On Friday March 13th 2020, when the world announced it was shutting down for what we thought was a “hot minute” due to the epidemic turned pandemic, I’m not going to lie to you: I was excited. It felt like a little family staycation. Hubs and I would get to work from home, the kids would be home with us (keeping toddler–then baby–home from daycare especially thrilled me, because despite his daycare and teachers being amazing, he never adjusted and he hated it, cried his heart out every day he went).
We were turning this scary thing into a positive thing! We’d get to spend a few weeks together as a family! I spent that weekend researching and planning: I created written schedules for each kid for their (very limited) school work (everything I read said a routine was critical!), including lunch menus (how clever!), recess time, and I even planned “extracurricular” activities for each day, including Mo Willems lunchtime cartoon drawing video, virtual tours of museums like the Louvre, Guggenheim, and Smithsonian, and (my personal favorite), on Fridays, instead of virtual museum tours, we watched YouTube videos of Disney World rides (it feels like you’re riding the rides yourself!) And electronics time was limited to 30 minutes in the afternoons, after school work was completed, of course. I also broadened our horizons with creative dinner recipes.
We were going to ROCK this 2-3 weeks of time at home together!
(Morgan Freeman Narrator Voice) Oh, but it wasn’t 2 or 3 weeks. No, Ally’s half-baked plan of homeschooling fun for a few weeks quickly and predictably became a shitshow.
I think it was week 3 when I cracked. And I mean, really cracked. We still kept a schedule/routine, but long gone were the planned virtual field trips, mandatory one-hour outdoor recess/family walks, and lunch menus. I was hanging on by a THREAD. All 3 big kids needed help with their school work/logging onto Zoom meetings at different times. No one’s schedule was the same. The toddler-then-baby was bored: we were all home with him, yet we didn’t have time to play with him 24/7. Oh, and then there was that pesky “work” thing hubs and I still had to do. Have you tried working from home with 4 kids under 10? (Well, NOW you have, but back in the spring, this was a new notion for most of us).
I already have anxiety: I’m not ashamed of it, it’s something I inherited from both sides of my parentage, along with my asthma and dry sense of humor. After a few weeks of what I like to call the “pandemic panic”–which encompassed all of the above stressors, plus, you know, worrying about my family’s health and safety (and mine, as I’m in a higher “risk group” with my autoimmune disease), and dying from this scary new virus that we knew next to nothing about–I finally called my doctor and upped my anxiety med dosage, which helped. A little.
Now, almost 10 months into this pandemic, we’re practicing what I call “realistic pandemic parenting.”
What does “realistic pandemic parenting” look like in the Mitchell house for 2021?
School work: My kids do their school work in their rooms, at their own desks, without our constant supervision. Is this ideal? No. But neither is both parents working from home while trying to home/virtual school 3 elementary schoolers while keeping a toddler alive and mostly contented. This also gives me and hubs the ability to work at the kitchen counter with minimal interruptions (other than the toddler constantly demanding we turn on the kitchen sink for him to play in, because I made the grave mistake of showing him how much fun this activity was on one rainy day, and now it’s the only thing he wants to do).
Au revoir, Chef Maman: The kids are on their own for breakfast. We keep a large stock of cereal, frozen waffles, mini muffins, and other semi-healthy, kid-friendly breakfast items in the house. This gives me time to wake up, caffeinate, and start my work day without having to play Chef Mom.
Printed chore lists: While this has been a thing in our house for over a year, I’ve recently reinforced (loudly, over and over and over again) that the first thing the kids do in the morning is read their chore lists (you would think, doing the same thing over and over again every single morning would ingrain this routine in their brains. And you would be wrong. Apparently the space in their brains to remember this routine has been taken over by useless Roblox and FortNite cheat codes). By the time I come downstairs in the morning, the kids are dressed, teeth brushed (so they say), breakfast eaten/in the process of being eaten, the dogs have been let outside, fed and watered, and the dishwasher is being unloaded. Our kids are ages 8-11, so if your kiddos are a bit younger, don’t worry. They’ll soon be old enough to contribute to society/the family chores! Even if you think they’re too young, they’re not. We’ve taught our kids from young ages to chip in with the chores, and it’s something they’ve grown to not quite enjoy, but accept as their responsibility in exchange for some TV time before school starts. Do the kids always remember to do all their chores without prompting/goading/threatening? No, no they do not. But it has significantly reduced the morning time chaos in our household.
