Quarantine Diary Day 138: Sanity Check

My daughter has been going to day camp at the YMCA for the last four weeks. The season is abbreviated this year so next week is her last. Summer camps in our neck of the woods started announcing their summer shut downs way back in April but the YMCA kept our hopes afloat by sending us regular emails, postponing instead of cancelling the camp start date, and continuing to process our direct deposits. By mid-May, we were convinced that even five weeks of camp would not happen. People told us not to get our hopes up. People told us not in a million years. I wondered if we were stupid for continuing to pay for membership at a facility we hadn’t swam or worked out in or used in any way for over two months, for not asking for a refund for the camp fees we’d paid for June, for worrying more about the money than the health risks, for holding out hope that D would go to camp in July.

In mid-June, the YMCA finalized the summer camp schedule. Five weeks, five days a week, with a shortened camp day from last year. Groups would be capped at 10 campers with limited and consistent staff assigned to each group. Eighteen days out from the start of camp, we did not have a clue about anything else, about safety protocols or about the camp itinerary, only the vaguely inspiring but also somehow unsettling promise that “now that we understand what we can’t do, we are focusing on what we CAN do.” People were still telling us camp would not happen, or that it shouldn’t. I wondered if we were stupid for not worrying more about the risks or the safety protocols, for putting our child in childcare that we didn’t technically need. I wondered if we were part of the problem, partially to blame for America not getting this damn virus under control.

The YCMA sent out the safety protocols on July 2: a regimented drive-up drop-off/pick-up procedure, daily health screenings and temperature checks, lots of hand sanitizer and hand washing, masks for campers and staff at all times indoors and any time six feet of physical distance could not be maintained outdoors, eating lunch in the classroom, no mixing with other groups, no personal belongings from home, a strict sick policy, and a harsh COVID liability waiver. I wondered if we were making a huge mistake, if the social and mental benefits of camp for our daughter would be wiped out by the social and mental strain of attending under these conditions. I wondered if we were underestimating the risks of getting someone sick or getting sick ourselves of our daughter getting sick.

Our daughter started camp on July 5. My husband does a contactless drop-off of our precious human cargo in front of the camp site instead of walking through the neighborhood like they did last year. D answers questions we had to explain to her the day before camp started about whether she has a new cough or shortness of breath, a sore throat, vomiting or diarrhea, chills or shaking, muscle pain, a headache, or new loss of taste or smell. Apparently no one ever told her what diarrhea was (this is why we need kids in school). A staffer holds a thermometer to her head. Apparently she runs lower than I realized, around 98 degrees. She wears a mask all day every day and when she comes home it is filthy with sunscreen and sweat and spit and mustard. When the bandana we sent her in the first week kept slipping under her nose the staff gave her a disposable surgical mask. Apparently we need to buy a lot more masks, and apparently decent ones are hard to find (this is why schools need to provide masks). She has a table all to herself in a classroom that only had five kids the first week, though it’s now up to ten. Each camper gets their own stockpile of art supplies. No sharing. An only child’s dream.

She comes home every day with a bag overflowing with paper airplanes and paper dogs and paper crowns and paper dolls and paper alligators and paper birds and homemade coloring books with scenes she drew from The Neverending Story. She comes home every day with scrapes and scratches and dirt under her nails and paint on her hands and tales about the weird and cool shit she saw: thousands of ants swarming a pile of spilled Cheetos, a bunny’s tail with no bunny attached, a cicada’s shell, a dead bird, a murder of crows, a tiny goldfinch perched on a flower, a katydid. I wondered if camp was glorified babysitting, all free-time all day, alternating between inside and out. Honestly, I wondered the same thing last year. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if it was. My kid’s got to learn how to be around other kids. She’s got to learn how to be bored. She’s got to get some distance from me and her dad, not for our sake and sanity but for hers.

