THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
Now that we've all settled into new spaces and places for our daily routines, I wonder if you've caught yourself rethinking what's routine, as I have. I work, eat, sleep, do laundry, clean the litter box; I do all of my usual things. But when I stop doing these things, an unfamiliar feeling rises to the surface. I pushed myself this week to sit with this sense of uncanniness in my own home, in my favorite chair, near everyone I love most, Mr. Pickles purring in my lap, and I concluded that something basic has left me – my daily willingness to suspend disbelief in the stability of things. I no longer feel I have a right to this place, this work, these people, a bed to sleep in, a refrigerator filled with food. I no longer take time — specifically, more time — for granted. I was not built for this way of thinking. I was not raised to question the stability of everything. I'm not sure I have the right tools.
My thoughts turn to my children, 15 and 20. This is the world they're growing up in; this is their time. Do they have this same feeling of uncertainty, and are they okay with it? I bring this question to the dinner table, indirectly at first and then less so. "We're fine," my children reassure me. "Are you okay, mom?" Superstorms, random acts of terrorism, pandemics. "No," I think. "I'm not. I am not fine." My youngest says he started feeling "antsy" this week. He suggests we spend time cleaning up the backyard and gardening this weekend. Maybe we can have a picnic in the yard, he says. So, no; my kids are not scared. In fact, they might actually be bored. Did I do something wrong? Too many dystopian bedtime stories?
Childhood is a social construct, says the voice of one of my college professors in my head. An invention of the industrial revolution, the fantasy of a rising middle class. The Brothers Grimm revealed to their first generation of readers a dark and dangerous world to be navigated without guidance from trustworthy adults. I was raised on Disney, happy endings, and tales of triumphant underdogs and outcasts. My children spend their spare time following the twin pipers of video games and social media echo chambers.
My father was raised for times like this. He grew up during the Depression. His father went through four failed businesses before he found a stable way to support his family. But not before my father, age seven, watched my grandfather, an atheist, crying in a church pew. As a child, I begged my father to tell me stories about his 10 brothers and sisters working the family farm (there were two failed farms). "We worked from the fence to the evening," he would begin. They worked and went to school and worked more, from the time they woke until dinnertime. Then they all cleaned up and they listened to the radio together. I begged to hear my father's World War II stories, how he learned the sounds of different types of bombs as they fell in London and what to do in response to each. There was a story he told of rescuing troop mates from a tipped over truck in the dark somewhere near Dachau; he dragged them one by one through the mud while he sang a song he'd learned in Polish about a girl with pretty legs.
In the face of profound uncertainty and having to recreate the way a school works, I'm taking a page from my father's book. I have given my kids more chores. They vacuum. One sets the table, the other one clears it. One washes the dishes, the other takes out the trash. We take turns cleaning the litter box. I no longer pick up anything off the floor unless it's mine. We've installed an intercom system in our home, so I can ask the kids for help whenever I need it. We've instilled parental controls on their web access. My children no longer have a right to free time. Their free time was never free, anyway; it's just that over the past month, it's been costing us more than ever. Our home is now a family farm. When our work for the day is done, we can relax.
I realize this may sound extreme. But I have never felt like a better parent, and I have never felt more purposeful. Childhood isn't what it used to be way back when, last month, before the pandemic. Last night my 20 year old went to bed at 9:30. What are you doing, I ask, knowing he had homework to get done and no web access. Rebelling, he said. He woke up at 7 this morning feeling particularly good. At breakfast he tells me I've made things too easy for him until now. He tells me I've wanted the best for him, but I've kept him from having to do his best.
We may never have time again like this with our kids. From the fence to the evening, together. Play: "The Kids Are Alright".