Choose hope

For work and for helping my kids and for social connection, I’ve been spending way more time on social media than I usually do. And it’s wearing me down. I take digital breaks and stay offline when I don’t have to be online, but I feel like because the whole world is dealing with a common challenge (not to put too fine a point on it), it’s harder to just step away. Especially when government and health announcements are being made hourly, it seems.

When the fight was about government cuts to education or health care or tenant rent issues or the climate, even, I felt I could step back and choose what I read and responded to. But social distancing (or physical distancing as Dr Maria Van Kerkhove at the WHO said we should be calling it) has presented challenges to coming together in a real, person-to-person way and COVID-19 is amplified in the news. It makes taking a step back hard when I need to listen to or read the daily health announcements and new rules about going outside (not to mention that what I do for work is somewhat tied up in all the employment related fall-out from COVID-19, so I’m reading this stuff all day anyway).

There’s no break from it. And it gets nasty a lot of the time. Despite what Dan Gardner says:

So, why, if it’s a myth that disasters cause people to panic and the social order to collapse, is everyone being so nasty?

I have an idea. Why don’t we all stop griping and start helping.

In the last few weeks, the last few days especially, while we’re ALL just trying to get through this strange new reality we find ourselves in, I haven’t seen much in the way of support on either side of the political divide, from politicians or the general public. On the left, everyone’s screaming because the right is using COVID-19 to push their online learning agenda. On the right, everyone’s complaining about the money being spent & the power being acquired by the government in a bid to help people.

I get it; I don’t see the full picture, and neither does anyone else, because we curate our news from social media where we mostly just follow people who share our beliefs. But what if we just tried to work on things together instead of assuming that the other side was out to get us or put one over on us? It’s like reading a bunch of mean girl notes passed back and forth between kids on social media.

I may sound naïve, but I am going to choose to believe that the only way through this is by working together. It’s what I’m always saying to my kids: Learn to work together. Find a common point and work outwards from that center. The options you come up with may be far out, but keeping an open mind and working together to get all the ideas on the table will help you both get where you want to be.

I understand that teachers have reservations about grading their students given so many different circumstances, but I think what we have to remember, as well, is that not all students face barriers.

For the ones who do, we have to work together to find a solution…and there is one, I truly believe that. We just have to be creative and put all the ideas on the table, even the crazy ideas. For the ones who don’t face the technological and social barriers, we have to keep them engaged.

I’m not trying to minimize the challenges we’re facing. But we have great minds in this province. Let’s put them to work instead of using them to constantly complain on social media about how bad all of the current plans are and all the ways that it’s not going to work.

I am choosing to be encouraged by the TDSB’s Director of Education’s recent videos to students and parents about how schooling is moving forward starting on April 6. He didn’t give much in the way of details, but he gave hope that something is being done. And I know the teachers and staff are all working tirelessly to make the best of a bad situation. This is what humans do. This is how we have survived on this planet. We’ve been so pampered with material things in the last century that we have forgotten how to survive and we’ve become a bunch of whiny wimps. Together we’re stronger. Left and Right.

We’re all in this together. Choose hope, have faith, work together.

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Keep picking yourself up

Yesterday was not so amazing. Actually, it was pretty awful.

I won’t go into details, but lets just say the grey seep of four straight days without sun or the feel of fresh air on skin took over our brains and made the three of us into angry little grumps.

“Little” is the key word in that phrase, because that’s what it felt like. We were all being little, no one was willing to step up and be the bigger person. I know it’s my job to be that person. I’m the mom. I’m the adult. But yesterday I just didn’t feel like adulting for my kids. I wanted to adult with other adults. I wanted to bury myself in my work and have work-related conversations with other work-minded people sharing the same kind of work as me. And I realized this morning as I lay in the dark before my alarm went off: I’m having a hard time adjusting to being the adult alone in the house with two kids all day. And my husband, bless him, is doing his best to understand where I’m coming from each evening when he comes home. But he has his own stresses that aren’t being addressed.

My kids need me to stand up and be a big person. That’s what I think yesterday was about. They were looking for guidance in this strange new world and they weren’t finding any.