At the end of the second week of camp, the YMCA sent home a video of the kids doing archery, dropping Mentos into Coke bottles, flipping cups, playing soccer and basketball, painting rocks, chalking the asphalt, listening to stories, and singing songs. “Do you do all this stuff?” I asked D. “Yeah, of course,” she said.

One day my daughter came home and announced that she had a best friend. When the staff noticed that they were dragging their chairs over to each other’s tables every day, they moved them into kitty corner chairs at the same table. “We’re still too far away, though, so we move our chairs closer.”

A few weeks after that she told us that her old best friend didn’t want to be best friends anymore so they swapped with another pair of girls. Now she has a new best friend.

When I tell people my daughter is in camp, I expect the for them to balk, and justify my decision. One day I called a friend in the middle of the day. “What’s going on?” he asked? “How are you calling right now?” “D is in camp.” He’s in another state, and was speechless. “What? How? How is that possible?” I launch into my standard speech, listing off the safety protocols the same way I did at the outset of this post. “The YMCA is doing a pretty good job. Fewer than ten kids per class. Health checks every morning. The kids are in masks all day. No touching.” He cut me off. “Hold on a second. To be clear, I’m not judging. It’s just that we don’t even have the option.”

Every day for the last four weeks my daughter has woken up in a good mood. She gets dressed and ready for the day without me asking. Sometimes she shouts, “I get to go to camp today!” Every day for the last four weeks my daughter has come home animated, energized, and excited. We spend the afternoons and evenings together watching TV, playing games, eating dinner, playing outside, going on walks, listening to music, reading, playing with toys, and making art. Every day of the last four weeks has not been perfect, but they have been pleasant.

Now, people are telling us that they would never send their kids to in-person school in the fall, even if the schools do manage to pull off safety protocols along the lines of what they’re doing at the YMCA. We just opted-in for in-person learning to begin at the end of September. We’ll see if that actually happens. In the meantime, I’m wondering, am I stupid? Am I selfish? Am I underestimating the risks? Am I opportunity hoarding? Am I part of the problem? Am I doing the best I can with the same set of limited information and admittedly different but ultimately all crappy options as everyone else?

Quarantine Diary Day 135: Raising the Bar

When my daughter turned seven at the end of April drive-by birthdays were all the rage. Our community is all close enough to walk or far enough to fly so we asked our neighbors to hang signs on their doors wishing D a happy birthday. Our neighbors, even the ones we don’t know so well, even the ones without kids, showed up with signs and tapped hello from their windows and brought their pets to the doors and left cards and little gifts on their stoops and one beautiful child played her ukulele. It was enough to make D feel special and to make me cry. It is always a tall order to make a kid feel as special as they are on their birthday, and a making that happen in quarantine felt impossible. My neighbors took some of that weight off my shoulders and carried us for a stretch in the middle of a long at-home birthday afternoon.

The next day, we crossed paths with a neighbor by the mailbox, a dad with three kids of his own. He wished D a happy birthday. We thanked him and then asked if they had any quarantine birthdays coming up. “Yeah,” he said. “In July.” “HAHAHAHA,” I laughed in the face of this eminently reasonable man until I realized he wasn’t kidding. My amusement soured as my mind stretched, for the first time, out past the end of the school year. I hadn’t been thinking about summer or fall or winter or spring again. I hadn’t appreciated that all the birthdays could become quarantine birthdays. I hadn’t realized I needed to step back to understand the size of this thing. Up close it was already too big: countries hit, case counts, casualties of life and life as we know it. I wasn’t ready to face up to it being bigger than it already seemed.

Lately my daughter has started saying something that I guess I must say a lot. “Can you believe it? The year is halfway over and so is the summer and it feels like nothing’s happened!” It’s true! The summer birthdays are upon us, some already in the distant past. Drive-by birthdays are still a thing. The summer affords one thing spring did not, which is outdoor gatherings. In the spring, where we live, in-person gatherings outside would have been both frightfully cold and highly illegal. Now they are only frightfully hot and, if not entirely safe, at least safe-ish. The backyard birthday, once viewed by upper middle class parents as a throwback, a simpler and more affordable alternative to renting out a two hour block at whatever dangerous and diseased arcade/trampoline park/pool/gym/inflatable wonderland–your kids’ classmates are obsessed with this year, now feels like the height of luxury, like a walk on the wild side, like a damn good idea, albeit a little more complicated to execute than it was before.

