Last night we went over to our neighbors’ apartment. The kids ate cheese pizza in the kitchen and watched kids' movies on Netflix together in the bedroom. The adults ate pizza with arugula on it and drank wine in the living room. It could have been any relaxed Friday evening but, since March 23rd, when stay-at-home orders began due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these simple, low-key gatherings have taken on an illicit air.
We’re not immediate family. We’ve formed a pod. Our kids are coronasiblings, and I can’t imagine how we would have survived otherwise.
On vacation in South Carolina a few years ago, we learned, observing the marine life, that dolphins raise their young this way. The females and their calves travel in groups, working together to feed all the little ones and keep them safe. As lesbian moms who rely on a network of relatives and unofficial aunties to manage the parenting of two small humans, the concept resonated with us and was not forgotten.
We’re not the type to buck the rules, and we certainly aren’t among those protesting the stay-at-home orders. We wear masks when we go to the store. We do stay home, it’s just that home is now two apartments instead of one.
The arrangement arose organically and almost instantaneously. It was a confusing time, each of us searching for one thing we could still control. My partner was purchasing a bicycle, so that we would have a way to escape the apartment that wasn’t reliant on public transportation. I was schlepping around four pounds of Italian roast that I had panic-bought at Starbucks for fear that our sources of high-quality beans were about to disappear. My daughter wanted to go to her usual monkey bars in the park up the block. This was before the yellow signs went up warning that the playground equipment wasn’t sterile, followed by the red signs announcing that they were closed indefinitely, the gates chained shut.
I said we could go for a bit, so long as we kept our distance from anyone else who happened to be there. Our neighbor Gabrielle showed up with her dad, just like a normal afternoon. Except her dad and I carefully sat on separate benches, and squirted sanitizer on the kids’ hands when they leapt off the jungle gym. My partner arrived later on the new bike, and I took the coffee home and changed into my jogging clothes. When I got back from my run, my partner was alone in our apartment.
The kids were at Gabrielle’s, she explained. She’d talked it over with her mom, and they both felt okay about it. “Oh, thank God,” I said. “That’s going to make all of this so much easier.”And it has. Our homeschool routine may be lacking in rigor, due primarily to the adults’ emotional depletion, but the playdate schedule is rock solid.
Every afternoon, when I’ve shepherded the children through as many of the learning activities and to-do tasks in Google Classroom as we can manage, we stomp feet into shoes, hook the dog onto her leash, and head down four flights of stairs to our humble courtyard. My son will holler up at Gabrielle’s bedroom window, “Are you done yet?”
The courtyard is unkempt and trodden by recently-finished construction work, but even this small green space has been essential to our well-being during isolation. I never would have guessed that a couple strips of asphalt ringed in bushes could provide so many hours of entertainment.
They’ve found long sticks and played wizarding games, used bits of wood debris to construct a fort, and repurposed an old intercom as spy equipment. COVID-19 has brought them a taste of a carefree, suburban childhood where front doors are left open and the only rule is to be back by dinner.
The addition of another playmate resets the dynamic between my son and daughter, allowing them to cooperate non-combatively after a long day of conflict inside the apartment. In turn, Gabrielle gets a couple of playmates.
As any teacher can tell you, kids act differently at school than at home. When there’s an audience of their peers, they’re likely to refrain from potentially embarrassing behaviors like tantrums and whining, and once Gabrielle joins us I can count on a relatively peaceful afternoon for everyone.
Later, the kids travel in a pack to one apartment or another for dinner and a movie, while one pair of parents gets a couple of hours to work, clean, or soak in the blissful quiet. At 7 pm, they lean into the safety bars on the windows, banging wooden spoons on the bottoms of steel pans to cheer the city’s essential workers.
Once that evening’s movie is over, we convene in the courtyard and reshuffle to get everyone back to their own bed for the night. The kids do a few more rounds of sprinting and hedge-hopping — "Let’s jump over the bushes and yell, 'Chicken nuggets!'" — while the adults gaze up at the stars, chatting without any rush, and for a moment the sirens are quiet, the unemployment is distant, and it feels as though this were all a carefully-planned camping trip.
Seeing each other like this every day gives the kids a sense of normalcy amidst a crisis that has taken away most of their usual routines. Together, we shared an egg hunt and Easter dinner, as well as a bright pink, heart-shaped Mother’s Day cake. Conversation with another family also gives the adults the reassurance that our struggles are mutual, from how to keep a child tethered to a Zoom call to figuring out when it’s time to leave a beloved city.
There was a moment of doubt when my 6-year-old daughter fell asleep in my lap one morning and awoke flushed and feverish. I thought surely she’d exposed everyone, if not to COVID-19 then to some other virus, and both families mutually agreed to stay apart for a while. Thankfully, her symptoms abated quickly, and our pediatrician advised us not to take her to the ER unless she got sicker. After a couple of days, she was darting through the courtyard again with her coronasister.
One day while they were playing, Gabrielle paused and said to her, “You know, when this is all over, I’m really gonna miss you." It wasn’t that our kids didn’t play together before COVID-19, but they didn’t play like this. There was always another commitment to get to, another project to finish, or a school-night bedtime to adhere to — but now, time itself has changed. It sprawls amply before us, offering a bounty of minutes.
Watching them giggle conspiratorially in the courtyard the other night, my neighbor observed, “They’re going to remember this as a strange and magical chapter of their childhood.” The kids may not understand, now, but the adults all know what luck we've had escaping the worst consequences of the pandemic. We obviously never would have chosen to live this way, but without living this way we wouldn’t have been able to experience some of its advantages. Without the option of other commitments or distractions, they construct their world with unprecedented ingenuity and imagination.
The adults have gotten to imagining, too. How can we bring some piece of this temporary, exceptional life back with us to the land of normal? How can we stop time and make space to genuinely connect with the people we interact with every day? How can we see the full value of others when our daily objectives are all so focused on goals instead of people?
We’re not sure how to make the magic last, but it’s clear that it will involve following the example of our children.
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