When everything shut down in March, it felt like we all entered a sort of survival mode, complete with all the “extenuating circumstances” in place to survive the sudden changes of working from home, quarantining, social distancing, homeschooling, recalibrating plans- everything.
But you can’t stay in survival mode forever. At the start of this new year, and on the (hopefully?) ending stretch of this pandemic, I’m looking around and seeing the rhythms that we have settled into and I’m wanting to remember them. Not because I love every aspect of them, but because someday I want to tell my kids how we continued living and growing and finding ways to thrive even in a year where so much was just frankly bad. I started writing this post in September to recap our goals for the school year… then was going to be a fall reflection when I hadn’t finished it by November…and now here we are on the second day of a New Year and it is instead a catch-all of what I want to claim from daily life in 2020.
Henry was supposed to start Pre-K4 this year at a hybrid university model school and we were all so excited. While I don’t think Pre-K is necessary for longterm academic success, I was thrilled about Henry getting to have the social experience of school three half-days a week. When it was canceled (and the parents all refused the option of virtual) Henry enthusiastically started telling everyone that he would be homeschooled. I hadn’t actually planned on doing anything, but I couldn’t bear to squelch his enthusiasm, so school it was.
We have not really learned much by many standards. I was ambitious with workbooks! Plans! Goals! but quickly decided that homeschool had three goals for our family this year. First, I wanted Henry to have positive associations with school. I do not fight battles over school because it just isn’t worth it at this age. Plus, one time I fought one over what I believed to be an easy and helpful phonics lesson… and when it proved not to be easy, I got so frustrated that I had to go outside and cool off. That isn’t fair to Henry, who heartbreakingly explained to James while I was outside that he was trying but “it’s just really hard to learn things.” So while I gently push to have school time, I don’t force it to last or require us to get through some sort of curriculum. Second, I wanted some routine in our very unstructured day. 10 minutes of school workbooks after breakfast is a good reset for all of us and usually lets me read my Bible and have some more coffee. Lastly, I want Henry to learn to hold a pencil correctly. I don’t care as much about actually writing as I do about correctly manipulating the pencil. My goal is to set his actual teachers up for success, not to be a groundbreaking one.
Of course, even our official school times grew more rare as the fall went on. I like to think of it less as abandoning homeschool and more as moving to a liberal arts curriculum heavy on art class, read aloud, PE, and a curriculum I like to call “Please Stop Actively Destroying Our House,” or life and behavior skills that aren’t moral in nature, but are really helpful. Like how to walk by a wall without having to rub your entire body against it or how to not get a fresh cup every. single. time. you need a drink, etc.
Reading aloud with the kids has been such a joy. They are pro podcast and audiobook listeners, and I decided we were ready for simple chapter books. Both kids love the treat of cuddling up in my bed or smothering me while I nurse as I read. We started with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm and have now moved onto The Wind in the Willows. Clearly, a lot of the vocabulary is over their heads. But they are learning to sit with words they don’t know, to soak in description and dialogue and I like to tell myself that will serve them more than spelling their name out of macaroni. (Though like, if you want to come make macaroni art with my kids while I take a nap COME ON OVER.)
As for art, it has been one of the gifts of 2020. I do not craft. Crafts with kids are frustrating and tedious for me and the cleanup never feels worth the few moments of activity. But I miss painting and drawing for myself. One of my 2020 resolutions (HA) was to take time every month to make art. I envisioned a Saturday morning a month where I could slip away to one of the amazing DC art museums and sketch à la Paris Hannah... but that clearly did not become reality and I was really frustrated. In a moment of strange nesting following my 37 week doctor’s appointment, I bought a bunch of watercolor paints and decided that I simply HAD to learn to watercolor paint NOW. The result of that impulse buy and the many hours we have at home is that I am learning to watercolor paint as I am also teaching my children. We pull out our paints many days after nap, make tea, turn on some tunes, and paint. There is usually a child on my lap, someone (Etta) almost always dumps water on us all, and most days someone (Etta) ends up naked and covered in paint. But those afternoons of art with my children are some of my favorite of the past year. (And to be fair- we did all make it to the National Gallery once and sketching did happen. Several Degas paintings came close to peril but everyone survived, saved Etta’s Pink Bunny who was never seen again.) By salvaging my resolution in a completely different way than I planned I have found so much joy.
