What I've Learned After 5 Weeks Of Quarantine (And Counting)

by Jenna Pallio
Originally Published: 
What I've Learned After 5 Weeks Of Quarantine (And Counting)
Courtesy of Jenna Pallio

Well, here we are sneaking up on week six at home with our family of four. As family and friends back in New York are in the beginning weeks of quarantined life, we are in full government mandated lockdown here in Italy. The restrictions now are as tight as ever, and with justified reason. No more jogs, no more bike rides, no walking to the market to get a couple of things because I need a few minutes away. There is a 5000 Euro fine for breaking restrictions. The only air we get is time on our balconies, for which we are extremely grateful. We are home and it looks like we aren’t leaving anytime soon.

My husband goes out to get us essentials once a week wearing a mask, and basically strips down at the door upon return, then showers immediately after putting his clothes in the washing machine. My doorman kicks my packages to me from a distance. The kids aren’t even asking to go out anymore. The music on the neighboring balconies continues, but we aren’t running out there at six o’clock every night with our tambourine … some nights we just don’t participate at all. The rainbow paintings hung from the balconies are starting to fade, quite literally and figuratively. But we are still here, safe, healthy, and loved. And that’s what I tell myself every single day, even as the news outside worsens.

Maybe the silver linings aren’t as slam-bangin’ bright as they were before, but they are still there, as well as some realizations I’ve come to as this situation intensifies. My friends and family both here and abroad have been a force — my husband, a total rock star. And in all of this, I’m most thankful to my kids — my own girls as well as the amazing children I teach. They are the ones that are keeping me strong, positive, and focused.

For my own girls, my husband and I are their absolute world right now. From sun up to sun down, all they see and hear (besides YouTube) is us. They hear our words, perceive our tones, and watch our faces. I try to keep that at the forefront of my thoughts throughout every single day of this experience. This is not to say I don’t lose my you-know-what sometimes.

I’m not a parenting guru, health expert or crisis manager — far from it. I’m just getting through this like all of you amazing people out there, only with a couple more weeks (and restrictions) under my belt than some. This is an account of our experience with some things we have been doing, discovering, and making up as we go that are helping. They are especially geared to those parents who have suddenly found themselves working from home with young children. Again, this might not work for you and your journey. You will find your own path regardless — you may already have — but this is just some practical and emotional support for anyone who needs it.

Do your best, but do what you can.

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This one is hard for you over-achievers. If you don’t do every single thing on your kids’ daily school program, really it’s okay. Between math bonds and sight (or are they snap?) words and special subjects, we don’t get it all in some days. We are juggling two parents working from home and navigating a kindergarten curriculum while trying to avoid melting our three-year-old’s brain with screen time. Plus meals, cleaning, movement breaks, and actually having some fun with our kids. Some days it all works and I feel like my name should be blasted in flashing lights, and other days are a hot (and I mean flaming hot) mess. Emotions fluctuate on a normal day, in normal life. It only makes sense for them to be magnified in this petri dish we call home. At the end of the day, I try to remember to take my own advice and be easy on myself.

Find new ways to teach your kids the “intangibles” they aren’t getting from distance learning.

Besides all the usual subjects like reading, writing and science, school teaches your kids learn one of life’s most valuable lessons: getting along with others and being a member of society. Raising your hand, waiting your turn, playing a game fairly. These are some things to try and focus on at home. We started a question game at mealtime where each person gets a turn to ask a question (top pick: What’s your favorite animal?) and then the others raise their hand and wait to be called on. It’s a fun way to spark conversations and practice polite behavior. Board games are great for taking turns, and picking “helpers” for daily tasks like setting the table helps create a sense of community at home.

Have fun with food.

Okay, this is not where I give you the next great recipe for kid-friendly kale balls. Cooking has never really been my shtick. Usually the first word in my online recipe search is “easy.” What I can share is in terms of meal sustainability. Making three meals a day for a family is a lot, so we try to make meals with decent leftovers. The last thing we want in these times is wasted food.

Trips to the grocery used to be something my husband enjoyed doing with the kids. But now with the stress of up to two-hour lines, limited food, and running the risk of getting sick, our shopping lists are planned for “recyclable” meals and fewer trips to the store. With kids I find the trick is disguise. I hated leftover night as a kid but I just loved Friday night hors d’oeuvres which included last Saturday’s pizza cut up into little squares with toothpicks. Yeah, Mom! We are getting creative with this, and it’s actually kind of fun. Turning taco meat into a pot pie, or making cheesy rice balls out of a leftover side dish. When in doubt, I follow two rules of thumb: throw some eggs in it and call it a frittata, or chop it up and add some rice and you’ve got a “bowl.” In our meal planning, we are also trying to make some fun food traditions like taco night or pizza night, which gives us all something to look forward to.

