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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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,
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: