I am a native New Yorker who has been living in Milan, Italy for the last fifteen years. I’m a full time working mother of 2 young girls (ages 3 and 5) and am married to a fantastic Italian man. As the stress of the corona virus situation begins to cascade in the U.S., many family, friends and former colleagues have reached out to me, asking about our daily situation, our process and even some advice for their potential future. As I respond to individual texts and emails, I thought it might be beneficial to share these reflections with a wider audience.
Am I a health expert? …no way. A parenting guru? …far from it. A crisis manager? …nope, not me.
Like you all, I am living through this NOW but I do have a couple of weeks (and restrictions) under my belt. This is an account of our experience in Italy that offers some advice, both practical and emotional, for anyone who needs it. Like all things in life, attitudes and approaches differ…some opinions may speak to you while others might make you snarl.
The situation is changing so quickly and with every day there are new challenges. I’m not sure if the info here will even be relevant tomorrow. But here is where I am…right here, right now, and this is what I’ve got for you:
Things changed quickly. 4 weeks ago my family and I decided last minute on a Saturday to take an overnight trip to the Piemonte region. They were celebrating carnevale there so we packed our costumes and overnight bags, booked a bed and breakfast, and headed for those rolling Italian hills. Sunday afternoon as we were enjoying a million course meal at a farmhouse, our phones started buzzing …and buzzing …and buzzing. By the end of lunch and about 100 texts, we were arranging babysitters for the following day.
And the numbers began to rise.
2 days later I was working from home (I’m an elementary art teacher) with my two small children. All schools and government buildings in Milan were closed. It seemed a bit drastic but we complied and watched the numbers begin to rise. For the next 2 weeks I was home most of the day with my kids, homeschooling my older daughter via distance learning and trying to keep my 3 year old occupied with “homework” (“Ummm …draw 20 circles on this paper…yeah, then color them”) I was also doing my own distance teaching, designing lessons, having virtual meetings and responding to parent and student emails. It was a transition to say the least but it still just didn’t feel all that real as if it would end any day. The rest of Milan was moving along, in an odd and careful way, but moving nonetheless. My husband was still going to his office in the city center full time. Restaurants, bars and cafes were open and bustling. Parks were packed with playing children who had no school. My exercise classes were cancelled but I still called our babysitter so I could go shopping and have an aperitivo (happy hour) with a friend… I mean, I needed it …right?
But the numbers continued to rise.
And then the internal conflicts deepened…The second guessing went to the next level …Should we go out to lunch? Shouldn’t we go out and do things now in case we will be required to stay home in the future? Should we take the kids to the park? Is it safe to see our elderly relatives? But it’s my niece’s birthday. We don’t want to miss it. Should we invite friends over? What if we are sick and aren’t showing symptoms? What if one of them is sick and isn’t showing symptoms yet? Her cousin works at a hospital and she saw him the other day...The tunnel goes deep…very deep. Many of you are at the brink of this right now.
And the numbers continued to rise.
The movement around the city continued but lessened. There were more masks and gloves about. More offices started closing. Restaurants and bars closing at 6. And then, last Sunday, as we were trying to refund our Easter trip so we could rent an apartment at a nearby lake for peace of mind and fresh air, suddenly within hours that option was gone …actually most of our options were gone: Full lock down across the country. Stay put. Everything closed. Don’t go outside without permission. One person at a time to the grocery store. Here.We.Go.
And the numbers still continue to rise.
The velocity of the changes outside our window has been the most surreal in comparison to the slow-moving reality of our everyday life at home. These weeks have been trying and I know every day will continue to bring with it new challenges but we are all home safe, healthy and I believe, truly blessed, while the real heroes like doctors, nurses, and emergency care workers are out there risking their lives for all of us every day. We all need to do our part in this and even though I am physically stationary, I do feel active in the community towards a common goal.
GUIDELINES WE ARE LIVING BY (AND MAKING UP AS WE GO)
As I reflect over these last weeks, here are some things we have been doing that have really helped us. They are especially geared to those parents who have suddenly found themselves working from home with young children. Again this is what WE have been doing and might not work for you and your journey. You will find your own path regardless but this is just here to help anyone who needs it.
It’s OK to give yourself a break the first day or two of quarantine. We all know the importance of routine for a child (that’s next) but in the first day or two (for me it was three), be easy on yourself and your kids. Use it like snow days or vacation time…let your kids (and yourself) stay in your pajamas, skip a bath, watch too much TV, build forts, or do whatever it is you do on a relaxing day home. This is a time of uncertainty and a HUGE transition for working parents, so be easy on yourself and your kids those first days home (**If routine makes you whole, ignore this advice.)
THEN…Establish your routines. After your breath starts to reek and you can’t remember exactly what you wore before your gray sweatpants, try to establish a normal routine for you and your family. Wake up and bed times, meal times, movement breaks, getting dressed, taking baths, etc…Keep the flow of your day going the best you can to keep everyone sane.
