This article is part of Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.
Everyone who knows my family knows that our 9-year-old daughter—let’s call her Vivian—gets migraines. She’s been getting them for years now, though we originally mistook them for simple motion sickness. Last year, the official diagnosis shifted from “pediatric migraines,” which many children grow out of, to “classic migraines.” Her neurologist said she is not likely to grow out of these and that they may get better or worse; there’s no way to know which way that pendulum will swing.
Back in January and February, Vivian was having two to three migraines most weeks, and sometimes more. Our entire life started to feel like one long headache, as I obsessively recorded her diet and activities—desperately trying to determine what her migraine “triggers” might be—and tracked her symptoms and medication.
Then our entire life was shut down by the pandemic, and everything suddenly looked different. To our surprise, we discovered it wasn’t entirely a bad different as it was for so many—because Vivian’s migraines drastically subsided. Since we began social distancing in March, Vivian has had maybe two migraines a month. Now we’re faced with a question we never thought we’d ask: If it’s possible, even likely, that school contributed to Vivian’s migraines, should she just stop going?
As the school year looms, we’re not the only family considering what seems like the drastic measure—at least to everyone eager for a return to normalcy—of forgoing in-person instruction. Some families are choosing remote learning because they’ve found that their painfully shy child flourishes behind a camera. Others live with immunocompromised loved ones. Others have a child immunocompromised herself. Would we be crazy to opt out of going to school because of the migraine factor alone?
The grip the migraines had on our family last winter was strong. Vivian can only take her prescription medication three times at most in any seven-day window so as to avoid “rebound” headaches caused by the absence of the meds. So whenever she announced that her head hurt, we’d start with ibuprofen and cross our fingers. Most of the time, if we caught it early enough, that was enough. She bounced back and resumed whatever she was doing, and we worried less about rebound headaches.
But if symptoms of any given migraine persisted, Vivian would ask for “the pill.” I’d press her to see if she really needed it and ask her to describe her symptoms (“Like something burst behind my eyes,” she’d say). When I relented and gave it to her, she usually felt better quickly. Then I’d calculate when she could next take another pill, always dreading the possibility that she would need one when it was technically too soon for her to have it.
Sometimes the migraines persisted even with “the pill.” We were accustomed to abruptly leaving birthday parties and dinners, skipping piano lessons and play dates, so that Vivian could lie on the sofa in a darkened room with a cold compress on her forehead until she started to feel better. Sometimes, she threw up. Sometimes, if the migraine started in the evening, she would sleep through most of the next day’s school day.
A few times, when day after day after day was lost to migraines, I remember saying to my husband: “This is crazy. We can’t live like this.”
Thankfully, we aren’t living like that anymore, though we’ve certainly faced new challenges as a family during the pandemic. Like everyone, we want our life back. As New Yorkers, we’ve been given a choice for school this fall between full remote learning and a blended model that would have Vivian in school maybe two times a week. Of course, in theory I want Vivian to go to school. She misses her friends and her freedom. And without a return to the classroom, I worry about her missing out on developing her friendships, and her relationships with her teachers, and regular peer interactions that help her mature. I would also like my own uninterrupted workday back.
I know that a two-day-a-week school schedule would certainly be less grueling than before, and it’s even possible that the reduction in attendance could work well for Vivian. As we’ve weighed our options, I’ve tried to zero in on how much school itself contributed to the migraines. Vivian has always been a good student, but she did seem to thrive in the spring when her schoolwork was compressed into a focused morning. Was the concentration required for the long school day itself the trigger? Was it simply that at home she can eat whenever her body requires it and not on a school timeline? She was arguably overscheduled pre-pandemic with dance classes and theater classes and piano lessons after school. … Was it all of that running around every afternoon that triggered the migraines?
In my rational moments, I realize it’s not likely one specific thing. It’s that despite the overarching stress and anxiety of life during the pandemic, our daily rituals, and especially her daily rituals, have shifted toward calm. Without the mad rush of getting everyone out the door—multiple times a day—we’re all a little bit more still. And whenever I contemplate her going back, I recall my own words from last winter: “We can’t live like this!” I hear Vivian complaining: “My classroom is so small. It only has one window.” I hear the school nurse, on the other end of so many phone calls: “Vivian has a headache.”
So for Vivian—for now—we’ve chosen full remote learning, and we’re crossing our fingers that the screen time required for her education won’t become a new trigger. In some ways, the pandemic so far has been a monthslong process of me coming to terms with the fact that our “normal life” was causing my daughter a lot of stress and pain, and that our family’s needs are different than we thought they were. I always thought I’d be first in line to opt back in to the classroom, but now, not so much. I continue to hope that Vivian, and all students, will return to school, safely, full time in the near future. But in the meantime, we’re taking the opportunity to think about how to ease back into a busy life slowly… and maybe never fully. To my surprise, it turns out we can live like this, for at least a little longer.