Parenting in the Time of a Worldwide Pandemic

On March 5th I sat in the parent/teacher conference of my six-year old 1st grader and anxiously listened to his teacher’s report. The bottom line was that, although Kieran had his strengths, he had quite a bit of work to do to be ready for second grade. Like any good and attentive parent, I was concerned, but the goals the teacher set for the rest of the school year seemed attainable.

I told myself: “He’s got this. We’ve got this … I’ve got this.”

Lately, I’ve needed to tack on that last affirmation for myself. After fourteen years of marriage, Kieran’s mother and I have recently separated. It ended as amicably as we both could hope for, but it still made the business of raising Kieran a lot more complicated. We weren’t the same team we used to be, and as I looked across that tiny first grade-sized table, it truly sank in.

Fast forward to a million years later (March 30th), where my new reality finds me living at the epicenter of the United States’ coronavirus outbreak whilst also taking on the responsibilities of being a co-parent AND teacher for a quarantined child.

Now, it’s everyday that I have to tell myself: “I’ve got this.”

My son has never been an easy child to parent. He’s 64 pounds of pure joy and sweetness, but his ADHD and autism make him what some would call “a handful.” He’s high-functioning autistic, which manifests itself in wonderful ways like his ability to memorize the details of every planet, star, and black hole beyond our solar system. But, on the downside, it makes focusing, boundaries, and peer interactions pretty difficult for him. Despite that, he’s managed to thrive at a school which truly champions his unique personality and works hard to meet him on his level. The staff and teachers really care and isn’t that what every parent wants?

When the coronavirus first started turning up in New York City, the schools remained in session as the threat seemed abstract. I did worry about my son’s health, but figured the people in charge knew best (in retrospect, maybe they waited a week too long). By the following week, Governor Cuomo made the call to close all NYC schools and, although I knew it was the smart thing to do, another part of my brain was quietly freaking out. My son’s mother and I had only started living apart in December and we were still working on navigating the world of co-parenting. There was no way this was going to make that any easier.

The first week was kind of a mess.

His school was still scrambling to set up an online curriculum, his mother and I were still scrambling to figure out who would be with him each day, and the city was still scrambling to figure out just how serious this really was. With no road map to follow, I just free-formed a few lessons while Kieran’s mom put together one of those really ambitious daily schedules lots of other parents were sharing on social media. I think we both knew we were in over our heads, but we were trying.

I decided early on it was important that Kieran understood what this virus was and how it was going to change the way we all lived our lives and, fortunately, his mom agreed. We openly broke it down for him and his clinical, autistic mind absorbed the information fairly easily. There was even an afternoon when I overheard him playing with Legos in his room, singing to himself, “Covid nineteeeeen, covid nineteeeeen!”

The harder part was regulating his behavior in the outside world. My son is extremely tactile and I regularly had to remind him not to touch random things when walking down the street before all this (maybe someday I’ll tell you the story of when he picked up a hot coal from a hookah pipe some dude was enjoying on his front stoop … uh, or maybe not). Now, his compulsion to touch things like railings, benches, fire hydrants and strangers (yup, he does that too) has become a liability. When we go out for our daily exercise, I am on full alert. No more peeking at my Instagram feed as he walks a few feet ahead of me. Instead, I stay right on top of him, regularly barking out “Don’t Touch!” as he absentmindedly rests his hand on a building wall or supermarket window. Yes, I’m keeping him safe, but I can’t help but wonder about the residual effect this will all have, not just on him, but also on a generation of kids being instilled with fear about what they’re allowed to touch.

When it rains it pours, right?

The first week ended with a thud as I learned I was being let go from my job. As much as I was devastated by this news, I took solace in the fact that I was not alone. Most of my friends were right there beside me as they too found themselves out of jobs, sudden victims of a choice made to keep us all safe. I decided to lean into my unemployment and embrace this unexpected moment as a chance to connect with Kieran in a way I never expected to. In fact, my responsibility as a father and teacher is the only structure that remains in my life right now, and I’m extremely grateful for it. Am I jealous of my quarantined friends without kids who are binge-watching Netflix, baking bread, and sleeping until noon every day? Of course I am, but getting the unadulterated love of a six-year old will always beat out Tiger King and a fresh loaf of sourdough. So, with that in mind, I gear up for week two by giving him extra tickles and hugs, as the rules of “Don’t Touch” only exist in the outside world and not in the cozy confines of home.