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first person

This week, First Person features the joys and the sorrows of mothering.

Illustration by Drew Shannon

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

My 11-year-old daughter, Miriam, cradles her cellphone like a newborn. Her iPhone, purchased second-hand with carefully saved birthday and babysitting money, is her perpetual companion. But during the social isolation brought on by a pandemic, it has also become her salvation.

“What are you doing?” I ask when I see her curled up on the couch. I already know the answer. “Watching TikToks,” she murmurs dreamily. TikTok is her favourite activity once home-schooling has wrapped up for the day and a swath of free time has opened for everyone in the house. She feels most cheered, entertained and safe in the TikTok universe. “Why don’t you read a book?” I suggest. “Mom,” she sighs, “everything is so depressing, I need TikTok. I need to escape into that world right now.”

Who could blame her? I want to escape, too.

TikTok is a web-based app with over 1-billion users that enables people to make 15- to 60-second videos that include lip syncing to music, dancing, #challenges, sketch comedy and insider jokes. It is seen as different than other forms of social media because the main goal is to entertain rather than to look perfectly posed, like on Instagram. “It’s pure fun,” Miriam said. Then she added with a half-smile, knowing my hatred for this neologism: “It’s addicting.”

As a professor of child and youth studies at Brock University, who has researched girls’ culture for over 20 years, I have observed Miriam’s TikTok use with a fascination that has only grown in the wake of the pandemic. Most of the day, I deliver lectures on Zoom, attend meetings online, mark papers and answer e-mails. When I’m not working, I cook, clean, play Monopoly, go on careful walks, come up with art projects, plan FaceTime playmates for my 7-year-old son, and help my partner manage our family’s emotions. From this frenzied vantage point, I have watched Miriam laugh and dance all by herself with curiosity and envy. What was I missing?

Miriam and I started a research project about TikTok several weeks before COVID-19 had become a bona fide reality in Canada. I knew I could not understand the app without her, and invited Miriam to be my co-researcher – she was the expert and I was her willing apprentice. Miriam was on board right away: “Parents need to know more about what their kids are doing so they can understand them better and know what’s important to them.” I was interested in highlighting the creative, generative and constructive potential of TikTok as a forum for expression.

And then came COVID-19.

TikTok provided my daughter an escape, yes, but even more than that, it offered her information, community, connection and a powerful outlet for dealing with daily stress. Miriam showed me TikToks that tackled COVID-19 with humour, compassion and irony. Young people were speaking to each other about how to “get through this.” Instructions for pranks, juice mixes, hair styles, crafts, room décor, dealing with parents and how to sew your own non-surgical masks endlessly proliferate on the platform. And then there are the dances. Each dance necessitates perfecting challenging moves, hitting the beat and knowing the lyrics to the songs. Miriam was a dancing queen in an oversized hoodie, PJ bottoms and a tie-dye scrunchy.

Our TikTok research opened an avenue for conversation during these stressful times about something my daughter really cares about. I took her love of this social-media app seriously. She seemed to appreciate that. And she happily answered my questions about how TikTok affected her life, especially now that she spends most of her time inside and physically distant from her BFFs.

I wanted a piece of that “addicting” feeling that filled her with such joy. I wanted to laugh like she did. To dance as if no one – and everyone – were watching. To not care if my hair was brushed or if my clothes were clean (they weren’t). I wanted Miriam to take me into her world.

“Show me,” I finally said. “Show me how to do one of the dances.”

She propped her phone up against the computer screen in my tiny home office. Suddenly, I was no longer the professor doing research. I was a TikTok-er. And I wanted to get this right.

Miriam was a patient teacher, only laughing at me when I moved too slow or used my left hand instead of my right. She started me off with an easy one: set to a sped-up version of One Direction’s You’re Still the One, she walked me through an arm movement ballet that ended with us in a heart-shape, heads touching, fingers curved together over our heads. “Okay, that was pretty good,” she generously offered. “Let’s try something a little harder.”

Next, she taught me a trickier choreography set to a much racier tune (Like That by Doja Cat, featuring Gucci Mane), our arms swept over our faces, we pretended to splash money around from our hands, we walked backward, we moved our hips in circles one way and then the other. “Pick up the pace a little,” she kindly instructed. “Don’t watch me. Look at the camera.” After several more tries, we captured a take she was pleased with.

“That was awesome,” I gushed, ignoring countless swear words and heavy-handed sexual innuendo. This was no time to act like a parent. “Well, that’s enough for today, Mom,” she said matter-of-factly. “I need a little alone time.” “Oh, yeah, for sure, me too,” I lied.

Later that night, I dared to ask for more. “Tomorrow, can you teach me Renegade?” I had watched Miriam practice this complicated dance all over the house for weeks before she got it firmly under her belt. She now breaks into Renegade constantly: at the dinner table, doing her homework, in the middle of serious conversation, with her friends over FaceTime. "It took me weeks to learn that dance,” she protested.

I don’t know if it was the prospect of losing myself again in a TikTok dance with my daughter or the grim state of the world, but I heard the words catch in my throat as I replied: “Sweetheart, I think we have the time.”

Shauna Pomerantz lives in St. Catharines, Ont.

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