Before the pandemic, I did school drop-offs with minimal fanfare: a quick hug for the kid, maybe a brief wave to the teacher, and I’d walk home with the family dog. After school, my daughter would beg for playground time and, after giving her 20 minutes to swing on the monkey bars or run amok with the other monsters, I’d have to drag her home, kicking and screaming.
This year, I’m the one being dragged home at the end of the day.
“Mommmmm!” my daughter whines, grabbing my hand to pull me away from my parent pals. “I want to go home now.” She’ll sigh and roll her eyes if I beg for more time.
“How about five more minutes? Puh-lease, honey?”
If I’m lucky, she takes pity on me and returns to her friends to play a little longer, but if she’s feeling especially tired or hungry, she’ll grumpily turn on her heels and start walking home without me. “Ugh,” I’ll say to my friends. “I guess I have to go home now.” Then, I will do my best not to have a tantrum and embarrass my eight-year-old.
This year, it’s like I’ve been let out of my crate. Since my kid resumed in-person classes in September, my normally shy and somewhat reserved public persona has been replaced by “COVID Cait,” who is uncomfortably outgoing and will sidle up to practically anyone lingering around the Grade 2 doors for a conversation (while wearing a mask and remaining at least six feet away, of course). After the morning bell, I linger for 15, 30, 60 minutes or more, chatting with the many parents I’ve gotten to know a little, or a lot, since the fall. And after school, I beg my daughter to play with her friends while I play with mine.
(In Edmonton, where I live, school playgrounds are open to the general public after school hours, and parents are permitted to hang out a bit after pickup. Our school yard happens to be a relatively large, unfenced one, with plenty of space for parents to distance.)
These grownups are saving my sanity (and maybe my social skills) during COVID-19. At a time when I feel disconnected from my friends and family, I feel almost normal having a circle of adult friends and friendly acquaintances at school. As time has passed, I’ve realized I’m not the only one turning to other parents at school for social connection. One day this winter, a bunch of us were at the toboggan hill behind the school and someone said, “You know, hanging out with you guys after school is my entire social life.” I laughed, because it was so very true for me, too. Painfully, painfully true.
A lot of the parents I’ve gotten to know have found themselves with more time to hang out at the school than in previous years, thanks to the pandemic. They’re working at home or unemployed, for the most part, so there’s less stress over timing your commute down to the minute and rushing for drop-off and pickup, then racing home to do dinner and homework. I never had a long commute—our house backs onto the field behind the school—but I still hadn’t really socialized with other parents until this year. I think it was a combination of shyness (which I’ve experienced since childhood), anxiety about homophobia (I’m a queer mama), and feeling socially awkward (I’ve been a work-from-home freelancer for so long, I worry it’s eroded my social skills).
But this year, it’s also about the solidarity we crave—the need to connect and vent and ask each other, “You guys, too?” as we all navigate months of pandemic parenting, and its related challenges and weirdnesses.
If pandemic loneliness is a problem for the quieter, more introverted parents among us, it must be doubly hard for extroverts like Sarah Melo, a mom in Brantford, Ont. When COVID-19 hit, she had to suddenly close her home-based daycare, and shift to homeschooling her kids (five and nine) with her husband, who wasn’t working at the time. Although she’s grateful her family was relatively unscathed by the pandemic, Melo misses her friends and her old routine—she loves being surrounded by activity.
When the kids resumed in-person classes in September, she was more than a little eager to return to her usual “gate dates” with other parents at school, and she also likes to bring what she calls “stray” parents into the fold, often by asking how they’re doing during the pandemic.
“It’s an easier ice breaker than, ‘Hey, it’s kind of cold out today, huh?’” she says. This year, her parent group has become bigger in large part because these strays—folks like me who didn’t previously socialize at school—are choosing to linger. “Especially since we can’t see the people we want to see, we open up a bit more to the people we have to see,” she says.
I’ve always been a bit prone to verbal diarrhea and oddly comfortable over-sharing personal stuff with others—that’s the writer in me, I think. But I’ve been seeing this more and more with the parents at school. Conversations often turn to the things we’ve lost during COVID, like job security, health, relationships, a sense of safety, and so much more.
One warm fall day, I was sitting on the grass with our dog, watching my daughter on the playground, when another mom sat next to me. We didn’t know each other well and she’d always seemed a bit guarded, but that day, we chatted like old friends. She was a divorcée, like me, and had two kids, including a son who’d been in classes with my daughter. She told me about her live-in boyfriend moving out during the spring and the heartbreaking decision she’d made to give away the children’s puppy. I nodded, sympathizing; my own relationship had been cracking under the weight of COVID. Then she stopped abruptly. “I’m so sorry—I’m not sure why I’m telling you this,” she said.
She may have felt uncomfortable, but I wasn’t. In fact, I was pretty delighted that she’d be so vulnerable with me. This is the stuff meaningful human connection is made from.
As spring starts to bloom and the end of the school year approaches, we’re all waiting to see how bad the third wave will be, and what the combination of new variants, relaxed restrictions, and a slow vaccine rollout will mean. But I’m starting to optimistically imagine a future where we needn’t wear masks or stand six feet apart at all times.
Whatever happens in the months to come, I’m crossing my fingers and toes that I keep these new parent pals. Feeling connected to the school community has brightened my outlook more than I could’ve imagined and, honestly, I’m a better parent for it.
Plus, there’s something pretty great about making my kiddo drag me home from the playground at the end of the day, instead of the other way around.