Go easy on the purging.

Now that you’ve got plenty of time in your quite possibly overly-cluttered home, you may be thinking it’s the perfect time to purge. Here’s my advice, and not just because I don’t mind mess (points for a patient partner here). You can “Marie Kondo” the crap out of your own stuff, but be easy when it comes to your kids’. Of course, if it’s their initiative, knock yourselves out — but I would stay away from clearing out their stuff for your own peace of mind. Their worlds have been turned upside down, and their belongings are all the more significant right now. Throwing away their things, or even changing the setup of their room, as tempting as it is, might not be the best call at this point in time. Let them hold onto any consistency they have, even if it’s that crappy plastic fast-food toy. Another consideration is that my kids are playing with toys they never even knew they had these days. Let them discover and rediscover what they already have. Lessons in gratitude abound during this time.

Add in some scream time.

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Nope, that’s not a typo. This idea was given to me by a friend who reminded me that screaming is a release. I’m not going to lie … tensions get high at home, and they usually peak at about 4:30 over here. That’s the time of day when just about everyone’s patient voice and kind words have up and left the building. Gather in a room and have a two-minute scream off. You can blast music to muffle your screams … you know, horror film style. As apartment residents, we have transitioned from blatant free range screaming to screaming an actual song (thank you, Idina Menzel, for all those belting-out-lyric opportunities).

Keep asking: “What do you want to do this weekend?”

Our usual Friday night or Saturday morning question used to be just that. Well, now the answer is pretty obvious. I felt that in the first weeks of quarantine I was so frantically trying to get everything done during the week, I was pretty overwhelmed with all the free time we had on the weekend with no place to go. Even though you may be following a workweek schedule, the days will start to equalize. Save some of those more fun school projects so you can have some organized activity for your child during the weekend. And save a non-urgent work project (if there is one) for yourself to do as well. I would normally never even think about touching a work project during my precious weekend. But with these long days, it’s nice to have a couple of hours of a different type of purposeful work.

Embrace the power of the simple things … like a shower.

Remember when you had a newborn and you relished in the most mundane things to get some alone time? I never did so many freakin’ dishes in my life. Well, take a stroll down memory lane and find joy in the simplest moments … alone. My latest jam is a long, hot shower (door locked, ’90s R&B on). In the “real world,” I would rush through my morning shower with a zillion things on my mind and I had more tricks for not washing my hair than I could count. Now there is time to moisturize, shave, sing, deep condition and repeat. Enjoy that time … it is meaningful and necessary for your well-being. PS — I smell like a million bucks today.

Throw a little goofiness into your daily routines.

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Remember Peewee’s Playhouse? The secret word of the day? Every episode featured a “word of the day” personally handed to Peewee by a super cool robot named Conky. Any time somebody said the word … AAAHHHHH!… everyone would scream! Yay, more screaming! In our house we take turns picking the secret word (today’s is TV, so you can imagine the noise level here) and it is a lot of fun. You can also use it as a sneaky opportunity to spotlight something your partner says that really annoys you. Today’s word of the day is “whatever.” AAAHHHHHH! We’ve gotten into the habit of writing the secret word and daily jobs on a chalkboard every morning, and the kids really look forward to it. Many younger kids are used to a daily greeting or a welcome board when they enter their class in the morning, so it’s a nice way to start their day at home.

Make art … it helps, it heals, and it’s usually pretty quiet.

At this point you might have had enough of Pinterest DIY crafts with your kids. I’m not here to suggest that. Plus, I’m artsy, not crafty. Art is my profession, so I am fully biased, but I really do believe in the importance of creating, especially for a kid and especially during troubled times. That doesn’t mean you have to drive yourself nuts teaching them how to make an origami unicorn. Keep it simple: just give them the tools and the rules. A large white paper, a watercolor set, some paper towels and maybe some masking tape. Remind them of how to take care of materials if they need it (keep those colors clean) and let them create. My inbox gets fuller every day with student artwork. I’ve actually seen an increase in participation since we began online learning. It’s not because I’m some superstar art teacher, it’s because they need it. It’s a release. It makes them feel good.

