When the pandemic began and we were forced to retreat to our homes I knew it was going to be tough on my kids. Both, I should probably admit, were grossly over-scheduled with few if any of what we then called, “free days.” They were used to being busy. Very busy.
Pre-Covid, my nine-year-old was on a synchronized skating team that required many hours of practice several times a week and my eleven-year-old played every extracurricular sport offered to him. Both kids participated in a local children’s theater, dance classes, and piano lessons.
I’m not going to lie, it was all a bit much. I was exhausted. When everything shut down I was one of the ones who retreated with a quiet sense of relief. Finally, I thought, we have some time to just relax.
And relax, we did. In those first few months we engaged in all sorts of fun and relaxing activities. We painted bird houses, made marble runs out of cardboard, built and decorated shoebox dollhouses. The kids were finally able to utilize the pool we’d built two years earlier, and my son caught up on a back log of unfinished Kiwi Crates and Lego STEM projects. I don’t even remember how many 1000 piece puzzles we completed together, but suffice to say, it was a lot.
If it felt claustrophobic in our home, we went for walks or spent a few hours at the beach. My mother sent a child-centric cookbook and the kids took up baking. Piano and dance classes moved online. And so did school. In a lot of ways, our lives got easier after the shut down. We were still doing most of the things they loved, just alone and at home. Not clocking four plus hours a day schlepping around in LA traffic wasn’t anything to complain about.
There was a point where I wondered if I’d even want to go back to the way things were before.
But then, many months later, something changed.
My daughter easily adapted to hours long zoom playdates and found ways to entertain herself with creative DIY projects, but my son, the eleven year old, started to spend more and more time watching tv and playing on his iPad. Before Covid, we were pretty strict about screen time, but now, that seemed unreasonable.
I let it slide until he also stopped getting dressed during the day, opting instead to stay in his pjs. Before I knew it, unless there was something specific that he knew we had to do, he stopped getting out of bed, too. Except of course, if it was to move to the couch.
Even though it is my nature to worry about everything, I tried to take it in stride. By the time things started to seem dire, it was, after all, December, and cold outside. I didn’t really feel like getting dressed either — but on top of these changes something else was happening. My sweet, sunny boy was moody and withdrawn, and when I tried to reach out, his responses were uncharacteristically nasty.
I wish I could say that presented with these challenges I’d behaved as my best self, but the truth is, trying to make every day magical while the world is falling apart with no time for one’s self is depleting and my son’s lashing out made me feel unappreciated and disrespected. When he yelled, I yelled back.
It culminated one afternoon after we’d argued over the iPad. I was angrily scrubbing dishes at the sink when he crept into the kitchen.
“Mom?” he whispered, his shoulders shaking.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, “What’s happened?”
“I don’t know,” he wailed, falling into my arms. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I feel upset all the time and like this is never going to end, and I don’t want to do anything. It makes me feel like I’m— ”
He pulled away from me and swirled his hands in front of his chest as if conjuring his broken heart so that I could help him make sense of it.
“— sick inside.”
They say that children reflect who you are and how you live and it’s true. No matter how hard I try to model something different, my own proclivity for anxiety and depression is coded in my son as is my outsized sensitivity to events in the outer world, and this moment where all of his big emotions got the better of him paralyzed me. It was a feeling I understood and it broke me to see him suffering precisely because I recognized it. As irrational as it sounds, this biological transference felt like a failure. I was devastated.
I knew I had to take it seriously.
That night, Wes and I sat in his bed and talked about what it means to be happy, and also how it’s okay sometimes to feel sad. We pinpointed certain things that make us feel better and others that seem, inexplicably, to make things worse. “Even though Covid makes us want to stay in bed all day and look at the internet,” I told him, “it never makes things better and almost always makes things worse.”
I also tried to impart that no matter how isolated he felt, many, many people — myself included — are struggling with how to live a full life during this pandemic and in no way was he to think there was anything wrong with the way he was feeling or that he was alone.
We talked about how our bodies need certain things to stay healthy and so do our minds and so do our hearts and how maybe we hadn’t been paying as much attention to those basic needs as we should have.
We determined this might include things like breathing more fresh air, reaching out to loved ones, and doing something that reminds us of what is most important in life; the fact that none of us can survive if we don’t take care of each other.
As we talked, I was struck by the sense that these were all things I needed to be reminded of as well.
That night I came up with, “The Plan,” a structure-based survival guide for living your best life during (and maybe even after) Covid.
Each day spend a minimum of thirty minutes:
*Reading a book.
*Writing or drawing in a journal.
*Being of service to someone else.
*Listening to or playing some form of music (dancing optional).
*Face-timing or Zooming with a friend or family member.
*Going outside to play, sit, or walk around in the fresh air.
In addition, spend a maximum of:
*Thirty minutes looking at or playing games alone on a device.
*Forty-five minutes playing Roblox or Minecraft with friends online.
*Two hours watching narrative-based tv shows or films
When I showed him, I was nervous about how Wes would react. I didn’t want him to think I was micromanaging his life or depriving him in anyway, but I guess that was short-sighted since he’d shown me the signs that he wanted help and was ready to receive it.
I told him we could follow the plan together.
His reaction was a counterbalance to the earlier reflection of my anxious self. This time what I saw was the fruit of all I’ve wanted to give him; a willingness to learn and a desire to be better.
“I can live with this,” he said. “Let’s try it.”