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Thanks, COVID-19. It's been a blast. We've learnt so much. See ya never!

TALES OF 2020

Each day this month, we will publish Tales of 2020, the stories of ordinary Queenslanders enduring an extraordinary year. Today, Brisbane mother Kate Kitchin unwraps the best and worst of times in lockdown.

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“Honey, the parks are shut. We can’t play on the swings today. We need to stay on the path.”

My two-year-old can’t understand. She looks at me in disbelief. Am I not seeing the same thing she does? The park is RIGHT THERE. How can you close a park that’s in an open field? Don’t Mummy’s eyes work anymore?

She begrudgingly accepts my explanation, holding my hand as we pass swings that the council have cable-tied together. I’m pretty sure this is the first time in her short life she’s ever felt seeds of mistrust in what her Mum is saying. The reality that she’s seeing with her own eyes is not marrying up with the idea she is being sold.
Welcome to life, kid.

March 2020

My brother-in-law calls. He tells us the medical community has been briefed. This virus is bad. It will be like nothing we have seen before. It’s going to sweep through Australia, and we need to prepare. Really prepare. His wife has already been at the shops stockpiling groceries. She has been cooking meals and freezing them for days.

Should I be making more soup, like my sister-in-law? It freezes well. Am I being too blasé? Am I unwittingly putting my children at terrible risk if Armageddon hits? Already it’s too hard to buy toilet paper, pasta, and rice. There’s no meat on shelves. It’s all hidden deep inside people’s freezers.

Even baby wipes are hard to come by. Am I an irresponsible mother for not buying all the canned goods while I can? What if I’m wrong and my children die of starvation because I didn’t pandemic panic?

I watch people in our immediate circles who are frightened. It’s making them act in ways that are undignified. Can they see how their behaviour appears to their children? How they appear to anyone else who is watching?

I’m going to the shops more frequently than ever before. It’s inconvenient. I have to. Instead of the usual one weekly shop, now I am compelled to go every day because most of our usual staples are scarce. I can’t buy more than one portion of bacon at a time. We need at least two portions for one meal for our family of five.

Even if I could get my hands on more, I’d be shamed into not being “greedy” via the disapproval of other shoppers. Baked beans are exotic items that rarely can be found on shelves anymore. Each day I think “surely it can’t get any crazier?”

Several parents have pulled their kids from school early, making the decision to self- isolate. Some are hysterical at the prospect of not having enough schoolwork for their children while they’re off school. They’re sending irate emails to the teacher asking her to better support their child’s home learning experience.

But school is still in and home learning systems have not yet been set up. Remaining families are on edge. Many complain about the teachers not having adequate cleaning supplies on hand. Some are demanding to know the personal reasons for a teacher being away from school during this time…. Was it COVID-19 related?

How can they be sure that their child is safe unless they are told the EXACT reason the teacher is absent? Other parents send shouty emails all in capital letters. These are not crazy people. These are human beings who earlier this year had been polite and respectful in their communications. Now there is an urgent and demanding tone to everyone’s correspondence.

Two tense weeks later, Education Queensland makes the call. And school is out for everyone. Children are sent home from school to be tutored by any capable and willing home body. This applies to all children except those of essential workers.

What’s an essential worker? Apparently, it’s anyone “who needs to be physically at work during this time.” Can I please be one of those?

It’s April

Our community refers to this time as “iso” because households are isolating themselves according to State-based regulations. My husband trades long office hours for working at home.

The industry he works in is busier than ever. His need for quietude during work hours means that I must seek alternative places for our three very small children to make their noise.
But the parks are closed…

And their grandparents can’t visit because they are more than 50 kilometres away from where we live. Travel bans won’t allow it.

And the playdates have dried up. Everyone in our social circles wants to do the right thing.
We go out on bike rides a lot. The skate parks are closed. At least our skateparks aren’t covered in mounds of bulldozed sand – as other councils have done. I feel internal rage building at the forced restrictions. Some of them just don’t make sense.