They don’t want to be with me all day, but they need me to show them how to get through this. They miss their friends. They miss their freedom. They miss the routine of school even though I’ve set up the same basic routine at home. They are doing it alone, without their friends to crack jokes with or work on projects with or head outside for recess with. I miss all the same things and I’m not doing a good job of finding alternatives to what I’ve lost.

And with the return to school now extended until May, we are facing an even longer time without our own lives. We have to find a way to make it work together.

I’m looking into technology to get ahead of this a bit. It won’t be the same, exactly, but it will be something. At the start of all this, my son had plans with a friend to build some stuff (not sure what) out of cardboard boxes he’d found in our shed. He can still do that, but it will be over video chat with his buddy.

My daughter is still texting and video chatting with her friends, so she needs little encouragement to carry on her social life.

And school and the programs they were in (theatre and soccer) are starting to come online with schooling, fitness and skill training, and script and dance rehearsals.

Though this adds another layer of scheduling and organizing to to my days—managing each kid’s online access and making sure they are logged in to the appropriate platform at the appropriate time—I’m going to do my best to roll with it. Hopefully, in time, my kids will learn to manage those things themselves (the technology and the scheduling).

There will be stumbles, but the important thing is that we pick ourselves up and keep going.

Course correction

Yesterday was amazing. I set new ground rules going into week three (this is an organic process). We had a morning meeting and talked about what my expectations were for each day as we head back into more structured learning, and my kids were, surprisingly, on board. Then we jumped right into learning for them and work for me.

They have probably been feeling a little lost with all this free time. I’ve been reading up on the wonderful ways that social isolation is helping kids. And an abundance of free time is something that is extolled by professionals as the path to executive functioning skills in kids.

I was never one to keep my kids inside and away from independent roaming of the neighbourhood when they had free time, nor did I structure their time at home, but my kids were pretty scheduled outside of our home life. And with all that gone, they have free time in abundance.

The first two weeks at home were spent thoroughly enjoying that free time. But because they have spent so many years scheduled, that free time had turned into a drag once the novelty wore off.

And it coincided with the school board starting to put plans in place to carry on learning in a virtual environment. So I felt the need to get my kids back on track. But…

According to Lenore Skenazy’s article in the New York Post:

As for parents worried that all this non-academic time is dooming their kids’ futures, research at the University of Colorado at Boulder found that the kids who have more free time to create and structure their own activities develop stronger executive functioning skills — that is, better planning, problem-solving and follow-through — than kids whose lives are more continuously structured by adults.

Putting that into practice in my house has meant clearly defining three expectations:

  1. Complete a minimum of one hour of learning/school work
  2. Complete chores assigned by Mom
  3. Practice skills (soccer and rehearsing for play)

No phones or screens until all three are done (with the exception of the laptop for research if part of the learning component).

I left them to it and went back to my desk. And they spent the whole morning working together on a project about lowland gorillas.

They planned it out, did the research, wrote the material, managed each other’s expectations and even recognized when they’d had enough of working together and decided to take a break.

With that sense of ownership over their learning and their morning, they helped with lunch and then moved on to the other two expectations without complaint before settling in for a couple of hours of free screen time in the afternoon.

I got a ton of work done, and not just because they were busy doing their own thing, leaving me with uninterrupted time, but because my veins weren’t coursing with stress hormones from trying to manage them and worrying about them getting into fights or hurting each other’s feelings.

So, not only is this “course correction”—as Lenore Skenazy calls it—good for kids, it’s going to be great for the adults, too. We need it as much as the kids do. We need to learn to let go, to let kids figure it out for themselves and to work through hard problems. This is a small silver lining in this terrible situation in which we find ourselves. But it’s a good one.

My vision

Weekends are always nice, aren’t they? The pressure was off for a couple of days and it gave me some time to recharge.

This is week three and I’m thinking that it’s time to really kick it into gear. Despite having a plan each day and doing small things that are keeping us on track, I mostly feel like we’ve wasted the last two weeks. I recognized that this weekend when my very motivated husband finished installing the baseboards in our laundry room in a matter of hours.

