Like so many of us, when I found out my kids would not return to school this year in the way we’ve known, I was filled with so many different emotions. Fear, worry, relief — all of these filled me with a weird mix of adrenaline and nesting. I prepared our home, stocked up on flour, rainbow sprinkles and ice cream, snacks, and chips. We were prepared with non-perishables and we were grateful, my wife and I, to have our jobs.
As the school year took hold, we struggled to figure out Google Classroom, navigate Google Meet for my kids’ in-class sessions, and figure out how to have P.E. in our dining room — the same place they did their math, ate their lunch and dinner, and the only space I had to use as my office.
Like many of you, I became their teacher, avoiding 9th-grade Algebra (just like I did when I was in 9th grade), but needing to dabble in it for the sake of my son’s academic future. After getting him logged into his first-period class, I then had to become my twin daughters’ kindergarten teacher and by 9 am, I was tired too. But that’s when I began my workday as the director of programs for a heart health nonprofit.
We chose the hybrid option for our kids, two days (Monday and Tuesday) when all three would be in-person with their respective teachers, and home with me Wednesday through Friday. I never thought we would be here, in this place where I am constantly navigating, multi-tasking, shifting meetings, forgetting appointments, lagging in my email response time, and constantly feeling like I have to always play catch up, or be somewhere, or feed someone, or take care of the laundry. And then my son asked me if he could get a job and when he’d be able to drive our car. I decided after he asked me those questions out of the blue, that it was time to reclaim my kids’ learning and teach them as I preferred to learn: outside of the box.
I took up baking while home during the pandemic. It was always something I didn’t think I could do, something I praised other mom friends of mine for, devouring whatever delicious baked goods they brought into the office: zucchini bread loaves to walnut chocolate chip cookies. But with so much time on my hands, and the fear I had of additives in my kids’ food (and since I was also the cafeteria lady now), I began to make loaves. I followed Mark Bittman’s recipe, purchased myself a dutch oven, and got to work. After the first loaf, my kids began to ask for bread nearly every week. And then I decided to teach them what they could not learn in school — how to cook.
I’d never been that kind of mom — to allow my kids the freedom to go into the kitchen and make whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. But life during the pandemic wasn’t normal life, so I eased up on my do’s and don’ts — cooking was one of them. My daughters, age 5, loved to measure out the flour and pour in the ingredients; the excitement they carried with them until they watched and waited for the bread to be ready filled me with such joy. They could not bake bread at school, but they could learn at home. So, we did.
At some point, I remember putting myself into time out because I needed a break. I screamed downstairs to my kids as I went upstairs, “I am going away … for a while … to my room. I need a break, like a time-out.” I went to my room, had a baby tantrum, and then returned to my job as teacher-chef-referee-mom and explained to my kids what happened. They needed this social and emotional learning lesson too. I could not pretend that I was fine seven days a week because most days, I was not fine. I needed to find some peace within at some point during each day to be able to make it through; after all, this was unchartered territory for all of us. That was a moment in time I could slow down and sit down and explain to my kids that it was okay for us to admit that we were not okay — including moms — and that is a lesson they could not have ever learned while in school.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leader in social and emotional learning, says that adults can support the growth of kids’ social and emotional learning (SEL) in the following ways during the pandemic: provide consistency in daily routines to foster a sense of safety and predictability, listen to young people, support young people in building or maintaining a sense of community and connection, and incorporate social and emotional skill-building into learning. We talk a lot about feelings in our house, and maintaining a routine is something I also needed for myself.
How this all changed for us during the pandemic is that my kids were home more, so their routines included more chores and more help around the house. Of course, it was met with groans and complaints, but in seeing the alternative — piled up dishes in the sink, no spoon for their cereal, or the fact that their favorite pants were dirty — they learned the importance of helping their moms out more.
My teenage son’s room is the “cleanest” when his door is closed. We are still working to help him understand that clean laundry is important, that the garbage is meant to be in the trash bin and not on the floor, and that food is not allowed in his room. He’s also learned about the importance of maintaining one’s home. When school was out in the spring, he painted our fence in the backyard and did tons of yard work. We paid him for his hard work and then we took him to open a bank account after the summer concluded. We talked about saving and why it is important for him. We had him write his name in cursive as often as we could, something they no longer teach in school.
And as we push ahead, continuing to teach our kids lessons that cannot be learned in school: how to set the table for dinner, what to do when a pipe in the basement bursts because too many people are home, or how to balance a checkbook. This summer, we planted tomatoes and peppers, we planted flowers, and remodeled our landscape design in our backyard — these activities taught my kids about failure, about starting over again, and how that is okay. I discovered that hiring someone to do our yard work is better than making it a family affair. And yet I am already cooking up a healthy list of new ideas for my kids to learn while they are outside of their school buildings.
What I am enjoying the most about being home, especially when the weather was better, is how much time my kids spent outside. They got to negotiate interactions with our 95-year-old neighbor who told them to stay off of her grass, to search for bugs and use their imaginations; their dramatic play game is strong.
Life will never go back to what we knew as our normal, but the lessons our kids are taking away from all this — the ones that only we can teach them — will be with them forever.
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