Like many parents, last spring was dedicated to keeping news of the pandemic out of my living room. It wasn’t all that hard at first. I never get to watch anything that isn’t animated, let alone something “boring” like national updates — plus we’re careful when little eyes are around. With a 3- and 5-year-old, I know all about Peppa Pig’s camper van . . . but can’t tell you squat about the stock market.

As I remind my husband with his colorful curse words, however, we know kids don’t miss much. In March, traffic thinned on 301. Businesses shuttered. Masks obscured once-friendly faces in the grocery store. And then our daycare had to close, too. 

That pesky pandemic I tried to keep on the outside? Well, it was only growing — and the worry was too much to ignore. Suddenly all my fears seemed to be lit up like a neon sign over the fireplace: “Something Bad is Happening.”

Even as I traded tips with coworkers on where to toilet paper — even the loose rolls! — and bartered for ground beef, I tried to shield my children’s eyes from the glare. Spencer and I stuck with explanations that were truthful, but not scary. “Lots of people are sick, so we’re all staying home” was the best I had.

The days blurred together. Spencer shifted to working at home while balancing the demands of two confused preschoolers. I work in communications for a healthcare system by day — so, you know, this was go-time. I continued reporting to the office.

Adrenaline got me through the early weeks as “lockdown” and “social distancing” entered our vocabulary. But like everyone, my energy quickly drained. I’m a nervous mess on a normal day, and this? This was not a normal day. Or month. Or season.

Though my Mom of the Year nomination has been lost in the mail for five years running, I do know children thrive on routine. We tried bringing our pre-pandemic rules into our new pandemic life, but 30 minutes of screentime? There’s eight hours in a work day, so.

Though I wanted to project calm and control, I’m sure my anxious energy was still dousing everything like a firehose. Ollie and Hadley knew something was “off,” but they mostly rolled with it. 

Oliver and Hadley

We were about a month into this strange routine when my 3-year-old abruptly turned to me. Where, she asked indignantly, were her friends from school?

“Home, babe,” I said. “Remember lots of people are sick right now?”

“Yes.” My daughter nodded solemnly. “With grown-up virus.”

“Coronavirus,” her brother corrected.

“Ah. ’Ronavirus,” Hadley amended.

Hearing that word out of their little mouths was almost as shocking as one of their dad’s choice phrases. But something inside me actually cracked with relief. 

As much as we want to hold our children in sunshine, shadows are a part of life. And we had to find a way forward. Since they knew about “grown-up virus,” I took that as a moment to talk about the strange times we’re in — and how we can get through them together.

As much as we want to hold our children in sunshine, shadows are a part of life. And we had to find a way forward. Since they knew about “grown-up virus,” I took that as a moment to talk about the strange times we’re in — and how we can get through them together.

None of this is normal. But maybe we can make it normal-ish. 

And more than anything? We can just cut ourselves some slack.

Some days, that means Popsicles (sugar-free!) before breakfast. I’ve also learned to stop worrying so much about the puzzle pieces I find scattered like confetti, or the endless piles of dishes and dirty socks.

The kids have been able to cautiously return to daycare and are doing well in unusual circumstances. I try to remember we’re all still navigating uneven terrain (while wearing masks, no less), and learning to smile with our eyes takes time.

For now, normal-ish is good enough until brighter days return. We’re figuring it out, right? Somehow, we just do.

In the meantime, well . . . there’s chocolate. And that’s something, too.

Megan Johnson
Megan Johnson’s bloodstream is part coffee, part Old Bay. Author of the long-running “Right, Meg?” column in Southern Maryland Newspapers, she is a 30-something cupcake lover, voracious reader, and editor-turned-communications professional. Megan lives with her husband and two children in Charles County. Follow her on Instagram at @writemeg.