“Meet” with your partner first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening to discuss and plan the day ahead. This is crucial especially if you are both working from home. Plan your meals for the next two days and divide and conquer responsibilities. Organize schedules and blocks of times based on each other’s work calls, “meetings” and deadlines while your partner handles the kids.
Timers are our new best friends. To keep your schedule afloat use timers with your kids. This especially helps with schoolwork …it was struggle central getting my daughter to focus but timers really do work for her. Sand timers are even better because it gives kids that visual aid to help them along. We also use timers for “clean-up challenges”…A little competition can’t hurt.
Take movement breaks. Dress up and have a dance party. Just Dance, Kidz Bop and GoNoodle on YouTube are always a win. Do some yoga. We watch Cosmic Kids and Kalila Community for fun and engaging lessons to do with kids. Couch Surf! …depending on your space and comfort zone, you might want to throw some of those house rules out of the window in these times of need. If you have a backyard…bingo! We are city dwellers, living in a 2 bedroom apartment thankfully with 2 balconies where we spend the majority of sunny days.
Have a glass of wine with lunch. Yep, it’s ok…really.
Use this time to make your kids active participants in the community of your household…A.K.A…get them to do CHORES. You are now sharing a space in a constant daily setting. Now is time to give your kids more responsibility around the house. My daughter is now making her own breakfast…next week’s challenge: making her sister’s too (and guess who will get to sleep in a bit). This is good for the kids as well as the flow of your household. You are going to burn out quickly if you are constantly picking up after everyone.
Don’t watch the news during the day…and while you are at it disconnect from any fear-inducing group chats. It does not help to hear bad news during the day as you are trying to stay calm and positive for yourself and your family. In the beginning days I would be playing with my kids and suddenly I would check a news update and it would change my mood completely which would immediately change the energy of the house. Keep Peppa Pig on if you need some background noise, not CNN. We are in a period of waiting and how we occupy our days and thoughts is essential. Also, if you happen upon a group of panic stricken people in your group chats that are stressing you out and not helping you along, feel free to dip out for a bit. It doesn’t have to be big and dramatic…just adjust your notifications. Just like in your social life, choose to “be around” people who make you laugh. I love to annoy my besties with ridiculous animated gifs and jams of the day (I’m currently in a 90s R&B phase…who am I kidding I’m always in 90s R&B phase). There are several chat groups across countries that are my laugh line and emotional support throughout the day.
Make things. Make art, make necklaces, make music, make forts, make cakes…whatever it is that takes time, brings calm and joins you together in a moment of tranquility. Now is the time to order those paint sets and large rolls of paper, buy that cake mix or look up recipes from scratch. We make playdough just about every other day with flour, salt and water. Don’t worry about the mess… (Remember you are already teaching your kids how to clean up more.)
Pick a “time out” room for you and your partner to use. A room, a closet, the bathroom…wherever is your space to go and take that deep breath for a hot second instead of losing it with the kids. (I’ve used mine twice today) As much as we are working on conflict resolution at home, there are moments and sometimes you just need to walk away.
Watch as much comedy as you can…we need it right now! Discover a new comedy series. Thank you Andy Samberg and the crew at Brooklyn 99…You are saving me from extra therapy bills. Watch some 80s movies that make you laugh (maybe because they are comedies, or maybe just because they were so bad). Stay away from “The End is Near” genre please… again, not helpful.
THE BURSTS OF LIGHT ( I promise there are some)
In this time of absolute uncertainty, heightened anxiety, and at certain moments, downright fear, I wanted to share with you some of the positives we have taken the time (we’ve got a lot of it) to see:
I know my kids better than I ever have. I look into their eyes more and they look into mine. We have more inside jokes in these last weeks than we’ve had in months.
My kids are becoming best friends. The cat scratching peaked about 2 ½ weeks ago and the conflict resolution has evolved. They are playing…quietly…right now…Shhhhh.
My husband and I feel like a real team. Yes we argue (daily) but we are really working together to figure this out and to make this a memorable experience for our kids in every positive way we can. We are also creating some good habits and memories of our own as a couple.
Slowing down has helped us embrace the beauty in small moments. Being in the same context all day enables one to see things in such a different way. Successes like the kids eating their vegetables, no one busting into my google meet or going to the bathroom without being interrupted are quite fulfilling but there are also those bigger moments that feel warmer with each passing day: Singing an old Italian love song with my main squeeze, painting and hanging rainbow pictures with my daughter in our windows to bring joy and hope to our neighborhood, clapping and cheering at noon every day to celebrate the bravery of this country’s medical workers, watching my husband play Candyland with our kids in the middle of the day when he is usually home just in time for bedtime stories.
The numbers, yes they continue to rise…but these special moments, well they do too.
Baci e abbracci from Italia