As coronavirus fears shut schools, work-at-home parents like me are trying not to freak out

While I feel guilty griping about having to spend more time with my daughter, we need to acknowledge the strain it puts on parents and children alike.
Illustration of parent trying to work on laptop beneath a pillow fort as children run amok around him.
For parents who have to work from home, schools' being shut means that kids have disrupted not only their home life, but their work life, as well.Meredith Miotke / for NBC News
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By Amy Klein

I love my daughter; I truly do. Even when she's a defiant and rambunctious 4-year-old. But when I read the notice from her private Jewish school that it had decided to close because of coronavirus, I cried.

Big, heaving sobs.

I’m panicked about quarantining or 'social distancing' or whatever newfangled term you want to call 'being stuck inside with the people you love most until you want to kill them.'

No doubt it's been a stressful few weeks as the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic and our New York population — especially the Jewish community — has been hit hard (we know people under quarantine in New Rochelle). Never mind that my book tour in April, which I've been planning for the last two years, has been canceled and I might have no income for the foreseeable future.

Still, I'm grateful we're all healthy. I'm grateful we're not the vulnerable ones (even though we have elderly parents who are). I'm grateful that children are largely unaffected by the coronavirus. And I'm going to keep my little germ vector from spreading the virus to aid in flatlining the contagion curve.

But I thought that before a full lockdown was put into place, I'd have more time to work. More time outside. More time with friends. More time away from my family. Like many, many parents around the country, I'm happy to help slow down the virus, but I'm panicked about quarantining or "social distancing" or whatever newfangled term you want to call "being stuck inside with the people you love most until you want to kill them."

How are we going to survive a month (or more) of this?

Misguided advice and unrealistic expectations are only making it worse, and while I feel guilty griping about having to spend more time with my child — not to mention care for a healthy human when others are facing so much worse — it's still important that we acknowledge the strain it puts on parents and children alike and that we give ourselves room to be frustrated and inefficient.

I see on social media that every Mom, Dick and Harry has recommendations on what to do with your kids at home. I've already been invited to three "Parents Under Quarantine" Facebook groups and sent a host of advice-filled articles. But the well-meaning onslaught can ironically leave me feeling worse. Articles such as "Under quarantine? Here are 10 ways to cope with being cooped up" freak me out when the first two are: "routine, routine, routine" and "cleaning, or better yet, organizing."

I admire the author's ability to instill order (and I know she has a leg to stand on; she happens to be a good friend of mine who smoothly juggles two boys, a journalism career and an immaculate house). But the notion that such guidance is helpful for my household? Fat chance.

Instead, let me paint you this picture of Day One: My daughter woke up at her usual 7:30 a.m. because I'd forgotten to cancel the alarm. To grab a little more shut-eye after worrying half the night, I let her play with Legos by herself till she started clamoring for food at 8:30. I crawled out of bed and tossed her a drinking yogurt, stopping only for the de rigueur Lady Macbeth hand-washing.

I was so overwhelmed with following the news, checking social media and her being at home that I didn't get dressed till 11 a.m. — and that was only because her school was having an online meeting. (No, we can't call it distance learning — "distance shouting" is more like it with a dozen preschoolers: "Hi! Can you hear me?" "Hi! Can you hear me?")

After the 30 minutes of chaos, my little darling started pestering me for movies. "Moana?" "Aladdin?" "Frozen?" she kept asking, as if it was the title that made the difference in my giving in. "Limit screen time" is another Top 10 item on many lists about staying home with kids.

"So many things are so unhelpful," my friend Bailey, who also has a preschooler, said of all these recommendations. "I don't know how to do that — when you're in a New York City apartment, it's really hard to set those rules. If both parents are trying to work, too, your kid's going to be on TV or the iPad."

Indeed, for parents who now have to work from home — because either they always work from home, like me, or their offices directed them to do so — it means kids have disrupted not only your home life, but your work life, as well.

Not to mention your better half, if you have one lurking around, too. My husband and I both had video calls at the same time at one point, him with his office and me for a Facebook Live conversation. We had to keep sending my daughter back and forth to each other, feeling like that dad on the CNN video whose kids interrupted his interview from his home office on live TV.

"I keep seeing all these educational lists of things to do with your kids — but who is going to do it with them?" a working (now from home) mom complained on one of the quarantine groups.

Even parents who have been-there, done-that advice to offer can make it feel worse for us first-timers because of their I-told-you-so attitude.

"Advice from an 8-year veteran of staying at home: make a schedule or establish your routine. That will be your saving grace," a smug home-schooling mom in a quarantine FB group opined. (Others responded that quarantine and home-schooling are not the same. "To be fair, usually libraries are open and play dates are available," another replied.)

If you’re not super-organized before a pandemic, you’re not going to get there now.

My friend Sarah, a mom of two preteens, laughed at all of the obsession with scheduling and routine: "You have to start from there," she pointed out, noting that if you're not super-organized before a pandemic, you're not going to get there now.

I am not known for having a spick-and-span house — unless I hire someone, which I can't do now — or a fully checked-off to-do list, so maybe I should cut myself, and my family, some slack. The best advice for parents might be to ask ourselves "What can I let go of?" instead of "What can I keep control of?"

And I should also take a cue from my daughter. She's cheerful, largely unaffected by the pandemic and happy to be together with her parents full time.