It was a regular Thursday night. My youngest and I were boxing up beloved toys that she hadn’t touched in months. We were creating spaces for new projects sorely needed now that so much of our lives centered around home.
Out of nowhere, my stomach began hurting. I felt hot and tingly. The thermometer confirmed I had a fever.
My mind began racing: Had I picked up the coronavirus somehow in the last few days? There was an infection spike happening in our town. What did that mean for my family? What about others I had recently come in contact with?
I went to bed and hoped I would feel fine in the morning.
The next day, when the thermometer beeped its warning and flashed its red light, hour after hour, I knew I could no longer wish this away.
I called the doctor. Got a hard-to-come-by COVID test. And retreated to my bedroom for 48 hours.
Meanwhile, my three kids — ages 18, 16 and 12 — didn’t miss a beat. They (with my husband) stepped into the void I left behind — cooking dinner, washing laundry, cleaning door knobs and stairway railings and every surface in my car. They didn’t whine or roll their eyes or ask their sibling to do a task they’d rather not. They set to work, calmly and effectively. I could see the worry in their faces, but they didn’t let their fears paralyze them. They would do what they needed to for as long as they needed to.
To witness this level of maturity, flicked on as if by a switch, both warmed my heart and broke it. Where were my self-centered, lazy-leaning, can’t-be-bothered teens?
It made me understand that even when the coronavirus is not physically harming our children, it is still changing them.
Our corona kids — no matter their age — are growing up faster than they would have had this pandemic not swooped in and upended everything.
With every opportunity they’re being asked to give up with grace, with every experience they’re having to process having never considered this reality before, they are adding decades of wisdom to their actual youth.
When we first felt the coronavirus’s effect last spring, I sensed the opposite. With my high school senior suddenly at home 200 percent more than he’d been all year, with my tween unable to even walk to a neighbor friend’s house, my take was that my children’s wings were being clipped. It felt as though they were time traveling back to their elementary school years when our family was their most important social network and I supervised every coming and going.
But as Stay-at-Home orders have been declared and lifted, as protests over racial injustice have waxed and waned, as the never-ending conversations about what the fall will hold go on and on, I can see my kids’ brains rewiring before my eyes.
They are learning that their actions have consequences — sometimes big, painful consequences. They are being asked to make choices — often without the information they need to make a smart choice. I’ve heard the anguish in their voices, as they tried to figure it out: would it be okay to meet with a small group of friends in a safe way or would that put too many people at risk?
This was not a life skill I’d been teaching them — how their personal choices could have an outsized effect on their community. I thought we’d have years before we tackled the complexity and nuance that the last few months have demanded.
The simple mantras I’ve been saying to them their whole lives: Be kind to everyone. Be respectful of adults. Do what you know is right…. They are no longer enough. My teens feel a weight and responsibility they’ve never experienced before.
I keep thinking of a scene from the Little House on the Prairie books. Pa warns Laura, with no explanation, not to do something. But Laura can’t help herself. And when Pa finds out his daughter defied him, he flies off the rails. He tells Laura she MUST do as he says. She cannot know the dangers that lie outside their doors, he says. When he lays down the law, it’s because it is a matter of life and death.
When I read that with my kids years ago, I remember feeling grateful that my world was not so dangerous, that I couldn’t imagine a situation where I would need to speak so strongly to them.
Well, now I can.
Fortunately, when I woke the Sunday after my symptoms first presented, an email waited in my inbox announcing that my COVID test had come back negative. I was able to sneak in to my youngest’s bedroom and give her a giant, emotional squeeze.
It’s okay, I was saying with my first skin-to-skin contact in days. I could go back to being her mom. She could shake off a little of her stress and anxiousness.
But we all know that we’ll have moments like this again. Times when my kids will need to stand strong and do what’s asked of them — even if they don’t want to, even if they don’t fully understand why, even if it’s not their fault.
Because we live in an unsettled world at this moment and we’ve lost the luxury of saying: Don’t worry about it, you’re just a kid.
This essay was first published on the website Grown & Flown.