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Fall 2020

Jill Anderson

Photo: Thaddeus Merritt

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A Parent's Pandemic Dilemma

Follow the preschool schedule during at-home learning or chuck it in favor of play?

It’s 9:06 a.m. My 5-year-old sits across from me in the kitchen, stuffing dry Cheerios in her mouth, twirling her finger in a cup of milk without a care in the world, especially that my morning staff meeting starts in less than 24 minutes.

“Let’s plaaaaaayyyyyy,” she yells. “I have to work. I have a meeting,” I say, deadpan.

“Arrrrgggghhhhhhh,” she groans, disappointed.

I’m running late already, even though all I have to do is click a button now. I catch my breath, thinking, “Someday you’ll look back on this and remember it as a special time.” I’ve said those words to myself a lot over the past five months. Five months!

Most days I’ve lost track of how much time has really passed since the pandemic quarantined my daughter and me at home. Actually, I stopped counting around week 14, which surpassed the most time we’d ever spent together during maternity leave. Because my partner is considered an essential employee who still reports to the office every day, I’m now stay-at-home/full-time-working mother trying to manage both.

When the quarantine initially began, I imagined the 20+ years of education reporting under my belt meant I had everything under control. But truthfully, I didn’t really know how to pivot. Luckily, her prekindergarten emailed reminding us of the importance of routine and sticking to their schedule. I immediately went to action, creating a schedule to mimic the preschool day with circle time, literacy, free play, lunch. Right away it became clear that I was in over my head with no clue what I was doing. I didn’t know the manners song, or the days-of-the week song, or the months-of the-year song, or the rules, let alone how to introduce a concept word.

“That’s not how Ms. Rose does it,” my daughter refrained, as I once again asked her to tell me how to do X.

“I let the ‘academics’ go in favor  of ‘play.’ Instantly our days became more relaxed.”

Beyond exposing how little I knew about teaching my own child, or early childhood, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know about my daughter’s daily life too, like the beloved gray plush owl — “Ollie” — their class mascot.

By week 4, we were both miserable. “You make learning not fun,” she wailed. Inside I crumbled.

Meanwhile, when I wasn’t attempting “teacher,” just 10 steps away in my home office, I spoke with education experts for work, churning their knowledge into articles offering guidance to families or for the Harvard EdCast, the HGSE podcast I have hosted since 2018.

During a conversation with Senior Lecturer Junlei Li about how parents adjust to life at home with children, I nervously revealed how poorly things were going in my home, particularly my daughter’s declaration that I ruined learning.

Li seemed concerned, pausing and staring intently at me through the Zoom screen. Then, with his soft-spoken voice, he talked about the importance of play and enjoying being with each other. “Instead of trying to be everything at all times, think about the small, even brief, kind of quality moments of play we can have with our children,” he advised.

Still, I stuck with the preschool schedule, determined that my daughter wouldn’t regress. A week later, after another failed circle time and frustrations mounting along with my guilt of relying too much on the screen, I thought about what Li said. By now the Usable Knowledge article featuring Li about how China’s families coped with coronavirus had published, and I laid awake wondering why I wasn’t following his simple recommendations.

Then the next day, I threw the preschool schedule away. I started over. I altered the work schedule, dedicating midday hours to my daughter (working earlier and later hours). I let the “academics” go in favor of “play.” Instantly our days became more relaxed. We painted, listened to music, read stories, did crafts, took nature walks, did imaginary play. Once I saw learning less as a checklist and more than her remembering the months or days or numbers, we settled into a space and routine that was workable. Of course, workable but still challenging because 5-year-olds are well, 5-year-olds, and master interrupters.

She crashed nearly every remaining episode of the EdCast last season, no matter how hard I tried to arrange time around taping them, or forewarned her that I had an interview and needed privacy. She ran across my Zoom meetings too many times, giggling, in various stages of dress/undress, or erupted into the loudest singing just when I hit the “unmute” button to respond.

Life moves at a different pace now. Work is on and off, woven in through the fabric of motherhood. Some days I stay up extra late to finish writing after she’s gone to bed. Some days I go to bed with the laptop on my nightstand so I can start work early without going downstairs into the office and risking waking my daughter up.

Some days I comfort myself thinking she probably won’t remember any of this (because how much does anyone really remember from age 5?). Then, other days I marvel at all the things we’ve done together: constructed mermaid tails and trees from paper towel rolls, painted a ton, gone on scavenger hunts, listened to The Beatles and Hamilton, made zucchini bread and scallion pancakes, read The Velveteen Rabbit, played silly games where dragons chase us around the block, made paper cameras and taken pics in the backyard, planted wildflowers from seed and watched them grow. The list goes on and on.

As a full-time working mother, there is no other way I would have this much time with my young daughter. It’s bittersweet. So even though I struggle to find balance between these competing worlds, most days I hope we can both look back on this and remember it as a special time. I will.

Jill Anderson is host of the Harvard EdCast and senior writer in the Ed School's Communications Office.