I wrote a blog post back in May about our experience of the first UK lockdown that started in March last year. Overall we coped alright – some things were harder but some things were easier for us, so overall we came out of it feeling fairly resilient. It’s safe to say though that we are not feeling the same way now in the third national lockdown. As always on this blog, I tend to write as I find it therapeutic, and if anyone else gets something from it too then I’m happy to share my thoughts. I’ve heard a lot of people say (virtually) how much harder it is this time, whether they struggled last time or not. So I don’t think we are alone, and it does help me to know this.
In the first week of January we were OK – exhausted but OK. Normally the Christmas holidays are a good time for us to rest, because we spend a week-ish at each of our parents’ houses for Christmas and new year. Obviously we just stayed at home this year, and not only that, but we came down with Covid-19. The only real explanation is that it came home from school (or possibly nursery) via an asymptomatic child, as we’d had no contact with anyone else. My main symptom was exhaustion, and Tom’s was nasal congestion; none of the children showed any symptoms. Thankfully we got away very lightly with symptoms, but we didn’t get chance to completely rest, because looking after 4 kids under 10, especially when they can’t go out the house to let off steam, doesn’t allow it, and of course we couldn’t get any external help. Tom ended up doing more than me, because he had more energy at the time, although I think this then just meant he crashed later.
During our isolation there was no pressure for either of us to work, as Tom had annual leave for the school holidays and I always wind my work down to the minimum in the holidays. It ended just as the boys were due to go back to school, but then of course they didn’t, and because we reckon we caught the virus from school, I had been hesitant about the prospect of sending them back anyway, since this could easily happen to someone more vulnerable than us. I mean they’d definitely be happier at school because they love it, but not to the detriment of other people’s risk of serious illness. Even though the twins could have gone to nursery for part of the week, we decided to keep them off too. We survived the first week of all being at home with Tom back at work in our bedroom, the kids doing some learning/playing etc., and me fitting in whatever hours I could for my business to keep it ticking over. Similar to last time that school was closed to us, the boys have ended up doing a mixture of school set activities that they like (which was all set up and ready to go in an online system this time) and their own ideas for learning that come up in our daily experiences and conversations.
Tom had been told by the university he works for that all staff were now key workers, and that they would support them to get school places if needed, so he felt under pressure to work all his hours, whereas in the first lockdown they were told it was “best endeavours”. He did actually work full hours the majority of weeks, but knowing there was no leeway now was stressful. I was overwhelmed by trying to keep the twins from disturbing him whilst also trying to facilitate the boys’ (mainly Joel’s) learning. Family walks at lunchtime seemed more stressful than they had been in the summer, because it took us ages to tog up and the twins wanted to walk the whole way at their pace, meaning we were clock watching to get back for Tom to work his hours.
In addition our house suddenly felt very small. I hadn’t realised just how much I relied on the garden last spring and summer to keep the kids out of Tom’s way. We would spend entire afternoons out there. Andrew accesses any of the online learning he wants to do on our family computer in the living room, which is also our “TV” – we don’t watch live TV, we just access iPlayer or other channels on their websites. This leaves me to work with Joel (with the iPad if I need to access anything online) in their bedroom just across the landing – we have a 3 storey house with kitchen/diner and my work room on the ground floor, living room and one bedroom on the first floor, and two bedrooms on the second floor. If the twins are playing nicely then Andrew can tolerate them in with him, but Joel can’t focus if they are within ear shot of us. If they go upstairs they just invade our bedroom where Tom works, and if they go downstairs it’s not safe on their own and there’s no floor space to do much anyway.
Now if we were to home educate in the more long term, we would think about how we could sort rooms, devices, resources, furniture etc. to accommodate this, and I would probably give up my work room which isn’t currently suitable for any children without supervision. But in the short term we have to work with what we’ve got, and in that first week of lockdown it felt pretty impossible for any of us to actually do what we needed to do properly, and I was like some kind of referee for it all when it started to go crazy.
If I had more time and space to get my head around it, I could come up with ways to include all the children in the same activities, although I think this would be a challenge. Before lockdown we had started to work with Joel’s teachers to see if he needs a plan for more support, maybe he has some kind of neurodiversity such as dyslexia – this is a whole other topic that I will blog about at some point. To access any kind of learning that requires him to read or write, he needs full time 1:1 support from me otherwise he gives up in frustration or gets defensive if I try later to offer him gentle feedback on things like his (fascinating) spelling. I have often wondered where his personality ends and some kind of cognitive difficulty begins, but since he’s started junior school this has made us and his teachers question if he needs more support at school. On the other hand, Andrew works independently – his reading and writing skills allow him to access everything he wants to learn and he is highly motivated when it’s challenging enough for him (so he’s given up with a lot of the school set work for a totally different reason from Joel). So involving both boys with these wildly different abilities and interests in the same activities, plus a couple of three year olds also with very different interests and personalities, will need more than a few weeks of overwhelm for me to get my head around!
