A few weeks ago, Lithuanian kindergartens re-opened after ten weeks of lockdown. My 4-year-old was quick to fall back to his old routine. My 1-year-old just started in the little kids’ group and seems to be adjusting almost unnaturally well. All of this means that my extraordinarily weird year of parental leave will soon be over and I can return to work.
All I can say is, good riddance and bring it on.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might know that my baby came into this world kicking and screaming and didn’t really stop until her seventh month (except for one week that luckily coincided with our festival trip to Sweden). To this day we’re not sure if her extreme fussiness was caused by full-on silent reflux, other gastrointestinal drama or an early onset Heideggerian trauma of having been thrown into an absurd world. Though I like the third theory, I think it’s best to just say that she had colic.
Just in case you’re not familiar with the effects of colic on families, here’s a handy list from Wikipedia: anxiety, depression, exhaustion, stress, severe marital discord, social isolation, frequent visits to doctors and a quadrupling of excessive laboratory tests and prescription of medication. It was a real fun six months in our household that in no way made anyone consider jumping out of the window!
The only thing that eventually helped my baby (and with her, the rest of us) mellow out was getting her on a strict daily routine and ensuring a calm and distraction-free home environment. There was no music, Netflix or going out outside our scheduled midday walk. Sorry for ignoring y’all’s messages during this time. I’ll get to them by the end of the summer, I promise.
My baby and I fell into a quarantine-like lifestyle that calls to mind Ernst Jünger’s description of WW1 trench warfare in Storm of Steel: “Thus it was that our days passed in a fatiguing monotony, broken only by the short spells of rest … Yet there were many pleasant hours even in the line.” We started getting to know each other better after the rocky start we’d got off to. Turns out, she was the sweetest and funniest when she was relaxing!
I also still had my free Wednesday afternoons to go to the cinema, thrifting or treat myself to a nice three-course lunch. Life wasn’t quite what I’d imagined it would be, but it was good enough. I was feeling quite optimistic about the few months of parental leave I still had left. What could possibly go wrong at this point?
[hollow laughter intensifies]
That’s when the global pandemic hit.
At the start of the school lockdown in mid-March, my son was still 3 years old while my daughter was 9 months. Due to this small but significant age gap, they had wildly different yet constant needs. They ate different foods at different times. My daughter needed to be hand-fed several times a day, which took a long time and was easily disrupted by any external stimuli. Her twice-a-day nap came with a whole another routine.
My son had stopped taking naps a while ago, so he was glued to my side 100% of the time. My daughter needed me on the floor when she was awake. My son needed my help with his daily kindergarten exercises, all of which were naturally written and spoken in Lithuanian. He also needed to expend a power plant’s worth of energy each day.
As for me, I needed to manage a daily grocery run in town with both kids in tow, as the word on the street was that our go-to grocery delivery service wasn’t quite up to speed on the government’s new health and hygiene rules. I didn’t want to risk having the virus delivered to our doorstep.
Reader, I managed almost none of these things in the first few days of the lockdown. A typical attempt went something like this: I would try to put my daughter down for a nap. She needed at least 30 minutes of quiet time, preferably in a dim room, to unwind before being placed in bed. This meant that my son would have to play in another room without making a sound and wait for me to come to him. Now that’s a feat that’s beyond most 3-year-olds, never mind those used to always having someone to talk, play with or at the very least to pay some level of attention to them.
The problem was, to get my daughter to sleep I’d basically have to act like my son wasn’t there. When he knocked on the bedroom door two minutes after I went in with her, I couldn’t respond because that would’ve snapped her out of her drowsy mode and ruined the whole process. Which of course meant that he would only knock louder and eventually barge in. Either way, naptime just wasn’t going to work.
It was, first and foremost, a crisis of logistics. We got stuck in a stalemate after stalemate with one kid preventing me from attending to the other. It was usually my son, as the firstborn, who took the brunt. I was constantly telling him “no” and “wait” and “I’m sorry I can’t right now” and “you’ll just have to play by yourself”. It was incredibly sad for both of us.
I could see how a family could learn to function together under similar circumstances, but the abruptness of the lockdown hadn’t afforded us a chance at a gentle, age-appropriate learning curve. My son was miserable and my daughter stopped eating or sleeping like she had so many times during her earlier months. I was ready to fly over the cuckoo’s nest.
It didn’t help when well-meaning people told us to just hang on because “kids get used to anything”. Like, I’m sure they do, but should they? You know who got used to having their developmental needs ignored as a kid? Anders Behring Breivik, that’s who. Let’s be mindful of the difference between growth and trauma here.