This weekend our neighbors invited us to their son’s sixth birthday party. It was BYOB–bring your own bat for the pinata–and the kids came out in force, armed with baseball bats, hockey sticks, pipes, and, in one case, a long wood-handled broom. With their masks, they looked like they had wandered off the set of some post-apocalyptic television show, or like they might turn on the adults at any moment. With the adults all hovering around the perimeter trying to maintain social distance, we looked like we might be scared. When the kids all rushed of their own accord into a neat, organized, and tightly packed line–a feat that can surely only be attributed to the appearance of the pinata and the prospect of candy in the very near future–the mood transformed quicky from impressed to fearful and we started shouting at the kids–“SCATTER! SPREAD OUT! GO! GO! GO!”–until they dispersed into a loose clump. The pinata was an oversized LEGO brick, homemade, so well done you wouldn’t know it, strung up on a wooden beam a couple of dads held high above their heads. The kids went at it with everything they had, with four months of pent up energy and rage, and it still took them a good fifteen minutes, with many turns for each kid, and one close call between a broomstick and one of the dads–to break it down. When it finally collapsed, the kids instinctively leaned in before jumping back. The birthday kid’s mom had warned beforehand that there would be no candy strewn across the lawn, no reason to rush, nothing to gather, just one big ziplock for each kid, and now she was reminding them again. They waited patiently for her to hand the goodies out.

After the pinata we sang happy birthday to the birthday kid and helped ourselves to homemade cupcakes and retreated to our family units to eat with masks off. The kids played with the off-brand building bricks that had come out of the pinata. When the sun set, they cracked glow sticks and chased fireflies while the adults set up socially distanced blankets and chairs and distributed popcorn for a late showing of the LEGO movie on a projector screen. We weren’t going to keep our daughter up because she’s seen the movie a half dozen times and while she generally does perfectly fine with late bedtimes, her parents do not. Lucky for her, there was just enough magic for us to loosen our grip on the way things are supposed to be and give them a chance to be how they are. We curled up on our blanket and swatted mosquitos and laughed at our favorite lines. At the end of the movie when Elizabeth Banks’ character gives her inspirational speech to the townspeople to rise up against the fascist President Business, to rip up the ground and tear apart the walls and “build whatever weird thing pops into [y]our head,” the “things only you can build,” my daughter grabbed her glow stick and stuck it in front of my face to confirm that I was, indeed, crying.

When the party wrapped up, I took a minute to congratulate the parents on a top-notch quarantine birthday. Since I had my daughter, I always like to congratulate parents on another year of keeping their kids alive and, if applicable, on surviving the hell that is throwing a party for children, who are objectively the world’s’ worst party guests. Parents in 2020 deserve an extra round. Back in March, the bar for what qualifies as good time–let alone special and memorable–dropped so low, and parents everywhere are busting their asses to raise it back up. My neighbors literally raised the bar with a homemade pinata attached and gave their kid–all our kids, and the parents too–a summer day that stands on its own as special, pandemic or no. I am grateful to them for that and more. I am grateful to everyone who has, some just by virtue of being here and carrying on, made this world feel like one that’s worth fighting for.

Quarantine Diary Day 98: On The Porch

Work is picking up again, leaving me with less time to let my mind wander during the day and less energy to write at night. Parenting remains all-consuming, in a way I didn’t expect. As the physical requirements decrease, the emotional demands run high. Like, we sleep through five nights out of seven, but I have to be emotionally available all day. Like, my kid will eat almost anything I put on the table but bursts into tears if I look at her sideways because “are you frustrated mama?” Like, she talks all the time. On Friday night after a long day at work and at home I put the kid to bed a bit early so I could do some writing. It was still hot outside with another hour of light so I set myself up on the front porch, which is where I’ve been spending the bulk of my time weekends when the weather is nice.