With all the stress and overwhelm of work and family life whilst feeling like we didn’t really get over Covid completely, we both felt pretty terrible physically and mentally by the end of the weekend that followed this first week of lockdown. Tom decided to tell work, which was brave and absolutely the thing we needed to do. Thankfully his bosses were very understanding, and gave him a week off sick for Covid/stress, which was reassuring given the message from higher up that he’s a key worker. This gave us a bit of head space to regroup and decide what we could do to help ourselves in the situation. We came to the conclusion that taking the twins to nursery for their 15 hours a week was probably the most help for the least risk. We’re not worried about the twins bringing Covid home because we’re immune for a while now, and given that none of us are going near other people except for the twins at nursery, we pose little extra risk to the others at nursery if it’s going to be open anyway. I checked with the nursery manager whether they were happy to be open to everyone, and she said yes, they wanted to help any families who needed them. There were never more than 10 children there at a time, and a few aren’t going at the moment, so it’s a tiny bubble.
But our decision wasn’t easy. I totally understand why we have this strong “stay at home” message – the NHS is overwhelmed, and any contact we have with other people could add to this pressure and ultimately someone could die. I totally agree with schools and nurseries needing to have as few children in them as at all possible. I have no issues whatsoever with our school’s stance that children are only entitled to on-site provision if both their parents (or one if single) are key workers who aren’t working at home, only on the days that they are doing so, and those who are really vulnerable. And yet the twins going to nursery was important for sustaining us physically and mentally as a family at that point. How on Earth do I reconcile these two things in my head?! I struggle to know when self-care becomes selfishness. Why should our happiness and mental health trump a nursery worker’s risk of becoming seriously ill or worse? Why should I take advantage of nurseries being open to all when others don’t have this option? When I first heard that early years was staying open to all, I thought “phew”! But the more I thought about it, the more I doubted the reasons and whether it was a good idea for us to be participating in that.
So the twins did their three days of five hours at nursery last week, and absolutely loved it. They were excited to go back after over a month off, and it helped both them and us. We got to the end of the week and felt so much lighter and able to cope than we had. Even on the two days that they didn’t go, I found it easier than before to manage the situation at home. We decided to scrap family walks except at weekends, and instead we’d all get out for a walk or cycle in various combinations of the six of us throughout the day. I got back my enjoyment of setting up various simple activities and suggestions of what they might like to do, especially for managing the twins, which I just had such a mental block with the week before. The space issue at home is still difficult, but I’ve been able to make some small changes and the kids have settled down a bit into working with what we have. Yet I still felt guilty that we needed to potentially put others at risk in order to get us back on track.
It’s been a snow day today so nursery was rightly closed due to dangerous travel conditions, and again I’ve felt much better than 2 weeks ago when we were both burnt out, so I’ve been able to cope with all of us at home, keeping the kids out of Tom’s way and still getting some semblance of education in. I think just having that bit of respite and space to think more clearly, has made me less overwhelmed and fearful of going forwards. Don’t get me wrong, life is still hard, but we feel in a better place to tackle it.
This Thursday is the day that early years providers have to submit the funding forms to the council to claim this term’s funded places for 3 year olds. So if the twins don’t go on Wednesday (their nearest regular day to Thursday attendance) then we could lose our funded places for this term, or the nursery would have to fudge it and I don’t want to put them in that position. Once the snow is gone, they can go later this week, so at least we will keep our options open for the rest of the term. We can see how things go, and maybe the twins can alternate weeks or something depending on how exhausted I am.
For us I think there have been a few factors that led to the imposition of this lockdown feeling much harder than the first did. None of them seem huge in themselves, but added together it was a shock to our systems.
- Burnout from months of parenting alone, with a few weeks of respite in the summer holidays when we could stay with grandparents.
- Exhaustion from the aftermath of Covid infections and no help (obviously!) during our isolation.
- Winter weather meaning the garden is less useful – we still go out daily for as much fresh air as possible, but we don’t hang out for several hours at a time.
- Expectations at work being much higher than before, now that all staff are called key workers, and a higher workload due to redundancies, stretched teams, long term solo working in a less than optimal environment etc.
- Adrenaline from the newness and unprecedented nature of the start of the pandemic has worn off- the initial sprint is over, we’re now in the depths of a marathon.
I hope going forward that we can get to the end of the marathon as best we can, being aware of our own limits and limitations, without impacting on others if at all possible. Let’s see how we do with this ridiculously difficult balancing act. I guess this whole blog post, having written it all down, is a reminder to us, and maybe anyone reading this, that “it’s ok to not be ok” as the saying goes.
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