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I Have No Idea What’s Happening: 4 Ways I’m Parenting in Uncertainty

School is about to start. Or is it? I have no idea.

If it opens in-person, should my kids go virtual or in-person? I have no idea.

(We still have jobs, I work from home, and my kids are not little anymore, so I’m lucky to even have choices. The fact that so many of us parents are totally stuck is a topic for another day. But I’ll just say that it’s impossible for so many families right now, and it sucks.)

We haven’t known anything, not really anyway, for months.

My kids, who are starting fifth, seventh, and ninth grades in Ohio this year, had their last day of real school on March 13. School was initially closed for three weeks. We kind of couldn’t believe it. How unprecedented! Like we were getting a big chunk of snow days. It wasn’t too bad.

Vaguely, someone somewhere suggested that it was possible that schools might be closed for the rest of the school year. What? No way. We brushed that nonsense off, and then spent spring eating our disappointments as if eating the proverbial elephant: one bite at a time. After-school activities? Canceled. Chomp.  Sports and lessons? Canceled. Chomp. The big competition for which they spent months preparing? Canceled. Chomp. It was getting harder to swallow, but on we went, because what else can you do? Then the school trips, the summer activities and jobs, the family vacation, the extended family visits: All canceled. Chomp chomp chomp chomp.

Here we are in summer, still digesting all those losses, and incalculable ones are still ahead. We literally do not know how long this will go on, nor how much else (and, God forbid, maybe who else) we will lose.

So What Do We Do as Parents?

I don’t know what your answer is—and I’d like to know—but here’s what we’re doing to muddle through.

We accept that we don’t know.

We’re so used to knowing. We have weather forecasts, year-long school calendars, vacation reservations, holiday plans with relatives. We are people that like to think ahead. In our house, we are still putting the monthly calendar page on the refrigerator. I don’t really know why—it is blank. But maybe somehow it still tells us, this is where we are. It also tells us we don’t know what’s coming. We’re getting used to holding both those things in our minds at once.

We focus on small chunks of time.

Days, not months. Weeks, not years. Honestly, this is good for both kids and grown-ups. Would we really have been able to handle it if on March 13 we were told that in midsummer the pandemic would be worse than ever in most of the U.S., with no end in sight, and that school for 2020-2021 would be a giant question mark? Maybe—we’re tough. Still, I think maybe it’s better to take on this crisis in increments. Just as we have taken our disappointments in bite-sized increments, we can try to plan our future in pieces small enough to count on. Patio drinks tonight. Berry picking next week. Stand-up paddleboarding in two weeks. These are small things on which we can pin hope. The holidays? Travel? 2021? Those are faraway dilemmas for another day. Right now, we’re here.

We immerse ourselves in stories.

As we go on a training run together, my kid says, Mom, tell me a story. She wants a distraction from the discomfort of the moment, from the pain of exertion. And so I do, dragging out random stories from my childhood until at last we are done and walking comfortably again. In this pandemic, we all need stories, ones that will distract and sustain us. We look at photos of past vacations and family gatherings, feeding our hearts on the joy and adventure there until we can have our full joy and adventure back in the present. We watch movies and TV together (thank you, Hamilton and The Office and Stranger Things). Sometimes, if we’re feeling ambitious, we read the same book as one another. We enter other worlds so that we can rest from the stresses of ours for a while.

We get outside.

While we humans try to figure out how to live in a pandemic, the rest of nature still unfolds, uncomplicated, around us. My kids don’t always want to go outside but I nudge, nudge, nudge (or order) just the same. There’s plenty of scientific evidence that shows that nature is good for our physical and emotional well-being, but personal experience tells me that too. An evening walk—a leisurely ramble, usually—reveals the quiet secrets of suburban wildlife. Have the monarchs laid their eggs yet? What silliness are the chipmunks up to now? Will the barred owl be hunting in the woods tonight? Nature has no need for me; I have no job except to slow down, notice it, and soak up its wonders. I go out empty, and I come back full.

Still, I have no idea about the big questions or about the long-term. But I know this: We will find small, good things today. That doesn’t solve any of the world’s problems, but it nourishes us to face them. And we’ll keep soldiering on—for as long as it takes.

Sharon Holbrook

Sharon Holbrook is managing editor of Your Teen.

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