Every day of this pandemic, I feel as if I am accountable to bear witness to the impact the coronavirus has on other New Yorkers. At first, it was the economic impact, as the service jobs disappeared quite literally overnight, back in March. Then it was disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on the less affluent neighborhoods of New York, the food deserts impacted with high air pollution, where the conditions of the neighborhood make the residents more prone to the effects of the virus. Now it is knowing that an essential workforce goes out there every single day to take care of other New Yorkers.
The COVID-19 quarantine is also terrifying in the impact it has on children and their education. In New York City alone, thousands of students have city issued devices, but no wi-fi with which to access the school curriculum online. I would imagine even more students have access but do not have parents who are able to support them in the transition to online learning, due to tech literacy or language barriers. This is an issue across the country, but has been in high focus in New York due to the massive gaps in access in such a small geographic area.
And it isn’t only school where children, my son’s classmates and peers, are impacted. Yesterday, I was reading an article on how this summer will be bleak for children and especially for those children in New York City who are already impacted harder than Ben has been due to coronavirus. The lack of city programs, from a combination of budget cuts and quarantine precautions, will have a massive impact on children throughout this city.
Knowing all this, witnessing all this, we have of course been budgeting to send extra money to CAMBA for wifi in shelters or to CHIPS for food bank assistance. Our donations, however, are only a drop in the bucket of what’s needed. Millions of dollars would be a Band-Aid on the effects of inequality on New York kids just like my son, as they struggle to learn and keep up, as the gaps in access and privilege are made even wider by the pandemic. And so, my mental landscape has been shaped by our privilege and good fortune, our middle class comfort, my son’s ability to transition to remote learning with far more ease than a lot of his peers due to his age and materials for learning and his parents’ ability to support him.
It wasn’t until this week that I realized I had been underestimating Ben’s quarantine related sense of loss, as it fell into the peripheral vision of how very much we do have as a family. I had focused on how easy it was for Ben to transition to online learning, using the tech skills he’s developed over the years, combined with my own decades of white-collar organization. Paul and I saw him sitting down and working every day, looking at his schoolwork on Google Classroom, connecting through Zoom to his extracurricular activities and his friends. We thought that because we were able to support him in replicating his life on digital platforms, that he had adapted and everything was fine.
We dramatically underestimated the impact of social distancing on our kid, as his entire life has been yanked out from under him. Ben lost less than many New York kids due to the resources he still has at home, but he still lost a lot when the social distancing went into effect six weeks ago. Ben lost his freedom and his independence, his ability to take the subway or go for lunch at Chipotle. He lost engaging with his friends every day in their school habitat. He lost baseball, which is one of his passions, as Mr Sportball loves the sports. He lost all his in-person contact in every single activity, and I cannot expect him to get the same emotional value out of a digital equivalent. He can’t even go out and shoot hoops with a neighbor kid right now as playdates are even unsafe. So much of what was important to my son, all these things he has been discovering are part of who he is and who he is growing up to be, are completely absent from his life right now.
We discovered this week that this had manifested in some serious behavior issues, which I will not go into at the request of Ben, who has asked me to please not tell everyone what he did because he is very ashamed of himself and is very sorry. And as my son becomes a teen and a tween, I’m trying not to reveal his life as an extension of mine, but rather, accept that he is a separate person from me and that I can only write or talk about him as part of my own story and the impact being his mom has on me. For the intents and purposes of what I am struggling with today, what Ben did isn’t actually that relevant. What is relevant is that I assumed he was okay because we, as a family, have been so fortunate, and it was a mistake to do so. Of course Ben is not okay; of course he needs more support from his parents as he’s dealing with a situation that is scary and weird and most of all, lonely.
That is what I am now trying to deal with. My baby is mostly okay, but in some very deep ways, he is not. Nor should he be. No one is okay in all this. Even the most fortunate of us are not okay. I had assumed that because I am one of the 30% of Americans who easily transitioned to working from home, we would be more okay than most, and perhaps we are. But I cannot view okay-ness on a relative scale and reduce my son’s mental health to a binary: just because he has more then a lot of other kids does not mean his life will feel whole at this time. He is still struggling and he is still lonely and cooped up and miserable, and until this week, we had not given him permission to not be okay.
I tend to view my life through a lens of class privilege. That lens, however, doesn’t allow for a lot of recognition of my own problems when they are made relative to the much greater issues of the wider world. I would prefer my son to feel comfortable with his own problems, to feel like he is allowed to have those problems, and not like his problems are completely negated by his own middle class situation. Ben’s lack of happiness should not be diminished or made irrelevant due to the context of inequality the pandemic has brought into sharp relief around us. He should not be blinded to how fortunate he is, but also should not be made to feel as if he has to reduce his own emotions as to not seem ungrateful.
I’m going to have to carefully balance this, as I work out how to ensure my son remains aware of everything he does have, without feeling as if his material security and access to education cancel out his right to feel and express negative emotions. Parenting, even for the most privileged of us, is extra hard and extra complicated and extra fraught right now, and I am now much more aware of that than I was last week.