Updated: Aug 11
I didn’t know that we had already started a pod pretty early on in the pandemic.
In March, while we were all staying home and learning online, my baby’s nanny and a certified teacher, offered to stay on and help with schooling. This is now known as one version of a 'pandemic pod', but at the time, it was saving my sanity and helping me transition out of the career I had built for nearly 14 years to be able to stay home with my children when our nanny moved in June.
We ended up looping in a few of my 3rd grader's classmates on zoom calls while Shannon coordinated the 'classroom' time. Having her help was such a blessing, in all the ways. It let my teenager, who would have been required to pick up some childcare slack, focus on nailing the end of her junior year. My husband and I could work. My kids were safe and happy. All things considered, we were doing great. I recall those early days fondly, frolicking in the introverted glory of not having to go anywhere, getting a 'pause button' to be home with my kids, and having my mothering focus on the higher-level management of schedules and toilet paper inventory. I nurtured the seed of Stronger Together ATX. I organized my closets.
After she left, things went a little off kilter. I’ve done Summer with kids for 15 years, but this Summer is different. No pool. No vacations. No Grandma's house. No camps.
The middle two kids were socially distancing in our front yard with a few friends, but we felt they needed something a little more structured. My teenager was bored to tears, and my toddler was, well, living her best life climbing/spilling/breaking everything in her path. So we started organizing what we called “The Bubble Bunch Summer Club” which was a group of families who agreed to a code of conduct and which included only hanging out together to keep us all as safe as possible while getting the kids some interaction, and us parents some breathing room.
My teenager created an outdoor summer camp model, with activities and games and snacks. She took the toddler outside for some parts of it, too. My husband and I could work. Overall, my kids were safe and happy.
But we had to have some hard conversations and deal with some deep feelings when both of my #3 daughter's invited friends had risk levels much higher than ours and couldn't participate. A few of the parents ended up getting symptoms, and we needed to shut the camp down and personally quarantine while awaiting test results, which posed logistical challenges. (All tested negative, but it took nearly 2 weeks to get the results in both cases.) My teenager was over it pretty quickly, as she was feeling the stress of her own pandemic experience, and as a senior preparing for her final year of high school in a world she doesn’t recognize with no physical interaction with peers.
Her mental health was suffering, and we had to pull the plug.
Excluding friends who didn’t have matching risk levels was hard. Shutting down when people got sick was hard. Quitting something some of my children loved when one of them was suffering was hard. But all in all, we were doing okay.
Even before this, back in May, (cuz I’m a planner) I had started researching micro-schools and homeschooling, and even took a few training calls with some curriculum companies to see if that was the direction for us. In the interest of trying it on, I had lined up a few families who were considering it, and we began navigating the windy road of the deeply personal conversations and collaborations required. It was reminiscent of buying a house. Making offers, waiting for them to be accepted. Wondering if you said the right thing, and if you were going to blow it. Feeling so invested that when it fell through, it was crushing.
That ended up not being the road we took, for many reasons, but at the end of the day it hinged most on everything I knew (and would come to know) about our public school system. With so much of their funding riding on attendance, and with no good reason for us to bail, we decided to support our public schools so they don’t go up in smoke and deprive vulnerable and marginalized communities of the vital resources they offer. Public school needs an overhaul, that’s for sure. It will happen...this pandemic is making sure of it. It just can’t happen so quickly that people fall through the cracks. So we’re staying in.
On the logistical side, while I knew I was going to be home with my kids, and while I don’t mind hanging out with a few of their friends in a cohort, I didn’t know if I could handle teaching. I could claim child-centered reasons all day long, but the reality is, it’s about me. Maybe it would be amazing, but could I handle it? I’ve made a lot of progress into full-time mothering, but have I made that much? Enough to take on every aspect of their education AND their mental health AND their physical well-being AND still be able to do all the crap I still need to do?
Knowing what I know about kids and consistency, the last thing I want is to put something into effect and then have to change course because I can't hang. Y'all, this has been a series of self-evaluations and audits on every level, and it has been really humbling. I've done a lot of work, but I have a lot to do still. And my focus on myself as a person needs to be in the decision making equation, as much as I want to be perfect and up for every challenge. I have to be realistic about my skills, and my limitations.
