Category Archives: parenting

from zit remedy to downtown sasquatch: a multi-generational degrassi journey

Many, many years ago, when Paul and I were much younger parents, we discussed how we were going to handle talking with our child about all things related to puberty and being a teenager. Paul did actual research into the topic, and ended up purchasing a copy of “It’s Perfectly Normal”. I, on the other hand, did exactly zero research and instead announced that I would just plunk Ben down in front of reruns of Degrassi Junior High, as is the tradition of my people.

It’s Perfectly Embarrassing That This Book Even Exists (according to Ben)

Paul chuckled indulgently at me upon this declaration and did not believe that this plan would work for our American-raised child, especially after we actually did try to run the show for a ten-year-old Ben. Our then 5th grader announced that he hated the original episodes from the 1980s, and that this was the most boring show ever. He was marginally more interested in the 2001 reboot, called in true nerd homage style Degrassi: The Next Generation. Those kids at least had computers and the Internet and modern clothing, whereas the generation I grew up with were weird and boring!

Degrassi Junior High (Series) - TV Tropes
These kids are not hip with the musics of today (the first generation of Degrassi Junior High circa 1987)

Part of this problem was that the first generation of Degrassi kids were not consistently trained as actual actors, . Degrassi Junior High, as most Canadians know it, started in 1987 as a follow-up to the CBC “after school special”, The Kids of De Grassi Street, which ran from 1979 to 1986. Unlike the American shows though, none of the Toronto children who appeared first in in Kids, and later, in Degrassi Junior High, were really full time actors. They were Toronto kids, the same age as their characters, who showed up on weekends in a working high school to appear in what would eventually become a cornerstone of Canadian culture.

In contrast, the kids of the Next Generation, the reboot that started in 2001, were actors who could consistently project emotions. And while the first few episodes leaned heavily on the adults from the first generation (now turning thirty in 2001) to provide context and continuity, the show quickly transitioned over to the rising 7th and 8th graders, born in the late 1980s when the first generation was in junior high. Degrassi: TNG initially centered on one 7th grader girl who had been born to an 8th grade mom in the first generation of the show, but the plots quickly expanded to cover a dozen 12 and 13 year olds and their stories within the first few episodes.

Obviously, I didn’t watch TNG when it came out in 2001. I was a 23 year old grown adult, and even with the nostalgia factor, I had no interest in watching a show about teenagers. Therefore, when I flipped it on as a 40 year old grown adult, I was immediately engaged in finding out what happened to the characters I had grown up with. Ben, however, was very engaged in the story of the 7th grade boys, the pre-teens like him who were still focused more on goofing off than on chasing girls. This led to a lot of me yelling at Ben to shut up because I wanted to see what happened to Lucy after Wheels almost killed her drunk driving in the 1992 series finale, while Ben complained that the adults were getting too much screen time and he didn’t think we were seeing enough of the kids.

Unfortunately, we only had one season of the 2001 episodes that our then 5th-grader could relate to before the kids aged up a year. When we moved on to the second season, the actors and their characters aged up to grades 8 and 9…and four episodes in, the show took on date rape. And while TNG had already covered pedophiles on the Internet, recreational use of Ritalin, gay parents, taking Ecstasy, and Not Having Sex Before You’re Ready, those were still “light” issues compared to the physically abusive parent and teen date rape narratives that opened the second season. These traumatic storylines were more than Ben could process as a 10 year old, and as he was really just not that interested, we decided that we would take a break on the show until he was old enough to understand it. (Also, Paul was genuinely shocked by the intensity of these episodes. I think this was when he realized the show was just going to go for broke on every issue possible without sugarcoating or cutting away from very traumatic depictions.)

Cut to quarantine in Toronto this fall: with Ben and me in lockdown, I decided to take a second try at the show together. We re-watched the first season, and 12 year old Ben was much better equipped emotionally to connect with the narratives for both the 7th and 8th graders. When we got to the second season, he was able to process and take in the much more emotionally intense and traumatic situations the now 8th and 9th graders were facing. And suddenly, my seventh grader was very engaged with a Canadian government subsidized teen drama where every episode was a Very Special Episode. Also: baby Drake when he was a duckling!

