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I lost my cool somewhere between my two-year-old son refusing to put on pants and my four-year-old daughter wanting a jellybean. While I am usually unnervingly calm and can deftly navigate through toddler independence, this lockdown is becoming tiresome. My husband stayed up until 3 a.m. last night to wrap up his work day, since a huge chunk of normal working hours were dedicated to child care and homeschooling. Last night, my seven-year-old son and I powered through two weeks’ worth of math homework. Like millions of parents, in addition to managing our full-time work from home we are attempting to take on the tasks of all the caregivers, teachers and coaches to whom we outsourced a significant aspect of our children’s prepandemic lives.
Twelve weeks ago, our three children had in-person contact with so many inspiring adult role models: school teachers, daycare providers, gym and science teachers, ballet and tap instructors, karate instructors, swim coaches, babysitter, aunts, uncles, grandparents and neighbours. Now, for better or worse, the only in-person adult role models in our children’s lives are the two of us.
It’s the small victories that keep us going. My husband and I attempt an adult-only dinner by parking the children in front of the TV. Within minutes, we are interrupted by the two-year-old who has sneaked up beside us with his potty. With great pride, he declares: “I go pee-pee in my potty.” It’s a victory: Wow! High-five! Let’s go flush it in the toilet! Our adult-only dinner resulted in a moment to ourselves: long enough to realize that we both look totally exhausted, and our wine fridge has been empty for a long time. But our son is making important progress.
We were busy in our prepandemic lives, but back then there were at least some moments to ourselves. Now, I try to shower behind two locked doors. I put shampoo in my hair and revel in the guaranteed solitude that comes with personal hygiene activities, then look down to find that the seven-year-old and two-year-old have broken through the locks and think it’s the most marvellous thing to join Mommy in the shower: Hi Mommy! I love showers! Ohh – the water is so warm! Can I have some soap? I want to wash my tummy!
On weekends, when we have a break from work deadlines, we help the children catch up on their schoolwork, do five loads of laundry, clean the house and use a point system to convince our children that doing 60 chores a weekend is a fantastic opportunity. For a couple of weekends, I uncharacteristically put on an apron and didn’t leave the kitchen. Part of it was because the breakfast-cleanup-snack-cleanup-lunch-cleanup-baking-dinner-cleanup made it unavoidable, but also because at some point, the children got tired of “helping.” I channelled my Finnish grandmother who, after immigrating to Canada with her husband and children in the early 1950s, raised six children in a tiny home in the forests of Northwestern Ontario with no running water. I remember she made incredible Finnish meatballs, wore Chanel No. 5 and always kept her hair in a beautiful and effortless chignon.
I naively used to question why my grandmother never learned English or built a life outside the home. That was before this pandemic taught me that performing all the household chores, child care and schooling on top of a full-time job leaves you without a break.
I thought about my grandmother and what might have been her coping strategies to get through decades of isolating domesticity. I tightened my apron strings – cooking was not my typical way of relaxing, but in the circumstances it was the most effective route to the holy grail of pandemic parenting: alone time. With a potato casserole in the oven and dough rising on the counter, I savoured every drop of a piping hot cup of coffee before tackling the dishwasher and homemade carrot soup.
I used to think those career-focused years in my 20s and early 30s were demanding. From my current reality, it was a pampered existence where food was prepared for me and I had a quiet office in a skyscraper surrounded by well-dressed adults. I would go on work trips and have hours to sit quietly in my hotel room, after a night of uninterrupted sleep, to prepare for that day’s examinations for discovery.
My grandmother’s existence was anything but pampered: She persevered through traumatic experiences both in wartime Finland and Canada. And she was not alone. Our children would not be here were it not for the courage, resilience and endurance of our grandparents and great-grandparents: war heroes, Canadian farmers, homemakers, Finnish immigrants, Auschwitz survivors, refugees from former communist Czechoslovakia. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
We are in this pandemic marathon and I look to the wisdom of our grandparents and a greater appreciation of their traditions to get us through.
Our three children are young enough that they all still leap to the door with excitement when I enter our home; it makes me feel like a hero every time. They eagerly snuggle into our bed each morning to recount their dreams. I do a roundoff in the backyard and they look at me the way the world looked at Nadia Comaneci in 1976. I make hot cross buns and their joy for all the flavours makes me feel like a Michelin-starred chef. I dance along with them to The Nutcracker Suite and I might as well be Karen Kain.
But I am none of those people – and never will be. The world will never know my name, and in a few generations, I will be but an entry on a digital family tree. But that’s okay. Because during this unexpected chapter in our lives, the five of us are each other’s everything. And that is enough for me.
Laura Kraft lives in Ottawa.