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Dear pre-pandemic me – Lessons learned in lockdown

If you could write a letter to your pre-pandemic self, what would you say?

Here’s mine:

Dear Pre-Pandemic Me,

You are not going to believe what is coming. It is going to be one of those defining moments in history that your grandchildren and subsequent generations will learn about at school. As hard as it is to wrap your brain around, this is the absolute truth: a pandemic is coming, and it will result in large-scale shutdowns across the globe.

Schools, businesses, shops, even beaches and parks, are going to be shut, and people will be required to stay at home, to the greatest extent possible. Laws will be invoked that mean you can get fined or even jailed for travelling too far away from home, being in a public place unnecessarily, and even eating a kebab on a park bench! Many will suffer terribly, and the global health and economic costs will be unfathomable. I know, it’s unbelievable, but the history books will back me up.

One of the things I want you to know about this crazy time is that it will seem surreal for a while. There will be a sense of imminent (albeit vague and somewhat removed) danger, and whilst individual responses will differ, most people with whom you interact will be experiencing some type of elevated emotion, ranging from mild concern to near panic. This includes the children, who will initially experience this pandemic as a thief of joy.

They will be upset when they realise they cannot go to school, participate in their extra-curricular activities, visit their family, or play with their friends. They will be horrified to discover that even simple pleasures like playing in the playground or going to the beach are forbidden. Two out of the three will have “isolation birthdays”, where there is no party, no friends, no extended family visiting. Presents will be relatively scarce, with “IOUs” or cash transfers the most likely gifts they will receive. School camps and sports carnivals will be cancelled. Most of the things they look forward to will be off-limits, and they will grieve.

Although it may be tempting to dismiss these as small and trivial problems, they are big and meaningful to these kids. Be kind to them. Their lives have never been so disrupted and it will take some time for them to adjust. Just like typical grief, it won’t be linear. They will have good days, and then they will re-experience a surge of emotion as the reality of the situation is reinforced in another way. It may be the reality of their upcoming birthday, or the passing of a date on which something special that was on the calendar is no longer a thing. It may be the crushing disappointment of realising that they can’t visit their baby cousin on his first birthday, or simply seeing the sign on the swings at the park that says, “Closed”. 

After the initial surrealness will come the frustration, as it becomes apparent exactly how difficult it can be to keep everyone entertained, occupied, fed, and on speaking terms when nobody leaves the house AT ALL. Working from home whilst supervising kids’ learning will become the challenge which most parents undertake, with varying degrees of confidence and enthusiasm. Even with the best of intentions and the most wholehearted attempts, you will find that it is HARD to be productive, effective, patient and kind when you are juggling so many things and don’t get a chance to think your own thoughts without being interrupted. You will remind yourself of your blessings and the fact that many others are doing it way tougher than you, and this will be true. It will also do little to make it easier to do what you need to do in the way you hope to do it.

You will feel many emotions: fear, uncertainty, frustration, despair, anger, and guilt (so much guilt!). However, you will learn, grow and adapt as well. There will be opportunities to reflect, connect, and clarify what is most important. In this clarification, you will have the opportunity to re-evaluate your priorities and rediscover what REALLY matters. In this, you will have an unprecedented opportunity  to become crystal clear about your blessings and the things that truly add value to your life, and equally, what you can do without.

You will realise that many of the things which felt like time-consuming irritations, like the multitude of extra-curricular activities that you spend so much time dropping off to, and picking up from, are precious opportunities for each of your family members to belong, participate, and connect with others. The sadness you will feel when events that felt like mere obligations (like cross-country carnivals and the commencement of the footy season) are cancelled, will highlight how important those events were to the kids and even to you. The longing you will feel to visit with your family, hug your nieces and nephews, and chat with your Mum, your siblings, and your friends, will remind you how blessed you are to have those people in your life. The way you wish you could just go to, well, anywhere, will show you how fortunate you are to have the freedom you enjoy.  

You will innovate. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and this is true. You will create and participate in neighbourhood scavenger hunts, design PE lessons, have Nerf gun battles, engage in craft activities, and find ways to tempt an unwilling 5-year-old into learning sight words (hint – chalk on the driveway + waterbombs was the winner). You will request and receive video and written submissions from family across the country, sending birthday wishes to your now teenage daughter. You will mastermind a surprise Zoom party for your son, and secretly arrange for his class to sing “Happy Birthday” to him in their virtual classroom. You will create new birthday traditions which result in both of them declaring their isolation birthdays one of the best yet.

You will lower your own unrealistic expectations of yourself, and accept that, on some days, just maintaining a relative level of peace and calm is an achievement. Sometimes, you will rejoice in the simplicity; on other days you will be stifled by the monotony. You will support others to accept these fluctuations as normal, and you will allow yourself to accept them too. Your clients will need you to be calm, and you will help them to adjust. In so doing, you will adjust also.

You will run. A lot. More than you have ever run before. Sometimes because you joined a challenge and wanted to complete it; sometimes because you need to get out of the house REALLY badly; and sometimes because you are remembering how good it feels to be run-fit again, after a period of poor health. Your speed and endurance will improve, and you will feel a sense of satisfaction that perhaps your best times aren’t necessarily behind you, despite the close proximity of a significant birthday.

Your kids will watch an eye-watering amount of Netflix, and you will too. Screen time usage will be at an all time high, and you will occasionally panic about this. However, you will remember that this is not your new forever normal. It is a strange and temporary situation which will have little to no bearing on how your household consumes media in the weeks and months to come. When other options are available for entertainment, screens will return to the back burner.

Speaking of screens, you will spend an inordinate amount of time looking at your screen for work also. You will serve your clients via Zoom, which you will find draining, but recognise that it is better than the alternative, which is to not serve them at all. You will enjoy some of the innovative ways others are making use of the online world, and you will also feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information coming at you online. Create boundaries for media consumption and don’t fall into the trap of reading everything there is to read about the pandemic. Stay informed enough to stay safe, but trust that you don’t need to read it all. 

You will long for the return to normal, but you will acknowledge that a complete return to normal is not ideal. There will be elements of lockdown that you will want to keep. Movie nights, board games, and family bike rides will become regular rather than sometimes activities. You will recognise the gift of less busyness and the creativity that was sparked by the yawning gaps in the family’s schedule which have never before existed. You will appreciate the exercise habits that each member of the family has developed, and you will encourage them all to keep them up.

Overall, I want you to know that this time will be crazy and hard, but it will be rich with unexpected blessings, particularly in relation to recognising what really matters. Don’t waste it, and don’t rush too quickly back to ‘normal’. Take the opportunity to design your new normal, taking the best bits from isolation and merging them with the best bits of freedom, to connect with people and participate in activities that bring joy and add value to your life.  

XX Mid-Pandemic Me

PS There will be many opportunities for questionable online purchasing decisions. Trust me on this: you don’t need those jeans. Oh, and “M&Ms” are not actually an empirically supported antidote to homeschool stress, despite what you may tell yourself.

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