Ben was so into the show that he and I started bingeing episode after episode while in Toronto in December. We continued when we got to Pittsburgh for the holidays, as I attempted to explain the show to my American in-laws. We kept going after the holiday break, watching two or three episodes a day even as the kids aged up into grades 10 and 11, and the issues became more complicated. I would use the subject matter to introduce topics to Ben, and then reference back to It’s Perfectly Normal to reinforce the biological aspects where necessary. I got to work in all the topics, across the major areas of Coming of Age. We hit everything from teen pregnancy to coming out, from gay bashing to drug use, from child abuse to gender stereotypes, from studying science to inappropriate boners. (side note: nothing I have had to discuss with my child has been quite as mortifying as explaining to him what the term “boner” refers to…except maybe the plotline where I had to explain how a character contracted oral gonnorrhea)

Degrassi: The Next Generation Season 2 Now Available On Youtube ‚Äď Kary's  Degrassi Blog
Apparently in 2001, all 7th graders looked like a Zellers catalog.

Finally though, as the characters became older, the scenarios became more complicated, and Ben and I were both concerned that he would not be able to relate for much longer. In Season 5, when a character considered plastic surgery for her acting career and I had to explain breast implants, we decided that these issues were too mature for a seventh grader. We had to find a new option to watch, where we could show kids Ben’s age again. Without a viable modern option, I opted to try again with the first generation. This time, despite the “weird” clothes, and the complete lack of technology (not even an Apple IIe!), we discovered that kids had the same problems in the 1980s as they (probably) would in 2020 (if there wasn’t COVID!) Kids still struggled with being accepted! Kids still struggled with pregnancy and drugs and drinking! And most of all, high school kids still struggled with being honest and vulnerable thirty years ago! Who would have thought that being a GenX teenager was every bit as emotionally challenging as being a Gen Z teenager?!?

So after retreading the stories of Canadian teenagers born in the 1970s (ME: “Ben, these kids are only a year older than your dad! This is what high school looked like for us!” BEN: “MOOOOOM NO STAWWWWP”), we had covered even more issues: abortion, being sexually confused, the stigma around AIDS, and teen suicide. The original Degrassi Junior High was light-years ahead of its time with a commitment to covering genuinely uncomfortable issues, and some episodes that addressed homosexuality or abortion were even banned in the United States. The first generation featured real-looking teens who wore their own clothes and did their own makeup, and represented a wide socioeconomic range of East Toronto, and even if that was because CBC clearly had no money to pay for wardrobe or makeup, it made the show that much more authentic, especially compared to American contemporary shows like Saved by the Bell and 90210.

More importantly, Degrassi covered issues that were so relevant, I remember watching key episodes about pregnancy and AIDS as educational supplemental videos in Health class in Grade 10. Paul, wandering in and out as we plowed through the original Junior High in January, even remarked he was surprised how progressive the show was. I got to be a Smug Canadian (TM) about how my country subsidized this particular teen drama and brought issues to the forefront that are still underrepresented in American media. Degrassi Junior High reinforced the Canadian cultural mosaic message of the late 1980s by including first generation Canadian kids in their cast, covering both the stigma of the Vietnamese boat refugees as well as racial slurs against a Nigerian-Canadian boy, both within the first two years of the show. Junior High even worked in a storyline about accepting a gay older brother in 1988 (who would never be seen again), and featured a significant arc about de-stigmatizing homosexuality and AIDS in Degrassi High in 1990. These are all values our son takes for granted, as immersed as he is in the progressive ethics of Brooklyn, but as we keep having to explain, even as recently as the 1990s, these narratives were important to humanize the very real issues seldom shown on national TV.