During this period of isolation, I have a husband who is working stupidly long work hours and I am fielding three young children all day… Without the relief of school, or Kindy or playdates with buddies or even an outdoor park to escape to.

Anyone with small children knows that when they’re out of sorts you get them outside or in water. That’s the formula that works, folks. But suddenly all my options as a parent have dried up. I feel very alone.

Petrol is cheap. But we have nowhere to go. We are not allowed to travel. Queensland has closed its borders.
I spend evenings on my latest project – drinking wine and sorting the boys’ Lego collection. I grade thousands of tiny pieces into colour and size piles. Their collection is enormous, and it takes two weeks until the pieces are all arranged into their neat, little display drawers. Wow, what an achievement.

I take pictures. My handiwork is undone in two short days of delighted building. Now the thousands of tiny pieces live on the floor, in big plastic buckets or under the bed. I even discover pieces between their bedsheets.

Days are happily passed making more imaginative and challenging Lego creations. There are so many mini projects built daily around the house, we take photos and start up an Instagram page just to display their creations.

Whereas before isolation my habit was one or two glasses of wine a fortnight, somehow, I have deemed it acceptable to switch that frequency to every night. Maybe I should slow down. I switch my beverage of choice from wine to gin. It has less sugar.

The unusual circumstances we’ve all found ourselves in, means that everyone is dealing with an intense range of emotions daily. There’s a need to tread gently wherever one
turns.

Everyone has very firm “opinions” about the situation. There are many conspiracy theories floating about on social media. I read them voraciously. But I’m not brave enough to share anything I’m really thinking with my peers. It’s alienating. I don’t feel frightened by this pandemic, like many.

Although we obey them, I resent the forced restrictions. Others welcome them. One friend shared that she won’t take her young children for a bike ride. She says that pulling them behind her on a bike trailer (exercise is allowable under state guidelines) means that she would be breaking rules because although she would be “exercising”, the children were not.

My sister is a solo parent based in London. She lives in an area with the highest rate of contagion in the whole city. She is frightened by her situation. I am worried for her too. What if something happens to her?

She thinks I am mad for not taking this pandemic more seriously. But my Australian-based experiences don’t match up with the international media stories. Am I missing something? Other friends post fear-based dogma all over social media and jump on anyone who questions them.

One friend suddenly admits that she’s “not convinced that there is a pandemic at all, and would I like to continue letting our kids play together so we both don’t go mad?” Although if we do, we will have to park a street away and walk up, so the neighbours don’t dob.

I go to the shops with all three children in tow. It’s something to do. I feel disapproving eyes on me as we spend time in the store. Do they think I’m a bad mum for putting my children at risk? My two-year-old sneezes once. A woman in a mask glares at us and scurries away in the opposite direction. It’s hard not to resent the feeling of guardedness that now pervades every interaction with others.

Each of my children needs a new toothbrush. But there’s a big sign in the aisle saying I am only allowed two dental items per customer. It’s trivial but I want to stamp my feet. There are lots of toothbrushes on the shelf. Why should I have to come back to the store another time to get the third toothbrush?

If this virus is as contagious as claimed, coming back to the store means greater exposure. The inconsistency of rules and lack of common sense is maddening.

It’s May

This is our new normal. Despite our feelings of daily annoyance at each other, our family loves this new pace of life. My eldest has been growing his hair. He labels it his “corona cut.” I trim the other children’s hair myself. They look rad.

There’s constant chaos underfoot as well as a sense of claustrophobia that comes from not being in nature. Beaches and state parks are still off-limits. I love having my eldest home from school. He is craving a deeper social connection with his peers. Me too.

Zoom meetings and facetime sessions just don’t cut it. I was surprised by a feeling of genuine jealousy when an “essential worker” friend mentioned she saw another parent at school during the week. Jealous about school drop off? I don’t like this petty version of myself that’s surfaced.

My husband and I both feel very connected to our eldest child for the first time in years. The home schooling doesn’t go smoothly most days. The school kid is distracted incessantly by his younger siblings.