I asked myself how whole days could go by with no visible accomplishments (besides my work, because that has to get done and nothing has really changed for me whether I’m working at the office or at home).

So, with the pending announcement from the school board that they are trying to set up ways to keep school going virtually, my goal this week is to get my kids back on track.

They’ve been doing some school work each day and keeping up with their reading and some writing projects they had, but I haven’t been good at keeping them focused on those things and I’ve been lenient about internet access and what they are doing on the internet (some math and logic games for sure, lots of chatting with friends , and watching lots of random YouTube videos). And I think the time they spend doing these screen activities is wearing them down.

So this morning we will have a meeting at 9:30 to discuss the new plan. On our whiteboard, I’ve outlined the rules for screens and the expectations for school work, chores and skill practice (soccer drills, rehearsing lines/songs for spring play).

The key to sticking to this plan is for me to set the right example and keep a cool head. My daily walk with help with that.

The next thing I have to do with my family is work out what our goal is for this time of social isolation. My vision is for us to come out the other side as a team who works hard and works together and treats each other with respect and understanding.

We’ve been a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of family since the beginning, with me holding us together by pure will and digital scheduling know-how. That might have worked when the kids were little and they couldn’t be responsible for themselves. But I felt like I was falling apart for many years.

At Christmas this year, on our way to my parent’s house, my husband asked if I was okay (I guess I looked shell shocked [I certainly felt shell shocked]). I jokingly replied that I felt like I was falling apart. He laughed and said that I couldn’t do that because I was the only thing holding us all together. It made me cry. He was right. And we’d all come to expect it. But I didn’t know how to do it any other way.

I’ve thought a lot about that little exchange since then and I’ve realized over and over again that nothing has changed…and nothing will unless I change.

And with the social isolation imposed by COVID-19, I might have that chance. The extras in our lives that were keeping me so busy and away from doing the hard work of changing have been subtracted from our lives. There is nothing but time right now to do that hard work.

I’ve been here before.

Some years ago, I had a surgery on my foot. I was as busy then as I am now, and I remember my doctor telling me that I would have to be off my feet for 4-6 months. I had a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old. I had put the surgery off for two years already, but I couldn’t put it off any longer. Leading up to the date of the surgery, my doctor told me that I should start giving up some of my activities so that after I had the surgery, I wouldn’t be hit with so much emptiness in my life at having nothing to do. There’s a huge component of mental health to consider when you take yourself out of the life you’re used to living.

So I started to remove myself from committees and volunteering activities, and I enrolled my kids in fewer after-school activities. In time, I got used to having down time and much less stress. When I got back on my feet months later, I was hesitant to take on much of anything because I had come to appreciate and value my time. Eventually, as the kids got older, they got involved in more things and, as a family, we’re back to being about as busy as we were before my surgery. I have a better perspective of it all now, though, and it doesn’t drag me down as much. That could be because my kids are older and are better at managing themselves, so I’m not quite so hands-on.

But I’m still the glue and we can still do better as a family to support each other. And that’s my vision: work better together, work harder and smarter to reach personal and family goals, and treat each other with respect and understanding.

This social isolation time feels like that pre-surgery time years ago: where there is an expectation of change, but no one really knows what that will look like yet.

Today, I start to sketch that out for me and for my family.

How are you feeling heading into week three?

Subtract – add – adjust

Didn’t make it farther than the backyard yesterday. But the sun was shining and it was good to be outside.

Quick recap of yesterday: I baked blueberry muffins. Kids did some art. I interacted with my daughter’s school’s reading group a bit on Google Classroom. I did a ton of editing. I worked late. I had a short, at-a-distance visit with my parents in my yard and watched city workers tape off the playground next to our house. The kids resisted me on any work besides drawing and they were unwilling to help when asked, choosing instead to spend most of their time talking to friends on video chat or text.

How I felt by the end of the day: hopeless, worried, exhausted, like a failure.