Even starting over with the original kids only bought us a few weeks though and Ben and I eventually ran out of time with his age range as the 7th and 8th graders approached grades 12 and 13 (Grade 13 was still a thing in Ontario in the 80s and 90s). Ben decided he wanted to try again with the older kids in the newer show, so when the first generation ended with the School’s Out! movie, we resumed TNG already in progress with Season 5, taking a little extra time when necessary to discuss the challenges outside of Ben’s pre-teen frame of reference.

Throughout the series, Ben has related to some stories more than others, and has been more disturbed by some plotlines than others. He found it very hard to watch the infamous school shooting episode in Season 6, in which Drake’s character is shot in the back and paralysed. Still we’ve consistently kept watching, even as the show managed to veer into the ridiculous several times. As TNG picked up steam in the early aughts, the commercial network behind it began to syndicate the show to the USA, and needed new hooks to keep the audience growing. This gave us one of the worst and least realistic narratives when CTV brought in Degrassi superfan Kevin Smith to guest star in a half-dozen episodes across two seasons, under the premise of filming a fictional installment in his franchise called Jay And Bob Go Canadian, Eh!. This is only worthwhile because it led to this hilarious scenery-chewing cameo by famous Canadian Alanis Morissette:

Even as the show started to spin off from After School Special into into Teen Soap Opera style drama, it still covered what I just started referring to as VALUABLE LESSONS (TM). Every day, Ben and I would watch a few episodes and then I would quiz him on what valuable lessons he had learned. Every episode includes at least two plots, with Plot A featuring the Tough, Thorny Issue of the episode and Plot B being the lighter, more day-to-day story. Multiple plotlines means lots of conversation points to work with, almost all of which result in Ben eye rolling and mumbling “mommmmm, stawwwwwp” at me while I pause YouTube and inform him that if he wants to keep watching, he will listen to me sidebar about the relevant topic. I’ve even been been able to work in our son’s responsibilities as a cisgender male, which include:

  • CONSENT. EVERY TIME. NO EXCEPTIONS.
  • Don’t ever make another person feel like they need to consent to sex for you to like them!
  • Watch your female friends’ drinks so they do not get roofied!
  • If you get a girl pregnant, your role is to support her through HER decision!
  • Be a good ally: stand up for your friends with less privilege than you!

We also learned other VALUABLE LESSONS universal to all kids:

  • Tell the truth, because people will find it out anyways and then it will be WORSE
  • Drugs are a bad idea every time, but prescription painkillers are significantly worse than marijuana
  • Having sex before you’re ready will mess your brain up because hormones.
  • If an adult is making you uncomfortable, trust your instincts, get away from them now and tell another adult you trust
  • Do not be an idiot on social media because it will backfire and cause you to get socially ostracized or suspended from school or both.
  • Do not sext or encourage other people to sext because naked photos will never go away and will end up being distributed to people you did not intend them for.
  • Did we mention consent?

In both the first and second generation though, I believe that that the producers never meant for the show to run more than a couple years. In the first generation, the 12 and 13 year olds in 1987 ended with a made-for-TV movie centered on their 1991 graduation, and no new characters were introduced to keep the series going. In the second generation, the characters who were 12 and 13 in 2001 didn’t end their narrative until their first years of college (which allowed me to plug the Canadian university system)…and then the show had to contrive a plot to bring new 10th graders in for Season 7 to re-fill the cast. By Season 8 in 2008, the kids still aged up, and graduated high school, but the show stopped following graduates to university. Instead, new 9th and 10th graders would show up every season until the “Next Generation” kids from 2001 were completely aged out, and the show became just Degrassi in 2010. Around the same time, seasons went from twelve episodes to over twenty episodes and eventually to over forty episodes per season. The episodes are still 23 minutes, but there is just a lot more of them.

