“It’s school vacation for Rylin next week,” I’d said while talking with a friend last weekend.
“Oh, nice!” she’d said. Then, “What do you two have planned?” It was a logical question. No school means we should take the opportunity to do something fun. A year ago, we were the type of family that was almost never home on weekends and most weeknights, too. But now? I’ve grown accustomed to staying home. Comfortable NOT doing stuff. Too comfortable maybe. So I gave my friend all the same excuses I’ve used for a year now. “Nothing planned. Don’t forget I’m not vaccinated yet. And things aren’t normal here still. We still have to socially distance and wear masks.” My friend offered a simple, “Mmm” in response, which I could’ve taken as a sign of agreement, that I’d made the right choice by not planning anything. But come Monday, day one of school vacation, I was still thinking about that friend’s “Mmm.” And the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a gentle nudge. A kind reminder that life didn’t end when the pandemic started. And she was right.
“Let’s go to the library playground,” I suggested to my exuberant seven year old on Tuesday morning. It felt to me like a good compromise; something she’d be excited to do outside of our home or yard yet, still very low risk. When I said the words, Rylin’s eyes and spirit perked up. The library playground is THE place to play in town for the ages 3 to 12 crowd. And we hadn’t been in over a year, thanks to the pandemic. “Yesssss!” she whooped.
I reminded her that sandals aren’t the best for running so she put on socks and sneakers. I suggested we put her hair up so it’s out of her face when she’s playing. She asked to bring one of her babies, pretending she was a teacher and this was a field trip. And soon enough, we were loaded into the car, water bottles in tow, ready for a fun time.
We stopped for lunch on the way so our first order of business at the library was a little picnic under the pavilion. As we ate our sandwiches, I watched her glance around. She commented at how long it had been since we’d been there, how many kids were there playing, and how a couple people didn’t have on masks. And then lunch was over. I put my mask back on, disposed of our trash, and told her I’d be right there at our table, reading, while she plays. “Okay, mom!” And she was off, leaving me to chaperone MaryEllen, her one student on our field trip.
Within a few minutes, though, Rylin was back at the table beside me. She was unpacking MaryEllen’s backpack, which was full of hair accessories. As she spritzed her doll’s hair with its spray bottle and began brushing it, she admitted, “I’m feeling a little lonely.” I pointed out all the kids around her age and suggested she say hello to one of them. She lowered her gaze and said, “Everyone already has a friend to play with except for me.” I again suggested that she says hello to someone and asks them to play. I even offered to help her talk to someone. She shook her head, told me she could do it on her own, and ventured out again.
Her second attempt lasted about as long as her first. Only this time, I watched her rather than read. I saw her retreat to the least populated area of the playground, putting as much distance as possible between herself and the other kids. When she shuffled back to our table, I pointed out to her that talking to a new friend would be easier if she played in the same area as the other kids. She sat beside me, brushing MaryEllen’s hair again, and eked, “I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
It was as if I was listening to myself. I understood completely but asked her to say more anyway. “What’s making you feel overwhelmed?” She hesitated a moment, thinking. It wasn’t that some people weren’t wearing masks. It wasn’t even that there were too many people. It was that they were strangers. And in that moment, my year’s worth of gushing about how incredibly resilient she’d been throughout the pandemic came crumbling down. I realized that the pandemic HAD changed her. A year ago, she loved meeting new people. She’d say hello or just start playing with new friends without thinking twice. But since March 2020, she hasn’t even seen a stranger. And now, in April 2021, she doesn’t know how to meet someone new, even when they’re right in front of her.
I helped her brush and braid her doll’s hair, all the while reminding her of the kid she was a year ago. We talked about how the pandemic had changed the things we do, how we do them, and how we feel about all of it. We also talked about how life is slowly starting to get back to normal, and how we have to, too.
She made a short-lived third attempt at playing with the other kids but came back crying moments later, complaining about a twisted ankle following a jump down from the monkey bars. “Let’s head home,” I suggested for not my first time since we’d arrive. “Okay,” she finally agreed. She sounded defeated, and not just because of her ankle. On the car ride home, we talked more about feeling a little nervous to do some of the things that once came naturally to us. “It’s not that you CAN’T talk to new friends. You’re just out of practice,” I pointed out.
On Wednesday, Rylin was very eager to accompany me to my first vaccine appointment. As we got ready to leave, I pointed out what a beautiful day it was and asked if she might want to try visiting the playground again. To my surprise, she said yes. But our second day at the library went much like the first; me encouraging her to say hello to someone, her shying away from everyone, and the two of us styling her baby’s hair until it was time to go.
As we drove home that afternoon, she mused that she didn’t understand why she feels so overwhelmed about talking to new people. And I leveled with her. “Life has been very strange this past year and some of the things that used to be easy for us just feel different right now. But we have to keep trying.” Then I admitted to her that lots of normal things make me feel nervous now, too. I suggested to her that we both keep working on the things that make us feel overwhelmed.
We spent a rainy Thursday at home relaxing. Babying ourselves. Me, with a sore arm from my vaccine. Her, with a bruised ego from two trips to the playground without peer interaction. I took some time to reflect on how wrong I was to believe we’d made it through the pandemic unscathed. I silently acknowledged that many of my own anxieties about life returning to semi-normalcy are beginning to encroach on unhealthy. I also admitted to myself that she was drinking it all in. My emotions. How I respond to the world around us. I was poisoning her.
“Let’s go on a date,” I proposed on Friday morning. It was raining. We’d had two failed attempts at the playground already and really needed an emotional victory, a morale boost. “How about bowling?” I asked. On our way to the alley, I talked candidly about how I’ve been nervous about being around other people. “Ever notice that for the past year, Daddy has done most of our shopping and stuff outside the house?” I asked. She nodded. “I’ve been scared. But just because I haven’t gone out much doesn’t mean I CAN’T. So today we’re going to do it!”
We bowled two games, just the two of us, masks and all. And when we were done, we treated ourselves to ice cream. I worked hard, actively, to not let any of it bother me. Not the having to wear a mask, not the interacting with the bowling alley staff, not the ordering or paying for ice cream. I made a choice to not poison her with my anxiety. Instead, I fed her a steady diet of positivity and lightheartedness. And it worked. “That was a lot of fun and I wasn’t even that nervous. Thanks for being my date,” I smiled at her in the rear view mirror as we pulled back into our driveway. “You’re welcome,” she smiled back.
As life continues to inch closer to normalcy, my goal is to be more mindful of what I feed her soul, to remember that she’s drinking it all in and learning from me. I owe it to her to show her how to be responsible and cautious, sure. But also how to be happy, confident, comfortable in her skin. How to know her worth, take no shit, and not settle for less than she deserves. How to be brave. Fearless, even. How to not let anything stop her from accomplishing everything she wants in life.
It’s a tall order we have, us parents, navigating our kids back on track post-pandemic. But it’s time. And someday when she’s older, I’ll tell her the story of how it was her who taught me how to reenter normal life.