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Thursday, August 6, 2020

I’m Not Cut Out for Family Quarantine

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“How did you do it?” I asked my mother a few days after our kids’ schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Do what?” she responded.

“How did you take care of us the entire day back in Iran?”

“There wasn’t much to do. I basically set you and your sister loose in the backyard with your cousins and you all found ways to amuse yourselves.”

That, according to my mother, is how to keep children home all day without losing your mind. But my husband and I don’t have a backyard and social distancing is keeping all the wonderful cousins at home.

For three weeks, I — with my master’s in public diplomacy and 15 years’ professional experience in advocacy — have been puttering from room to room, repeating the same phrase: I’m not cut out for this.

I’m not cut out for home-schooling a 4-year-old, whose idea of improved penmanship means seeing into which orifice he can stick a permanent marker.

I’m definitely not cut out to essentially reverting to a 1950s housewife.

I’m not cut out for begging a 2-year-old to stop flinging his sticky oatmeal at me while forcing him to pay attention to his teacher via distance learning on Zoom.

And I’m definitely not cut out to essentially reverting to a 1950s housewife with few outlets for intellectual or professional fulfillment, because these days I spend all my time cleaning up messes, cooking and keeping our kids busy.

My husband tries to take a few shifts with the kids each day but he earns more than I do, so he must continue to work. As a writer and speaker, I have more flexibility, but during this pandemic, that flexibility also translates into the majority of household and child-rearing duties.

I’ve temporarily become my mother, who, in Iran, didn’t have a job and whose sole domain was the home. But this isn’t Iran. And even my degree in public diplomacy can’t help me with two little boys who fight over everything all day long. I’m truly in awe of stay-at-home moms.

A well-meaning friend recently posted on Facebook that during the bubonic plague that ravaged England in the 17th century, William Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” while in quarantine, and Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity while he stayed at his family’s estate, far away from the University of Cambridge, which had temporarily closed. Surely, argued my friend, we, too, can use this time at home to release our inner brilliance.

I wanted to pour a bowl of oatmeal over his head.

Shakespeare wasn’t raising children when he penned “King Lear” and Newton never married or had kids. In fact, they both had cooks and housekeepers.

I’d like to know how I’m going to write the next Pulitzer prize-winning memoir while feverishly scrubbing grease off a saucepan, flipping pancakes, giving the kids their vitamins and holding one foot over a damp cloth in an attempt to mop the kitchen floor.

Is it an indescribable blessing to have children? Yes.

Am I truly grateful that I’m home with them, rather than alone in a hospital bed? Absolutely.

But were my children meant to be cooped up at home all day? Only if they know how to get grease off an old saucepan.

Last week, I took them for a daily walk around the residential streets of our Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Sitting on a neighbor’s lawn, I picked little stones and arranged them into different figures: A tower, a sea turtle and a butterfly. The kids were delighted and began creating their own tiny stone sculptures.

It was such a simple form of play, and my mind drifted back to Iran, where my cousins and I created imaginary worlds out of stones, twigs and even buttons. As it turned out, my childhood in the pre-internet age prepared me for boredom, nourished my imagination, and brought even the simplest things to life.

Now, my kids beg me to make stone figures.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s one thing I actually am cut out for.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.

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