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Parenting, now

Earlier this week, our daughter Cait texted a photo capturing a moment of her juggling her job and her two young children at home.

At first, I noticed only Cait’s hand on the laptop, but as I studied it I saw the reason for snapping the picture. Two-year-old Ela was wedged next to her, her tiny left hand wrapped around her mother’s pinky as she typed.

“Working from home,” Cait texted, followed by three broken heart emojis. It takes so little for working mothers to feel guilty for wanting more.

For just a moment, I wanted to respond by sending a prized photo from her childhood. In it, I am wearing an old robe and the stare of the sleep deprived as I write on my Smith Corona typewriter with 9-month-old Cait on my lap.

“I know how you feel,” I wanted to write, but then I stopped.

I really don’t know what this is like for parents like her. This is not my familiar.

All three of our daughters have full-time jobs and two young children at home. Our son has a 12-year-old boy, who is also now spending every hour at home. All of our kids have the spouses you pray for during their dating years. They, too, are working full time from home.

The difference between my generation’s working-at-home days and theirs defies all attempts to quantify. We have no idea how long this period of self-quarantine will last for them, and their children.

In the 1980s and ’90s, I pecked away at the typewriter and, even in my exhaustion, knew my days would not always be so simultaneously bountiful and hard. Soon enough, I could tell myself, Cait would join her brother, Andy, in school. I would miss her, but work would be easier. I’d have whole days for interviews and writing, and to forge my career.

Our grown kids, and millions of parents like them, see no end in sight. Not only are they trying to be good employees, but teachers for their children, too. Any parents hoping to replicate their children’s day care or school experiences are setting themselves up for the battering ram of self-doubt. This is an impossible undertaking, and yet they are taking it on.

I would like to ban, for all time, those pretend perfectionists’ social media posts of their well-dressed children learning like little Einsteins at dining room tables. “You lie!” I shouted just yesterday, which startled my husband. He is also working at home. That’s another dynamic, for another column.

I told Cait I would never have had the patience she daily shows her children. She scoffed. “I’d be great at homeschooling other people’s kids,” she said. “My own kids? Oh, Mom.”

This was less than an hour after she had finished a conference call and discovered little Ela crammed behind a stack of large boxes next to the TV.

“Mama,” 4-year-old Milo announced without the slightest whisper of contrition, “I trapped Ela like a fish. She can only have water.”

Today, I held two Zoom video conferences with my Kent State students. They were stacked on the screen like celebrity stars of the old “Hollywood Squares.” I was surprised by my joy at the sight of their faces, the sounds of their voices. Like countless college students across the country, mine have had to overcome so many obstacles to stay in school. And there they were on my computer screen, survivors still.

As I explained to them today, we don’t know when this crisis will end, but we can be sure it will change us. This pandemic found us in one place, and it will leave us somewhere else.

One more story about a grandchild, because I’d rather leave you smiling.

Recently, 4-year-old Carolyn and her mother, our family’s Elizabeth, were walking around the neighborhood when Carolyn passed a dog.

Carolyn loves dogs. She loves to pet them and hug them. She has been known to sing made-up songs to our older dog, Franklin.

This time, though, Carolyn knew she had to keep her distance.

“I can’t pet that dog because I have to stay six feet away,” she told her mother.

What a mournful pause.

“I wish my arms were six feet long.”

I keep imagining that. Our arms malleable and strong as they reach for the people we miss most. We cup their faces. We wrap our arms around them. We do all the gentle things we would have done one more time had we only known what was coming.

——

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.

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