Latest Chart: Trying to be brave

August 28, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

And so it begins.

We’ve now been through a whole week of school. Like so many of you, my husband and I discussed what to do about sending the kids back. We watched the news. We read and reread the emails from our schools and tried to parse additional meaning from the lines on our screens.

In the end, after weighing all of the information on hand, we decided to send the kids to school in person.

I mentioned to my nephew a week or so ago that this was the hardest decision we’d ever had to make as parents. Some hard decisions you know will come: letting them drive; helping them through the teen years. Holding them up when someone breaks their hearts or they experience any kind of bias or they get passed over for an opportunity. Becoming a parent, as all of you who have children well know, flips on a switch the day we bring them home from the hospital. Some parts of our minds are constantly evaluating, weighing circumstances, and bringing information and opinions and emotions into place when the time for those decisions come.

No one, though, could have ever expected this: trying to decide whether going back to school—school, for goodness sakes; a basic human activity—would threaten our children in such an unbiased way. As we’ve heard time and again, the virus doesn’t discriminate between class, gender, ethnicity, location. It just invades your spaces and leaves you irrevocably changed.

***

Given that my husband is a physician, we talk a lot about health in our house. The pandemic has given us a chance to talk even more about it than usual. It also lends a “tough it out” kind of tenor to conversations. Can’t go to the movies? Tough it out. Can’t see your friends closer than 6 feet? Tough it out.

And, up until this week, the same applied for school.

But we opted, yes, to send them in person. Whatever the consequences of that decision, we’ll bear them. We’ll answer questions. And we’ll be washing our hands a lot as we do so.

***

This small return to normalcy has helped the mood around the house, despite the “straight out of a movie” circumstances. Twelve can’t identify the new students in her grade because she doesn’t know what they look like due to the masks. Fourteen is in high school now and can’t easily identify anyone either; her school took a hybrid approach this week, doing three days online and two in person, so she got to see some faces. Not everyone turned their screens on for online school, so she knows voices. Even voices sound different behind masks, though.

And yet, the mood has improved around here. And my day has become as elastic as saltwater taffy. When everyone was home all the time, the days felt like they would stretch for hours longer than they actually did. We’d deal cards with a lackluster flip of our hands or stare at the TV with glassy eyes, our gazes drifting to the clocks and letting resignation settle in that we still had ample time before the next meal or bedtime.

Now that I have some semblance of a routine back, the days are stretching again except in the other direction. I sit down at my computer and get involved in a project then look at the clock. I’m always surprised by how much time has passed and even more surprised by what I accomplished. “What? It’s only 9:15? And I’ve still got the whole school day to go? I can turn on a video and work out and then get back to my desk!”

Time is definitely a bizarre thing. We talk about losing it and saving it, but it always fascinates me how we’re living in it, right now. We’re living through a pandemic and a return to something that looks like our regular lives in the same moments. We’re planning for the future and reminiscing about the past and wondering if our present will look like either.

***

If it isn’t obvious already, my thoughts are scattered from the first week of school.

I’d forgotten, almost, what morning pickups and afternoon drop-offs looked like, and now we’re back to two schools so that complicates the beginning and end of every school day for me. I worry when I see the kids approach the doors of their buildings and I see teachers, also in masks, thermometers in hand, using them like permission scanners to let kids walk through the doors behind them. I restrain from hugging my children right after they come home, forcing myself to wait until they change out of their clothes for the day, which is hard because I’m a believer in the positive emotional tsunami that is hugging.

We’re back to normal, and yet we’re not.

Parenting is about contradictions, and never is that more true than in our current age. We worried about gun violence and cyberbullying. Now we worry about COVID too. Our heads turn in sharp angles when we hear someone sniffling or a person mentions a headache. We watch the news and hear the stories about the families who have lost their children to this terrible virus, and we want to hold our own a little tighter even as they squirm to be free.

So we arm them with masks and hand sanitizer and yoga mats six feet long so they space out when they sit outside for lunch. We try to ignore that winter will come and send everyone indoors and that the flu might not be the flu, or it might, or it might not. We push away the guilt of wanting the kids to go back to school so we can return to what we were doing before the pandemic hit without wondering if our kids will lean on a table with an open hand and then contract this illness.

***

Parenting is also about bravery. Of arming our kids with the tools they need to live in the world and make their mark on it. It sounds nice enough to say, an inspirational meme to pass around on social media or to tack up on your computer. Often, though, we forget the definition of bravery until we’re forced to live it: being brave means that even when you’re terrified, you go ahead anyway.

So maybe this is an exercise in bravery, this sending them back to school. Maybe getting up every day and going through their routines and the extra effort of arming themselves with protection—“Don’t forget your mask.” “I won’t.” “Did you wash your hands?” “Yes, Mamma.”—will allow them to take deep breaths and move forward. Maybe it will reinforce for them, in a way much bigger than memes can, that our most immense challenges are the ones that sear courage into our souls and hearts.

