us in a bad temper. Thankfully, our first grader didn’t seem to have any assignments at all, so we just focused on the two reluctant students and let the first-grader play with his preschool brothers. After a month or more, the first-grade teacher called me to ask why we hadn’t sent in any of our son’s assignments. That was when I learned that a new parents’ chat had been created for his class specifically for sharing school assignments, and we had never been added to it!
Our four school-aged children follow four different systems for managing their distance learning, and keeping up with it all entails constantly monitoring 20 separate Viber chats. I guess I should be thankful that at least all of their teachers chose to use the same messaging app! While I encouraged each child to be independent in this process, I learned the hard way that I had to double-check their progress multiple times per day, or else they would miss important announcements and end up with late assignments or grades of “incomplete.” The problem was compounded by the fact that we had to provide each child with some sort of device to attend his online lectures (which happened on four different platforms, one of which was YouTube), and they were very likely to get distracted and start surfing YouTube or gaming instead of doing school! So I had to constantly circulate from one child to the next, not only helping each understand difficult concepts, but also helping each stay on track—and off of YouTube, Brawl Stars, and Minecraft!
In the midst of all that, I also had to make sure they were keeping up with the day’s schedule of online lectures. At first I tried to trust it all to memory, but after several kids missed online classes because I was distracted helping a different child at that time, I learned to set alarms on my phone. I eventually had eighteen of them, all school related, all employing the loudest, most obnoxious sound I could find on my iPhone, so that no matter where I was in the apartment when the alarm rang, we would all hear it and know that it was time for someone to do something important. (The sound I chose was “Old Phone,” if you’re interested. It’s extremely effective at cutting through all other sounds.)
There was a short period of time—two months—when everyone was in school, and I just had our two youngest kids home with me all day. Those two months were a wonderful breather. Taking care of two preschool kids full time actually felt like a vacation! Then the government imposed a new lockdown, and all the kids were back at home doing distance learning again.
Our housing situation had changed since the first lockdown, and now our family of eight and our dog were living in a 2-bedroom apartment, and it was even more challenging to set up study areas for the four boys who were in school and find ways to keep the two little boys occupied in ways that wouldn’t distract their older brothers. And, of course, we still had to monitor everyone, teach them as needed, and help them complete assignments. Besides that, the cooking, cleaning, and laundry still had to happen each day.
My days started early and ended late, and I felt like I was in constant motion. People tell me I always seem calm, but I felt anything but. Instead, I felt scattered, agitated, beset, and harassed. The harassment came almost entirely from my own mind, because I was constantly criticizing myself for not having it more together, for not being able to work out a system that would make our lives flow peacefully and smoothly. Instead we had often grumpy kids, frustrated parents, haphazard mealtimes—and piles of school books, notebooks, and paper littering almost every horizontal surface in our small apartment.
And then one day, while monitoring the parent chat groups for our kids’ classes, I came across a discussion about how some parents were upset with how little instruction the 2nd-grade teacher was providing, making it difficult for the kids to learn the material. After several parents had shared their feelings, one mom chimed in with a smug, “I make the time to sit with my child and help her.” The implication was that if other parents would just follow her perfect example, they wouldn’t be having a hard time.
Suddenly, unbidden, an image appeared in my mind. I saw this mom and an angelic little girl sitting side by side at a cleared table in a pristine apartment. There was no clutter from other members of the family, no confusion from younger kids. It was just her perfect self and her perfect child in her perfect environment…and the ludicrous contrast with my reality made me laugh! And then I realized that if any of the moms in these chat groups were to try to walk a day in my shoes, chances were…
…her skull would explode.
I realized that I was under extraordinary demands, and I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. If it felt hard, that’s because it was, and if I felt like I wasn’t doing a perfect job, that was completely understandable and perfectly okay.
It might not seem like much of an epiphany, but it had a profound effect on my outlook and sense of well-being. Nothing changed externally. Our days were still insanely busy and moderately chaotic, but I felt a novel sense of space and contentment in the midst of it all. Dare I say, I felt almost serene?
Now, as COVID cases are again rising in Ukraine and we gear up for yet another lockdown, I’m not worried about how we will cope. We’ll do our best, as we always have. And if our best isn’t perfect? Well, that’s perfectly okay.
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