The New Normal

We’re halfway through Lockdown #2 as I write this. Life feels a lot more normal to me now than it did in the spring, mainly because the schools are still open (thankyouthankyouthankyou). All the parents I have spoken to are firmly of the opinion that we would happily never go to the pub or the shops or a restaurant again as long as the schools stay open.

It’s not purely a selfish terror of returning to the dark (yet freakishly sunny) days of home schooling. It was really hard for the adults at times, especially for parents who were also trying to do full time jobs, and/or wrangle toddlers as well as school age children, and looking back I am not entirely sure how we all got through. But it really isn’t just that. Children absolutely need the opportunity to learn and socialise and interact with their peers. Families who are regular home-schoolers make great efforts to ensure that their children get this interaction via local homeschooling networks. One family corralled in the house 23 hours a day, with parents trying to provide for all of their children’s educational, social, recreational and emotional needs is just not sustainable. Seeing my 5yo’s joy when she got to go back to school and see her friends every day was like seeing a black and white picture transformed into colour.

We had it relatively easy in lockdown because my job as a writer is very flexible, so I was able to catch up at weekends when my husband wasn’t working, and concentrate full-time on the children during the school week. I actually really enjoyed some of it, but it was also very intense and utterly exhausting. There are few activities that engage a Reception child and a Year 6 child simultaneously, and they both needed completely different things from me. I also discovered that Year 6 maths is really really hard, and although I felt that, if left peacefully in a darkened room for a few hours I could possibly have worked it out, trying to do so in real time with a 5yo chanting “mummymummymummy” in the background, and then still have the Herculean task of explaining it to an 11yo who doesn’t like maths…well, that wasn’t fun. Thankfully my lovely sister-in-law took over and patiently ran a Zoom maths lesson every morning.

So compared to those days, life now feels relatively normal. Drop the 5yo off at school, go for a walk, or to the supermarket if I have to, come home and start work at my ‘desk’ (our old dining table) in our garden studio building, while trying to block out the video call my husband is having opposite me. Lunch at home with my husband – actually a genuine highlight is that we get to do this every day – and then a bit more work, or a chat with my mum on the phone, or some housework, before it’s time for school pick up. Chat to the children about their day, supervise homework or reading books, let them sink into the sweet embrace of screen time while I make dinner. That sounds quite normal, right?

But then here is another way of looking at it. I drop the 5yo at school amid a dystopian scene of masked adults congregating around the school gate while the children are met by their masked teachers and go through the gates and straight to the temporary hand washing station before they can enter their classroom. I can’t go to the gym, or meet a friend for coffee, or pop into town to do some Christmas shopping, so I go for a walk. Again. I used to say I ‘couldn’t’ work at home, and preferred to write while drinking hot chocolate in the sociable atmosphere of a local cafe. Nope. Not now. Having my husband home all day is (mostly!) a real silver lining of all this, and he has got to spend loads more time with the kids which is lovely, but there is an adjustment after years of being used to the daytime house as being solely my domain.

I talk to my mum on the phone, as I always have, but now we are not discussing their visit down for my youngest’s birthday next month, or making plans for Christmas, because we have literally no idea when it will next be legal, let alone safe, for us to see each other again.

School pick up is queues of parents and carers all down the road, masked and socially distanced, instead of chatting around the classroom door. After school there are no playdates, no social get togethers, no mass grilling of fish fingers whilst the mums chat and the kids run riot. No swimming lessons or gymnastics classes. No homework club or access to the school library for my eldest, who has just started secondary school. She doesn’t come home bubbling about all the new and exciting lessons she now gets to do, because so many of the things she has been looking forward to – drama, cookery, science practicals – are now off the agenda because they sit in the same classroom all day, at individual desks facing forwards with no group work or movement around the classroom allowed.

It is mid-November, but I am not planning a big birthday party for a girl who turns 6 next month, nor am I frantically trying to arrange babysitters and get dates in the diary for much-treasured semi annual catch-ups with university friends or school friends, or indeed, local friends. I’m not booking tickets for a festive performance in the West End, I am trying to decide if streaming a pantomime into our living room is a good compromise or just too weird, and, for the first time in 8 years, there is very unlikely to be a school carol service or Nativity play to look forward to and have a little weep over. Actually that might be just as well, because with all the pent-up turbulent emotions of 2020 it might not be a discreet little weep but a snotty tsunami of uncontrollable sobs.

Compared to the spring it is normal, and I am very grateful for that. And I know that this is all very necessary. And I am so grateful for the keyworkers doing everything they are doing to keep us safe and keep society functioning. But compared to this time last year it really isn’t bloody normal at all.

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