Rebooting Family Life, Newsletter Excerpt, (Plague, Day 51, April 24, 2020)

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Ten years in the future, when I think about this time of our lives, week six of the society shutdown will always be remembered as the time when I stopped waiting for a return to normal and began rebuilding our lives. 

One of the many truths that has been revealed, as this pandemic uprooted society and government, is that schools are more than a place for educating children. For poorer families, schools are where children can find food and a respite from a tumultuous home life. For working class families, they’re a place to mind the children during work hours and to provide hope for a better future. For families with special needs kids, they’re a relief value on unimaginable caretaking responsibilities. 

And for middle class suburbanites, schools are places that organizes their lives. Parents meet their life-long friends on the school pick-up lines and PTA bake sales. Children are occupied six days a week with school, sports, homework, projects, and school chums. No weekend soccer match or neighborhood happy hour is complete without gossip about particular teachers or humble brags about a child’s prowess on a science class. There is always another short term goal to jump through, from gaining entrance for a child in a specialized gifted program in Kindergarten to college applications in high school. For many families, the local public school is the center of their lives for over twenty years. 

So, when the schools shutdown, even in superstar districts that have continued offering zoom classes and homework, it completely disrupted family lives across the country. With so many hours spent in a school building, toiling on school projects, participating in after school activities provided by the school, and socializing around school, parents gave up ownership of their children long ago. 

In December, I wrote an essay for this newsletter about how much schools have dominated our lives and how I wished I had greater control over raising my kids. Ha. Well, now here’s my chance. 

Back in my former life as a college professor, I used to teach political theory every semester. I marched students through philosophy of Plato and Aristotle ending up with some exhaustion three months later with the speeches of Martin Luther King. Many political philosophers wondered how people would behave without the structure of government or society — a tabula rasa, a blank slate. For some like Hobbes and Burke, society would fall apart without a strong government and strict rules of societal rules. Others, like Locke, thought people would mostly behave and keep to themselves on their farms. 

Thanks to the effectiveness of social distancing, our government and healthcare systems haven’t collapsed. Society has continued orderly processes and norms. My kids still log onto the computers daily to access teachers and professors. Yet, things are much looser without the school panopticon

I wanted more creative input into the raising of my family. Now, I’ve got my tabula rasa. What am I going to do about it? 

Honestly, I’m not sure. My nearly 21-year old needs freedom from hurdle-jumping and pressure to perform, so we’re giving him free time and access to opportunities to pursue hobbies and side interests. He needs to be treated as an equal and solidify his adulthood. My younger kid needs time to tackle his weaknesses – social skills and OCD – and structure and information, which he craves. 

With older kids, my parenting chores are relatively light. At this point, it’s more about adding icing on the cake. I have to say that I am very proud of my little cakes. They have handled this disruption without drama, which has made home confinement relatively easy.

Even with fewer parenting chores, our lives have been turned upside down. We’re stumbling through these strange times and making new routines. There’s my morning walk, lunch-time yoga, and Friday’s trip to the supermarket to fill the freezer and pantry. Soon, we’ll set up a backyard garden to supplement the pantry. 

Without school, college, work, gym classes, church, family birthday parties — the very stuff that grounded us just six weeks ago — who are we?

The new family is slowly unfolding here. Each of us is pursuing different projects and passions, and then coming together during meals and joint exercise time to debrief each other about progress. I’m so lucky to be closeted up with these smart, quirky, creative people. My favorite people on the planet are under my roof. I very much like our emerging family. 

Be well!