This extension into the “telenovela” production style is a byproduct of what I call “America Money”: the transition to MuchMusic in Canada and Nickeodeon in the USA. By 2008, the show was radically changed from the 12-episode season CTV-based series that started in 2001. Gone were the cheesy synthesizer soundtrack themes, initially replaced by in-show music clips from CBC3 indie bands, but then expanding to feature five or six songs from major labels per episode (I just heard Imagine Dragons on an episode Ben is watching). The show’s production values increased, with the school suddenly acquiring more elaborate facilities beyond the original handful of classrooms. More episodes means more commercial airtime money after all…but it also requires more drama to fill those episodes, and the show became a full on teen soap opera, ending Seasons 6 and 7 with made for TV movies that took the characters to US cities (Degrassi Goes Hollywood!, Degrassi Takes Manhattan).

Even with the format change and 200% more drama though, show still covers VALUABLE LESSONS, and features groundbreaking narratives for a mainstream TV show. Very few teen shows in 2010 would heavily feature the story of a FTM trans boy, but Degrassi had one struggling to just to use the boys’ washroom. However, the format change also means that Ben has been plowing through at least four episodes a day since he hit Season 9 because it feels like there is a never ending supply of teen drama to watch. We’re in Season 12 now and we still have at least a hundred episodes on the MuchMusic/Nickelodeon run before we even get to Degrassi: Next Class on Netflix. We’re also on at least the seventh teen pregnancy plotline, the second school shooting, and the third character with a self harm/cutting problem, so the show is retreading over its Greatest Hits pretty hard. The timeline has also only allowed for coverage from Facebook (“Facerange” in Seasons 9 onwards) and MySpace (“MyRoom” in Seasons 6 and 7) to date from the social media sphere, because we’re just not at Instagram or TikTok until Next Class.

After four months of watching though, I am still surprised by Ben’s interest as neither Paul nor I thought our son would be so enthusiastic about this show. He is genuinely engaged with these narratives and situations, mostly due to the effects of COVID. After all, Ben hasn’t been in a school situation for a year now. He misses being with other kids his age, the teens and tweens he’s used to seeing every day at school. Watching a TV show every day with kids interacting in a very authentically awkward (albeit scripted awkward) way makes him feel like he’s still able to pick up some of the social behavior examples he’s missing at school. Degrassi allows him to see a dramatized version of what social interaction looks like for kids in the grades immediately above him. He is so into the show that even the use of the over-dramatized situations as teaching tools for his parents to bring up HORRIBLY EMBARRASSING TOPICS is acceptable if we can just watch another episode. And Paul has acknowledged that this actually was fantastic parenting on my part to just plunk our kid down in front of a Canadian television show because it covered way more VALUABLE LESSONS, and with much more emotional impact, than my American husband thought a TV show could. (Canada: Telling Teens It’s OK to Be Gay Since 1986!)

Now, after almost 300 twenty-three minute episodes, we’ve covered teen problems from four years of GenXers (born 1965-1980) and twelve years of Millennials (born 1980-1995), and we’re just getting into the later Degrassi and Degrassi: Next Class years that feature members of Gen Z (born 1995 – 2010). Just as Paul and I are among the youngest GenXers, our son, born the year I turned 30, is one of the youngest GenZers. This is why it’s disappointing that Netflix canceled Next Class in 2018, just as the students started to include children born in 2000, but before the show could include children born after 2005. It’s also a strange parallel that, just as the original generation ended with characters born five years before I was, the Next Class ends with characters born five years before Ben was. The most time we’ve spent has been with the seasons featuring characters born in the mid-90s, halfway between each of our generations. But so long as they have cell phones and the Internet and their clothes aren’t weird, Ben can relate to them, and we’ll just keep on covering all the teen issues until we run out of time and only see these characters in Drake videos.

Finally, for those GenXers who followed the original generation: Snake is now the principal of Degrassi Community School, like he has been placed under a curse that prevents him from ever leaving the school. And he eventually married Spike, and became Emma’s stepdad, and stayed friends with Joey Jeremiah and yes, we did have to hear the occasional rendition of “Everybody Wants Something” even as late as 2004. (Thankfully, all the high school bands featured in the show since 2001, have been actual bands with more than one song.)

