Finding a New Family Dynamic Amid COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place Orders

A Manager with RHP Risk Management, Wendi Egan has more than 10 years of experience in environmental consulting. She is also a mother of four of children ages 1 thru 11.

Quarantine: Day 18

Wendi Egan

“Hey, Why am I Pucashell?!”, my daughter Erin demanded in an extremely frustrated tone. My concentration broken, I looked up from my laptop to see that she and I were the only people in the living room and her inquiry was directed at me. I was immediately irritated. Erin is 11 years old and the only one of our four children old enough to understand that her dad and I work at home now, and when at our computers cannot be interrupted for anything short of an emergency. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I replied, not hiding the fact that I was annoyed. She said nothing, only pointed at the TV, her facial expression a mixture of offense and disgust undoubtedly typical amongst pre-teens. I looked at the TV and saw the source of her frustration immediately. She had just turned on Netflix and tried to find her avatar. Everyone in our family has an avatar on Netflix, even our 1-year old son Patrick, who could not care less about watching TV. The kids used to change our avatars weekly, now it’s daily since we don’t leave the house. Yesterday, we were the Incredibles. Today we were all the main characters from “Stranger Things”, except Erin, whose clearly sabotaged avatar was a picture of an obese cartoon baby with the made-up and intended-to-be insulting name “Pucashell” written underneath. I immediately recognized this as the work of my 9-year old daughter Molly, likely retribution for some perceived offense Erin had committed earlier in the day. I could not help but laugh when I saw what Molly had done, because 1) it was very funny, even Erin was laughing in the end 2) the tactic was preferable to an actual argument and 3) it had been days since I saw anything on TV that was funny rather than worrisome.

We are a family of 6. Myself, my husband Tom, and our 4 children Erin (age 11), Molly (age 9), Nora (age 5) and Patrick (age 1) live in a (normally) socially-active Chicago suburb. Our monthly social calendar was always full, our children’s weekly activity schedule was heavy, and staying home for an entire day was an exceptional feat we rarely accomplished. As with so many other families, the evolving coronavirus crisis has upended our family’s version of “normal” and left us apprehensive and uncertain as we try to establish a new normal. In the weeks leading up to the adoption of social distancing practices, the closure of schools and ultimately the “shelter-in-place” edict (put into effect in Illinois on March 9, 2020), I exchanged hundreds of calls, text messages and emails with family, friends, and co-workers about coronavirus. I felt as prepared and informed as the next person for the events that unfolded, but quickly learned it’s impossible to be prepared for your entire life to change or to anticipate the far-reaching consequences of a crisis that evolves daily. On Friday, March 13, with the virus spreading at frightening speed and “flattening the curve” the only meaningful way to slow it, our schools and daycares were closed, and we were advised to avoid any unnecessary contact with people outside our immediate household.

The first weekend of the “shelter-in-place” orders, Tom and I watched the news for hours on end, trying to better understand the nature of the battle we are all fighting. With positive diagnoses and death counts ticking up mercilessly on the screen in front of me, my mind frequently wandered to my family, my father, a 67 year-old heart attack survivor; my grandmother, an 87 year-old diabetic living alone; and my 4 babies, 3 of whom use albuterol nebulizer solution for asthma and other respiratory issues. “Will they be ok?” “What will happen to them?” These thoughts plagued me every moment that weekend as I searched frantically online for Children’s Motrin, Tylenol, cough suppressant and household cleaning products. Mass panic left none to be found and after some tears shed in quiet corners of the house and some deep breaths, I realized we would just have to take everything day by day. In the “positives” column, with 6 people in the house, our normal level of toilet paper could honestly be considered someone else’s hoarding level, so we haven’t had any issues there…yet.

