Before I had kids, I was given to snickering at those parents whose children’s lives were an overscheduled whirl of cello lessons, tennis practice, parkour workouts and dance eisteddfods. That was never going to be me.
But for my sins, all three of my children revealed themselves to be “joiners”.
They’d come home on the first day of term announcing they’d joined three different music groups with 7:45am rehearsals, begging to join the debating team even though they already did drama classes, played multiple sports and musical instruments and planned to audition for the school musical.
Because of their enthusiasm, and because everything they wanted to do seemed so worthy, I kept saying OK, we can make that work.
Straw by camel-back-breaking straw, my children got overscheduled, and so did I.
With both parents working full-time, the daily high-wire miracle of transportation and logistics reached a point of insanity.
And the stuff. There were mouthguards and violins, cricket bats and shin guards, even a freaking harp for a while there.
It all… just… stopped
In January this year, when a virus in China seemed nothing much more than a distant harbinger of possible trouble on the horizon, I was regularly bursting into tears. The summertime reprieve from our schedule had made me realise I was missing my children.
With all the driving, the batch cooking of reheatable meals, the stuff-work (finding, washing, maintaining, replacing, packing, unpacking, repacking) and the extra work I needed to do to pay for it all, I wasn’t their mother.
I was their taxi driver, their maid, their bank.
On good days I was a boarding house mistress, enforcing the schedule. On bad days I was the crazy harridan standing at the front door shrieking time to go, time to go, time to go.
Then the coronavirus genie slipped its bottle and it all… just… stopped.
Lock down. There’s been shock (unimaginable scenes on the television each night). There’s been fear (my parents are getting older, my husband is given to pneumonia).
There’s been worry (homeless people, people losing their jobs, foreign students cut adrift, elderly neighbours, friends who are medical workers, friends who work in the arts, friends who are pregnant).
But amid all this, there’s also been huge relief.
Now that the merry-go-round has stopped spinning, I can actually mother my children.
The coronavirus has done what I never could
I’ve been given a chance to catch my 11-year-old twins right on the cusp of childhood’s end and enjoy them instead of merely managing them. The coronavirus has done what I never could and pressed pause on my teenager’s hyper-charged flight out of the nest.
Home-schooling has taught me a lot about who my children are and how they learn. We’ve been able to take detours into topics that fascinate them. Thanks to one of their assignments, I’ve learnt what the internet actually is.
Please don’t imagine some perfect scene — there have been tantrums, and mine have been some of the best.
Even though we’re still busy — both adults working remotely with a bunch of new challenges — being home all the time has grounded us, given us back a sense of spaciousness and possibility that we had lost.
We’ve found time to bake the odd cake (just packet-mix ones with wonky icing), weed the garden and plant out vegetable seedlings.
We’ve binge-watched Harry Potter movies and painted the dog kennel (the colour scheme, using left-over paint, is hideous).
Most precious of all, we’ve instituted a quiet period before dinner when we just sit together and read books.
It’s amazing what we don’t need, in terms of stuff, and it’s amazing what we don’t really need to do with our time.
What lockdown lessons can we keep?
Wise words have been circulating about how we are not, in this pandemic, “in the same boat” but merely “in the same storm”. Our family’s boat is a pretty good one — we have a home and only moderate anxiety about the future of the industries the adults work in.
Like a lot of other Australians, before this crisis we were doing too much and consuming too much. We had too many options, were striving too hard, pedalling so fast the whole world was a blur.
There is a lot of talk right now about “when this is over”, as if our choices are between the life we used to lead, and lockdown. But we are about to enter an in-between space in which we will need to reinvent our lives.
We’ll even have to relearn how to interact, because different people will have different thresholds about things like hand shaking and hugging, and whether or not dinner parties are okay.
The process of learning not to give or take offence could be long and awkward.
Sadly, I think we may also have to learn to live with the closer proximity of death and come to terms with the fact that today’s medicine may not be able to keep it at bay as reliably as we may once have believed.
It may be that suffering and loss teach us to be truly grateful for the days that are given to us and to the people we love, whatever their number.
Some of us are fortunate enough to find relief in lockdown, but it remains to be seen whether or not we will take its lessons of simplicity and moderation into the strange new world we are about to enter.
I hope we do.
Minnie Darke is the author of the bestselling novel Star-crossed and winner of the Margaret Scott People’s Choice Award. Her new novel is The Lost Love Song. She lives in Tasmania with her husband and family.