What I’m doing today to combat those feelings: drinking lots of water (I think dehydration is having an effect on my brain), focusing on the now (go for a walk, listen to the birds, meditate for 15 minutes), play with my kids (board games, cards).

In being overly concerned about the effect this social isolating is having on my kids and the loss of regular school in their lives, I’ve forgotten that they still have their regular fears and worries (that are of course compounded by this distance from the worlds they would otherwise inhabit).

In a chat with my daughter last night, I realized that what we’re all suffering from without really realizing it is the loss of our own worlds and how our worlds have come crashing together.

I’ve always thought of the four of us as close. We have dinner together every night; we often cook and clean up as a family (assuming we’re all home; sometimes activities take some of us out of the house right after dinner). We have movie nights and game nights. We talk a lot and about everything together. Of course, we each have little things we keep to ourselves, but we’re mostly a very open family.

But in this new reality: all of us in the house all of the time (except my husband who is still working out in the world), it has hit me that we each had our own lives, our own worlds, entirely separate from each other. Yes we started each day together and came back together at the end of each day, but my daughter had her social circle and her routine and her teachers and schedules, and my son had his friends and his teachers and his neighbourhood hangout spots and his soccer team, and I had my friends and coworkers and my office and my work-from-home space (for the odd work-from-home day pre-COVID-19) and my errands and my routine, and my husband had his work and social circle. Now all of that is gone and our worlds have come crashing together. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s a new thing to get used to.

When a tween needed her friends in the pre-COVID-19 world, she had access to them IRL. Now, she only texts and talks on the phone with them. And she is having to adjust to what that communication looks like for her group, how they will manage disagreements, hurt feelings, misinterpretations (because I imagine there’s a lot of that when communicating without the benefit of body language and tone of voice). It’s hard to navigate that as an adult with years of experience. Imagine facing that challenge just as you reach the stage in your life where communication and group dynamics carry so much weight?

And for an athletic boy now cooped up in the house or confined to a backyard with no buddies to play with? These are trying times.

And so today is Friday, the last day of the first week of learn at home/social isolation. I went to sleep last night with yet another adjustment to our schedule/routine in my head. And I woke up this morning nervous and worried about how today will play out. But writing this has been therapeutic and, as I often tell myself, take it day by day, make adjustments for what doesn’t work, add in new possibilities, subtract/add, adjust, be kind to yourself and to others, find balance and don’t think that because things went sideways yesterday that they will always be like that. Today is a new day. And it’s Friday, so relax and have a little fun.

Not so paralyzed after all

It’s probably too early to report any useful data, but the first day of Experiment #2 was successful.

I went for a walk with my kids, grabbed a coffee and some lemon cake from a local espresso bar (shout out to Black Cat Espresso Bar) and walked home in the sunshine.

Feelings before we left the house: worried, panicked, nervous.

Feelings while out walking and while chatting (at a distance) with the barista in the coffee shop: calm, happy, energized.

Feelings once we got home: like I had more energy to concentrate on work; felt more connected to my kids (I think they felt the same for just having shared that special time together); I didn’t feel as guilty when I set them up with their school work and then went back to my own work or when I was explaining how I envisioned the rest of our day (and they weren’t agreeing with my vision).

So Day 1 of that experiment went well.

Days 2 and 3 of Experiment #1: Learn at home were not total losses. Some art was done, a writing assignment was done, some online math and logic games were played. There were lost hours where the kids hunkered down with phones and texted friends or played games purely for entertainment purposes and I’m going to let that go.

I’m newly grateful for my daughter’s very social personality. She has already tired of texting her friends and has started a group call and video call (depending on the group she’s “hanging” with) where they can talk and see each other, and they are playing a game together in this group call. I hear endless laughter emanating from her bedroom and she’s happy to tell me all about their shenanigans when she emerges at dinner time. This talking and laughing with other people is doing good things for her. I’ve made a mental note to relax my screen time rules a bit so that she can keep this connection going.