You can find all the seasons of Degrassi except for Degrassi High (1990-1991) and Degrassi: Next Class on the official YouTube channel (along with plenty of best/worst, first/last, etc videos https://www.youtube.com/user/epitomedegrassi). You can find the original Degrassi High and its finale movie Degrassi: School’s Out! on YouTube but you’ll have to hunt around for them. Finally, you can find Next Class on Netflix, although these kids all seem to be in their 20s like the producers decided to 90210-ify it. And no one seems to have a good source for the original Kids of De Grassi Street, which I 100% would have made Ben watch if I’d been able to find it when he was younger so HEY CBC GET ON THAT.

on screentime

I was going to write an entire post on how the flattening of time is impacting us all right now, but instead, I think I’ll write about screentime. I just wrote an entire rant as a comment on the Forever35 parenting group because I cannot handle seeing people beat themselves up about their kids’ screentime right now. Everyone is allowing their kids about 3000% more screentime right now because our children have nothing else to do, but us parents have plenty to do, especially those of us who have been blessed and lucky enough to still have our full time jobs in the wake of all this nightmare of an economic disaster. We’re struggling to manage domestic and professional spheres of existence at once and it is metaphorically juggling every action all day long. If we can turn on Dolphin Tale 2 and buy an hour of quiet when we can put one of those balls down, then we should take it. It may be the only way we can keep ourselves from burning out, and we should never shame ourselves for doing so.

In recent years though, I have begun to truly resent the screentime issue. Screentime has always been part of the Great Shaming of the Mommy Wars, but in more recent years, has become an issue firmly tied to economic class (which is often also tied to race). Shaming parents for screentime, or making them afraid that screentime is going to break their kids’ brains, is yet one more facet of the American Merit Myth. We have now added “screen free childhood” as a contributing factor to future success, and we have added it into our class hierarchy accordingly. At best, we see the absence of screentime as one more element in the idealized environment we’re supposed to build for our children so they can go on to live great lives with full potential. In reality, screen access is one more place where privileged parents can point at other parents and say that their children’s economic circumstances are their own fault because the parents of the “failing” children didn’t institute screen limits. It’s the child rearing equivalent of broken windows theory

These kind of discussions are also nauseatingly terrifying because our society has been taken over completely by screens – and the people who invent them will not allow their own children to use the devices. The wealthiest Americans are paying for the privilege of having humans interact with their children instead of screens. Like all parts of the American merit myth, a low-screen environment has become one of the components of an educational system that is used to perpetuate the success of the same group of privileged families generation after generation. It isn’t realistic for less funded schools to have the staff required to manage a classroom of 32 kids without using screens. It is also unrealistic for people who do not have a dedicated stay at home parent (or a dedicated caregiver) to avoid the use of screens as a way to keep their children wholly occupied so they require less supervision. Even before the pandemic, with more people working more hours for lower pay, with radical economic inequality driving those hours, parents rely on screens so they can manage the household with the minimal time and energy they have left. Having a screen free kid is a status symbol because we all live basically in a Black Mirror uber-capitalist tech dystopia at this point, and that is why it angers me so very much to hear parents beat themselves up over screentime when it isn’t realistic to cling to an ideal that is more achievable by the wealthy.

As much as I resent the issue and debate and shaming associated with screen time though, I have a definitive stance on the appropriate use of screens for children. I limit screentime for my own child because there is an unnatural aspect to the way that screens are all consuming, which is why we have yet to truly understand the impact of screens on our squishy human brains. “Unnatural” becomes “frightening” when it comes to how compelled our children are to watch those screens. Screen based entertainment, be it TV or video games, educational or not, is always going to have a higher engagement quotient than other activities. It’s a constant flood of entertainment and avoidance of boredom, with very little input or down time.

I also see screen based entertainment as the equivalent of the enchanted Turkish Delight in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s a point where Edmund chooses not to eat his fish and potatoes at the Beavers’ house, because the memory of bad enchanted food drives out his appetite for real, nutritious food. I’ve seen my own child sit in front of a TV waiting for his allocated screentime because the ease of screen based entertainment makes “real” life unappetizing. Screen time is enchanted Turkish Delight: it makes all other activities seem unappetizing by comparison, even when those activities offer more mental nourishment than the screens.

