Illustration: Kate Hazell

Parenting in a pandemic—what home-schooling has taught me

I fell for the fantasy that, freed from our scurrying schedule, spare time would pool around us. It hasn't.
May 5, 2020

The evening before my daughter’s nursery closed its doors until further notice, I stayed up late tossing so-called Stem toys into a virtual cart. I wasn’t alone: if stock levels on the John Lewis website were anything to go by, middle-class parents up and down the land had been busy doing in private what the Costco-stripping hoi polloi were decried for doing in public. It wasn’t just maths and science activities, either: one friend with a toddler was bulk-buying craft supplies, another had ordered a playground set larger than most back gardens, her own included.

Despite two full years having passed since I last had to occupy my daughter all day every day, I was feeling relatively sanguine when the prospect of school closures first reared its head. I may be the lone adult in our household, but my daughter has only ever known me to work from home so we’ve had practice, she and I, and at four, she’s far more willing and able to play by herself than she was just six months ago.

For one golden afternoon, I fell for the fantasy that, freed from our scurrying schedule, spare time would pool around us. Finally, I would be able to complete those stalled interior design projects, I would rid our home of its perma-piles of books and teddy bears and ironing, and against that immaculate backdrop, my child and I would embark on fabulous learning journeys together.

The raising of children has never before come with as much instruction. Giving birth requires a reading list, with another to see you through the recovery period. Weaning demands cookbooks and blogs and endless apparatus, not to mention a first aid course. I’d always resisted the urge to read up—until now. Several shambolic days into our new normal—days that felt like some bizarre kind of interval training for a dual-headed, many-armed she-god, with 10-minute bursts of parental indulgence followed by frenzied 20-minute attempts at rational thought and coherent sentences, a deadline breathing down my neck and a tenacious child trying to scale my hunched shoulders—I turned to the self-declared experts.

There was advice to suit every parenting style going. Establish a routine, some urged. Be flexible, others countered. Remember that kids need stimulation and don’t forget that boredom is healthy. Prioritise, be realistic, claim your own time, set small goals… Did I do any of the above? As you may have discovered yourself, there hasn’t been time. Far more practical has been my daughter’s way of navigating the day: taking it an activity at a time, existing almost entirely in the present.

Nevertheless, a routine of sorts has evolved, helped hugely by the teachers from nursery and Hebrew school and our Suzuki group, all of whom have Zoomed into our living room, bringing with them glimpses of how everyone else is managing—or not. There’s a performative element to contemporary parenting (and that verbification in itself feels revealing) that blessedly seems to have been cast aside in the crisis. In the first day or so of national home schooling, my social media feed filled with posts featuring erstwhile colleagues and work friends teaching their eight-year-olds ancient Greek, or taking walks while parsing the etymology of wild flower names. Then it went quiet. As quiet as the nights during which I’ve realised that I need to fit in a large part of my work for the time being.

That silence is the opposite of all the clamorous advice and competition and posy preciousness that’s sprung up around the nurturing of children in the past -decade or so. When you come up against the most essential needs of your own child—food and love, stories and fresh air—you realise that the rest of it is sheer self-indulgence on the part of us parents.

As for those panic-buys of mine, the most used element so far is the pair of safety goggles from the starter science lab. The rest of the kit can’t of course be used without adult supervision—“parent not included,” the box ought to read. Far more practical has been my mum’s contribution: her old iPad, that my daughter now uses to summon her up on-demand for virtual babysitting. She often dons the goggles, which seems prudent. After all, to the extent that none of us really knows what we’re doing when it comes to juggling the two most vital aspects of our lives, family and work—especially in confinement—this is all an experiment.