Maybe, by the time all of this is over, we’ll be fireproof towards these types of challenges.

And so it begins.

Newest Chart: Moving the needle one hash mark at a time

July 31, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Late last night, when the girls had brushed their teeth and were settling into their beds, I went to Twelve’s room to say good night. In the dark, she scooted to a sitting position.

“Mamma, I have an idea.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Sit down,” she said, patting her bed. “This might take a while.”

Earlier in the evening we’d watched President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral service of civil rights activist John Lewis. In his trademark style, President Obama inspired us and made us believe that we have it within us to be the change we want to see in the world. His challenge reminded us, too, that what we have right now is what we get. This life, this summer, this opportunity to be with one another.

I don’t know for sure if his speech spurred Twelve to her “idea.” Maybe it was the spirit of inclusion and togetherness that John Lewis fought so hard for every day of his life. Maybe it was, as she told us last night, just the boredom of summer break.

I suspect it was all of those things and more. Her idea boiled down to this: she was requesting that we spend one day a week unplugged. No phones; no devices; no computers. Minimal TV. Just our family spending time together.

Twelve’s assertion was that she spent part of her day bored. She didn’t know what to do with herself in her room if she wasn’t on her iPad talking to friends or reading borrowed books through our local library’s app. She thought we all spent too much time on our devices and wanted us to change that. It would take care of the boredom and bring us that much closer together.

The comment about her boredom caught me off guard at first. Before summer break, we drew up a list of academic tasks for the girls each week this summer, but we also made sure to keep the mood and pace light. When she made the comment about being bored in her room, my first instinct was to ask whether what we’d designed for her and Fourteen for “summer homework” wasn’t enough. Then, in my mind, I took a step back and thought about her tone and mood.

The pandemic has brought so much change to our lives. Much of it has been challenging and frustrating. So much of it has been confusing. But there have been a few slivers of daylight in this darkness we’re all fighting.

I’ve seen changes in Twelve; good changes. Back in the spring, almost a month into lockdown, my husband and I saw Twelve’s frustration level mount by leaps and bounds. For once, we couldn’t offer her any concrete answers about a life event. We’ve got scores of stories about people’s kindness or lack thereof, the challenges that come in school or college, or what it means to move from one job (or part of the country) to another.

But this? None of us have lived through a pandemic before. We were still trying to process what it meant for us as people. How on earth were we equipped to provide that information to others, particularly those most dependent on us?

The pandemic doesn’t care about race or creed or politics; it also doesn’t care about parenting challenges.

We decided to go back to a tried-and-tested method for Twelve. We asked her to pull out a notebook and start keeping a journal to record her feelings. Any time she felt sad or angry, she had to write about it. At the very minimum, she had to write in the journal two to three times a week.

At the time, we didn’t specify that she had to share the journal with us, but after we told her to start writing in it the notebook began appearing on our dresser with regularity. Now, as I leaf back through it, I can see the changes in glacial movements.

“Today I feel pretty average,” she wrote as the opening line to her first entry in April. She concluded the entry with, “I miss [school]. I miss hugging my friends.”

Later in the month, she used the journal to vent. When a friend of a friend requested Twelve’s email (without any of us, including Twelve, knowing about it,) the child started emailing Twelve with enthusiasm. Twelve answered her notes with minimum patience, and at the end of April, she started her entry with the title: “4th Graders: Why do they like ‘big kids?’” After spending several lines ranting about constant notifications, she ended the entry with, “Aside from being grumpy about [them,] I’m okay. Monday is a fresh start to a new week.”

She continued to write about tests and friends and missing out on playing soccer for the park district’s team. One continuous theme, however, was the boredom she felt. In all honesty, if I had to pick between a bored child and a perpetually angry one, I’d pick bored any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

In between the lines about being bored, though, Twelve’s tone started to change. She mentioned things she was excited about: her big sister’s birthday and getting to share animal facts with family members over Zoom. And the “I’m bored” comments have started to morph more into “Today was an okay day” kind of comments.

The needle has begun to move one hash mark at a time.

Last night, then, when she mentioned her new plan to combat boredom, she used the words in a completely different tone. Gone was the whining and the narrow-focused attitude that plagues tweens and teens. In its place was a matter-of-fact approach. She didn’t have anything to entertain her in her room, so she decided to find a solution.

From the time the girls were too young to understand the words, I’ve made them repeat a particular sentence after me: Smart girls find a way to fix the problem. As they got older, I forced them to parrot it back like a call-and-response—“Smart girls do what?” I’d demand, and one or both would roll their eyes and intone, with flat words, “Find a way to fix the problem,” the syllables words drawn out to indicate how utterly sick and tired they were of having to repeat the adage.

Maybe, though, all of that call-and-response, that drumming it into their heads is actually coming back to us. Maybe they’re starting to fix the problems, not just throw complaints at them. Twelve still has moments of getting worked up over something, but if she can find a way to fix problems during a pandemic then maybe—just maybe—we can say something good came out of it after all.