Years of being a more avid reader than a TV or movie watcher has given me a theory: I see screen based entertainment as lazy story consumption. Screens are capable of pumping an entire story, complete with imagery and sound, into your brain. It’s kind of magical in that it requires your brain to do very little work, but rather, hands you the entire story complete with a visual context. Your brain gets all the reward and engagement of a narrative without having to do the heavy lifting of visualizing and imagining the story. It satisfies our love of stories and our love of experiences and occupies our brains completely with the sensory overload of sound and light in the process of doing so. No child should develop a sense that storied do not require imagination.

The other factor we all contend with are smartphones, those dopamine slot machines, evolved over time for the highest usage possible, and that is just the devices. That’s not even considering the games. I see toddlers playing basic smartphone games, poking at the screen with their pudgy little fingers while sitting in their strollers and it makes me a little afraid, because every single phone based game seems to be a derivative of that game in Star Trek TNG that everyone got super addicted to after Riker picked it up like an STD he got on leave:

And that’s not even going into the more “sophisticated” smartphone games, that are are now creatively designed to be more addictive than gambling:

(I am not even getting into social media here because that’s not a factor for kids under 12. Okay, maybe Instagram but I promise he’s using it as a creative outlet)

I’ve struggled with this as a parent for a decade and finally, I realized the only realistic answer for our family was for me to accept the screens where they were useful, and help my child be able to identify why screens are detrimental. I have to teach him to see the mental, emotional and spiritual nourishment in activities that are not screen based. I have to remind him that he will feel better overall from working on his own comedy than he will from watching SNL on YouTube. I have to remind him that he does take just as much happiness from playing board games online with a friend as he does playing Fortnite. Ben has to learn to take true happiness and joy from activities with sustenance, and has to teach himself that screen based entertainment is the mental equivalent of an enchanted sugar gel cube. Otherwise, once Ben gets past the point where I can control his every move, then he will promptly gorge on Fortnite and video games at every opportunity and will risk wasting hours, weeks, years of his life when he could be working on his art, or his sports, or spending time with friends and family.

Maybe if I had raised Ben without any of these screens, then he would only know how to get joy from non-screen activities. Raising him without screens, however, wasn’t realistic for a two-parent working household with an elementary school aged child. Now, it’s not realistic for a middle school student to not be able to engage with his friends through screens…or for him to be not be able to watch Netflix while his mother works during the long hours of this pandemic. I have to juggle the real with my own ideals, and decide not only what I want as a balance for my son, but what I want him to learn for himself as he grows up into an adult who will unfortunately be able to make all kinds of stupid decisions without his mother nagging him to work on his monologue.

So here’s what I actually posted to the thread in question:

For everyone on this thread, PLEASE do not shame yourselves. Please stop thinking you are bad parents for leaning on screens as a way for your children to engage with the world right now. You have the rest of your offspring’s childhood to teach them how to take joy in things that are NOT screen based, and you can do that when you are no longer trying to work full time from home while raising your children with no care support or relief. When we all get through this, teach your children where they can find happiness and flow and joy in their existences without screens. Teach them there are other things to love in this world WHEN YOU CAN, like board games and puzzles, musical instruments, books and writing, time with friends. Take them to parks, or to the forest. Teach them to love and engage with animals. Sign them up for a gender-equal Scouting organization or other wilderness group if they love the outdoors and you want them to do a screen free activity (I hear the Baden-Powell Service Association is great!) Whatever their jam is outside of screens, teach them to explore that just so they know what it feels like to have that that kind of real space happiness. But FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DON’T PUT THAT PRESSURE ON YOURSELF EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY. It is FINE to allow your child to watch as much TV as they – and you – need to so that you ALL can live your lives as a FAMILY without throwing a kid out a window.