My son, on the other hand, is not into communication by tech. He’s very social with people in real life, but when I mentioned that another mom is going to get his soccer team together for a video chat, he immediately said it would be boring because none of his friends talk. And I get that. We’re talking about a group of 10-year-old boys. They’re great together on the soccer pitch and they’ll fool around and carry on in person, but over video…not sure how that’ll play out. Anyway, he’s doing that today at some point. He needs social interaction with more than his mom and his sister. He needs other guys. It’s obvious when my husband gets home from work at the end of the day. Our son won’t leave him alone for a minute.

Today, I’m going outside again and the kids are going to start school work in earnest.

Let’s see what that brings, shall we?

Going outside

Something’s been niggling at the back of my mind for the last few days. And no, it’s not the pressure of doing a full-time job and teaching my kids everything they’re missing because they’re not in school. Nor is it this strange new reality we find ourselves in.

There are all sorts of feelings we’re all experiencing right now. A friend sent me a Harvard Business Review article last night about grief, and it made me realize that grief was one of the feelings that I’ve been experiencing. And there have been moments of fear and (many) moments of guilt, and of course there’s good ol’ panic and anxiety thrown in there for good measure.

But mostly I’m handling these emotions. I haven’t meditated for a while, and I really should make time for that (but life is crazy busy right now and my focus is elsewhere, even though I know a good sit would do me a world of good and would help with the crazy).

But what’s been niggling at me is having to step back into the world when this is all over. I haven’t left my house in six days. And I don’t want to.

I know I should be going for a walk (at a distance from people) every day, especially on sunny days. But I have work to do. I have kids to teach and guide. I have a house to keep clean (which is harder now that we’re all in it all the time).

And I know those are all excuses. I HAVE to go outside. But I don’t want to.

I thought this could happen. Just like I get paralyzed with writing and getting chores done, I’m paralyzed by the idea of going outside.

And I realize now that the reason I stayed so busy and kept our family in all sorts of scheduled activities before all this happened was to force myself to go outside and keep moving forward each day. Now that I don’t have to, now that it’s encouraged to socially isolate, I can’t seem to bring myself to go out.

So, today, I’m starting Experiment #2: The go outside and do something experiment. I may do that by supporting a local espresso bar that offers take-out down the street.

How are you managing your social isolation? Is it getting to you or are you grateful to be stuck inside?

Too much screen time, and learning to forgive

To recap Day 1: I was swamped with work. Both kids spent almost all day on screens.

Should I give up now?

But seriously, the day started off great. Both my kids were on board for the plan we’d made. We set up the laptop, downloaded Libby and a bunch of audiobooks on an old phone for my son, had breakfast, kind of cleaned up, then went through the folder of work sent home by my son’s teacher. (Throughout this, my daughter slept. We’re test driving the later start time she has been begging for, given her tween brain.)

Turns out my son has a great project to work on and a bunch of other fantastic suggestions from his teacher. I set him up with his Google Classroom on the laptop and he did some work on a bunch of stories he’d written at school over the last few months. I can see this being a great opportunity for him to go deeper with writing and developing ideas.

I got back to work (because I had tons to edit). When my daughter woke up, she told me her plan was to work on the COVID-19 assignment her teacher had provided before school let out. (I’m thinking it’s a little too much focus on the disease that’s keeping us all at home, but we’ll see.) She also planned to read all day.

I’ll say one thing, as I got busier, the kids got quieter. They both stayed on screens almost all day, either on phones to listen to audiobooks or music or to chat with friends (which, as my daughter has pointed out, is important right now because they can’t see their friends) or on the laptop to play math games.

I forgave myself at the end of the day for not directing their learning more and insisting on less screen time. We talked about it at dinner and we have new plans for today. Screens will be a last resort. (I’ve also changed the wifi password so that I at least feel more in control of the digital situation in the house.) If screens are needed, here are the resources I’ll be guiding them to:

How was your Day 1? What are your plans for Day 2?

The experiment begins

Today is Day 1 of what the Ontario government is calling Learn at home.

I spent a good chunk of yesterday prepping for how we’ll move forward over the coming weeks with this new reality.

I started by jotting down my expectations. I want my kids to learn, to be engaged and to feel good about themselves.