While you are “sheltering in place,” shelter your kids a bit too.

I’m the first one to embrace the teachable moments in life. My older daughter and I have had talks about poverty, death, and racism, all sparked by real moments. But this is a scary time — the scariest part being that we don’t know what’s next, or when things will get better. None of the news is good as I am writing these words. Do your children really need to know every single thing?

We know people who have the virus, we know people who are in the hospital. Thankfully we have yet to be touched by a death. My children do not need to know every detail of the situation … they are going through enough. What they do know is that a lot of people are sick outside, and we are going to stay home until everyone is better. If you are directly affected by the virus, of course, don’t sweep it under the rug and pretend it’s all good. And you certainly don’t need to put on your happy face all day every day. But remember, you really are their world. Maybe I’m at fault for protecting mine too much. The other morning my five-year-old daughter overheard me reminding my husband to wear a mask to the grocery store. She ran into her room, dug through her costume box and pulled out her favorite koala animal mask. It warmed and broke our hearts at the same time.

Teach yourself to find some positives.

In all of this madness, there are positives to embrace, those ridiculously hilarious moments specific only to this particular moment in time. This week’s winner was accidentally video bombing my husband’s very important work conference wearing a full sequined silver gown and matching tiara. (I mean, when your kids ask to dress up and have a dance party midday, you say yes.) There are also domestic positives like less laundry (been rockin’ my Brooklyn shirt for about four days now) and discovering that trash bags taped to your couch cushions make sweet slides when propped correctly. But there are also those deeper realizations, the ones that really make you take stock of what you have in front of you and what a deep and meaningful learning experience this actually can be if you let it.

Seize the opportunity to observe your kid’s class.

Stepping into my daughter’s curriculum and watching how she learns has blown my mind. Her teacher is an amazing human being who creates thoughtful and meaningful lessons and is so kind and supportive. I think I get equally excited as my daughter to hear Ms. B’s comments on her work. Yes! She noticed how you used your letter sounds in your fairy story! And this is all online. The effort and dedication that goes into all what these classroom teachers do on a regular day, complete with scraped knees and friendship dramas, is beyond me.

Remember: Together but equal.

My husband and I couldn’t have more opposite lines of work: an art teacher and an accountant. Seeing over 100 kids a day, on my feet constantly and home by 5 pm, stained in paint — versus him behind his computer all day, on the phone or in meetings, and getting home in time to kiss his kids goodnight. The comparisons do arise of whose job is more exhausting, as well as whose takes priority (aka, when the kids are sick). It’s only natural to idealize someone else’s situation, especially after a long hard day at your own place of work. But now our home is a communal workspace, and our office hours are the same. There are occupational tasks, but those are only part of the larger workflow of our day. We need to coordinate and work together to get our things done and tend to the needs of our larger group, all in a day’s work. We feel more like equals — like co-workers in a completely psychotic office — but still there’s something about it that feels really good.

Find emotional outlets in the strangest of places.

So, today I lost it. Like really, lost it. Somewhere in between math worksheets and Kidz Bop dance videos, I saw red. And it was that fire no deep breath or downward dog could soothe. I had the sense to remove myself from the situation and hole myself up in the kitchen. I took my aggressions out on a bag of potatoes that were nearing expiration. I scrubbed them … grrrrr. I peeled them, not with a peeler but with a knife (don’t worry, no one gets hurt). I started to slow down: carefully shaving, cutting away the bruises, slicing away my agitation with every movement until I had the most perfectly cut potatoes this side of the Atlantic. By the time lunch was ready, I could breathe, engage, and even smile. When you don’t have the resource outlets you have gotten accustomed to like the gym or a night out with friends, you discover them in places you never knew you would … like a sack of potatoes.

Hug it out … all of it.

The gratitude I have for being quarantined with other people (jackpot: that it’s my family who I adore) is quite immense. We’ve always been quite affectionate, but the hugs are more often and more profound, in these last weeks especially. I’m hugging my girls, but also my friends, my students, my colleagues, my family in New York. I’m hugging my husband but also those brave people out there saving lives and those many other ones losing their lives who can’t hold anyone as they leave this earth. Hugging the pain, hugging the hurt, hugging the confusion and the uncertainty of all of this. And hugging myself … ‘cause man we all could use a hug right about now.

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