Making the best of it: What a family of six learned when Mom got the coronavirus

Mary Pflum Peterson

THE WASHINGTON POST – As a mom of four, I find my inbox filled these days with well-intentioned messages from educators and fellow parents telling me how to keep my school-age kids “busy” amid stay-at-home orders.

And each time I receive a new message, especially one that includes a color-coded chart that spells out “ideal” ways to schedule my family’s day, I want to politely hurl.

It’s not that I’m against parenting advice. It’s just that our family of six has been stricken with much more than a case of quarantine boredom in recent weeks. For the past month, we’ve been battling covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

When doctors told me I had the virus – after I’d spent time with others who’d tested positive, and shortly after a fever set in – I wasn’t worried about me. I was worried about my husband and kids.

“What can I do so that my family’s not exposed?” I asked the doctor.

“You’ve got four kids? That you’ve been quarantining with in a New York City apartment?” the doctor said, laughing in exasperation. “Doesn’t matter if they stay six feet or many rooms away from you. They’ve already been exposed.”

“So what do I do?” I asked, crying.

“You do what you can,” he said. “You make the best of it.”

It was the best advice I’ve gotten since my journey with COVID-19 began. And some of the best parenting advice I’ve ever received.

In a perfect world, we would have stayed in separate residences. But as most of us know by now, nothing about this pandemic is conducive to “perfect world” scenarios.

We didn’t have a country house for me to escape to. We have no family in the city, so there was no one we could send the kids to. And even if we did have family nearby, doctors said there wasn’t much point, since the kids had already been exposed to me for large amounts of time before I got my diagnosis, and they would pose a health risk for anyone willing to take them in.

So we did what the doctor advised: I cordoned myself off in one bedroom and bathroom in one corner of our home. They remained away from me, in the rest of the space. And then, as a family, we made the best of it.

Nothing about the last few weeks has been easy. A lot of it’s been scary. And all of it’s been (really) messy. But here’s what it’s also been: meaningful.

We learned about carving out room in the tiniest of spaces. Our apartment is just 1,400 square feet. Still, the kids learned to find nooks and crannies away from mom, setting up forts in their bunk beds, or makeshift tents in the living room, which gave them room to breathe in their designated spaces, and me room to breathe in mine.

The kids learned about the value of slowing down. Way down. I needed to slow down these past few weeks. But I realise now, the kids needed to slow down, too. Like so many families, we’re usually going 100 miles an hour. The kids, who range in age from seven to 13, are enrolled in a trillion activities, running from football to band to rugby to drama and back again. But now, between the quarantine and my illness, all of that running has ceased. We’ve stopped. And stood still. And napped. The kids rediscovered Barbies and Lego bricks and art kits and the underappreciated art of whispering. And I slept. The quiet was good for all of us.

The kids turned into little doctors. They learned to wield thermometers with authority – taking their own temps, and one another’s, on a daily basis. Over 100? Bad. Under 100? Cause for celebration.

And the kids turned, too, into little experiment-loving scientists. I became their lab rat.

When I could no longer smell my shampoo or the Clorox wipes because my sense of smell had evaporated (one of the stranger COVID-19 symptoms), the kids were intrigued. And more than a little delighted. Would I never again be able to bust them for failing to wash their hands, they gleefully wondered, by taking a whiff of their fingers (a time-honoured tradition when summoning them to the dinner table)?

Then, when I lost my sense of taste – another COVID-19 symptom – they concocted an elaborate taste test. They knew I’ve never been able to tolerate hot sauce – I have always hated the stuff. So, at a safe distance, they created a series of dishes for me, doused with hot sauce, then monitored me from across the apartment as I ate the helpings, one at a time.

The finale of their experiment came in the form of a bright blue Easter marshmallow Peep, which they’d smothered in hot sauce. I ate the whole thing and tasted nothing. The kids squealed with delight, shouting for an encore.

But just as there have been moments of laughter these past few weeks, there have been tears. When the pain in my chest intensified one day and I was unable to fill my right lung without doubling over, I called my doctor sobbing. He examined me by telemedicine, then called in a prescription for a strong antibiotic. His instructions calmed me to a degree, but I was scared.

And me being scared made the kids scared. And while I know that’s not ideal, I don’t believe it’s entirely bad.

If ever there was a time to be sad, it’s now. Our world is hurting. Our nation is hurting. Our city is hurting.

Our situation taught the kids they’re growing up in a world that has an ample supply of pain and fear. Instead of pretending it’s not there or whitewashing it, we’ve talked about the pain as a family. And the kids learned something valuable from that. They know now that the aim in challenging times is not to avoid pain and fear. They’ve learned it’s best to address pain and those feelings head-on, and then – this is key – to keep going. And that brings me to the last thing our family has gained from these last few crazy weeks. We’ve learned to be grateful. Really grateful.

We knew – from monitoring the horrifying news stories about COVID-19, from watching the mounting death rates, from becoming increasingly aware that there’s often no rhyme or reason for why some patients get so sick while others don’t – how lucky we were to be quarantined at home.

We knew, when we monitored my daily oxygen readings and saw the levels slowly rise from the high 80s to low 90s to mid-90s, that we were fortunate.

And we knew, after nearly three weeks, when my chills and pain and extreme exhaustion had subsided, and some sense of taste had returned, that it was cause to truly celebrate.

I still can’t smell anything. I still can’t yell at the kids, even when they’ve done something really naughty, because I get winded when I yell. (Boy do they love that!)

But we know we’re really fortunate. Which makes us grateful. So grateful.

We haven’t spent our quarantine worrying about what we don’t have – about the football season cancelled or vacations on hold. We’re not complaining about close quarters or sometimes overwhelming home-schooling assignments.

And no, well-intentioned parenting experts, we haven’t gotten around to following one of your color-coded quarantine schedules. We’ve been too busy following doctor’s orders.

Especially the order to do what we can. And to make the best of it. Those are words to live by. To really live by.