Post 389.

I’m writing this on the first day of primary school, as I start the school year working and mothering from home. I started out the morning feeling like we were on top of the world’s crisis and able to ascend it like mountaineers on the Himalayas, and by midday was significantly humbled.

Even with practice from last term, and better ideas of how to organize Zi’s time and mine, it’s still demanding.

I now pack Zi a lunchkit so that I won’t be in the kitchen in the middle of work hours, and there’s a table in the living room with access to a computer and connectivity. It’s as enabling an arrangement as possible, which is why the stress I’m experiencing, despite all these privileges, is so important to acknowledge.

Losing my work space, and being unable to switch my mind fully to work, has unhinged my focus, productivity and ability to think. Half of my brain is minding child all day, and ten work hours are not as efficient, and yet are more tiring. I leave my desk earlier to spend more time with Zi because she needs more social interaction. She’s entering Junior 4, so her workload will increase, as will the time I’ll need to put to her homework and revision.

It’s been months since I wrote a column with the luxury of one uninterrupted hour, and so I get up earlier or stay up later to find some quiet. By December, my sentences may read like computer code.

Even with schedules carefully explained and daily chores outlined, one eye has to be on their roll-out. Did you drink enough of the water I packed? How much of the sandwich did you eat? I said to read for half an hour, wasn’t that just 15 minutes? This is how you did your chores? Without extracurricular activities, the hours stretch.

Unless children spend excess time on a device, time has to be filled. As every parent knows, too much quiet is highly suspect, suggesting some surreptitious activity, and little happens without parental supervision even while work simultaneously calls. Unless you are in a two-parent household, an unequal burden of care means hour-by-hour attention in two different directions. Even in two-parent households, many women will put in more care work, with impacts on their mental health, work capacity, other responsibilities and exhaustion.

Last term, Zi deeply missed time with other children, reminding me how much childhood is meant for social development, and outside physical play. I have to figure out how to manage our isolation, because this second time around will likely wear her down. Even if we create a bubble with a school friend, as parents looking out for our children’s well-being, how to ensure safety from risk?

And now that children over eight, in a private car with their parent, must be masked, even taking a drive has become claustrophobic.

All new realities with which children must discover how to cope. Beyond my walls are women who cannot work from home, and have nowhere to leave their children, with no plan from the State nor from employers. Working women with children with special needs. Women whose partners may be essential workers and who, therefore, cannot leave children with grandparents as they used to, because their family is now a risk. Women working from home, with more demanding child care responsibilities than mine, whose employers may not be understanding. Women without the quality of online teaching that Zi will get, who will have to work, care, teach, revise, and balance everyone’s needs at the same time. Women who are not working, whose children do not have internet and computer access, and those who may be living in violent conditions or with others whose behaviour is unsafe. For many of them, this was Day 1 too.

The majority of UWI students are women, and some of these mothers may be in my classes. As I prepare to teach, I’m thinking about Ziya’s context for learning, and adapting to theirs too. This term will be a daily learning experience of how to be more organised, care for families’ health, and stay sane.

I keep telling myself that none of us know how to do this well, or at all. It’s like regular parenting: mostly you improve because you’ve made mistakes.

On just Day 1 of this challenging school year, as a working mother, I’m recognising how much survival will require realistic expectations of ourselves and each other.

Post 383.

The school term finally ended, one like no other in our living memory. The experience our children had will connect them as a generation for the rest of their lives.

Ziya’s school taught classes every day, covering some math, English, Spanish, social studies, music and PE. The children learned a lot, both about distance and connectivity.

As a working mother, I was grateful. It’s challenging to work and parent simultaneously, and school provided a few well-organised hours of focus. I’d listen with one ear while the teacher chided the class for not knowing all the words to the anthem, reminded them not to eat at the computer, repeated the importance of learning to listen, and tried to instill all kinds of manners. With their voice present daily inside my home, I grew grateful for how much teachers contribute, freshly appreciating their daily commitment to filling gaps in our parenting. Teachers, like nurses, should be better paid than CEOs.

Meanwhile, soon after knocking water over her laptop and frying its electronics, Zi became computer-proficient. She could type, upload her assignments and check her own e-mail. Suddenly, she understood e-mail. I loved seeing her upskill even as I noted our own entanglement in the expanding digital divide.

There’s no doubt about it, computer and internet access are a privilege, and will deepen systemic class distinctions in exam results and school places. They will exacerbate unequal opportunity for children globally, which is why access to the internet is increasingly considered a human right. Our children are in a world so different from our own childhood.

One evening, when she was resisting a rule I had insisted on, Zi even threatened to put me out of the “Zoom meeting.” It was like a newspaper headline marking a historical moment. We were lying on her bed, not actually in a Zoom meeting, and I could only shake my head at post-covid19 lingo for punishment for giving trouble. Imagining the new vocabulary that will define school chatter and news-carrying in September makes me smile.

Zi loved dressing up in clothes she chose, attending class in shorts, eating breakfast leisurely, having lunches together, and being near to us all day. She missed her friends and wandering the hall in her school terribly, but when term opens, it will be clear that there was much we gained during this time.

