99 Problems

Published on June 30th, 2021 | by Jessica Bacal


Releasing My Daughter from her Pandemic Pod is Bittersweet

At the start of the pandemic, it seemed like my eleven-year-old daughter, E., wanted to do everything together, even a short walk around our neighborhood. And even though I told her that she’d be fine, that we wanted her to learn to be independent, I also wanted to get outside—and so I went with her. After the first couple of months, we formed a “pod” with my friend Heather’s family—our kids are friends—and increasingly we embraced this connection. So when no one could go to camp over the summer, we slipped down the hill to the river behind Heather’s house. Her daughter and mine floated in tubes, bumping over the rocks, and we waded behind them, our shorts becoming soaked. We drove out to a swimming hole where we dog-paddled as tiny fish scooted around our feet. In the winter, after school we took turns bringing the girls out sledding. Between runs, they’d lie in the snow and chat.

Our girls became close, and I loved seeing the way E. became attached to Heather. As a little sister herself, E. loved hearing stories about Heather growing up as the youngest of three. “Tell me again about how they said a cookie couldn’t be split three ways,” E. would urge. And Heather would tell her, for maybe the tenth time, about how her two older sisters had lied for years, saying a cookie could only be divided in half, for two people. My daughter found this story hilarious.

After a year together in this pod, I know that Heather and I tried to create a different story for our children than the one that was happening in the world. We wanted to encourage a sense of fun and freedom amid all of the restrictions. While they played in the yard or watched sub-par YouTube content, Heather and I would whisper to each other, “How are we going to get through the summer?” Then it was, “How will we make it through the winter?” But we knew that we were better off than many people. We had financial stability and work flexibility. We live in Western Massachusetts, with access to the outdoors. Some might say we were “over-involved” and our kids would have been better off being mostly ignored, finding fun on their own. Probably true. But they did that a bit, and then more and more.

Photo by Michal Janek on Unsplash

Toward the end of winter, the girls started walking downtown together without us. This was new and felt like a big deal at first. But they were highly motivated, finding they could obtain the kinds of treats not found in their own homes, like Cheetos and Sour Patch Kids and sometimes bubble tea. It became the activity they did every Wednesday—first lunch, and then a bit of an adventure with something generally forbidden and delicious at the end. They walked in the cold; they walked in rain and slush.

But then the weather turned sunny. E. went downtown with another friend and called us, sweet bubble tea in hand. There were more people out, including some who were yelling at each other and made her nervous. She wanted us to pick her up in the car.

When the next regular Wednesday came around, Heather’s daughter and mine were supposed to go downtown together, but E. was wary. She didn’t want to be around strangers yelling; what if they were dangerous? I wanted to be understanding, but also didn’t want to lose the progress that had been made. Driving over to Heather’s house, I told her, “It’s up to you, but I really think you’ll be fine. You can take the long route where you see fewer people.” I added, “Also, it’s okay to say you’re worried.”

But as we stood in Heather’s front hallway, E. looked away. “Can you say it?” she asked, her face reddening, her eyes filling.

She was more afraid that I had realized, and more upset. I explained the situation as E. wiped away tears, and Heather and her daughter listened. “Of course you were unsettled,” Heather said. “That completely makes sense. There aren’t as many people out because of COVID, and so it doesn’t feel safe.” E. listened, nodding. “Growing up in Los Angeles,” Heather continued, “I felt like that all the time. We want you to feel comfortable and to have fun on this walk, and you and R. should walk to wherever makes sense.”

E. rubbed her eyes and took a breath; I put an arm around her. And I admired Heather’s response, the way she completely got what was happening and was able to express empathy—rather than the anxiety I was surely projecting about losing “progress” on independence. And of course, she told a story about when she was little, something E. loves. I felt lucky for myself, and for my daughter, to have this connection to her “pod mom.”

Photo by Michal Janek on Unsplash

The girls continue their Wednesday trips downtown together, and recently E. started going out by herself. She likes to find a sunny place to sit on the grass at the college in town, where she can be alone and read. In one year, the girls have grown up so much and are doing more on their own.

And so now, there are new non-pandemic dangers to discuss.

A few weeks ago, we heard that someone was mugged downtown, right on the route where the girls walk. There was no weapon, but the thought of that happening to our kids is scary. We want them to maintain a sense of independence and confidence; we also want them to know what I knew growing up in New York City: that if a menacing person asks for your stuff, just give it over; that you should walk near people, and that it’s okay to yell “help.”

During the year of this pandemic, we were committed completely to protection. We had to keep ourselves and our kids from getting sick, but because of our privilege, we were also able to spend time keeping them busy, keeping them from being afraid, keeping some of the realness at bay. As restrictions come to an end, our children are both getting vaccinated and becoming “tweens” who go into the world without us. They are bursting out of our pod like little seeds, and we will not be able to shape the story like we did this past year.

We are gearing up to recalibrate, using rusty gauges to measure “safe.” Our brains have become attuned to continually assessing risk and erring on the side of caution, but now the kids must develop their own safety gauges and practice using them beyond our homes. What I hope will remain is the feeling of our pod, the closeness during our pandemic year. The year allowed us to extend the definition of home and protection just a little bit, so that being with Heather and her family became a kind of shelter for me, and I think for my daughter too.

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About the Author

Jessica Bacal directs The Narratives Project at Smith College and lives with her family in Northampton, MA. Her new book is called The Rejection That Changed My Life (Penguin Random House).

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