At least once a day this fall, I was overcome with gratitude for our home. It is far from perfect, and we have discovered many a quirk that has been less than exciting, like the faulty sump pump system that we will have to jackhammer out our basement to replace. But the fact that we ended up with a yard and a basement and a home office in a year where those things are crucial is never lost on me. We have loved our home this year. I tend to be on the go all the time. It is hard for me to give that up. But when I look back on the past year I see a contentment tied with the stillness we experienced. We usually do at least two “home days” a week where we get caught up on laundry and little projects and often keep our pajamas on all day. I love that we are rarely in a rush to leave the breakfast table and the slowness to our days feels precious in contrast to the speed at which my children seem to grow.
On our non-home days, this past fall marked a period of rich community. That seems strange to say in the age of social distancing, as indeed- we distanced. But we formed a pod in late April with two other families and this crew has been my lifeline. Our kids were already close friends and now they are even more so. I don’t think I could have walked through this year without these people. I can’t wait to get back to parties and social gatherings and hugging people that I barely know but really enjoy. And yet, it has been a good reminder for my extroverted self that we have finite time and resources. Investing in a small number of deep friendships brings belonging like numerous casual relationships cannot.
How can I separate this year of pain and difficulty from Madeleine Lois, the constant joy in my days? I made no secret that everything about every second of her pregnancy was miserable. But her presence overwhelms me with joy the way that I have never felt in the newborn stage. Is it that I am finally finding my newborn stride? Is it the steps I took to take better care of my emotional health post-partum this third time around? Is it that the whole world stopped so I felt more free to stop with it and revel in my baby? Or is it just a special dispensation of grace that God knew I needed for this child at this time? I guess it’s all of them. Whatever the case, I can’t explain how in awe I am of her. She is a pretty crappy napper, a finicky nurser, a super spitter, but I don’t even mind too much that she is my velcro baby, attending my classes and student meetings, snuggled up to me wherever I go. I haven’t had time to do the meticulous memory keeping for her that I did for the others, but I hope that someday I can make her understand that her early days were so special, so enjoyable, so redemptive.
A lot did not happen this fall. I started a new job with a total lack of fanfare because of COVID and virtual learning. We canceled the annual donut extravaganza for the first time since being in DC. We missed countless birthdays and date nights and celebrations. Our Thanksgiving plans fell through and the holidays were missing much of their festivities. I was supposed to be working 25-30 hours a week, but only wound up with 4 hours of childcare, so the rest of my work happened during nap-time, at night, on the weekends, desperately crammed into margins that weren’t there. I am so, so tired.
But when I look back, I also see so much good. I see so much grace woven through the days we spent as a tiny bubble, so much growth in James and I as parents and partners and in our kids. I see an intentional focus on our home, our habits, our actions that could only happen when a lot was taken away. I am not at all undermining the difficulty of this past year on a global scale. I know that the good I can find from it is a result of immense privilege and blessing- which is exactly why I am calling it out. I don’t want to take it for granted for a second.
Yesterday, on our drive home from visiting family over the holidays (its own ordeal, as lots of logistics, testing etc. went into it), James and I did our traditional year-end debrief while the kids enjoyed a total absence of screen time limits in the car. He asked what we will tell them about this year someday, and what will they remember.
To be honest, I hope they forget a big part of this year. I hope they don’t say, “all the adults were really angry and on their phones all the time.” Because that is a part of the truth of this past year. The very worst of humanity has been on display in 2020, both writ large and in our own hearts and interactions. The stress, the isolation, the fear, the division, the politics, the courage to be hateful through the medium of a screen, the time to stew- all of it combined to bring out the nastiness in everyone. None of us have gotten through the year without acting in ways that are deplorable.
But I believe, I hope, that they will remember more. That they will remember the slowness and quiet joy we had in growing and learning together in 2020.