Homeschool, Hikes, and Heartaches

This past two weeks, my life has mirrored the landscape of the dystopian novels I use in my middle school ELA classroom. A pandemic set loose on the world, exponentially rising death tolls, lack of basic services and consumer goods, inadequate healthcare, unmitigated government control, and widespread fear and hysteria.

The surreality of our current situation reinforces my belief that I cannot spend my life needlessly worrying. So many times in the past, I have had sleepless nights, letting potential problems keep me up, only to find they have never come to pass. Instead, I have been blindsided by issues I could never have foreseen. Today’s dystopian world is the perfect illustration.

Like everyone, I am trying to cope with our new reality. Between trying to teach my own classes online, to homeschool my kindergartener and first grader, and to productively fill our long days and empty schedules, some days are better than others. I am trying to be kind to myself and my children. We are all struggling. I am attempting to explain the unexplainable to them, why our world has shut down, why we have to practice social distancing. It is hard to answer the questions my young children have about these complicated issues without scaring them. It is difficult to remain calm in the face of so many unknowns.

And I am also trying to keep my children busy and provide opportunities for them to expend their youthful energy, even though all their activities and sports have been cancelled. There are very few places to take them. Even our local tracks have been closed.

So yesterday afternoon, after our daily homeschool lessons, I took my children up to the North Shore of Long Island to Cold Spring Harbor State Park. I have done this challenging two mile trail countless times with one of my friends. It was the second time that I had taken my children; the first time we did not get very far.

As my daughter, the future trail runner, bounds ahead, my son and I walk together.

“Mommy, my legs aren’t as long as Sis’s.”

“I know, Buddy. You are doing great.”

As we pick our way over logs, roots, and rocks, he begins to discuss a past event. “It was before we broke up,” he explains. My son has started to sort events into two categories: pre-divorce and post divorce. However, he descriptively timestamps events as before or after “we broke up.” Again, I explain to him that we didn’t break up; we could never break up. His father and I divorced, but we both love his sister and him very much. My heart aches.

From the time I learned I was pregnant with my daughter, over seven years ago, I have dedicated my life to protecting my children. Initially, I gave up wine and sushi and tried to fuel my body properly, nurturing beings I had never met but to whom I was already acutely tied. Out of the womb, my love and responsibilities have increased a hundredfold. I agonize over their physical, academic, mental, and emotional well-being daily, struggling to shield them from pain and conflict.

I have never before experienced the rage I felt when my children have been harmed by a playmate or bully. As a person who has always been immune to road rage, can turn my back on an enraged person, can tune out a belligerent student’s tirades, knowing full well his anger has nothing to do with me but stems from other issues, I have reeled from this blind rage. A feeling so uncontrollable, it can only be instinctual.

Unlike our previous visit to this site, this time my children completed the whole route. In a celebratory spirit, my slightly tired children and their exhausted mother return to the car for a thirty minute drive home. On the radio, a song I never heard before was playing, “Try Again,” by Andy Shauf. Despite recounting the story of a broken relationship, the tune is upbeat. The chorus repeats the song’s title, “Come on, baby, try again.”

I tell my children I like the song. Trying again is such an important lesson. We all need to try again as we did with our hike. Or how we sometimes need to do with our behavior. I am going to try to be more patient, I tell them. Maybe they can listen better, I suggest. We chat a bit more. A new song comes on the radio. But something has been dislodged in my son. He begins to pound his booster chair, repeating fiercely over and over, “You and daddy have to get back together again.”
It takes me a moment to understand what he is saying. He starts to kick the car door. “I am not kidding,” he yells at me. The irony is that I feel almost healed, but my poor children are still struggling with the aftermath of the divorce.

In the past, I might have given the stock answer, Daddy and I didn’t get along. However, the children’s therapist has cautioned that could lead children to needlessly feel conflict between parents. I say instead, “Sometimes parents don’t work well together.” Or, at all, I think to myself.

He calms momentarily. Throughout our ride home, he frequently returns to his outburst. I thank him for telling me how he feels, for sharing with me. I am sorry he feels that way. I do understand, I tell him. I know his ability to articulate his feelings is healing in itself. Yet, every time I hear his pain, my own heart splinters. There is no escape from this paradox. In trying to protect my children, I have caused them pain.

At one point, he says, “But mom, it is like the song. You can try again.” And I am undone by his intelligence, his ability to make inferences and connections. His optimism. He is five.

In bed that night, tears flow unbidden down my cheeks. Seven years of trying to insulate my children from heartache and loss. Despite our best efforts, we may still cause pain.


