By Candace Echols
The first-draft title for this piece was going to be “Seven ways the pandemic has changed my parenting.” But if I’m being honest, the pandemic hasn’t just affected the way I parent my children, it’s altered who I am as a parent.
I have never had an injury that required a doctor to use the descriptive phrase “bone-on-bone,” but much of the vibe around our house in the early summer days of 2020 could have been summed up that way. The spring honeymoon togetherness phase of quarantine had come and gone. The buffer made of giving one another the benefit of the doubt had worn thin. The familial cushion created by covering one another’s irritations with grace seemingly exceeded the amount of grace available.
I wish I could say I was a beacon of light amidst a house full of children who were looking for a good example, but that simply wouldn’t be true. At that point, I was running on empty, trying to create and supply other people with good things while I was starting the days with nothing inside my soul but tiredness.
Here’s how the pandemic altered me as a parent, and how I coped:
For me to create anything, even a soft space, I must be fueled. Internal fuel for me comes from early, quiet mornings spent in prayer, Bible-reading, and looking out my window as the sun comes up. It’s a dynamic trio that reminds me of my smallness and need for help. This act of rolling out of bed early to commune with One who knows so much more than I do gives me deep strength to get through the day. I realize this is not everyone’s perspective and that’s OK, but my response is this: don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. This pandemic has taken us all to a point of desperation not once, but over and over again. When you get there and you don’t know where else to go, you’ll have this idea in your back pocket. Give it a try.
One afternoon in mid-December, something happened in the kitchen. My son told me a story that just struck me as genuinely hilarious. We laughed together so hard that our bellies hurt. I realized it had been months since I had laughed that hard. So much tension was released in that moment. That day, I set a goal to attempt belly laughter with my children at least once a day until the end of the year. It has done more than anything else to affect the atmosphere of our home.
As for atmosphere, in this era (as in any other), the world is a hard place to grow up – these young people need a soft place to land. Home should be that. I’ve learned to cultivate spaces where home feels like a retreat. Blankets, games, joke books, back massagers, and art supplies are now in public places so that they are easily accessible. Some weeks, kids pick the menu for dinner. Family movie nights are more common than usual because the need to escape from the monotony is real, but we can do it as a group sometimes (not every time). It’s all an effort to make home a soft place for them to launch from, even if the launching happens in a virtual classroom in the kitchen.
Thoughts need uninterrupted spaces to breathe. When I am around my children constantly, there’s no space for my own brain to breathe – we all need to let our brains follow a train of thought on their own sometimes. I need to be able to go from “What I need at Kroger” to remembering “I ran into Shea at Kroger last week and I should text her” to “Shea reminds me of my third grade teacher” to “I wonder what happened to my third grade teacher” to “I wish I could be in third grade riding a bike with my friend, Amanda again” to “I need to call Amanda.” It’s a version of exploration that combines memories with new thoughts and ideas. That restores and refreshes me.
Let’s Go Outside.
Nothing recreates and refreshes like the good old outdoors. This applies to every member of my family, even the dog. My husband is the best at getting us outside and he has many ways of doing it: the garden, the grill, the garage, the basketball goal, the bikes, the birds, whatever!
I remember when I started working at Rhodes College in the office of British and European Studies. The woman who trained me would say, “Oh, that horrible sound is the air conditioning! I hate forced air! I would much rather just keep the windows open!” Personally, in the heat of the Memphis summer, I adore forced air, but I get the message. Fresh air fills the soul in a life-giving way that forced air never will.
Even adults need the outdoors and going outside with our children usually exposes some place where we have room to grow. Some question will arise about the soil or the sky or the sounds that we aren’t quite sure about.
Many healthy principles do apply to people in universal situations that arise over time and space. My four decades of living plus my own parents have gifted me a lot of those principles and I would do my children a disservice if I didn’t pass them on. Isn’t that what parenting is? However, during a pandemic when life is heavy on the sour, I must find ways to sweeten wisdom because sometimes it tastes more like medicine than cookies.
As it turns out (get ready for it), I don’t actually know it all. It took me a minute to digest that fully. There are things my children face in the first hour of their day that I’ve never even considered. It pays relationally for me to stop and listen to the whole story instead of slapping my opinion on the matter right out of the gate. Assuming a healthy dose of humility is something that is felt in the atmosphere, not just a task to complete. When I’m feeling rather know-it-all-ish, I’ve learned to fake it by keeping my mouth shut for longer than I’d naturally be inclined to do. Humility, more often than not, arrives.
Humility communicates something powerful to our children, and both affirms and comforts their fears. Humility says it’s ok to feel unsettled, because we all, of all ages, feel that way. “I’m learning alongside you in this craziness,” it says. “Sometimes, I will learn from you. Keep your ears open because you may learn something from me. We are people, side by side, navigating something entirely new to both of us. Let’s do the best we can to love each other through it.”
Candace Echols is a Central Gardens resident, wife and mother of five. She has written for StoryBoard’s Page One Writing Workshops, and was recently published with her first book, the children’s book Josephine and the Quarantine