He is too young to be able to work independently and I’m torn in multiple directions each hour trying to get snacks, wash small hands, solve a math question, and wash dirty clothes at the same time. But throughout the nine weeks we experience the joy of learning new things together.

When he’s not being forced to do school worksheets, he’s a delightful child. He is now more engaged with the world. He’s energetic and more curious about things. He has an air of quiet contentedness that we haven’t seen in him since he began school three years ago.

We hear stories of people suffering terrible financial hardships. As the economic implications of the pandemic become clearer, my husband becomes more and more irritated at COVID-19’s effects on the business community.

Usually, it’s he who is the calm one in our relationship. He’s usually less outwardly emotional, more reserved. I enjoy the shift in our marital dynamic. It’s nice not to be the outspoken one for a change.

We aren’t financially unscathed. Although hubby’s salary has not been reduced during this time, we run a holiday apartment on the Coast. Maddeningly before restrictions were even in place, our bookings for the whole year were cancelled by nervous guests.

The calendar is empty, and we suddenly have a huge second mortgage to pay off, without any way to subsidise it. Suddenly the rest of the year seems much scarier than just a groceries shortage.

This concentrated time at home has been exasperating but filled our cups at the same time. In the panic of trying to stick to the curriculum with home-schooling our eldest, my youngest children have been largely ignored. Left to their own devices, they get into a whole world of mischief daily.

Much mess, misadventure and mayhem ensue. We mourn our middle-child’s lost Kindy days, knowing how much happier he is when there. He probably gets more attention amidst a gang of 25 Kindy kids than he does in his own family of five during iso.

My parents arrive for lunch one day. It’s moving to witness Dad crying discretely as he hugs his grandkids for the first time in two months. He has been holed up in quarantine and then isolation with his soon to be ex-wife of nearly 50 years… Mum. Their agreement to separate came just as the COVID-19 tsunami hit.

Our two-year-old is in fits of hysterical glee at the attention Nana and Poppy are lavishing on her. I feel guilty that her unmet needs for one-on-one time are so obvious.
There is talk of school going back. I have been able to buy bacon, and baby wipes lately.

Suddenly it’s June

Our time is up. School has returned. By the end of May we became used to our new rhythm. It was a bittersweet feeling – I didn’t want it to end. But I am relieved that the pervading sense of uncertainty has finished.

My husband now has a truer sense of what happens in the household while he’s at work. He has a new-found respect for what I do all day and understands that keeping the family unit harmonious underpins everything I do.

Often, solving the immediate problems of small people takes priority over cleaning, for example. If he comes home and the house is in chaos, he sees that other work was happening in the background. He knows that snacks were made, bottoms were wiped, tears soothed, or lessons learned.

And now having witnessed that in action, he is less task-focused on his own role as a Dad. He’s more present with the kids. Plus, he’s taken to cooking dinner for the family more often. In truth, his culinary skills far surpass mine, so everyone is pretty happy about that. We share new levels of mutual respect in our relationship that weren’t there prior to the pandemic.
We enjoyed getting to know our eldest son as a person better. We now have knowledge of what he is learning, what motivates him and what his soul yearns for. We are both so grateful for that.

Reuniting with our community is awkward. People are cautious about sharing their experiences during iso. Everyone is sensitive. People in our circles have lost jobs, some had elderly loved ones pass away without being allowed a proper funeral.

No one we know personally was infected by the virus. All have felt big feelings. Some loved their iso experience. Some found it one of the hardest things they have ever done. In six months, hopefully this will all be water under the bridge.

With regards to the lessons I learned about our eldest son and our marriage – there’s a depth there now that didn’t exist before.
So, thanks COVID-19. Hopefully, see ’ya never.

Kate Kitchin is a mum of three young children living in Brisbane with her husband, the kids and a cantankerous, geriatric cat.

This article was first published in Stories from the Heart, an e-book edited by Dr Johanna Skinner and editor Jane Connolly, and is republished with their permission.  

 

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