 

 

Newest Chart: I thought they stayed little forever…

June 26, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

I blinked and became a mother.

I blinked and became a mother again.

I blinked and am the mother of a 14-year-old.

Is it just me, or does 14 sound more grown up? Hear me out on this. I think there are age markers where the kids are no longer kids. When they’re 5, we think, “Oh, so sweet, s/he’s just in kindergarten.” But then 6 rolls around, and suddenly they’re in elementary school.

They hit 10, and we think, “Wow, s/he’s still a kid.” But suddenly they turn 12, and they’re on the verge of becoming a teenager.

And now that I’m the mother of a 14-year-old, it’s become glaringly obvious to me that in four years I’ll be the mother of a college freshman.

Okay, wait a second. Maybe I need to back up. I need to think of Fourteen as she is now and not that far into the future.

In many ways, she’s still a little girl. Already this summer I have had to give this child a hand to get out of bed, because she’d rather loll away her summer vacation instead of getting up at a decent hour in the morning. I’ve stood next to her, kissing her on the cheek several times in succession, calling her bluff every morning when she’s “sleeping” but not acting convincingly enough like it, and reaching under the comforter to pull her pajama shirt down in a gentle manner after it’s ridden up overnight.

I stroke her hair and sing stupid songs that I invent on the spot, and, when nothing else works, reach under the comforter again for her mile-long longs and swing them, again with the same gentleness I used when she was a baby, toward the floor. Her legs are so long that even this move doesn’t provide her body with upward momentum. Instead, she rubs her eyes and, after a few seconds, holds out her hands to me so I can pull her up. With a yawn, and suffering from extreme bedhead, she pads to the bathroom and shuts the door.

It’s when she shuts the door that I know she’s a teenager and not a little kid. Privacy, please, she’s saying with that one small gesture. I need a minute, and I need it alone.

I’ve seen these small shifts in other areas too. Although we bought Fourteen’s birthday cake (well, birthday brownies, but that’s beside the point,) she’s made it clear since the start of the summer that she’s going to bake her sister’s cake when it’s Eleven’s birthday. As a reward for pitching in to clean the house, we bought her a small succulent and a tiny cactus. A friend dropped off another succulent at our doorstep for her, and she’s keeping a close eye on all three plants in her room. She even went so far as to re-pot them herself when it became clear they needed it.

And she’s become quite savvy in her comebacks. Earlier today when she and Eleven and I were laughing our way through a game of Liar, she caught me lying about how many cards I’d put down.

“I know your tells,” she said.

“Really?” I asked. “What are they?”

“Wha—no. That’s not how this works. I’m not going to tell you, otherwise you’re going to try not to do them.”

She’s also become more tolerant and, in some ways, more lenient with her younger sister. On the days that aren’t too hot, the girls have taken to walking around the neighborhood for about 30 minutes. They use their alone time to dissect TV shows. I’m sure there’s also some complaining about “the parents” that goes on too. But I don’t mind. They’re bonding, and Fourteen leads the way in that.

“I’m a hoarder,” Eleven declares when I’m helping her clean out her closet, and I know she says and does this because her big sister has a strong connection with objects from various events and memorable dates. If either my husband or I tease Eleven about something, there’s a 50-50 shot she’ll get offended. If Fourteen jokes with Eleven, my younger daughter’s face cracks into a smile that then usually erupts in a laugh.

Fourteen doesn’t order her sister to leave her room; instead, the girls will fold their laundry together. And that game of Liar from earlier today? By the time I joined them, they’d already been playing for more than 30 minutes. The only reason I got in on the fun was because they were laughing so hard and getting so crazy that Fourteen, her eyes wide in dramatic fashion, begged me to join them.

“She’s crazy,” she stage-whispered of her younger sister, knowing and probably betting on the fact that Eleven was listening around the corner.

This older child of mine, bit by bit, is turning into a responsible young woman. She cares deeply for her friends, and she doesn’t hesitate to take the lead when asked. Most of the time, too, she’s in a sunny mood. None of that melodramatic teenage darkness for her, thank you, as she mocks teens who behave that way.

“[Eleven] is more of a teenager than I am,” she says with a roll of her eyes, and it’s true. On some days my younger child’s mood bounces like a ping pong ball, and it’s hard to predict when and where the bounce will go.

Of course, Fourteen is still a teenager. We have to remind her every week to clean her room. If a conversation doesn’t engage her directly, she’ll often drift off into her own thoughts and have to be brought back to Earth. If she’s got a plan for something on her own—painting her nails before a socially-distanced meeting with her friends—she’ll go after it without anyone reminding her, but try to get her to do the same for something we asked her to do and her face goes blank as she blinks once or twice.

“I forgot,” she’ll say; another one is, “I don’t know.”

That’s one of her tells, the classic “I don’t know” that translates to “I didn’t do it” or “I’m not interested and am annoyed you’re making me.”

Still a teen. Still at home for four more years. Always mine.

I love this kid.