Prior to schools closing, she was racing from school to extracurricular activities to her grandmother’s or her dad’s, and then home. It seemed we were always arriving back late from my work hours and hustling to bed, or getting home and spending the evening doing homework. The whole week felt like a rush. It was a joy and labour of love, but pace.

Being freed of traffic, experiencing school without stressful demands and the anxiety of tests, inventing ways to occupy herself on evenings, and simply staying in one place seemed to enable her to mature and mend. We cooked, gardened, took walks, and it genuinely felt like she exhaled. She just needed to come off the treadmill and its breakneck haste.

I began to think about the costs of our emphasis on achievement. Seeing her now, more loving, independent, settled and calm, I know her heart would not have grown as much at the speed she was functioning, with the rotation of activities she was doing, or with even the number of people she was interacting with on a weekly basis.

You have to know your child. Some need greater stillness and quiet, time between transitions from one place to the next, less pressure and fewer personalities, and the room they are given becomes filled with emotional growth.

I wonder how many children are like her, keeping up and even thriving, but with inner needs that our world undervalues or speeds past. I think about the children whose aggression would subside, whose silences would break open, and whose capacity to navigate difficult feelings would improve if they had to manage a little less for enough time, could fit into themselves, and, without fear of failure, slow down and breathe.

I’m in awe at how little I understood this, perhaps because there seemed simply no chance to stop until everything ground to a halt. I’m alarmed by the fact that I would have pressed her through, which at the same time would have held her back. What she lost in schoolwork, she found in her heart. After a term like no other, it’s the lesson I’ll remember.

Post 374.

As Ziya distractedly watched TV, I watched her pour extra sesame seeds from some crackers into a bowl. I counted how many likely fell on the rug, and thought of how I’m constantly cleaning throughout the day even while I’m home working full-time.

I paid less attention than I should have when she went into the kitchen, pulled out flour and poured water, while I again prayed simply for minimal mess. Half an hour later, she had made dough with parsley and rosemary picked from the plants she had helped pot over the last weeks, and covered it all with a cloth. My nine year old made bread.

Each family is different. Some mothers are simultaneously remote-working, cleaning, caring, supervising on-line schooling, and engaging in extra-curricular activities at home. Some describe feeling like they are failing. Where they are teaching, schools have cut down on workload, yet working and single parents may be barely managing. Those reeling from economic shock are worried about their children’s nutrition and schooling. Thousands of mothers are now back at work as part of this phase of opening, and worrying where to leave their children.

Still, each of us has small victories at this time. We need to notice them as signs that, amidst more effort and less productivity, and more stress and less certainty, there are precious moments that provide a bridge from one challenge to the next.

Now that it’s daily and not just on weekends, Zi has washed more dishes, folded more clothes, helped with cooking, taken walks, biked, made art with whatever supplies (including all the masking tape) she could find, and had to learn to deal with a different reality where places are closed, friends are distant, and health is at risk.

On the days when I was too busy to notice what she was doing, there was more television, boredom and loneliness. That’s life for children of working mothers. Eventually, she would figure out how to survive – learning life-long lessons in independence and resilience.

In many ways, her capacity, calm and creativity improved now that we were not rushing out each morning, spending evenings on homework, and then rushing her back to bed. Her complex personality began to flourish because she needed to achieve less, and life became a little less demanding for her even as overlapping responsibilities increased for me. She experimented more with everything, even empty boxes, because she had time. I loved the break from the academic rat-race.

Meanwhile, there is no substitute for seeing each other throughout the day, having a chance to hug up, eat lunch together, and for much more conversation. It’s taken me time to appreciate that as a gift. I’ve had to grow from an old pattern of treating my family as an obstacle to my work deliverables to remembering that they are and should feel like a priority. I’ve recognized that maybe, the whole time, I was out of sync with the emotional beings now in front of me.

The newspapers are full of economic analysis, but I retreat to reading how other parents are managing, laughing with their stories, learning from their strategies, finding community with those who are happier to give children space for self-directed learning, life-skills or just to be, as well as feeling compassion for others overwhelmed by children home with little to do and fearful of their future failure. Such stories provide a qualitative picture, and point to realities and priorities, in a way that statistics can’t.

If the PM and his ballsy recovery team thought of workers, not just as having families to feed, but as parents with nowhere else to leave their children, how would they incorporate recognition of childcare? What multi-tasking stories would they hear?

Tens of thousands of children are usually in school at this time, often attend camps during school holidays while their parents continue to work, or in a usual year are at greater risk of sexual abuse and neglect because safe and affordable care options are unavailable. A child-centered approach would highlight the responsibility of care during economic recovery, draw on how children are coping and growing, and consider what they need.  

Zi and I are both learning, earning small victories. I keep thinking that, by September, we will finally have worked out a routine, just when she has to go back to school, and I’ll deeply miss this time with all its messy mix-ups, sacrifices, tinkering and fears, and combinations of string, glue, paper, and crumbs everywhere.