Crockpot meals for the dinner win: In the battle of the work/school week grind, my crockpot is my strongest ally. I plan at least 3 of my weeknight meals for the crockpot. Why? Because I have the time/energy at 9am to spend 15-20 minutes pulling together ingredients, instead of at the end of the work day when I’m too tired to think, prep, and cook. I have compiled a Pinterest board just for crockpot meals (you’re welcome, fellow weeknight warriors). With the exception of my curry/Thai dishes (which I’ve become quite fond of recently, and the whole family loves them!), my favorite crockpot recipes contain spices and ingredients you typically have in your fridge and pantry. (Side note: if you’ve got taste buds for Thai/Indian food like we do, I highly suggest trying the Yellow Thai curry recipe I just made this week. You’ll need a few spices you may not have on hand, including coriander, ground ginger, curry, cumin, and garam masala, but I promise you, the investment in those spices is worth it!)
My house is lived in, and therefore dirty: I love keeping a clean house. Despite the hoard of kids and pack of dogs that live here, I take pride in having clean floors, uncluttered counters, and only clean piles of laundry in the bedrooms. However, with 6 of us being in this house 24/7 (literally, we never leave), it’s just not possible to keep the house as clean as I want it to be. That, and you know, this whole “working a job” thing keeps me pretty occupied. I’ve significantly reduced my expectations for household cleanliness. My trusty shark robot vacuum runs once a day (but she hasn’t been doing a great job lately. One may even say she’s sucking…pun strongly intended). But seriously, if (post-covid) you were to pop over for coffee, there will most likely be tumbleweeds of dog hair on the floors, the baseboards will need a good wipedown (I don’t hate any cleaning task as much as I hate wiping baseboards. Who gets ALL white baseboards throughout an entire house with 9 kids/dogs?), the counters will be cluttered with school books, recycling items (why am I the only person in this entire house that can take recycling out to the bins?!), the fridge will have fingerprints all over it, and the toddler’s toys will be littered across the entire first floor. And you know what? That’s okay. It has to be. Because I no longer have the time–or desire–to spend hours a day cleaning up after my hurricane of a family after every mess they make. It’s much less stressful (and time-consuming) to do a thorough job on the weekends when I have more time. And that vacuuming all the carpets and changing all the sheets every weekend I somehow managed pre-covid? Haha yeah, those days are long gone.
Healthy eating? Let’s try “healthier eating”: I had a real rough time before Christmas with my anxiety, and spent my “Christmas vacation” reeling from the unexpected loss of a dear childhood friend. I made the decision to put my Weight Watchers journey on pause, because it was one more thing adding to my stress. I definitely ate my feelings over the holidays–but who doesn’t? If food brings me some form of comfort, I’m not going to feel bad about that. I don’t believe in New Years’ Resolutions. If you want to make a change for yourself, do it. You don’t need a new calendar year to fuel that change. For me and hubs, we wanted to get back on a healthier eating track when we returned to “real life” after the holidays (we both had a blissful 2 weeks off from work and the real world). So when we returned to work in early January, I made sure our fridge was stocked with “healthier” options, and our dinners erred on the side of “healthier” as well. What does this mean for us? Less dairy (our family as a whole does much better without it, minus the milk-loving toddler), more fruits (apples, bananas, and grapes are staples for us, and peaches when I can find them in winter, aka never), and less takeout. Not NO takeout, but less. I have a terrible habit of turning to fast food when I’m stressed. Had a shit morning at work? Big Mac via DoorDash, please. I’m trying hard to break that habit, because it’s not a good one. I’m also planning one night a week for takeout. Instead of getting to 5pm and having no idea what I’m making for dinner, working myself into a tizzy over not knowing what to cook, throwing my hands up and ordering pizza–I have Friday night planned on our family menu (in my mud room, aka Command Center, which is the have-all, plan-all mecca of my parenting sanity) as pizza night. That way, we’re not completely depriving ourselves of our favorite cheesy goodness, we still have the other 6 nights’ meals planned out, and during a shit time for the economy, we’re supporting a local business. Win/win/win!
I lied: my New Year’s Resolution is to have more snuggle naptime with the toddler. This was the most relaxed I’ve been in weeks.
Conclusion: we’re going to do our very best for 2021. Our very best might not look like your very best, or your cousin Heather’s very best (how does she make her kids organic, Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes every morning, shower, do her hair and makeup flawlessly every morning, dress her children like they’re modeling for the J Crew catalog, and still have a smile on her face?) My best is my best, and I will not feel shameful for it. My best may look different when I’m having a particularly hard week. Knowing that this pandemic is not going anywhere anytime soon, we’ve made adjustments to our daily lives and expectations. We’re learning to appreciate every single day, find the humor in the unexpected, and let go of the things we can’t control (like how our trash company ran over our full recycling bin, then refused to take the contents within said recycling bin because their policy is not to take items from a bin without a lid, which was crushed in the middle of Rt. 23).
Be gentle with yourself. We’re not all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm.