Our family’s life in strange times – not harder, nor easier, just different

For a while now I’ve been meaning to blog about our experience as a family of these strange times that we’re living through at the moment during the Covid-19 pandemic. As with all my blogs, it’s partly just therapy for me, to get my thoughts out of my head and to be able to look back on them, and partly because other people may like to read them and get something from it. Of course I haven’t exactly had loads of time to do this, so it’s taken me a couple of months to get round to it!

I think the first thing to say though is that in the grand scheme of things, our life as a family hasn’t changed as radically as I’m sure it has for many. We are very grateful that we still have one steady income, and another that we don’t rely on for daily living costs, which fluctuates depending on the amount of time I have around looking after the kids even in normal times. Our pace of life is similar to before the social distancing measures came in to effect – we don’t feel like overall we’ve slowed down or sped up, just done some things differently. We parents aren’t really sociable anyway – our interaction with adults was mainly at work for Tom and brief conversations at groups and school gates for me; our leisure time as a family was mainly spent at parks and other free / low cost outdoor spaces; Tom had a short commute on bike or foot; and our kids didn’t do loads of out of school activities. We don’t feel like we’ve had to make huge changes other than the boys not going to school, Tom working from home, and us all not being able to see close family. It could have been a lot harder to adjust. I thought I’d write about the things we’ve found hardest first, and then finish with the positives.

Probably the hardest thing for us as a family has been not seeing our immediate extended family. We used to see my parents at least once a week as they came to our house on Wednesdays, and sometimes an extra day or we’d go there at the weekend or a day in the holidays. We used to see my parents in law once every half term roughly, for a few days to a week at a time – at Christmas, Easter and August we go to stay with them, and they come up to us for family birthdays in between. Of course we’ve not seen any of them in person since March or January. The kids all have a great bond with all four grandparents. Although we keep in touch via Skype and Facebook portal, it’s not the same for the kids, as they don’t seem to “get” video calls like they do face to face interaction, particularly group calls, though one/two kids at a time is less chaotic and do they get more out of it then. 

On Facebook portal with Grandparents and sometimes cousins too

Although the boys don’t mention it much, they have talked about wanting to see their friends when this is all over. I asked them recently whether they wanted to go back to school in July if it was possible. They both said to see their friends it would be good. Joel had a couple of chats with his best friend a few weeks ago when they came our way on their daily exercise and stood at the end of our drive as we stood at the front door, but this arrangement didn’t really cut it because Joel just wanted to play rather than stand and chat like adults. As I said, video calling hasn’t really worked for them, and I think part of the problem is just that, it’s a chat rather than actually playing with each other. A good thing about having three siblings each is that our kids do have each other to play with. Although they do have conflicts, as is inevitable with siblings, they generally all get on well, and that’s continued to be the case even in this strange situation. It also helps that we have neighbours with kids of similar ages, who they’ve been able to shout across the fences to, so have had a small amount of social interaction with other children at a distance. 

I know we are now freer to spend unlimited time outdoors, but for 8 weeks we weren’t allowed to play in the park or hang around anywhere outside for long periods of time. Thankfully the kids all like walking and cycling, so at least we could get out and keep them moving, getting fresh air and burning off some of their energy, but it did get a little boring for them. In the week we still don’t get much chance to spend lots of time out of the house (though I’m thankful we have a garden for playing in and a drive for balance biking on) because we are limited by Tom’s core working hours. But at least at the weekend we can stop at parks and have a run around, climb trees, kick a football etc. away from others. They missed this freedom and so did we. 

Family bike ride one lunch time

For me personally I’ve had to learn to accept the challenges of juggling the demands of four kids who are all very different in personality, preferred learning style, body clock, interests and attention span. At first I got constantly frustrated by this situation, but I’m slowly coming around to how I can manage it as best possible whilst accepting I can’t be perfect. In the week it’s mainly down to me to look after the four of them, because Tom’s work is full time and I’m self employed (part time in a very flexible way) so it makes sense for us to do this. Tom takes care of the twins after breakfast for an hour. They go out on the (carless) drive when they’re ready so the twins can ride their bikes. This allows me to focus entirely on Joel, who really needs this input; we are both morning people and his attention span is best then. Tom also does most of the toileting/nappying with the twins during his lunchbreak and other short breaks. I’d love to be able to completely go with the flow with the boys’ learning, and to a great extent we do, but you can guarantee that Joel has a moment of brilliance or shows a keen interest in something else that we could investigate just as I’m being pulled away by a twin wanting to do a jigsaw with me, or Andrew wants to tell me all about what he’s just found out about some intricate topic of science! We’ve all had to learn to be more patient, and my ability to multi task and switch from once task to another and quickly back again (multiple times) has been severely tested. I’ve had to split myself in four, which obviously can’t literally happen even though I wish it could. When the boys used to be at school I could focus on splitting myself in two during the daytime and then focus my attention on the boys after school. Now that they’re learning at home full time, the juggle is much harder. I’m very grateful to grandparents who have helped me out – science (especially Chemistry) and KS3 level maths for Andrew, and spellings and film making out of his story writing for Joel. 

Learning with Granny and Grandad on Facebook portal

Yet for us it hasn’t all been harder than before the pandemic, there has been positivity. We have realised how thankful we are for all we have that has helped keep life relatively stable for us. A house and jobs mean we can provide the basic necessities of food and shelter for our family without fear; this means a lot at the moment. The house also includes a garden, which, although not huge, has allowed us to be outside beyond our daily exercise.

On the point of exercise, we’ve been able to do a lot of cycling as a family, even more so than before. The roads have been quiet, so we’ve been able to go places on roads that I wouldn’t normally dare to on my own with the kids, or even all of us at weekends. The boys have had a fantastic opportunity to gain some skills of cycling as a form of transport, with their dad being well experienced on this subject to teach them. We’ve used the excellent new(ish) cycling infrastructure that is the blue route from the University of Birmingham in to the city centre along the A38. Although we’ve not been all the way in to town (because there’s nothing to do there at the moment!) we’ve had chance to scope out the route, build up stamina, and gain the confidence that we can do this ride in future as a means of going in to town together. We were already in to cycling (and we are SOOOO glad that we got the Tern GSD in February in the end), but we are encouraged too at how much cycling is on the radar locally as an alternative to public transport, so hopefully others will also get in to it, and we may all see some improvements in cycling infrastructure as a result. I hope that’s a positive thing to come out of this pandemic. 

Exploring new places on bike

I personally have really appreciated the chance to have a go at home education, though I do understand that this isn’t exactly like it would be in normal times, as we could do more out of home activities such as museums, libraries, groups etc. Homeschooling seems to be the word used by the majority of parents suddenly finding themselves in this situation, but I’ve never been keen on this word. School is school, home is home; both are places where education can happen, but home will never be school and school will never be home – they are very different environments. I prefer to think of it as school education and home education. I’ve written about my views on this before on this blog. 

Our kids’ learning isn’t normally confined to just what they do at school, but we did choose to outsource some of their education to our school for 6 hours a day in term time. For both the boys, we didn’t just send them to school in reception because we have to. We weighed up the pros and cons of full time home learning versus some school learning and home learning, and decided that overall the best option to try at the time was school, for each of them as individuals and us as a family, acknowledging that this could change. They and we have been very happy with our individual school, including the approach the staff have taken during the closure (to us) period. There has been no pressure or expectation to complete any work; they have provided suggestions of activities and offered to provide support and feedback should we wish to maintain some form of teacher-pupil relationship. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed the experience with the opposite pros and cons in this period compared to before, and it has taught me a lot. In particular it has given me the confidence that should we change our minds on whether school is the best option for any of the kids in future, I can totally do this! 

As I suspected, Joel has really benefitted from some one to one time in reading and writing. I’ve always known that he’s got loads of info and ideas in his head, but he’s often reluctant to let on and he isn’t the most capable at doing so quickly enough in writing. At school this makes it look like he isn’t as capable as he is, though his teacher these past two years has been brilliant at recognising this, encouraging him and celebrating him as a person beyond the tick boxes she has to complete. He’s always been happy to go to school, enjoys lots of things there, and just seems to shrug off the more challenging things he faces. But obviously I have been able to spend more time with him and go with his interests and body clock. It hasn’t all been plain sailing – he does still have moments of defiance and frustration (often related to tiredness), and I know he pushes boundaries more with me than other adults so sometimes this impacts his learning. However, overall I am seeing him grow, which is rewarding for both of us. 

Reading one of his favourite Oxford Owl books (free ebooks at the moment)

I also wondered whether Andrew would use the opportunity to delve deeper in to areas he’s interested in and explore new interests. He always had his head in non fiction books – before school, after school, bedtime, weekends, holidays etc. And he’d recently got in to baking on his own. Like I said, it’s not like the kids only learn in school anyway, there’s so much more to learning life skills than what is taught at school. He generally finds school work easy, though I think his teachers managed to challenge him enough in class as far as they could with 30 kids because he didn’t complain about boredom nor behave in a way that suggested he was bored – I think he liked to help others which kept him occupied. But he has used this extended time out of the classroom to do lots of independent learning in areas that really interest him – like chemistry and maths. He’s in year 4, yet his knowledge is often what I’d expect of a secondary school pupil; he’s even got the hang of some GCSE level maths. He has baked loads, had a go at learning Dutch and Latin on Duolingo, and has recently got in to cross stitch too. It’s been lovely to see him enjoying all these various learning opportunities. It’s a shame his residential trip got postponed until next year, because that’s one opportunity we can’t offer him at home. 

One thing that surprised me about all four kids being together all day every day is the amount of learning they do from each other – I’ve really enjoyed witnessing this. It’s definitely an advantage of a larger family, particularly good for me to realise as I never thought I’d have four kids. For example the boys like reading to the twins, Joel likes Andrew explaining maths to him, and the twins are picking up lots of new language and interest in topics that I don’t think they’d have done so quickly had the boys not been around so much these last couple of months. All of them are learning various things from all their siblings. 

Whilst we wouldn’t necessarily stick with the exact style of home education that we’ve had to launch ourselves into at short notice if we actively made the decision to do it, it has been an interesting experiment should we need to change course in future (particularly if we’re not successful with our application to have the twins start reception at age 5). I’ve figured out that the style that suits us best is somewhere in the middle of a continuum between unschooling and rigid curriculum – lots of freedom for the kids to learn what interests them at the times when they are most keen to, but also some guidance from me on maths, reading, and writing. Sometimes we do suggestions from school, it’s particularly handy if there’s a free resource for us because school has paid for it, and sometimes we don’t.

If you follow me on Instagram you may remember my post on the last day of school, with the Bournville Carillon playing at home time as everyone left not knowing when we could be together again. I’d been really struggling with school runs since about January, because the twins (one in particular) were having so many meltdowns about needing to leave home at certain times when I said so – I think they didn’t like their lack of control, understandably for two year olds. It was really getting me down. In that post I said I never wished a pandemic would be the thing that stopped this, and that is still true. However their behaviour has been so much more pleasant since then. Yes we’ve still had some meltdowns, but nowhere near as many, and usually over quite negotiable things rather than something I ultimately couldn’t change. I do not miss school runs in the slightest for this reason. 

In general all the kids have coped really well with the situation, considering it’s a change from life as they knew it. Of course we have had times when behaviour hasn’t been great, us parents included. But I have been surprised how the kids’ behaviour has, on the whole, been similar to, if anything a bit more positive than, previously. Especially Joel, who I thought would struggle the most with a change of routine, but he now doesn’t need the same after school unwind period as his frustration outlet happens more gradually at various intervals throughout the day. 

Over these past couple of months there have been ups and downs. Overall I wouldn’t say life is harder, neither is it easier, it’s just different. And who knows what life will be like in the coming months.

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