Surviving stay-at-home orders with a toddler has been easier than I thought.
Except for the very early newborn days when I was still recovering from birth, I’d never spent a full day home with my now 20-month-old son Eli. The idea of staying inside with a baby or a toddler for 24 hours straight made me anxious and even a little afraid.
And yet, here we are, more than a month into the era of COVID-19, where our only option is to stay put. Every. Single. Day.
When predictions of stay-home orders started swirling, I panicked about how we would survive with a toddler. Images of Eli roving the house, whining, and making a mess — while I sat with my head in my hands — took over my brain.
But here’s the thing. While the last several weeks have been hard in a lot of ways, dealing with Eli hasn’t been the monumental challenge I worried it’d be. In fact, I like to think that I’ve gained some priceless parenting wisdom that might’ve otherwise taken years to learn (if at all).
Here’s what I’ve discovered so far.
Did you rush to fill your Amazon cart with new playthings the second you realized you’d be stuck at home indefinitely? I did, despite being the kind of person who claims to keep toys to a minimum and emphasize experience over things.
Over a month later, some of the items I bought have yet to be unwrapped.
As it’s turned out, Eli is pretty happy to keep playing with the same simple, open-ended toys over and over — his cars, his play kitchen and play food, and his animal figurines.
The key seems to be just rotating stuff regularly. So every few days I’ll switch out a few of the cars for different ones or change up the utensils in his play kitchen.
What’s more, everyday household objects seem to hold just as much appeal. Eli is fascinated with the blender, so I unplug it, take out the blade, and let him make pretend smoothies. He also loves the salad spinner — I tossed a few ping pong balls inside, and he loves watching them spin.
The Internet is chock-full of toddler activities involving things like pompoms, shaving cream, and multicolored construction paper cut into various shapes.
I’m sure those kinds of things are great resources for some parents. But I’m not a crafty person. And the last thing I need is to feel like I should be spending my precious free time when Eli is sleeping making a Pinterest-worthy fort.
Plus, the few times I have tried to set up one of those activities, he loses interest after 5 minutes. For us, it’s just not worth it.
The good news is that we’re happily getting by with things that require a lot less effort on my part. We do tea parties with the stuffed animals. We turn bedsheets into parachutes. We set up a bin of soapy water and give the animal toys a bath. We sit on our front bench and read books. We climb up and down off the couch over and over and over (or more accurately, he does, and I supervise to make sure no one gets hurt).
And most importantly, we believe that…
Living in a city where the playgrounds are closed, we’re limited to physically distant walks around the block or going to one of a handful of parks that are big and uncrowded enough for us to keep far away from others.
Still, if it’s sunny and warm, we go outside. If it’s cold and cloudy, we go outside. Even if it’s raining all day, we go outside when it’s just drizzling.
Short outdoor excursions break up the days and reset our moods when we’re feeling antsy. More importantly, they’re key for helping Eli burn off some energy so he continues to nap and sleep well, and I can have some much-needed downtime.
By now it seems apparent that we’re in this situation for the long haul. Even if physical distancing rules ease somewhat in the coming weeks or months, life isn’t going back to the way it was for quite some time.
So while it might’ve felt okay to do unlimited screen time or snacks in the early weeks in an effort to just get by, at this point, I worry about the long-term effects of easing our boundaries too much.
In other words? If this is the new normal, then we need some new normal rules. What those rules look like will be different for every family, obviously, so you have to think about what’s doable for you.
For me, it means that we can do up to an hour or so of quality TV (like Sesame Street) a day, but mostly as a last resort.
It means that we bake cookies for snacks on days when we can’t spend as much time outside, but not every day of the week.
It means that I’ll take half an hour to chase Eli around the house so he is still tired enough to go to sleep at his usual bedtime… even if I’d rather spend those 30 minutes lying on the couch while he watches YouTube on my phone.
I sometimes wonder what my life would be like going through this situation without a child. There’d be no one to occupy but myself.
My husband and I could cook dinner for 2 hours together every night and tackle every home project we ever dreamed of. I wouldn’t stay up at night worrying about what would happen to Eli if I caught COVID-19 and developed severe complications.
Parents of babies, toddlers, and young kids have it especially hard during this pandemic. But we also get something that our childless counterparts don’t have: a built-in distraction to take our minds off of the insanity that’s happening in the world right now.
Don’t get me wrong — even with Eli, my brain still has plenty of time to wander into the dark corners. But I get a break from that stuff when I’m fully engaged and playing with him.
When we’re having a tea party or playing cars or reading the library books that should have been returned a month ago, it’s a chance to temporarily forget about everything else. And it’s pretty nice.
Sometimes I feel like I can’t handle another day of this.
There’ve been countless moments where I’ve almost lost my sh*t, like when Eli fights me on washing his hands every single time we come in from playing outside. Or anytime I think our elected officials seem to have zero real strategy for helping us get back even a shred of normal life.
I can’t always stop these moods from getting the better of me. But I’ve noticed that when I respond to Eli with anger or frustration, he only fights back more. And he gets visibly upset, which makes me feel very, very guilty.
Is staying calm always easy for me? Of course not, and keeping my cool doesn’t always stop him from throwing a fit. But it does seem to help both of us recover faster and move on more easily, so a moody cloud doesn’t hang over the rest of our day.
When my emotions start to spiral, I try to remind myself that I don’t have a choice about being stuck at home with my kid right now and that my situation is no worse than anyone else’s.
Practically every toddler parent in the country — in the world, even! — is dealing with the same thing as me, or they’re dealing with way bigger struggles like trying to access food or work without the proper protective gear.
The only choice I do have is how I deal with the nonnegotiable hand I’ve been given.
Marygrace Taylor is a health and parenting writer, former KIWI magazine editor, and mom to Eli. Visit her at marygracetaylor.com.