Also, to the OP, I firmly believe that a few months of extra PBS shows is NOT going to brain damage your child. I gave myself guilt over this for YEARS because I let my son watch Sesame Street when he was less than a year old, and I would like to save you all the agony by telling you that so long as you teach balance and how to live life outside of screens as well as how to use them responsibly, your kiddos will be FINE. Also they will likely learn the alphabet early and probably pick up some lessons about diversity because Sesame Street remains a bastion of literacy AND kindness. I salute you for your good taste in children’s programming ūüôā

(PS. I let my son watch Sesame Street from 6 months on, plus his beloved Mr Wodgers, plus Dinosaur Train and Thomas and the whole PBS gang and aside from constantly trying to play Fortnite more than his allotted hour a day, he’s fine. Then again, those video games are designed to be as addictive as a Vegas casino, so I don’t think skipping PBS shows in 2009 would have helped us with our Fortnite addiction issues in 2020. Separate post.)

I did not add, “screen time is an economic issue” or “screen time is part of the rapidly escalating class war”, because that’s a separate topic and what I wanted to say was for parents to give themselves some fucking compassion at this time. Still, all these things are tied up together: the screen time, our kids brains, their emotions, their addictions, and the way capitalism will take advantage of all those factors now and in the years to come. The cynical dystopia is already here, and is the reason we are even having to engage in this conversation in parent groups. A tech dystopia has no space for compassion. But that is also a post for an entirely separate day.

underestimating parenting problems in an age of inequality

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.

Credited to Bruno Iyda Saggese

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.

mama-ben adventure day!

Many years ago, I came up with the model for Mama-Ben adventure days.¬† These were days in which we would pick one or two activities to do together, usually in Manhattan, hence the “adventure” part because you¬†never know¬†what kind of adventure would await those who brave the weekend subway! With Ben’s sports schedule though, it’s been a while since we’ve been able to do a solid Saturday adventure together.¬† So yesterday, we decided that we would spend the day exploring and seeing things a little further from home, both in Manhattan and the Bronx.

20181201_132038

Ben is actually in the Bronx!

We started our day at the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibit, at the New York Historical Society on the Upper West side.  This was a literal history of magic as seen through a Harry Potter lens: historical artifacts from magical practices over the last five centuries, intermixed with illustrations and notes from the books.  A friend and I bought tickets for this in April for our Pottermaniac children to see the exhibit together.

Harry Potter exhibit at British Library
This made the exhibit a smidge drier than expected, even for my self-identified Ravenclaw.  While he had mild curiosity around alchemy as the forerunner of chemistry, and enjoyed the interactive elements (projections of Tarot cards were an especial favorite), not even the Natalie Dormer narrated audio tour could make this magical enough.  Individuals more into the magical aspects of the Harry Potter series, as opposed to the action elements, will get more out of this exhibit.  The exhibit was beautifully done, of course, with each room carefully crafted and designed to reflect the studies covered within.  I wish photography had been allowed.
We moved on from there to an impromptu lunch at Shake Shack: having run into another friend at the end of the exhibit with her two sons (the younger of which is also buddies with Ben), we decided to all get lunch together.  Believe it or not this was our first trip to Shake Shack!  Ben declared it the best burger ever.  We plan to test drive the method at home ASAP.
We headed from the Upper West Side to Orchard Beach after lunch, a half-hour drive across the Bronx and through the also unvisited Pelham Bay Park.¬† For the seven years we’ve lived here, we’ve clearly not prioritized visiting all the parks as we should.¬† Pelham Bay was lovely and¬†huge, with an extensive shoreline that was austerely beautiful in the winter cold and grey.
20181201_132818
This reminds me of beaches in Victoria: it looks cold even in the photo
We had traveled out for seal watching with the NYC Park Rangers.  I am so grateful for the park rangers in this city: every single one of them has been amazing in their kindness, knowledge and in the joy they take sharing their love of nature and their parks.  For the seal watching, they had set up two high powered telescopes so we could see the dozen or so harbour seals lounging on the rocks just off the beach
20181201_132903
Ben is very fond of harbour seals: he bonded with the ones that live off the Oak Bay marina when he was just a toddler:

It was therefore meaningful for us to visit those seals’ New York cousins, even though I’m pretty sure that these Bronx seals were all WHAT’RE YOU LOOKING AT, PUNK.¬† Ben still enjoyed seeing them, and I appreciated the opportunity to show him seals that are not dependent on humans for food.¬† Ben is¬†very concerned about the Victoria seals since the “no feeding” rules were enforced; these seals proved that even metro area harbour seals can survive without handouts.