Working Parents / e-Learning

The following Monday, Tom and I, like many other working parents with no other childcare options available, took on the dual roles of both working adults and teachers/care givers, dividing our time between doing our work and caring for our children. These tasks are not easily balanced, and finding a system that works takes continual communication, patience, and negotiation while frequently reminding ourselves, “I am not the only one here who is frustrated.” After a few technological glitches on the first day of e-learning, our older daughters, Erin and Molly, in 6th and 3rd grade respectively, quickly developed their own systems for learning at home. We’re extremely fortunate in that they’re both responsible students and require only minimal assistance from us, as their teachers are always available by phone and email throughout the day. Our preschooler, Nora obviously requires more effort as, at only 5 years old, she is too young to understand why she must do schoolwork at home. Each morning, I search online for free, printable letter and number tracing and coloring sheets for her to complete (and there are tons of options out there.) I give them to Nora, who makes it clear she does not care for this new routine before begrudgingly sitting next to us on the couch with her worksheets and crayons, fending off her baby brother’s frequent attempts to snatch and crumple all her papers. Our baby boy Patrick hangs out in the living room, which we creatively gated and blocked off so that, while trapped in there, he has enough space to walk around and play and minimal opportunities to hurt himself. Patrick is our biggest childcare challenge. At 14 months, he just mastered walking, has graduated to running and in the absence of something to keep him entertained, enjoys banging on our computers or attempting to break out of his living room baby jail with the occasional success. Tom and I trade-off between sitting in the living room with Nora and Patrick and sitting in our home office, depending on who has a call/video conference scheduled or a deadline looming. If we have meetings that overlap, Erin and Molly step in and help out with their younger siblings.

After work/school hours, it seems we are back to business as usual with dinner, dishes and chores continuing on as they would have in our pre-quarantine days, only with added emphasis on cleanliness and hand washing. As a working mother of four, I was a grateful user of time-saving services like Instacart and Amazon Prime for grocery/household supply shopping before this crisis unfolded. I’ve continued using these services, only now my gratitude has shifted from saving time to being able to keep my children at home. Planning out meals and personal hygiene needs in advance was essential to me before and is even more so now in the wake of low availability of certain items and longer wait times for delivery. Despite all of the chaos and uncertainty, our shoppers and delivery workers have never left us wanting for anything and we cannot thank them enough. Last week I set up an Instacart account for my absolutely amazing and fiercely independent grandmother in hopes it will prevent her from venturing out. So far, she’s humoring me, although she’s not super clear on how I could know Jewel is out of peach Yoplait when I’m not physically standing there. “I just know Grammy. They don’t have any.” (I know diabetics should not eat peach Yoplait, but you try telling her that and good luck to you.)

Virtual Socialization

Our life on weekends is not remotely reminiscent of what it used to be, but we are doing everything we can to adjust. Fortunately there are quite a few options for virtual socialization out there. Friday night get togethers at the homes of friends and neighbors have been replaced by Web Ex and Zoom hang out sessions, happy hours and game nights. Visits with aunts, uncles and grandparents have been replaced with Google Duo group video chats. Conversations with friends and co-workers throughout the day have been replaced with group text messaging and e-mails. My girlfriends and I joke over text and video chats about what boring moms we are, spending most of our time working and cleaning up household disasters while our Facebook and Instagram betters are doing crafts and baking cookies.

My good friend sent me a message last week jokingly asking if I was going to put a divorce lawyer on retainer to avoid the “post-quarantine filing rush” which was a good laugh out loud moment for me. When I shared this with Tom he responded with “Hahahahaha….wait…whoa…we’re good right???”, making it even funnier. Tom, an extrovert to the core, has replaced his Monday night basketball league with a “guys night” Web Ex each weekend and his SportsCenter obsession has translated into re-watching Jordan era Chicago Bulls games.

I’m endlessly proud of all 3 of my girls who took the cancellation of two long-planned vacations and countless lessons, games, rehearsals and parties on the chin with little complaint. Even though they can’t be in the same house with friends, I see all the familiar faces on screens throughout the day and as siblings they’ve been keeping each other on their toes with pranks including changing of the TV avatars and the timeless classic “food coloring in the toothpaste”. Tom and I do our best to keep the lines of communications open with each other and the kids, frequently checking in with a simple “How are you doing today? Is everything going ok?” and have offered the girls the option of speaking to a therapist via Facetime if they feel they need some extra help.

For me, peace in quarantine lies in limiting news watching to an hour a day, frequently checking in with my people, using the treadmill as often as possible, and falling asleep each night with a comedy on TV so the dark silence doesn’t provide an opportunity for worry to get the best of me. I have many moments where I feel overwhelmed and helpless, and in those moments, I look for a smile from my sweet baby boy and remind myself that we are all in this together, and together we’ll get through it.

P.S. While I was writing this, my 5 year-old daughter bought two movies on Prime Video. So…off I go to update the parental controls.