Parenting and Working During Crisis: From Tornado to Global Pandemic with a Kindergartener

Before we entered the weird sub-reality of living life as a parent during a pandemic, we had just lived through a deadly tornado in our much-loved neighborhood of East Nashville. Things can, and sometimes will, change in an instant. Monday, I was actively planning a couple of cool fundraisers for my son’s elementary school, hoping to entice the hip parentage there to play pinball, eat pizza, and drink beers together. By Tuesday, both of the businesses I had booked had been blown over. Needless to say, things were already pretty weird. But, they got a whole lot weirder almost immediately.

The night of the tornado, my husband Matt and I snagged our son out of bed and scurried to take shelter in our crawl space with few minutes to spare. With our bike helmets on, I recall making what now seems like a feeble attempt to comfort our son, a kindergartener. In the urgency of that small window of time, I didn’t quite know what to say aside from “Get down between your dad and I”. My husband turned the hand crank radio broadcasting the ominous message about imminent danger. I heard what sounded like static popping around our crawl space while sirens blared outside. As a family, we don’t really do church. I consider myself to be somewhere on the spectrum between witch and Buddhist. Yet, I can’t stand anything too defined, so even those labels bug me. I hadn’t officially talked to our son about prayer though he knows who Jesus and Buddha are and has gone to Catholic mass a few times. I threw together some kind of quick prayer, but the surreal nature of the moment, and knowing how much of it was entirely out of my control, left an empty feeling in my stomach. I held our son, not knowing what to say, and in a flash, it was over.

We made it through the tornado. But, we also knew it came close. Tornadoes can be remarkably precise—one home spared while the next is ruined. My elderly neighbor, who also lived through the 1998 tornado, called it “The Finger Of God.” I think she’s right, having seen it in first-person. The next morning, after not really sleeping, I rode my bike down the street in a daze to bring my bandmate, Nicole, some hot coffee. Her power had been off since the tornado, leaving her family without any means of making hot water. She lives about 4 blocks from me. In that short ride, I saw what a tornado can do, emptying the contents of a home across a field like a thief dumping out a purse. Streets lined with jagged, torn up houses resembling a jaw of broken teeth. Trees stripped or entirely uprooted, beds tossed like leaves, cars crushed, and roofs wrapped around electric poles. But Nicole was safe, and when I saw her face, the reality of how close this tornado came to both of our families was profoundly humbling and scary. Nature is truly awesome in unfathomable ways, and yes—every moment really IS precious. The coffee mug that told me this in swirly cursive writing was totally right.

All this is to say that before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, our family was already experiencing disruption. Schools had already been closed, supplies sparse, people and businesses broken. But also, we saw how amazingly resilient and loving people were to one another as thousands of volunteers helped remove debris and deliver food to those in need. In a way, it was a small blessing the tornado came first, before the fear of contagion, because the sheer number of volunteers would have been virtually impossible to gather a mere two weeks later.

My son, who I will call M, attended school for all of 3 days between the tornado aftermath and schools shutting down indefinitely due to Covid-19. Our next journey as parents is to figure out how to make life as normal as possible for M during a global pandemic, post-tornado, without school, playing IRL with friends or trips to the playground, zoo, or library. Did I mention my husband and I are both full-time working professionals? Oh yeah. He is a creative director, and I am an art director—both of which allow us to work from home, thankfully. Noting what you are grateful for is SUPER essential on this journey. Our house is still here. Check. We did not get hurt. Check. So far, we have no symptoms of illness. Check. We can still work. Check.

But, can we work and homeschool and be everything our son needs for an indefinite amount of time, all while remaining sane and patient with each other, our kid, the cat, and the snake? [Check TBD]. Can we take good enough care of ourselves during this time (i.e., try our best not to panic about potential catastrophes down the road, not to mention our families who live in different states)? [Check TBD]. I don’t need to tell you there are a lot of unknowns. I expect you have your own assembly of circumstances to handle.

I have no answers, but since I feel lucky to simply be alive, I’ve decided to approach this without fear (as much as humanly possible) and tap into my inner-Aquarius for some innovative scheduling and thinking to get us through what’s coming.

Our first step during pandemic parenting: Make things as normal as possible for M, but tell him the God’s honest truth about what’s happening. No sugar coating it. Small kids can handle the truth. I know he hears me, even if his next question is about Minecraft again. We will continue to speak in clear terms. If you are in the same boat with parenting a small child during the crap cloud of Covid-19, I highly recommend you download the comic book from NPR explaining the virus. It covers all the basics in a kid-friendly way regarding how people get sick, washing hands, and not touching their face.

In keeping with step one, we decided not to cancel our spring break plans to rent a beach house on the Emerald Coast of FL. While Nashville continued to shut down everything, we holed up in a cozy 1980s beach shack. We didn’t go out except to sit on the beach or hike. We did see clusters of oblivious spring breakers from the car, and it prompted us to ditch the beach after 12 PM when it started to fill up with a-holes. The governor never officially shut the beaches down, but local authorities finally did just as we were leaving. I guess you can always count on some number of people acting like the world isn’t in meltdown because the sun is out, and they have a beer in their hand. We noticed other families like us, though, keeping safe distances, smiling in passing but giving each other a wide berth. Note to self—there will always be people facing the same circumstances and (perhaps) outcomes but responding in opposing ways.

Next week we start phase two, which I am equally excited and terrified about: work from home while homeschooling. I will report back on this in more detail once it starts, but the general plan is to switch back and forth between work and homeschooling M for the foreseeable future. We will bounce him back and forth like a beach ball until he’s “released” to for some screen time (and more work time) at 3 PM. These will be long days for Matt and I, and we know it. We hope to keep M in a routine similar to what his Kindergarten class schedule was, but expand the repertoire to include studying subjects we all think are cool or are versed in. I expect music, art, and science to be pretty fun. M likes to paint like Basquiat. Maybe he will play some drums while I play guitar. Perhaps we will sew some medical masks for our local hospital. We should absolutely take this opportunity to teach M how to make his own breakfast or how to cook lunch for everyone. He’s expressed an interest in learning about prosthetics and how people build things IRL (as opposed to Minecraft). He may be disappointed to discover he can’t have a hot tub full of lava on the roof of a real house, but that’s a different matter.

What I don’t know is how long we can stay organized and keep him interested, or how tolerant we will be about all the inevitable whining for screen time or begging to see a friend. Even during documentaries about war, you see kids playing together. How do we explain that he can’t see his friends because it’s nearly impossible they won’t share germs? Six-year-olds don’t know how to play from a 6-foot distance. I don’t know if Matt and I will pull off being patient as much as we need to be, both with M and with each other, and I’m nervous. How this isolation will affect him and us is anyone’s guess, but at least we have the basics: a house to isolate in and each other. Come what may.

KJ Parish is a designer and the Art Director for Thought Catalog Books.

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