From the seals, we stayed in Pelham Bay Park and went to the Turtle Cove golf center for mini-golf.¬† I was underwhelmed by the mini-golf course, which I suppose could be described as “minimalist”.¬† I suspect the positive reviews of the location are for the driving range, which looked quite nice.¬† However, we were the only people playing mini golf¬†and they had a heater in the women’s bathroom so the experience was redeemed.¬† Also, Ben’s attitude towards mini golf is what most people say about pizza: even when it’s bad, it’s still just fine.¬† It was hard for me to say no to a second round, even in the ocean-adjacent chill. Fortunately, that was when one of Ben’s buddies mom’s texted, asking if Ben could come see¬†Ralph Breaks the Internet with her son, and I was able to leverage that as a reason to skip Round Two. Also, Ben only wanted a round two because I had beat him, 49 strokes to his 63, and he is very competitive about his mini-golf.

It was, chilliness aside, a lovely adventure day.¬† Ben is getting larger every day, and needs me less and less all the time.¬† I’m grateful when he genuinely¬†wants to spend time with me, when in-city adventures with Mama are more important than playdates.¬† I’m even more grateful when I can find an activity that is special to both of us, like going out to see the seals.¬† I do not wish to appropriate the phrase “spirit animal”, but in my British Isles heritage, there is the myth of the selkie instead, which both Ben and I insist we are when there is a plate of raw fish involved.¬† However, we are coming up on teen years, and I’m running out of days when Ben will want to acknowledge the significance of marina mammals in our family narrative.¬† Some day, I will just get an eye roll and a muttered “seals are so lame, Mom.” from him.¬† Until that day comes, I need to better prioritize the time I do have him for adventures like this.

i has a tween!

I find it exceptionally hard to believe two things:

  1. ten years have already gone by
  2. the 4’8″ 67lb creature that just tornadoed through the house in search of pants is the same entity who used to be this little angry meatloaf here:

Granted, we do actually have a photo record of him getting larger.

p10403431

Also, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t swapped out anywhere along the line because at this point, he literally looks like my face on Paul’s body.

april-27-2018-at-0538am

It is, however, slightly disturbing to think that I HAVE A TWEEN.  This creature is literally a tween.  He is ten.  He is his own person, although that person seems to be a class clown.

20180619_082620

Thankfully, these two awards (received yesterday, 6/18/18) balance each other out.

It’s a weird thing being a parent.¬† The best description I ever read of it was that it feels like your heart is walking around outside your body. This is my¬†son.¬† This is the being who is the most important thing in the world to me, whom I would literally do anything I could to protect.¬† And here he is becoming his own person who is able to walk around in the world¬†without any oversight or protection from me.¬† Worse, he’s becoming a totally¬†different person all the time as he grows up and becomes whoever he truly is in there.

20180331_171824

Still.  I have a tween now, a boy who is halfway to being a man, a creature who will spend the second decade of his life building the foundation of the person he is meant to be.  My job is to support him as he becomes that person, and then boot him out into the world, because he is a terrible roomate (underwear everywhere, eats all the cereal, leaves dishes out).  It is strange to think that I have been doing that job without any formal training, because helping to create and then raise another human seems almost meta in its vast responsibility.  And yet, we have been doing that job, and we have, so far, produced a fairly decent human being.

20180219_113904

We have a¬†tween.¬† Ten years ago, when they handed me my son in a bundle at Cedars-Sinai, I could not have imagined getting to this point.¬† I’m sure I’ll feel the same way when I look back at Mister Class Clown here from his junior year of college.