The First Step. And the Second.

In the COVID-19 spring, parents of school-age children — especially grade-school kids — were understandably beside themselves, trying to supervise jury-rigged online learning with no training and few resources. While working from home on the kitchen table or in a corner of the living room, elbow to elbow with a partner doing the same thing. While enforcing socially isolating public-health guidelines on increasingly unhappy kids. And that was the good scenario: two parents in the home, both still with jobs.

In this COVID-19 autumn, parents get to choose between carrying on alone like that, or trying to establish a neighbourhood school from scratch (How hard can that be?), or sending their kids back to “regular” school (only half-time in some jurisdictions), while knowing that any kids sent to school will be back at home — full-time with no notice — if an outbreak occurs and classroom cohorts or entire schools go into isolation. And it’s not really if: It’s when.

I can’t advise parents. I can only offer one dreadful story, one outrageous fact, and the questions they provoke.

The Story

Decades ago, the mother of a friend of mine had four kids seven-and-under and was pregnant with a fifth.

Tough. But hardly dreadful, is it?

That’s not the whole story. Her own mother was dying of cancer that year.

Yikes. That is dreadful.

No, *that’s* not the whole story. There are whole sections of that year she can’t remember.

Good heavens.

The mother’s comment about that period in her life?

I could have handled the kids and the pregnancy
if it weren’t for my mother’s illness.

An understandable conclusion, but here’s one I like better:

Life’s like that.

That is, when we load ourselves to the max, betting that all will go well, something won’t. You can count on it.

Indeed, things are always going wrong. We just don’t notice them so much when we can take them in stride. When we have some slack in our schedules and in our emotional capacity.

The Fact

G.K. Chesterton — who believed in the value of all persons — didn’t believe in women’s suffrage.


An understandable question, but here’s one I like better:

Why not?

The answer is that Chesterton saw the family, not the individual, as the basic building block of society. For him, “One man, one vote” would also ring hollow.

The Thoughts

I grew up with work outside the home expected, nay, assumed. It was never “whether”; it was always “what”.

My parents and their friends had not come from or made families with two careers or even two jobs, so I had no example to alert me to the challenges of going to university and then working outside the home (full- or part-time), while also being the one who volunteered in the school, baked cookies for Valentine’s Day parties, arranged daycare and babysitting when such was needed, took the kids to dentist and doctor appointments, and stayed home when they were sick. I got through it — we all did — but the strains showed, on me and on them. Our family life didn’t have much slack.

Women have half the talent in the world
and deserve a chance to use their potential,
don’t they?

Sure. Of course. Absolutely. But it’s a question whose obvious answer hasn’t helped us get to a resilient place. Here’s one I like better.

How can families configure themselves
to nurture each member and let each shine
while also ensuring some slack
for when life happens?

The massive disruption caused by COVID-19 shows me that many families have too little slack. Some have loaded themselves to the max, betting that all will go well. Some have been loaded by life: Think single-parent families, families where kids have special needs, and families caring for kids and ailing elders simultaneously.

And sometimes all does not go well. You know? When a pandemic comes along, families are thrown back on their own resources. It turns out that public institutions can’t backstop them in this situation. Is it an extreme example of life happening? Sure. But if we care about kids, working folks, old people, and the economy which supports them all, we need to be ready for the extremes.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. Nothing quick, that’s for sure. But not going back to expectations-and-assumptions-as-usual might be a start.

The first step in solving a problem
is knowing you have one.

And the second step? Understanding that this isn’t something every nuclear family must or even can do on its own.

PS Here’s an interesting article on building resilience into systems through satisficing:

Why efficiency is dangerous

This entry was posted in New Perspectives, Politics and Policy, Relationships and Behaviour, Thinking Broadly and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The First Step. And the Second.

  1. Tom Watson says:

    As you have suggested, things can, and do, get very complex. Sometimes very quickly. One thing parents are having to work their way through right now is whether to send their children back to school come September. I know two homes where opposite decisions have been made – one erring on the side of their teenager’s needs to be with their friends, the other erring on the side of what’s most safe.

    Both decisions are right…or wrong…whichever the case might be.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Yes, I think the school decision is trickier with teenagers than with younger kids, since the former seem to catch and transmit this coronavirus about the same as adults, whereas younger kids don’t. Hard choices.

  2. Very thoughtful look at life and the challenges that are thrown at us or that we inadvertently stumble into. Oddly, I think some families will be stronger over their life-times now because they embraced their family life when public activities shut down.

    Unfortunately, some family homes are not safe places, and I just listened yesterday to a conversation between two former teachers who wanted schools to open so that some kids could return to a place of safety. Difficult to accept that covid risk could be safer than staying at home.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Indeed, back in the early days when Dr. Fauci said his preference would be to lock America down completely for a month to get the virus under control (I heard the interview, I’m not going by a news report), another public-health type said, well, the virus isn’t the only public-health risk here. It was your point exactly: That some homes, some families, are not safe places. I suspect this lack of safety increases with family isolation for many reasons: naturally higher frustration levels, and lower fear of exposure among them. It really is a societal question, as well as an “individual” family question: How do we do better?

  3. Thank you for airing these difficulties, Isabel. I have faced many of them because of illnesses within our family that were exacerbated by social conditions in our environs. Perhaps the great benefit of this scourge will be that people in more comfortable circumstances will see that people very like them are justifiably stressed, torn, and shredded in these storms or wildfires or floods or whatever environmental disaster seems the appropriate metaphor to the individual or family. I used to agree with Chesterton’s view of the family but that perspective now seems naive to me for we have seen the disasters of patriarchy and of matriarchy. Even the Christian communities I know about tend to founder on their own ideals. The fact that they have a concerned community interested in individual needs may be the essence of their lack of realism. The world in general is not like that. Will it become so by contemplating these “cities on a hill”? Doing the best we can with the hand we’re dealt may be the leavening that the less-well-endowed (intellectually, culturally, spiritually) social group most needs.

    In short, it seems “healthy” to me that families are coming up with differing solutions to the same conundrums. It’s not like Covid-19 is the first pandemic, is it?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Yes, we can hope that we retain some empathy for the less well-situated after the fire/flood/storm has passed through. And different answers for different families? And different types of families? That sounds right to me. I’m just beginning to think we need to consider doing a little less, in order to have some capacity for the surprises. In my work life we called that “management reserve” and it was a challenge to fence it off for actual disasters as opposed to indulging someone’s convenience.

  4. barbara carlson says:

    Re: Doing less. Every one of my friends has told me they either — love the “break” — are surprisingly thriving (her word) at their reduced travel time/working at home — wondered how (and WHY) they did all those things “before”
    — will have to take stress leave when returning to work, managing all those people — didn’t realize how stressed daily life was before this — notice things like never before when too busy — just go out when I want to, not have to — or all of the above.

    For me, life has not changed that much, working from home for 44 years. But I do miss my lamb pita at the World Exchange Plaza every Friday and lunch with friends, but now we talk for hours on the phone — leaning into the intimate contact just with our voices — and have adventures to tell, stories to make out of subtle observations, and ways of thinking of this time… out of time.

    Humans are in survival mode, as they always are, but this time some of us are taking control and making changes which I think are for the good. The families I know that have small kids find they eventually settle down, reassured that the parents were home and not “racing around” — years ago a friend with 3 kids under 6 said, “The household has to ‘run on rails’ or we are done for.” THAT will have to have some wiggle room, if home/work/family life is to thrive in future — cause I don’t see this situation going away, with what may still be coming down the pipe…

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Those are encouraging words – thank you. “Wiggle room” – a good way to put it. We all need some of that.

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