A Home at the End of the World

Parents may have a secret weapon to survive fraying times.

Mother reading to her young child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by evgenyatamanenko/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

I went into labor on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and my daughter, J., was born the day after, as women marched in numbers on the Capitol. She was a massive young lady, in the pink of health. Throughout her early childhood, I wondered many times whether her birthdate means she’s cursed to live in the worst America yet. In 2020, I’ve realized that whatever her timing might mean for her own quality of life, having a very young, very oblivious person to care for through these years of panic has been an absolute godsend for my own mental health.

I’m not alone in this feeling. Researchers at the University of Oregon who are studying the experiences of families with young children during the pandemic found that parents saw their kids as sources of emotional support—their young kids, not their older ones, who might be serving as conversational partners or providing material aid in the form of babysitting or housework. I think this is because young kids are living in an alternate reality. Or, as anthropologist Robin Nelson tweeted recently about her own experience, “You can be fully and deeply saddened by the state of things & your toddler doesn’t give AF – nor should they. And you have to rise to the challenge of keeping their life light & joyful & normal. She wants to give the dog a treat & play & avoid the bath – so we do.”

J.’s very young age helps, a lot. Young children, as Nelson points out, don’t really know what’s going on outside of their small worlds, and (as she puts it) shouldn’t be expected to care. And my guilt about what J. might be missing is minimal. Unlike older children, who have past Halloweens and Christmases and summers to remember, and are struggling with missing their friends and with the demands of online school, J. barely remembers what the Before Times were like. School is a dim memory; for the most part, a little bit of outdoor social interaction with pod friends seems to be plenty. To her, every time is Now Time.

Getting into Now Time with J. means putting the digital world aside. A confluence of lucky factors in our pandemic lives means that I don’t need to try to work when I’m around J., and so can continue our “no looking at the internet when the child’s around” policy. We instituted this when she was right around five months and started grabbing at our phones when they were out. At first, we thought this was a policy mostly for her, so that she wouldn’t get too much screen exposure; but we’ve also come to see that the abstracted, anxious state of mind you get in when you’re on Twitter doesn’t mix well with parenting. In 2020, this policy means that I must limit my doom-scrolling to work time. That’s fine—eight hours is probably plenty.

The circle of adults J. sees that aren’t me—my husband, a few friends, family over Facetime—tries not to talk about stressful pandemic things when she’s present. If she asks questions, we’ll answer them. She’s not completely oblivious—kids are feelings sponges—and she can definitely tell that “the germ” is important to us. (I know she knows this, because she’ll sometimes call me back into her room after we’ve said goodnight and ask “What does ‘germ’ mean?,” hoping to trigger an involved conversation that’ll stretch out her awake time.) But she doesn’t have much capacity to pursue the topic. When I dole out very simple bits of information, watching in between to see if she’s still following, she quickly gets bored and starts organizing her growing collection of Pez dispensers, turning her—and my—attention back to what’s here and now.

The 3-year-old-ness of her fills up a room with ease, crowding everything else out. This is a quality of preschoolers that can be annoying if you’re trying to be efficient, but if you want to be distracted, it’s just what the doctor ordered. J.’s capable of leaping with joy at the prospect of a train ride one minute, then collapsing into sadness when we won’t let her scatter her basket of hats across the mudroom floor, the next. She works on her little stable of character imitations—widening her eyes like Moana, putting a bow on top of her head like Sister Bear, or wearing goggles like Calvin when he’s Spaceman Spiff. She is full of intense, rude, relentless requests—”GIMME WATER!” “Toast wif’ butter!” “Come see how cozy I look, under this blanket!” Then, the next minute, she will say “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Sorry,” as nicely as the nicest adult.

Even when we’re not directly interacting, her little mind occupies the house, crowding out the darkness. She plays the drums, the tambourine, the recorder, the harmonica—loudly. And her internal monologue is fully external. When she’s tinkering with her dollhouse or stuffies, and I’m doing some household task nearby, I don’t feel the need to turn on a podcast, or even music. I let my mind float along with her prattle about mommies, daddies, babies, and birdies, doing my best imitation of a person who is capable of thinking about nothing—just a mom, over here, getting these dishes done on a bright fall day.

In replies to tweets about parental burnout in 2020, you’ll often find people voicing variations of this toxic sentiment: “Why have kids, if you don’t want to spend time with them?” I think something many non-parents are missing about parents’ 2020 sadness is that the pandemic, which has taken away so much, is also taking away our ability to compartmentalize. Pure Kid Time—family time—is a salve I’d recommend to anyone, but the magic only works if the parent can be completely present. Want to help support parents’ mental health? Give families money, so they’re less stressed. Support parental leave for all.