“I’m scared,” my six-year-old whispered at bedtime one night last week, tears in his eyes, “about what’s going to happen when I die.”
“Wow,” I said, leaning in to wrap my arms around him. “That’s a big feeling.”
He was lying in the bottom bunk of his bed, the one he shares with his older sister in our Brooklyn apartment, tucked in under a fluffy white comforter, clutching a blue stuffed bear and three blue lovies (two elephants, one bunny). He has cuddled up with those three lovies every night since he was old enough to have “soft or loose objects” in his crib.
Of course, I don’t remember now how old he was back then or how many months we waited to give him his first lovie. But I can tell you with certainty that I consulted at least five articles from medical experts to make sure we introduced lovies to our baby at exactly the right time. Because we were determined to be good parents. To keep our children safe. To protect them. To do the right thing.
Now my son was looking up at me for answers, with glossy, frightened brown eyes. Was I keeping him safe now? Protecting him? Doing enough of the right things?
“Mama,” he said, so softly, before delivering the real whammy. “How do I distract my brain from being afraid about the dying?”
And there it was — the question that has haunted humans for pretty much all of time.
How do we live with fear?
The fear of death, yes. And, perhaps even harder, how do we live with the other tidal waves of anxiety that keep rising up, threatening to knock us down? The fear of suffering? Of sacrifice? Of uncertainty?
“Well,” I told my son, cuddling closer by his side, holding Winne the Pooh, which we had been reading together all week, one chapter each night. “I think we do this. We cuddle. We read books. We listen to music. We spend time together. We play. We laugh. We ask questions. We try to do our best at school and at our jobs and at home. We take care of each other. We love each other. And we hold onto each other for as long as we can.”
“Okay,” my son sighed. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Just read.”
So we did.
I keep thinking about what my son said. I keep thinking about his honesty, his desire to be brave, his instinctive need for comfort. I keep thinking about how much we all need those same things right now — as we adjust our daily lives and try to stay safe amid the world-changing COVID-19 pandemic.
I hope my children turn to me in times of distress because they trust me. Because I listen to them. And because, over time, I’ve demonstrated some pattern of making somewhat reliably smart-ish, good enough decisions.
But as adults, in a time of crisis, who do we turn to? The majority of parents I know are turning to each other for answers, late at night, after our kids have gone to bed. On social media. On texts. In hushed voices on the phone.
And no matter what the specific question or concern, it seems like what we’re really all asking each other is this: What’s the middle ground between panic and denial? Are we keeping our kids safe? Protecting them? Doing the right thing?
Every micro decision feels heavier each day, often tinged with guilt or judgement. Are two cartons of milk and four boxes of vegetable broth enough, or is that too much? Is it okay to walk around the block? If we see our neighbors, should we stop and talk to each other? What if they come closer to us than the recommended distance apart of six feet? Is it rude to keep moving backward?
“There is this bizarre idea that to be careful is a sign of weakness or anxiety,” says a friend of mine who’s a psychiatrist. “That’s like saying this is a choice, but it’s not. This is science.”
Infectious disease experts have made it clear that the best thing we can all do right now to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading in our own communities is to use social distancing. Here’s why: We have a shortage of hospital equipment and medical supplies. We don’t have enough COVID-19 tests or tools for treatment. Vaccines are months away, if not longer.
Here in Brooklyn, our public schools are closed until at least April 20, if not longer. This is surely the best decision for our communities, and an encouraging sign of social solidarity. The message is clear: Don’t leave home if you don’t have to. And yet, when the news broke this weekend, a friend texted me: “I oscillate between feeling relief and wanting to cry.” Me too.
For our family, the foreseeable future of social distancing looks something like this: Two parents working in a space that’s less than 1,200 square feet while trying to make sure our two children (ages 6 and 9) keep learning something. It kind of feels like the right recipe for a reality show — lots of drama, some sweet and tender moments.
Of course, for many others, such as my friend Keeley, a midwife at a city hospital, the sacrifices are greater. As a health worker, she’s on the front lines of this pandemic. Yet, she too decided to keep her children home before New York’s Mayor Bill DeBlasio ordered schools shut.
“I wish I could stay home and social distance with my family,” says Keeley. “But I can’t. They can. I really hope that others do.”
In order for social distancing to work, we need social solidarity. We need to be brave by doing what’s best for as many people as possible. Now, more than ever, we need to be there for each other.
Am I worried about my family’s health and safety? A little. Am I worried about how I’m going to manage getting work done while simultaneously trying to homeschool my children? Very much. Will my kids watch more television than they should? Yup, the likelihood is high.
But will my kids also learn something about resilience? I hope so. Will they also gain more self-reliance, and maybe even make their own breakfast more often? That’s the goal. Will they learn about hard work and perseverance and do more chores? You bet. Will they get more time to be creative? Yes! And will we have more family dinners with better conversations than ever before? Absolutely.
I’m hopeful that each day spent together now, in our cozy apartment quarters, will bring us many more days. And what a gift to have this time. To slow down. To reflect. To look at the people in our lives and tell them we love them.
As Winnie the Pooh said in the book my son and I were reading: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
Yes, that’s admittedly sentimental. And yes, I have to keep reminding myself of it just about every other hour. But it’s true.
So goodbye for now office, and goodbye classrooms. Goodbye restaurants and goodbye playgrounds. Goodbye museums and goodbye gyms. Goodbye extended family and friends. I’ll miss you, for a while. But I’m here for now, holding onto the people I love most, and that’s good enough for me.
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