Jokes aside, things did fortunately improve for us quickly and neither of our kids turned to murder. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Just to be clear, I don’t want any of this to come off as playing misery olympics. I understand that the pandemic has touched all our lives in different ways and there’s no “right” or “wrong” quarantine experience. I don’t think we necessarily had it tougher than anyone else: we never felt isolated in self-isolation (though we sure wished we did at times!), slept until we were sluggish, mistook 9 pm for 5 pm or had too much time to dwell on the grim news coming in from from all corners of the world.
Plus, we were financially stable and I was still on parental leave. With either of those things absent, it could’ve been a very different story.
However, I did feel discouraged from talking openly about our situation during this time because it didn’t seem to fit any of the popular quarantine narratives — and by that I mean generalizations. Following the media and social media became another exercise in alienation. The one-size-fits-all advice given to families generally assumed that their kids were at least a few years older than ours or you only had one. It’s like babies and toddlers didn’t exist in the public imagination.
In the end, our situation was salvageable. My husband decided to work from home and that was it. And by work from home, I mean assume a part of the care responsibilities and cram in a few hours of paid work wherever possible. I was initially against it like a good martyr — he still technically had the opportunity to work from his empty office — and pleaded him to just leave me and the kids to the wolves. He lovingly told me to STFU and let him decide about that.
Now, this obviously created some more head-scratching around us. Wasn’t I still on maternity leave? Weren’t I overreacting to something completely normal and benign because I was one of those moms? Was my husband really cool with helping me out around the house while he could be making that sweet dough all day long? Interestingly, no one asked him the same questions.
I get that most of these reactions came from a good place and simply not understanding the difference between a very small child and, say, a teenager, but I couldn’t muster the energy to either correct them or get mad at them. If there’s one thing that becoming a parent has taught me, it’s to check out of conversations that don’t serve me faster than a lightning and focus on those that do. On that note, anyone want to talk about the release of Adam Levin’s Bubblegum? Or that drunk livestream between Philosophy Tube, ContraPoints and Mia Mulder that was never archived and you had to be on YouTube at the right time to see? Because I would really like to talk about these things.
Having my husband around the house immediately turned a logistically impossible situation into a tough but possible one. Everyone got their basic needs met. My daughter went from Mr Hyde to Dr Jekyll again. I was especially happy to be able to be there for my son, who was having a hard time adjusting to being away from his friends and the hubbub of the kindergarten. He’s a lively kid and all that pent-up energy turned into anger and aggression. The ensuing meltdowns weren’t just “kids being kids” but an actual concern.
What I did was prioritize his emotional survival over any academic goals (which we were falling behind on anyway because, again, I couldn’t understand the materials). I’ve always made that my priority as a parent because it’s at the root of everything else. We learned to name our feelings and talked about things like anger, frustration, consent and personal space. We set up safe physical outlets for his pent-up energy. Freezing dinosaur toys into big ice cubes and excavating them with forks and knives became a favorite strategy. Thanks sister-in-law for the legitimately useful tip!
I won’t lie, it was exhausting and not always fun to be so tuned into someone else’s emotions at all times, but in the end we were both better for it. We both started relaxing into the new working order. That’s the blessing and curse of teaching your kids those vital emotional skills: you can’t do it without doing the same work on yourself. Kids can be your greatest teachers if you let them. I could go on a whole another tangent about this, but I feel that the quota for saccharine mom wisdom in this post is already full — so moving on.
It goes without saying that I didn’t have much in the way of downtime between March and May. Freedom generally began at around 9 PM when the kids were tucked in. To protect my sanity, I gave up on the modern notion that what we do must have some kind of measurable outputs: muscle gained, blog posts published, culturally relevant TV shows caught up with. I mostly stayed off social media. I still do.
I did continue watching my favorite beauty vloggers and video essayists (you might already have deduced which general YouTube subset they come from) and reactivated my Spotify Premium subscription to listen to some history and culture podcasts during my nightly runs. I call them runs but really they were mostly just jogs and excuses to get out of the house. I saw beavers and huge frogs on the banks of Neris for the first time, glimmering in the city’s neon lights. I meditated more than usual, but not so much as to call it a practice.
My favorite reads from this time were Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and Wendell Berry’s rural poetry. I didn’t know going into them that they were kind of talking about the same thing — reclaiming our attention and sense of place in our displaced digital and capitalist era — or that Odell even references Berry in her book. It was the perfect book duo to use for self-reflection when the world stood still and one to come back to when life returns to its usual course.
There hasn’t been much reason or rhyme to this post beyond just recapping the last few months in our lives. As a final and unrelated note, here’s a list of things from the Black Lives Matter network you can do to support the ongoing protests against anti-black police brutality in the US. Very useful for folks like me who live halfway across the world and want to help but aren’t sure where to start.