The way they won’t accomplish these things is clear: lots of screen time.

The ways they will accomplish these things is more work on everyone’s part, but more rewarding overall: being creative, learning something new (anything, I’m not just talking academics here), practicing being a better human (kindness, helpfulness, creating beauty [or just creating for the sake of it]).

At dinner, we all talked about what the coming weeks might look like. I explained to my kids that things are in flux and we’re going to take it day by day. There are no hard rules on how we have to do things every day. Some days, I’ll be really busy with work and I won’t have as much time for them. Other days, I’ll be able to take some time off and do things with them rather than just guiding them to do it on their own. The point is, we have to work together.

Because my kids are used to the school schedule, they both immediately jumped to the question of when is recess. This highlighted to me that what I’m working with is programmed kids. And I would love to get them away from that kind of thinking and toward more holistic thinking. I think for me that’s it. It’s not about a schedule:

8:00 am: get up, make bed, have breakfast

9:00 am: do math worksheets

10:00 am: write in journal

10:30 am: snack break and play in the backyard

11:00 am: read

12:00 pm: lunch

etc.

I don’t want our days to look like that. There’s no opportunity for deep learning or engagement there.

This is my idea for our days:

Sometime early morning: get up, make bed, make breakfast and eat together, then clean up breakfast dishes and bake something to have later

Mid-morning: clean up baking and pull out some math problems or games

Lunch time: make lunch and eat together, then clean up

Mid-afternoon: go for a walk by the river, discover what nature has to reveal

Late afternoon: write about the river walk, read a book, play a game

And this would be in flux. The next day, there might be a craft or art or engineering project that captures the attention and takes hours to work through. The point is deep engagement, being in the zone, finding flow.

When asked for their input on screen time, my daughter thought that one hour at lunch with her phone would be good to keep in touch with her friends. (Personally, I thought it was a little restrictive to just have one hour a day to talk to friends that she would normally see all day. I worry about how this online-only communication is going to change how we all interact. But I’m going to try not to worry, because the results may surprise me.)

And that’s where I’m at as I sit on the cusp of Day 1. To help my kids get used to this new routine, I’m going to stick closer to the school routine, and they’ll start Day 1 with breakfast and then worksheets that they received from their teachers on their last day in class. I have other resources and things for them that I curated yesterday during my prep time (and alone time in the house, which rarely happens anymore since I’m working from home and my kids are off school). I’ll pull those out as needed, but right now, it’s day by day, one day at a time, and all other related idioms.

How are you faring? What are your plans for the coming weeks?

Trust and guidance

So, day 5, and I’m officially questioning my ability to parent.

This is not new. I’ve often questioned my ability to parent small humans. But never in this context; never in the context of survival, of coping, of making it through whatever the universe throws at us and working hard to keep it together.

Clearly, I’m not keeping it together very effectively. Day 5, people, and I already wish that I could go back to the office and send my kids to school.

And I’ve got great kids. They are actually not arguing with each other (very much) and they have spent a ton of time outside together without me, so they are proving self-sufficient.

But, in facing the days and weeks ahead, I’m questioning my ability to get them to focus on things like learning, school work, chores, music and soccer practice.

I know what drives this questioning voice in my head. I know what little Miss Judgmental is getting at every time she speaks up. I’m not good at putting aside gratification. I’m not good at making myself do hard things. I’m not good at staying focused.

And because I’m not good at all those things, all those skills that are required to teach and guide and encourage young minds, I’m going to fail at keeping my kids engaged during this time away from school. And my kids are going to languish. They are going to do only what they find (instantly) gratifying. They are not going to focus and use this time productively.

But what if I flip the switch? What if I trust my kids to use this time they have been given? What if we start from a place of understanding on both sides: what I want and what they want? What if, after coming to an understanding of expectations, I just lay out the day’s tasks and options each day and see what they do with that guidance?

Shall we experiment? No judgment. No nagging. No whining. Just trust and guidance.

Let’s call it experiment #1 and see where it takes us. The first day is Monday.