Homeschooling or micro-schooling may be on the horizon for us in the future, but for now, I personally need someone else to do the teaching with my husband and I on the assist. That way I can follow along and just make sure the boxes are checked, and have the freedom to still be Mom and supplement with stuff I think is important. Like how to get your dishes into the sink instead of on top of your dresser, and how to put dirty clothes in the GD hamper instead of in a trail behind you on the floor. You know, the fundamentals. Not to mention the little detail of where my self-care fits in. If I'm going to be at my best, I have to prioritize my health, too.
In thinking about the upcoming school year, I knew the benefits of maximizing cohort relationships, and thought I could potentially add some neighborhood kiddos to what I was going to be doing at home. Why not help a few neighbors since I was going to be home doing it anyway? And with the evidence I had from experiences so far, it seemed like a great idea to set up a few kids in 4th grade, a few kids in K/1, heck, maybe a few toddlers! Maybe I could even make a few bucks to cover my lost income? So I started researching what would be required on the regulations side of things. Cue hours of conversations with Health & Human Services, Austin Health Department, Code Enforcement, Planning and Zoning, my mortgage and insurance companies. It's not so simple to just have a couple of kids in your house after all. This, and science, has definitely informed my decisions as I navigate the issues of public health + pandemic, as some of my previous notions about home-based environments brings all manner of health related questions to light. From what I'm learning, for better or worse, it is likely that our authorities will be reactive versus proactive. This means the decisions will be ours, at least at first, to grapple with.
So for us, we’ll be piecing it together. With a high school senior preparing for college, a 4th grader who struggles with authority, a 7-year-old 1st grader who still hasn’t mastered kinder material, and a head-strong toddler who specializes in telling us all how to live our lives, things are going to be interesting. We'll keep the older three in their public schools, we know that for sure. For the middle two, we'll go with virtual all year. We'll have two of our neighbors in a cohort with my 4th grader, and I'll work one-to-one with my 1st grader on bringing her up to speed. I'll balance all of them in our dining room-turned-classroom and our yard-turned-playground.
For my oldest, the senior...man, that's tough.
How do you do the risk evaluation for your child who has known nothing but going to traditional school, who has been preparing for this her whole life, and who has built such strong relationships outside of her home life that deserve to be nurtured and prioritized - while in the midst of a global pandemic whose threats include everything from minor inconvenience to long term health consequences to drowning in medical debt to DEATH. Ugh.
And for the toddler, who's favorite past-time is building precarious towers out of everything that we own, scaling them, and victoriously shouting, "ILANA DO IT!" I just don't know. On one hand, I'm enjoying this phase, and all of its crazy. On the other, it would be wonderful to be able to focus on the older children's needs for longer than 35 seconds before the younger is distracting us away. Childcare is available to us, though a serious, serious stretch financially. We are holding her spot at our beloved preschool, and while the thought of exposing her and our family to greater risks, I also know it would be an incredible place for her to learn and grow, and smash stuff that isn't mine.
This pandemic has opened so many doors to both incredible growth and impossible choices. Having to prioritize one child, and figuring out how to make it up to the others. Hearing the call of work, and passions, and self-discovery, and still, despite the world practically stopping...trying to keep all the plates spinning.
I’ve been digging in to all the scenarios, researching my buns off, and trying to balance my oft fluctuating obsessions with figuring it all out right now, and letting it unfold organically.
I’m trying not to get too sideways on causes and problems (I’m a relentless helper) and letting my own self-care slip (important for more broad and more specific personal health reasons.)
Hearing other people’s struggles and victories on their own journeys toward making it work is a blessing, and I am so grateful to all the women who have opened their hearts, both directly and indirectly. It is my belief that moms will save the world. We see the proof of that happening every day, in so many ways. And I believe that if we keep helping each other forward, prioritizing those who need the most support, no matter where we are on this "making it work" journey, we're going to be okay.
And if there’s anything I know I can trust, it is my ability, and the ability of all mothers, to rise to occasions and make something pretty magical out of whatever is around. The fancy French word for it is bricolage. And who doesn’t need something fancy right about now?