Parenting in a Pandemic: One Mom’s View from Italy

| Mon, 03/30/2020 - 10:02

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became an adult, I put away childish things.” 1 Corinthians 13:11

They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and, though I am by no stretch of the imagination a religious person, this Bible verse has come back to me many times over the past month of ballooning COVID-19 panic across the globe. 

When I was in my mid-20s, my former father-in-law had just had surgery for cancer and my ex-husband and I were called into the oncologist’s office for a briefing. The doctor went over the options for future treatments, and then paused, looking at us expectantly. I held my breath for a moment, waiting for the grown up in the room to weigh in. And then I realized that it was me. I was the grown up in the room. It was, perhaps, the first time in my life that I had fully understood that it was up to me to make the big decisions now, and there was no going back.


Life Lessons in the Time of Corona

I am a single mother of two, and there is nothing that crystallizes the realization that you are now the grown up in the room than a pandemic lockdown. Suddenly, all other adult support recedes into the distance, and, as their worlds begin to crumble around them, your children look to you for clues on how to deal with a reality shifting so rapidly that banalities we took for granted just weeks ago now seem like vestiges from another lifetime. You can look over your shoulder all you want, but it’s you they are watching. You, and lots of Netflix.

I’ll be honest... if I didn’t feel the mantle of parenthood around my shoulders, I would probably be a mess by now, single-handedly turning back human evolution to a time when showers, clean sweatshirts, and sustenance beyond corn flakes and red wine had not yet been incorporated into the sapien diet. But I am a parent, and a grown up, and this is where the rubber hits the road. My 15- and 18-year-old sons grunt, and sigh, and shrug their shoulders in that carefully cultivated too-cool-for-school way of adolescent boys, but they also quietly follow me out of the corners of their eyes for reassurance that “andrà tutto bene”, or everything will be okay, Italy’s unofficial new motto. 

andrà tutto bene
Andrà tutto bene, photo credit: Instagram @missbrightbluehue

But, of course, I don’t know that everything will be okay. None of us do. So, instead, I try to show my kids that sometimes we’re not sure that things will end well, but we need to carve out a life of joy and meaning in that uncertainty, may it last until April 4th, July 15th, or the rest of our lives. Part of being a grown up is knowing that your life can turn on a dime, and somehow coming to peace enough with that knowledge that you are able to get out of bed each morning and greet the day without dread.

Announcement about one meter distance between people as prevention mesure against Covid-19 virus epidemic in Italy
Announcement about one meter distance between people as prevention mesure against Covid-19 virus epidemic in Italy

And that is my goal during these weeks (months?) of legally enforced family time. My sons may not pick up a new language, or yoga, or water coloring (hey, kudos to those parents out there who are doing that), but maybe they will begin to understand how to be the grown-ups in the room. Because, sooner or later, we all have to be.

Getting Through Lockdown Like a Grown Up

Though I would love to float off down the lazy river of self-pity and sleeping until noon, my kids keep me tethered to some semblance of normality, and this has ultimately been a gift. Here are tips from a mom in the trenches for how to make it through your social distancing, shelter in place, lockdown, or full-out quarantine and come out the other side safe, sane, and serene.

Grown-ups follow the rules

We all teach our kids to question authority (and even when we don’t, believe you me, they will), but there is a time to stand up and a time to take a seat. Now is the time to show our kids that even grown-ups have to follow the rules for a greater good, so lead by example and follow your local directives to the letter. You can hardly justify to your kids that they have to stay inside 24/7 if you are constantly finding loopholes to head out the door. Buy enough groceries for a week or two (also, don’t hoard), make sure all your prescriptions are filled and medicine cabinet stocked, don’t forget pet food, and hunker down. (If, of course, you can. If you are forced to go out each day because you work in the health, service, or other vital industries, thank you.)

parks in assisi
Parks closed down as part of the nationwide lockdown in Italy

Grown-ups brush their teeth

And eat a healthy breakfast, get exercise, change their underwear, and show up for work. In short, maintain a more-or-less regular schedule. I’ll admit that lockdown began with a healthy dose of anarchy at our house, but after a few days of anything goes, we all were crabby and stressed. Now, we set our alarms (not for our usual 7 am, but still a respectable hour), get up and dressed, spend the morning at school (we are lucky to have a relatively well-organized remote class system set up) and work, have regular meal times and healthy dishes, and structure time for chores, exercise, hobbies, and just hanging out. Though you may seem like a party pooper at the beginning, most kids (and grown-ups) thrive on a regular, it makes pancakes-for-dinner days (see below) all the more fun. 

Grown-ups don’t pout

Or, to put it in big words, they practice gratitude. Let’s face it, I am stuck in my house 24/7, my professional life and income have bottomed out, I am worried about the health of my family and friends, and the enormity of what the future may bring hangs like a pall over my head. On the flip side, I have it pretty good. I enjoy the company of my sons, who are old enough to take care of business themselves without a lot of micromanaging. I have a little emergency fund socked away, so I am able to pay my bills and put food on the table right now. We are all in good health, and none of us have any chronic conditions that would be worrisome were we to fall ill. The logistics of managing lockdown in a small town like mine are incredibly simple, with no lines to shop and fully stocked shelves. I could whine, or I could acknowledge how fortunate I am. We don’t pray in our house, but we do begin each meal by naming three things for which we are thankful, and I’ve noticed that it has shifted our perspective enormously. Nutella Biscuits come up often in our lists, but so does another day healthy. Anything goes.

The author and said children "not pouting"
The author and said children "not pouting" 

Grown-ups reach out when it gets to be too much

If you’ve ever been on a plane, you know the Oxygen Mask Rule: place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others. I’ve found that this is a good reminder for parenting as well—you can’t be there for your kids if you aren’t taking care of yourself. You are going to have days when your oxygen is running low...after all, you are now the teacher, nurse, psychologist, coach, and playmate 24 hours a day. When you are feeling overwhelmed, adjust your mask. Phone or video call with a friend or relative; put out an APB on social media; sit down with a beloved poem, essay, or other piece of writing the nourishes your soul (Rilke’s “Go To the Limits of Your Longing” is my favorite); have a cathartic cry with a piece of music that makes you feel connected. If you need professional support, there are a number of online counseling services you can contact. For a little daily company, form a chat group with a handful of cohorts where silly gifs and memes, tales from the parenting trenches, and snaps of your baking fails offer some levity. Never tell yourself that you have to do it alone, because the world is full of grown-ups ready to help.

Grown-ups know when to take a break from being the grown up

Even God, the most grown up of all the grown-ups, knew that we all needed to put our feet up on the 7th day. Cut yourself and your kids some slack every once in a while and have some good, unedifying, childlike fun. We’ve had pajama days and movie nights, cookie baking marathons, and MineCraft extravaganzas. My 18 year old has decided to learn how to make cocktails, and if my 15 year old wants to try them, sure. My 15 year old wants the dog to sleep in his bedroom now, so okay. Break the rules, choose your battles, and ease some of the pressure that parents (and kids) feel these days to make every single waking moment educational and productive. There’s no prize at the end of this for having done all the homework, avoided processed grains, and organized your family photos. The only thing we’ll have when this is done are the memories, and if we’ve played our cards right, they won’t necessarily all be bad ones.

Don't forget to follow our other articles featuring news, tips and resources regarding COVID19 in Italy including our "Italy Stay Strong" series