My heart first started to break one night last week when my 8-year-old son had a sobbing meltdown in the bath because kids at school were saying they had the coronavirus and he didn’t know whether or not they were telling the truth.
The coronavirus, he told me, was scarier than the time he’d had an accident at summer camp and had to be rushed to the hospital.
My son and I live in New York City, a hot spot in the COVID-19 outbreak spreading around the world. As of this week, the largest school system in the nation, serving 1.1 million students, has shut down. All nightclubs, movie theaters and concert venues were required to have closed their doors by Monday night. Bars and restaurants not shuttering will move to takeout and delivery service only. Citizens are being urged to avoid public transportation unless they have essential job functions, such as health care workers or first responders.
It’s unprecedented and surreal to witness the city locking itself down, and that’s if you’re an adult observing the rapid-fire changes. One can only imagine what it feels like to children, many of whom had no forewarning that this was coming and the younger of whom have little capacity to process and comprehend it.
Kids are like tiny sponges for adult emotions ― the tension and worry of their caregivers are as unsettling as the sudden collapse of the structures they have always known. A sensitive kid in the best of times, my kid is currently a bundle of what we in our house call “big feelings.”
I am one of the lucky ones who is able to do my job remotely, which I am doing while supervising my child whenever his dad, with whom I share joint custody, has to work at his job on the front lines of a grocery store. That means when my son and I are together, I’m on my own in trying to skirt the fine line between keeping him safe and scaring the ever-loving crap out of him. And I’m the only one wincing as I watch him adapt to this new reality.
For instance, last night at bath time, in imitation of Mom’s continual Lysol-wiping of surfaces, my son grabbed a plain baby wipe and attempted to clean the handle of the tub. Another time, we ran into a young friend during our daily walk through the sparsely populated park, and my son matter-of-factly explained: “We can’t have any physical contact because of the coronavirus.”
“The heartbreaking moments come regularly now, and threaten to puncture the false calm I’m attempting to project for him.”
The heartbreaking moments come regularly now, and threaten to puncture the false calm I’m attempting to project for him — like keeping him away from his friends, when kids naturally want to wriggle together like puppies, hug and high-five and hold hands.
Like the panic that seized my heart when he attempted to leap down the stairs this morning, because the last thing we need right now is a visit to a potentially overcrowded emergency room. Like the fact that he keeps saying he wants to go to school, despite being the kind of kid who would normally be overjoyed to miss school, because I know he just wants everything to feel safe and normal. Like when his dad wiped something off his face near his eyes and he indignantly yelled, “Germs!” And like the fact that he keeps asking me everyone’s ages, because he knows older people are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
All of this hurts.
It hurts that he’s pressed up against me right now watching cartoons while I type when he should be learning something, because I can’t work from home and home-school a third grader at the same time.
I asked other parents on Twitter about the moments with their kids that have been getting to them. For one, it was her 5-year-old crying and asking when he can visit his grandparents again. For another, it was breaking the news to her young twins that their birthday party had to be postponed. One has kids who put their stuffed animals on “lockdown” so “they don’t get sick.” And one mom who has been in lockdown for weeks in Italy said it’s when her 19-month-old daughter brings her her little shoes because she wants to go out.
On Monday, our first proper day of work from home together, my son was restless and bored, begging me to take him outside. When we went out and he realized that the world had effectively come to a standstill, that nothing was going on outside either, he deflated in front of me. After a few minutes on his bike, he asked to go back home. Again, something inside me crumpled.
There are so many questions parents have during this uncertain time: Will my family be safe? What effect is all this trauma and anxiety going to have on our children’s developing minds? And just how the hell are those of us working from home supposed to do so with our bored, cooped-up offspring underfoot?
But also, how do we handle seeing our children afraid and experiencing other difficult emotions? How do we weather the heartbreak of seeing our children lose the things of childhood, including their faith in a steady and certain world?
Even as an adult, it’s difficult to know how to make sense of and handle the current events that have changed everything overnight. Watching my child navigate the task is only exacerbating my grief.
This is just the beginning of a potentially long haul, and I know he will get used to new rules and routines. (“Now, we wash our hands every time we enter the house.” “Now, we never hug our friends.”) But I hate that he has to ― that I am training him to follow guidelines set by uncertainty and fear.
It is a privilege too, I know, to have children who are just discovering fear ― a privilege not shared by parents in many parts of the world.
“Despite the pain, there are uplifting moments, too, and lessons to be learned about how we care for each other and the world.”
Despite the pain, there are uplifting moments, too, and lessons to be learned about how we care for each other and the world.
My son, for instance, has been giving impassioned speeches in the toilet paper aisle of our local store about taking only what we need in order to care for our friends and neighbors, inspiring smiles and interactions from the others gazing at the empty rack of Charmin. When I asked him what he wanted to do last weekend, he said we should buy hand sanitizer (good luck finding it, kid) and then hand it out to people who need it.
I try to remind him that for all the toilet paper hoarders, there are people like the young guy in our apartment complex who put up a sign offering to run errands for anyone who is unable to leave the building, a riff on “looking for the helpers.” Together, we wipe down the front door handles and common areas of our building to help everyone stay healthy. I remind him that we are all working together now to keep the most vulnerable among us safe.
It seems clear that our children will be forever changed by the remarkable events of the coming days and weeks. We can only hope that if we remain strong and steady, at least a few of those changes will be for the better.