Why for pandemic parents, the bathroom is the only escape

Why We Wrote This

The coronavirus is a global pandemic, but it is also a family-level challenge in countries under lockdown. Here’s how one young mother in Paris is trying to cope.

Andrew Couldridge/Reuters
Teacher Wendy Couldridge teaches her daughter Milly from home in Hertford, Britain, March 23, 2020, as the spread of the coronavirus continues.

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“Mama! Pee-pee! Mamaaa!”

It’s the fourth day of lockdown and my 3-year-old daughter has once again woken me up at 6:20 a.m. Next, my 18-month-old coughs herself awake.

I love my children. Of course I do. But ever since French President Emmanuel Macron announced that school was canceled and we would be allowed outside only for groceries or medical visits, I have been filled with a terror I have never known. What the heck am I going to do with my kids for the next however-many days?

Thank goodness for the endless supply of internet memes, most of which involve some version of child confinement while parents work. See, it’s not enough that we have to find ways to entertain and educate our little demons during this trying time, but we also have to keep our jobs.

While I hide out in the bathroom typing, I know that in many ways parents of older children have it harder. How to explain the unfathomable state of the world? Are we creating a whole generation of germ freaks? All I can do is have faith life will return to normal someday – and that we’ll still like each other in the end.

It’s 6:20 in the morning. The fourth full day under lockdown. While some Parisians will be enjoying a leisurely lie-in – working from home or on paid leave – I am awakened by my 3-year-old daughter, whose calls increase in intensity.

“Mama! Mama! Pee-pee! Colette!”

Minutes later, my 18-month old starts coughing herself awake. I’m not so much worried she has the coronavirus (although who knows) as I am annoyed. Once again, I have approximately the next 12-15 hours to spend with my kids.

I love my children. Of course I do. But ever since French President Emmanuel Macron announced that schools in France would be closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then – days later – that we would be allowed out of our homes only for groceries or medical visits, I have been filled with a terror I have never known. What the heck am I going to do with my kids for the next 14 to however-many days?

Under normal circumstances, my partner and I aim to get our girls out of our small two-bedroom apartment by 9 a.m. – school day or not – lest they start climbing the walls/tearing up the place. Now, it would seem, that is all there is to do.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

Luckily, parents in France can look to the experience of those in Asia who’ve already suffered through months of lockdown to guide us, or take advice from Spaniards and Italians who are living on a surreal future plane, days or weeks ahead in their lives in confinement: Keep a schedule. Create quiet time. Get some fresh air every day.

The first few days chez moi were filled with New Year’s resolution-like euphoria. I unearthed a giant piece of cardboard from the back of the closet and created a daily “learning board,” ready to embark on my new career as homeschool teacher. There were stickers for each day of the week, numbers, and letters, and I printed a stack of toddler activity sheets to boot. It was all going to be okay.

Colette Davidson
The writer's kids work on a sign that reads “everything is fine” while living under mandatory home confinement due to COVID-19 in Paris.

By day three, the stickers were still in the same place on the learning board as the day before and papers were strewn across the living room. The girls were still in their pajamas at 10 a.m. And were those animal stickers lining the toilet seat?

I can see that my twice-a-week iPad limit is going out the window. My 3-year-old is already asking for Peppa Pig every night before dinner and I am too exhausted to say no.

Thank goodness for the endless supply of internet memes, which range from the silly to the downright dire. Most involve some version of child imprisonment while parents work, be it strapping them down in front of the TV or quite literally locking them in a cage.

You see, it’s not enough that we have to find ways to entertain and educate our little demons during this trying time, but we also have to find a way to keep our jobs.

Seeing as how the bathroom is the last bastion of privacy (when the kids are not trying to beat down the door), I expect that I, like many French parents, will be using this tiny haven to answer work emails, make calls, and write – or at least respond in peace to the scores of WhatsApp messages from other parents in lockdown misery that flood my phone.

These days, WhatsApp and FaceTime are not just diversions; they’re life savers, especially for families with older kids. But apart from group phone chats among friends and loved ones, they offer no solution for tweens with serious energy to burn. In France at least, we’re allowed short periods of outdoor exercise every day. Spaniards can take their dogs for a walk, but not their children.

“It’s really complicated,” says Ruth de Andres, my partner’s cousin and mother of an 8-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy in León, Spain. “What do you do with all this energy? My daughter loves to dance but after a certain point, she gets bored. Then she’ll play her viola but after 10 minutes she gets tired. It’s been very hard … I’m exhausted.”

But parents with older children have to do more than just keep them physically under control; they also have to make sure their brains don’t turn to mush.

In France, the government has promised to provide online classes, but the platforms crashed the first day. Many high school seniors are stressing about how they’ll pass the end-of-year exams in subjects like math and biology when they barely understand them in the classroom. For children with illiterate parents, the challenges are compounded.

In a way, I have it easy. My girls risk losing a bit of French while they’re stuck at home with two nonnative speakers, but I’m not worried about them falling behind in reading or math, as I would if they were older.

And even if entertaining two toddlers is truly energy-sucking and testing the little patience I possess, it doesn’t compare to the emotional challenges of parenting older children in lockdown. My girls simply think they’re on extended vacation and are thrilled they get to spend 24/7 with Mom and Dad.

And even though some of our best efforts – like removing the pacifier or getting my older daughter to fall asleep on her own – are likely to fall by the wayside as our notions of routine get scrambled, I know they’ll be OK.

I don’t have to explain that a deadly virus is the reason they can’t see their grandparents or friends, or need to answer existential questions about the unfathomable state of the world. My daughter’s “Why” game is even starting to seem pretty OK right about now – except when she asks why half the people in the street are wearing surgical masks.

If what has happened in Asia is any indication, we could be in this situation for a while. All I can do is have faith that one day things will return to normal. That my girls will be able to touch the doorknobs of our apartment complex, hug their friends with wild abandon, or even grab other kids’ toys in the neighborhood sandbox – without me scrambling for the hand sanitizer.

I hope we’ll all look back on this strange time in humanity’s history and realize it brought us closer – communities and families. I know I’m lucky that I actually like my family. Many kids in Europe’s lockdown will face abuse, hunger, or mental health issues. It’s a good reminder, during these tough weeks ahead, that we have to be kind to one another in order to survive.

In the meantime, though, thank goodness for Peppa Pig.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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