Have I explained where we live yet? I think I need to set the scene, since we’re going to be all summer. We live in a townhouse community with thirty-nine other families. The units on the west side have back porches and the units on the south and east have front lawns but everybody’s outdoor space is small–six feet square, tops. The buildings are arranged in a triangle around a grassy common area shaped like a slice of pie. There’s a driveway that runs between the buildings and then wraps around behind the units on the east. Our neighbors run the gamut from young couples to empty nesters, from single people to single parents, from tiny babies to teenagers, from families in the thick of raising school-aged kids to retirees. Our first year here there were more than twenty kids under the age of ten. Five years later I don’t know how many kids there are, but it’s a lot. Communal living is a dream come true for our little family living as far from we do from grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins; all we have to do is step out the front door and there’s someone to play with or talk to. It’s also worth noting that living in close proximity to dozens of people under an active HOA pushes every single one of my buttons.

The first thing I saw when I went outside on Friday night was a gaggle of kids eating cupcakes in the common area. Immediately I felt bad, first for shuttling my daughter off to bed and then because I realized we hadn’t been invited to join in whatever special occasion precipitated the cupcakes. I still remember the injustice of a summer bedtime before the sun went down and the loneliness of my voice not being part of the evening cacophony. The twin memories linger and sting. I considered returning to the kitchen table to write, but didn’t. I was determined not to cede the last of the light to my childish resentment of people having fun without me, or the night to my deeply maternal habit of projecting my insecurities onto my daughter. I decided to stay outside.

As soon as I opened my tablet, a neighborhood kid, a friend of my daughter’s, buzzed over like a moth to a flame. She paced around my camp chair chatting and chatting and intermittently asking “Where’s D___? Why don’t you go get D___?” and reacting incredulously every time I repeated (also incredulously), “She’s in bed!” At first I resisted the pull of the conversation. I put my own kid to bed so I could write and just think for a goddamn minute and here I was doing neither. I kept looking down at my the keyboard and rifling through the pages of notes also on my lap, but the kid refused to leave for more than a few minutes, and the one kid was followed by another who also wanted to know where D was, and then by the second kid’s mom, who just waved, and then by the first kid’s older sister who just wanted to talk, and then by her father who wanted to check in, and eventually by her mother, a dear friend who I haven’t seen for more than a few minutes since the pandemic started. When I finally closed the computer and gave myself over to the family dynamic spilling onto my front porch, the first kid came back and put an actual puppy on my lap.

I never ended up finding out what the cupcakes were for or if there was some party to which we weren’t invited. I never wrote the essay about being lonely, about struggling to feel like a good mom, about the challenge of maintaining my sense of self when living in close enough quarters to watch other people’s lives unfold. Instead, I spent a few humid
hours being a neighbor, a friend, a trusted adult, making the neighborhood a better place for someone else’s kids. I went inside when everyone else did, sticky bug-bit, and satisfied with the way the summer is going, with my tiny front porch, with my great big life.

Quarantine Diary Day 60: How I Got My Kid To Go Back To Sleep

Let’s talk about the nightmares. Not the waking nightmare that is life in a pandemic, but the regular sleeping kind, and not my nightmares (though they are wild these days), but my kid’s. Pre-COVID, my seven-year-old went to bed easily after an involved but mostly pleasant bedtime routine, sweetly sang and chattered to herself for fifteen minutes or so after I left the room, and then promptly passed out. She slept through the night, every night, and generally didn’t disturb the household until she popped out of bed refreshed and ready to play at 6:30 the next morning. She averaged maybe a nightmare a year.

