When it comes to pandemic parenting, hugs trump temper tantrums

OPINION: COVID-19 has brought uncertainty and terror for families. It’s my kids who keep me focused even when I’m feeling immense despair
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Dec 07, 2020
Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Public School was closed after multiple students and staff tested positive. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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During Uganda’s civil war in the late ’70s, my father used to take me with him as he crossed into Kenya. I was around five. He would sneak over the border to find work. I have flashes of sleeping on the forest floor and of my father carrying me on his shoulders when I became tired.

A few years ago, he told me that it had been safer to travel with me. At the time, I hadn’t understood — because, from my point of view, he was endangering my life by having me with him. We would travel in the night to avoid the soldiers. I’ve come to understand what he meant only over these past few months of living through a pandemic while trying to raise two young children. I suspect that he felt safer having me with him because, even in conflict, I suppose there are codes that say you shouldn’t harm someone with a child if you can avoid it. The other part I’ve come to realize is that having me with him also grounded him, because I was an anchor. If I hadn’t been there, he might have given up.

Like most parents, I’ve been on autopilot since the pandemic began. But, as I was for my dad, my children have served as a rudder and kept me focused even when I’ve felt immense despair. Even on the grimmest of days, I recognize that my life is no longer mine — but theirs.

It wasn’t until last week that the full impact of the pandemic hit me: I received a call from my kids’ school. There was another COVID-19 case in my son’s classroom. I cried and cried and felt terror for the first time.

In a recent op-ed for the Toronto Sun, Education Minister Stephen Lecce wrote: “As we counter the second wave, the Chief Medical Officer of Health and leading doctors in this country have been clear: schools remain safe. In fact, the overwhelming consensus is that COVID-19 is largely transmitted in the community, not in schools — proof positive that our layers of protection are helping to stop the spread. Even still, we added another layer of protection by launching targeted asymptomatic testing in high-risk schools.”

That targeted voluntary approach led to the closure of Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Public School after 26 students and staff tested positive and three teachers refused to work, citing an “unsafe work environment.” Another school in the area closed over the weekend.

Since the initial lockdown in March, my family has been following public-health recommendations. Yet since schools have reopened, we’ve found ourselves in a bubble so big, it’s difficult to quantify. If schools are safe, why was this the second case of COVID-19 in my son’s school since September? When he started school, his class was around 17 students; since then, it’s almost doubled in size to nearly 30 students. The first case happened about a week after his class had been collapsed with another. This second case happened a week or so after an additional student was added.

It makes me furious that, through no fault of their own, school boards are not able to follow the recommendation of health officials: a classroom size of 15 students. Yes, I have the option to switch my children to remote learning , but do I really? I’m not a teacher — remote learning needs parents’ participation — and I have to work to support my family. I also feel great despair that parents and teachers must accept this lack of physical distancing as a condition of in-person education.

I understand that the minister — who also happens to be my boss, as TVO is a part of the Ministry of Education — must make fiscal decisions. As a parent, I agree with the minister that schools should stay open. But having my children in an environment where physical-distancing recommendations are dismissed, and where the solution is to open windows during the coldest months of the school year, is helping drive the anxiety of both parents and students.

When my son came home last week, he broke down in tears. He was upset that, of the three cases in his school, two had been in his class. Once more, he would be away from his friends. His relationships have already been strained and limited. My son told me that, last year, he was able to make friends from other classes — now he can’t. He also told me that he was tired of wearing a mask all day and not being able to get up in class. All day long, his parents and teachers tell him what he isn’t supposed to do. He “hates COVID and wishes it had never happened.” In our house, we don’t use the word “hate,” but I told him that I understood and that I felt the same way: kids are over it, and parents are over it. But we must still find a way to move forward.

When policy makers enact public guidelines, they’re guided by data and statistics. We’ve heard throughout the pandemic that the virus has a negligible impact on children; this has been used to justify the decisions made about schools. We’ve applauded our children for being resilient and adaptable.

But speak to any parent, and the stories they tell you will have a common theme: We don’t see our children as statistics or data. We would do anything and everything to keep them safe.

We are the ones who coax them into going to school and tell them it is safe. We are the ones who teach them over and over how to sanitize and keep their hands clean. (As most parents know, teaching your children not to touch everything can be a lesson in futility.)

And we are the ones who talk them down from the temper tantrums that shake our homes. We are the ones who stay up at night worrying if we hear a cough or sniffles — convinced that this is it. The day when our lives shift, perhaps never to return to normal.

That meme of the dog in the burning room with a speech bubble that says “this is fine” captures what parenting during the pandemic has been like. In order to function for the day —working from home and/or homeschooling, lining up for another COVID-19 test, making a trip to the grocery store — you need to disassociate from the reality that’s happening; otherwise, you might fall to your knees unable to function because you no longer have control.

This week, my son will learn remotely. I marvel at the ability of his teacher to bend and pivot while also parenting his own children — to be available not only for his students but also for their anxious and stressed-out parents. The load is heavier for parents with disabled children; with our villages even smaller, the support from community is all but erased.

As the holidays approach, families that coparent face additional difficulties, as they have to navigate the pandemic from two homes. My family has been lucky: we’ve been able to work from home. I recognize that parents who are also essential workers are shouldering much more than many of us.

I wonder how parents of teenagers or young adults are coping. Their children are more aware of what’s happening, and this might leave a bigger impression on them than it will on my seven-year-old and nine-year-old. What do their kids think when they see adults protesting mask wearing and hear of the unnecessary deaths in long-term-care homes? How will they come to see the world and their place in it as young adults? How will this affect them long-term?

This winter will challenge all of us. But all the temper tantrums and the worry fade away when I hug my children; I know that kind of connection is missing right now for so many of us.

So I take a note from my dad — from the lessons he failed to learn and the ones I hope to. If the parents are okay, the kids will be, too.

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