This Is Not A Parenting-In-A-Pandemic Advice ColumnBloombergQuintOpinion
“She’s doing a chemistry experiment in the kitchen right now. I’m hoping she doesn’t blow up the house,” says D about her teenage daughter. “I helped her organise a list of 15 ingredients like salt, vinegar, chilli powder… I said please clean the kitchen after, turn the gas off, don’t burn anything.” D is taking a break from a work deadline to chat with me on a Sunday. “I’m hiding in my computer now,” she says. “I really don’t want to deal with this.” We cackle loudly in empathy and perfect understanding of each other’s lives.
This is not a parenting-in-a-pandemic advice column; think of it as a stock-taking exercise and a half-yearly reminder that you’re not alone. It’s been six months since a cruel and sudden lockdown and virus turned an already faltering Indian economy inside out and left millions jobless and hungry. Privileged folk like us shouldn’t complain, I know – and I’m not. We hunkered down in our bubbles with our young children who could suddenly no longer go to school, meet their friends, or play any outdoor games. Online football for half a year, anyone?
From where I’m sitting, it looks like the 2019 summer holiday—that began in March—will stretch to envelop the entire academic year with as much ease as the slithery slime experiments creeping over everything in my house. So we are about halfway there.
A generation of school-going children, who at best spent a few hours every day with their parents, are now interacting 24/7. “If you do the math, before schools shut, we never spent more than 5-6 hours a day with our children,” says D.
She’s right. My daughter’s day began early with a spot of me-time, breakfast, and getting ready for school. She was gone by 7:15 am and returned at 4 pm or later, depending on her after-school activity schedule. Soon after she got home the evening routine began: bath, homework, dinner, and bedtime.
Now every day is Sunday.
“All my friends have a dog mama… If not a dog, how about a cat? Cats are easier.” My 10-year-old, a lonely-only, had a version of this conversation with me every single day, usually before my morning chai. Depending on her mood, the conversation could get teary. She tried cogent arguments (dogs build immunity, mama), shadow bombing me on Instagram from her grandmother’s account instructing, “Get her a dog”, changing my WhatsApp DP to an adorable image of her with a black puppy, and writing impassioned multi-page letters pleading her case. “I want dogs to have a happy life just like us. People throw shoes and sticks at them…”
About a fortnight ago, we sort of gave in and agreed to foster a brindle puppy with worried eyes and a broken foreleg. My child, who normally leans towards cliched western names, named her Kaveri. “I’ll be amazed if you let her go,” a friend messaged. “Don’t judge me when I do,” I replied. These days the house echoes with, “It’s your turn to take the puppy down…”
Getting a dog has been the number one go-to parenting strategy for many. D says they adopted an adult dog someone had abandoned on the street. “Everything you hold dear you give up on,” she says about how this time has made her rethink big beliefs like the idea that it’s cruel to constrain a dog to an apartment.
N, who has two sons, says her “brain pattern shifted” in the lockdown and she decided to get her older son a dog for his birthday, ignoring all cautioning voices. They adopted a rescue that had been abandoned in a cardboard box near a railway station. Her sons fell in love with the streetie, a Jack Russell lookalike, and named her Nala, because she struts around like a princess.
It feels good to connect with other moms because unlike the internet, they give you reassurance and renewed energy to deal with the effects of increased screen time, conflicts resulting from continuous parental instruction that begins with the word “don’t”, your child’s anxiety about Covid-19 and the fatigue of extra family time (the last applies more to mothers than their children). D points out that children’s agency over their lives has reduced even further in the pandemic. “Even if they want to talk to their friends they have to seek your permission before they pick up a device. There are no spontaneous conversations.”
In the words of a thoughtful friend, kids need little people. To be themselves.
The advice available on the Internet—such as the World Health Organisation’s Keep It Positive guidelines—is extremely banal. “Use positive words when telling your child what to do like ‘Please put your clothes away’ instead of ‘Don’t make a mess’, the WHO instructs on a poster. The WHO doesn’t say how to apply the rule if your child’s newfound coping mechanism involves sweetly replying, “Ya sure,” to everything, and then doing exactly what she pleases. The organisation should stick to data and projects related to access to primary healthcare.
S says her daughter, an only child, had two breakdowns where she wouldn’t stop sobbing. Finally, she revealed that she was crying for all the people who were dying. Now family members don’t discuss the daily death toll in front of her. They’ve also started waking up early to exercise and have instituted an evening game hour with grandparents. During this time, nobody is allowed to discuss work or talk rudely to anybody. “We have to be really conscious of our tone,” says S. I know she’s rolling her eyes even though we are talking on the phone but it’s working, she reports.
Their school counsellor told parents that how they reacted during this time would be their child’s first lesson in dealing with a crisis. “We’re having deep conversations about good times and bad times and how failure is part of the cycle of life. Conversations that we never would have had if there was no Covid,” S says.
N says they have Sunday family meetings that help realign everyone and understand what works and what doesn’t. “I tell them we need to coexist but do your own thing, don’t lean on each other too much,” she says. They discuss everything right down to who wants to eat what during the week because, as N, a designer and filmmaker, puts it, “I don’t want to spend my mental energy thinking about what they want to eat when I need to be thinking about my work and my designs.” When the silence of the lockdown got to her in April, she began playing the guitar for an hour every day. “It was like mediation,” she says. “A tool to make you feel good.”
Many parents say they are “going with the flow”. At first, I was convinced it’s a polite way of saying they were pushed off the waterfall into the rapids and, every once in a while, their heads bobbed out to allow them another gulp of air, just enough to survive. Now I think they know that eventually they’ll land on a beach where they can dry out under the warm sun, so they’re trying hard to enjoy the ride. This is not a parenting advice column, just a shoutout to fellow parents. I hear you.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.