My father was in Iran visiting family when much of the world went into lockdown in March of 2020. Iran would turn out to be one of the hardest-hit countries during the first wave of COVID-19.
My four children, aged nine, eight, five and two, were especially vocal in their demand for their grandfather to come home, borrowing my phone to send him messages until he promised to return as soon as possible. After some challenges, my dad managed to hopscotch his way through Europe and back to Ontario. When his two-week quarantine was over, my family finally exhaled.
He was fine. We were lucky.
Ever since COVID gripped the world, it seems my life is composed of these pockets of gratitude. Anxiety, anxiety, anxiety and then relief, like the first gulp of air after being held underwater.
I have a supportive spouse and parents and in-laws, healthy children, and I get to do what I love for a living. I feel lucky every day, but COVID has tested my ability to control my anxieties.
All my kids have been home for over a year, and while this in itself has been a source of only minimal stress—I decided to take my writing career freelance precisely because I wanted to spend more time with them—new elements, like virtual learning and lockdown restrictions, have been immensely challenging.
My husband is an essential worker, which meant he was seldom around to help me and the kids with school work. Our toddler, who has a typical tyrannical streak at the best of times, was perpetually enraged that his older siblings were home but not playing with him. The older kids found daily online classes and the constant stream of technical glitches and miscommunications so frustrating that our keyboards were often splattered with tears. Some of them mine. Sometimes I wondered what I did to deserve this.
Of course, the pandemic had nothing to do with anything I had done, but as someone who has a genetic predisposition to certain mental health issues, I also knew my ability—and, by extension, my children’s ability—to survive the pandemic could have everything to do with what I did moving forward.
As that first pandemic summer approached, my husband and I made a few life-changing decisions. First, we decided that we’d bubble with my parents. This decision meant that the kids would not be able to see their friends, whom they hadn’t seen since schools closed in mid-March. My parents were at an increased risk of suffering serious effects of the virus because of their age and my father’s heart disease and diabetes.
My kids supported the decision, unfazed by its implications. Their grandfather being temporarily stuck in Iran had shaken them. My nine-year-old son had sagely reasoned, “I’ll have a lifetime with friends. I don’t get that with Nana and Gramps.”
Having my parents in our bubble that summer would also mean that I had child care when I needed to work. I’d struggled to keep up with my freelance commitments during the school year, often staying up until two or three in the morning to meet deadlines. It was our hope that with my parents’ help, I would be able to do less late-night working, take better care of my health and use the free time I did have to teach my children more Farsi—a language they were eager to learn.
My husband and I also decided that we’d take advantage of the seller’s market and move. We already lived in a small town but we wanted to push out farther into the country, closer to both of our parents and nature. Our kids had dreams of tree forts and zip lines and raising chickens.
Because we were saving money on the usual splurge of summer outings, extracurricular activities and vacations, we decided to buy a trailer up north on a lake I knew as a child. We’d shake off the digital tethers of the last few months and embrace friluftsliv—the Scandinavian tradition of open-air life.
It was an idyllic vision for summer, and as far as summers go, that’s how I’ll remember it—for the most part.
An equal truth is that my children, all very different, had been in smacking distance of each other almost every hour of every day for months. This closeness has had its challenges—heads have literally butted—but during the summer of 2020, something amazing started to happen. My kids learned how to work together in a canoe to get where they wanted to go, how water tastes when licked off a paddle and how to execute a perfect J-stroke. They figured out how to bait their lines with jig lures, but if they tried to use live minnows from the bait shop, I’d insist the fish be released, Free Willy–style from the end of the dock. They also had the decency to roll their eyes at me when I wasn’t looking.
That summer, we all learned more about how to cherish people we don’t always understand, and really, I think that’s a foundation of family.
This summer, things will be a little different, but I’m looking forward to it all the same. We ended up selling the trailer to help pay for our new home, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1850 and situated on a country road mere minutes from both sets of grandparents. My father and my children have been busy hatching chicks since February. My husband put up the zip line, and the kids have found the perfect grove for their tree fort. We also have a small pond to explore, the fish so far unseen.
My older brother and sister-in-law have also had their first child, a son, whom we’ve seen only at a distance and through windows. While we all hope to be able to play with him this summer, if that’s not the case—if we have to continue to keep our distance so that our loved ones are safe—that’s OK, too.
We know we’re lucky and we are excited as we plan for another summer to remember.