I often think of the tragedies I have lived through: the Gulf War which had little impact on me because I was in middle school, though, I do think my fellow students planned a walkout; coming back into the United States after the bombing in Oklahoma City; the horror of watching the Columbine Massacre unfold on television my senior year of college. The biggest traumas of my life included 9/11, and even more locally, Hurricane Sandy, and then my own personal trauma, my marriage and divorce. I am in no way equating a local natural disaster or my divorce with the magnitude of 9/11. However, each one was terrifying, contained so many unknowns, and left me feeling powerless to control my situation.

After I recovered from the immediate horror of 9/11, I, like many New Yorkers, spent a great deal of time living under the shadows of the threat of another attack. I lived on a barrier island during Hurricane Sandy, and I remember the National Guard coming into a wrecked town covered in sand and debris, and I thought I would never come closer to a scene that resembled war. At the time, my father reminded me that people can act desperately when they do not have necessities; there were sewage issues and lack of safe drinking water in some Long Island towns for months after the storm.

The horror of my marriage and the divorce process impacted me on such a personal level that, unlike 9/11 or Sandy, I couldn’t escape its impact even for a moment. For so many years, I walked around with a weight on my chest that made it hard to breathe, laugh, or really enjoy life to its fullest.

And here I am, over a year out, and I am a new, happier, lighter person. Peaceful in a way I never could have imagined less than a year and a half ago. And, when I think about the darkest moments and what allowed me to survive physically, and, even more so, emotionally and mentally, it was my support network. My parents, my coworkers who have become my friends and confidantes, my circle of high school and college friends, and the friendships formed more recently. The moms of my children’s friends from daycare and elementary school. The people with whom I interact daily. The school secretaries who practically run the school where I work. My hairdresser. The people I talk to daily or even just once in a while. My students’ parents. My children’s teachers. The people you barely know or just meet for a moment in whom you confide at a low point or moment of despair.

There is evidence that you may actually confide more in people you barely know than the people you consider your safety network. I have been on both ends of that paradox. People I looked at across a room have shared the strangest and most intimate information with me. But, I understand. Often, when particularly upset or stressed, I feel my words tumbling out, oversharing with unlikely recipients. After a particularly difficult week dealing with my ex over the children’s visitation schedule, I poured my concerns out to a grandmother picking her grandchild up from a play date. She sagely advised, “Remember forgiveness is more for you than the person you have forgiven.” I try to live by her words.

But the emotions I am feeling in the midst of the Corona crisis are unique. I walked into a bakery yesterday and almost cried to the owner because, in the aftermath of talks of a state lockdown, I could not even imagine being unable to walk into a local store anymore. I am bemoaning the loss of all the normalcy I typically take for granted. All the routines that keep us grounded and purposeful, the routines that allow us the structure to overcome our small or larger challenges are being threatened.

My children’s routine is in upheaval. Their school, religion class, sports, and other activities have all been cancelled. I texted one mom I see at almost every activity just to ask how she was doing. I missed seeing her.

The store shelves are bare. Going into stores with empty shelves seems designed to cause panic and fear.

One of my best friends, who is typically a very laidback person, told me that the unknowns of the virus and this situation are making her feel very anxious. I told her my divorce and dealing with a narcissistic ex must have made me immune to such anxiety. In the past year, I sadly have had to release so much control over my children’s safety and well-being. The courts seem unwillingly to enforce consequences over parents who don’t comply with settlements. So when my ex has my children, I often do not know their whereabouts. Is he taking them to school? No, he dropped them off at before care, which is in violation of the settlement. Are they at his parents’ house for February break? Nope, he violated the settlement, took them to a hotel, and never informed me. Are they on this flight? No, he changed their flight without apprising me. He flouts the settlement at every turn. So, yes, as a person who often doesn’t know if her children are safe, I may have become immune to anxiety.

As far as the virus, as is often the case in many aspects of life, I have no control over whether I get sick or my friends or my family members do. Or, as contraction seems inevitable, when? Prior to school and work closures, any of us could have been exposed. Or during our social distancing, we might be exposed on our one errand for essentials. All of that is out of our hands.

But for me, the biggest loss, what I am struggling with today, is the loss of normalcy. The loss of a “boring” routine. The loss of going to work and seeing my coworkers and my friends. Knowing that my children are at their school with their teachers and friends. That in the afternoon, they will have their play dates or their activities. That I will greet the same parents. See the same familiar faces.

Today, I am grieving for the social interaction I have beyond my friends. The larger social network I take for granted. I think many of us are. Some of my friends who are introverted say they prepared their whole lives for this. I didn’t. I thrive on social contact. I need it.