This Mother's Day, it's easy to see what the pandemic has taken. It's harder to spot the gift it offers, because we have to cut through the exhaustion, the tantrums, the sibling battles and the homeschooling to receive it.
Parents with grown children tell those with little ones there is never enough of it. Blink and they're grown. The relentless intrusions into your bed, your quiet time, your bathroom trips are over sooner than you think. One day the children will be gone.
And many of them were, until the pandemic suddenly brought them home again.
"We get to have them in a way that probably we're never going to have them again in our lives," said Nancy Colier, a psychotherapist and interfaith minister. "There's something incredible about the fact that they can't go anywhere. They are here. And so are we."
The pandemic has created parental suffering, and not distributed it equally. Parents of young children, single moms, moms of color, moms who are not safe in their homes, who lack space, who've lost paychecks, front-line moms – their hardships eclipse most any silver lining.
But for many mothers privileged enough to be free from harm at home with their children, the pandemic provides a chance to witness milestones that would otherwise have been missed. To be close and present in ways impossible when everyone is in motion. To heal and reconnect with older children we've reluctantly and necessarily let go their own way.
In the midst of suffering, there is opportunity.
"There's no doubting how difficult it is to be asked to be their teachers, their friends, their parents and everything else, to play all the roles the village is supposed to play," Colier said. "But if we're fully in this moment now ... then there is an opportunity to use this time to be present with our children."
Long days, simple joys
Mothers with young children may find it especially difficult to spot the blessing. The littlest among us can't comprehend this new world, their parents' grief or what's expected of them so that we may endure it.
Working moms hear the babies crying, the toddlers melting down, the preschoolers begging for attention. Stay-at-home moms have no play dates to look forward to, no parks in which to exhale, no errands to run to escape the home-bound anarchy.
Jerusha Basinger is home with her 21-month-old daughter and 4-year-old son. She recently accepted a full-time sales position set to begin at the end of March, but the pandemic delayed her start date. Being cooped up with two toddlers, she said, is chaos.
There's the flour they stealthily opened to use for "snow." The paint that perpetually coats walls and floors rather than paper and canvas. Most frustrating for Basinger is the constant unraveling of toilet paper she spent hours tracking down.
And yet, she's grateful for this time. Her kids are strengthening their sibling bond. More focused time with her and her husband, who is working from home, has produced a marked change in the children's vocabularies. They cook together as a family and take frequent walks on nearby trails. The pleasures are simple.
"Our lives were too hectic before, always trying to fit in every single social event and activity," Basinger said. "I'm less stressed about being somewhere on time five times per day, and my time with them feels more genuine and natural. I'm more focused on the moment, just being with them, and seeing where the day takes us."
Rebecca Dethman is program director for a practical nursing program in Denver and has been working from home since March with her 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. She said this time with her children has helped her get to know them more intimately – what they like, what they don't, where they need her most.
"Usually we task everything out. We task out education, we task out some of their social interaction. This time has allowed me to get to know my kids a little better," she said. "I learned my daughter loves little tiny things. She's delighted by Polly Pockets. I never knew."
Stripped of distractions
The activities are gone. No outings to movie theaters, birthday parties or bounce houses. Swim, lacrosse and ballet are paused. There are no spectacular events to lure the teens into spending time with us. It's a return to simple play, to forts and art and games of 20 questions. To Scrabble and Uno, bike rides and long walks.
Colier, who has a 17-year-old and a 9-year-old, says the pandemic has shown being together can be enough.
"We did a 30-minute ab workout together in the middle of the day," Colier said of her teenager. "We put on our workout stuff and we did some hideous, horrible thing, we laughed the whole time ... We spent 30 minutes in the same place together with her wanting to be there and me wanting to be there."
Melissa McCool confesses that despite the difficulties, she's loving this time with her three kids, ages 19, 17 and 13.
"My 19 year old said to me, 'It's almost like you scripted this. This is your dream come true. All of us home with nothing to do,'" McCool said.
McCool, a psychotherapist and small business owner, said it feels as though the pandemic is allowing her to make up for lost time. She felt guilty when she went back to work when her children were young. By the time her career was flexible, they were teenagers and ambivalent about spending time with her.
McCool has continued to work during the pandemic, but she no longer commutes, has no social engagements and the kids have no activities. The quarantine, she said, has allowed her to be with her children with fewer interruptions. Now it's board games, movies nights, baking and talking.
"I think it's healing," she said. "It's almost like getting a redo."
Reconnecting in grief
Rori Tamagna's family recently suffered profound loss. This April, her father-in-law died after contracting COVID-19. His death, she said, has made her even more thankful for these moments with her children.
"We didn't get to mourn my father-in-law's loss properly ... but still I am able to see this as precious time," she said.
Tamagna, a preschool teacher and lactation consultant who lives in New Rochelle, New York, has five kids ranging in age from 7 to 17. The pandemic, she says, has allowed her family to connect in new ways.
Her husband has taken on the role of family barber. The children make bread for their grandmother, who is grieving the loss of her husband. Her eldest takes her 12-year-old out on geocaching adventures, which she says never would have happened under different circumstances. Her youngest is thriving amid the attentiveness of homeschooling. The whole family now sits down to dinner, a novelty.
"As a family of seven with two working parents and five active kids, we were never home," she said. "This time is a gift, and I think we're all going to look back and really miss it, as hard as it is."
A lesson on slowing down
The pandemic has slowed everyone down. Many of us didn't realize how fast and constantly we were moving until we were instructed to be still. Some mothers hope to hold on to that.
"Usually it's nonstop 24/7," McCool said. "You're busy, busy, busy, running around like a freak, and suddenly it just stopped. Nobody expects anything of anyone and everyone is in this same boat so you can just sort of be who you are and be with the kids. ... I love so many aspects of the quarantine lifestyle. We just have to figure out what that looks like in 'regular life.'"
The pandemic has largely been defined by hardship. And it's true that all mothers need and deserve time away from their children. Plenty of us would be delighted to leave our homes for a Mother's Day brunch, and there is no shame or guilt in that. But in these extraordinary times, in the absence of choices, many mothers are finding ways to be grateful.
The pandemic has robbed everyone of something. The least it can do is afford us extra time with the people we cherish most.
"These are opportunities to do those things that there's never time in life to do," Colier said. "So many of us get to our deathbeds and say, 'Why didn't I just play that silly game with her?' Well, here's the moment."
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Alia E. Dastagir is a recipient of a Rosalynn Carter fellowship for mental health journalism. Follow her on Twitter: @alia_e
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Happy Mother's Day: During the coronavirus crisis, the gift is time