A few weeks into COVID, that all changed. First she had one bad dream: I had given her an owl for a pet and she kept it in a cage in her room, and after a week she realized it was dead, that it had been dead the whole time. We got her back to bed without too much drama, but the memory of it lingered, and scared her off sleep for the next week. Just as the fear was starting to dissipate, she had another , and then another a few days after that, and then it was three nightmares three nights in a row, and then there was one hideous night where she had three separate nightmares, each necessitating a trip to my room, my husband and I trading off increasingly drawn-out and unsuccessful attempts to comfort her, and much begging to just sleep in our room. Bedtime became an anxious, pleading affair. She desperately wanted to sleep in our room or us to sleep in hers. I tried to be her soft place. I held her in my arms, sang songs, prayed, breathed deeply, and talked her through guided meditations, but turned to stone when she tried to disrupt the family sleeping arrangements. I am the jealous guardian of sleep: of my own, my daughter’s, and everybody else’s. I know about kids climbing into bed and never getting out, and wasn’t about to let that happen on my watch. Even with me policing the parental bed, none of us were sleeping much. Most nights I spent hours lying in bed, wired with adrenaline, just waiting for the next scream.

The nightmares were all variations on that first bad dream: dead owls, dead squirrels, a dead guinea pig, a dead anthropomorphic fried egg named Gudetama. It was the animals that threw me off, made me slow on the uptake. That and the exhaustion. What is going on??? I fumed. Why is this happening to us now??? How can we make it stop???

It wasn’t until the specter of the nightmares manifested in the middle of our daylight hours that I realized. D had been resisting taking walks outside with me for days. I knew she had seen a dead squirrel in the park with her dad and was afraid of seeing another one, so we kept strictly to the sidewalks. Still, every time we saw a squirrel scamper in the distance, she flinched. “The squirrels aren’t going to hurt you, kiddo. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.” She looked up at me with fear in her eyes: “What if a squirrel runs up to us and dies?” I started to respond—“Why would a squirrel run up to us and d_____”—and then trailed off when it hit me. She knew all about the virus. She knew she wasn’t allowed to touch anything outside because it lingered on surfaces. She knew we had to cross to the street when we saw the neighbors coming because it traveled through the air. For all she knew, coronavirus was everywhere, all the time, infecting all the animals she ever loved, and probably all the people too.

This, of course, was the result of us trying to keep our kid informed while shielding her from the worst truths about the pandemic. We didn’t talk about the death toll. We reassured her that most people who got sick got better. But kids aren’t stupid. They know life doesn’t shut down for a bad cold. I asked my therapist what to do. “It might be time to talk to her about death.”

I did start talking to my kid about death, but those conversations are complicated and controversial so I’m not going to get into it now. Instead, I’m going to tell you the bedtime hack for anxious kids that I discovered while I was trying to sort out what I could possibly say to my daughter about death that would provide her with comfort and security given that my belief system has been abstracted to the point of being unrecognizable to believers and non-believers alike.

This is how I tricked my daughter into going to bed relaxed and happy instead of working herself into the kind of fearful frenzy that only breeds bad dreams–i.e., how I taught my daughter to stop worrying and learn to love bedtime:

Every night, the moment I hear the words start to come out of her mouth–“Mama, I’m scared I’m going to have a bad dream”–I shush her and say, “Echo: play music by the Beach Boys.”

Every night, without fail, the lush harmonies and dulcet tones of “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B,” which now form the soundtrack for entire evenings in our house, sometimes beginning right after dinner, lull her my daughter into a sense of well-being better than any drug I’ve ever taken. She dances and sings and climbs into bed at ease. I promise to stay outside her room for five minutes in case she needs me and listen to her chatter herself to sleep. If I stay longer than five minutes it’s only because I’m writing these diary entries. She hasn’t had a nightmare in about two weeks now. I’m still having freaky dreams on the reg, but can’t complaint. At least we’re all sleeping through the night.

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