I. Breakfast Under Quarantine
This is my family.
There are five of us, and in ordinary times we pretend that we have it all together.
(We don’t, but it’s fun to pretend.)
I’m an associate lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric, teaching four classes each semester, and my wife, Heather, works for UnitedHealthcare. In mid-March, we both began working from home, and I — along with every other faculty member at UCF — began teaching exclusively from behind a computer screen.
Those are my children: Jackson is an 8-year-old second grader, and Gavin and Carson are twin 5-year-olds who (until the pandemic) were in VPK. Not long after setting ourselves up to work from home, the local elementary school closed, and then the daycare became limited to the children of essential workers. So all three of our children joined us in quarantine, in a three-bedroom house that is decidedly not an office — and not a classroom.
This is what a “work day” looks like when you’ve got two working adults and three children who are supposed to be “distance learning.” This is one day in early April.
And the day starts, of course, with breakfast, sometime in that now-nebulous time range between 7 and 8 a.m., a time range that — just weeks ago — we kept careful watch over, herding our children into cars for drop-off by very precise times. But without a commute, it’s now become a “Who cares?” time range.
One thing to know about me: Despite my many other flaws, I am incredibly food-conscious. I always remember exactly how much bread we have left, how many Pop-Tarts and frozen waffles, how long the life of a particular leftover. I was built for hurricanes and quarantines, and I pride myself on my smart grocery shopping trips, my efficiency in using the food I buy, and my ability to maintain a stash of food without hoarding and without succumbing to spoilage. Five mouths in this family, and three of them are unceasing, relentless eaters. (To be clear: I’m talking about the children.) A man without a food plan is doomed in this household.
Today, my kids get out of bed willingly because they know they’re getting leftover Krispy Kreme doughnuts. (That was our weekend adventure: a drive across town to pick up spring-themed Krispy Kremes. A quarantine really lowers your expectations for “adventure,” doesn’t it?)
Doughnuts for breakfast, some might ask?
Listen: I said I was “food-conscious” not “health-conscious.”
And in a world ravaged by sickness, a doughnut is a spot of sunshine.
Also, we know the Pop-Tarts are wrapped and sealed and built to withstand the apocalypse. These doughnuts need to be eaten today.
And there’s a single slice of sourdough bread left, and a couple Flip yogurts in the fridge, so I set that on the table and call it a well-rounded meal. The sharks will devour it if I just leave it there long enough. That’s really the goal, isn’t it? At this point, I just want some sort of food consumed, and happy children.
My wife and I take the bananas for ourselves; we have to set a good example, after all, of the sort of food we’ll once again make them eat when the quarantine ends.
II. The Eternal Struggle
After breakfast, we’ve got about an hour until the arbitrarily agreed-upon start of our at-home “school day.” That’s 9 a.m., which gives my wife and I the opportunity to answer emails and remind ourselves (and colleagues) that we are “at work.” Once the school day starts, our attention is split on a minute-by-minute basis between “work” and “kids,” and remember: The children in this house outnumber the adults. The split is not even.
But today, these 60 minutes are a blessing. The kids all slump onto the couches, wrap themselves in soft blankets, and watch a Disney documentary about dolphins.
Well, two of the three watch the movie.
Carson spends his morning as he has spent nearly every morning since the quarantine began: pretending that he doesn’t know where his glasses went, and playing with Star Wars action figures (his “guys”) on the floor. They’re everywhere, and I have no doubt that — before this is all over — I’ll twist an ankle stepping on a Chewbacca.
For Carson, this stay-at-home situation is the greatest thing that’s ever happened. He’s now watched every episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars cartoon.
Thank you, Disney+, for so…many…episodes.
I might actually suggest that there are too many episodes, but then again, if there were fewer, Carson would just watch the same three episodes over and over again, so what does it even matter?
Since the school day supposedly starts at 9 a.m., that means we’ve gotta set a timer for 8:45 so that we can then spend 15 minutes trying to rouse the children from the couches, tugging with increased intensity upon the soft blankets until the kids are exposed to the ceiling fan and the air conditioning and have no choice but to stand up and put on clothes.
They’d stay this way all day if we let them.
At some point, we decided that the illusion of a “school day” was not possible if our kids progressed through the entire day in their underwear (their preferred dress code).
Today, we get two of them dressed by 9 a.m. We even get Carson to wear his glasses.
We know this won’t last, but we take our victories where we can get them.
III. School Work
It’s 9 a.m., and my naked second grader (now walking around in his blanket, clutching it with death-claws that we’ve tried to pry loose but can’t) is ready for his first task: 30 minutes of reading. He settles into our brand-new recliner like he owns it.
Today it’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
He’s breezing through a book a week, but with the libraries all closed, I’m ordering something new from Amazon every week and convincing myself that this is an “essential” item. If there’s any break in the Wimpy Kid supply chain, I’ll need to give him some of my own novels to occupy his time, and that would be disastrous.
Meanwhile, I’m five feet away at my computer. If I had to conduct a Zoom meeting with a student right now, there would be a shirtless 8-year-old in the background.
That’s quarantine life, isn’t it?
Elsewhere, in random and ever-changing spots that function as her “office,” my wife is beginning her own day of conference calls.
Generally, she works out of a desk in our bedroom, or at the dining room table.
Last I saw, she was sitting on the bed.
Technically, in the spirit of full disclosure, she’d just emerged from the shower, and her hair was wet…so if I wanted to draw the day with real accuracy—
For the sake of my marriage, every time you see my wife in these comics, she will look exactly the same: perfect.
IV. The School Work and the “System”
Heather is responsible for the system we have implemented for our home school efforts. This system consists of four sheets of paper pinned to the wall: one for each boy, full of individualized daily tasks scribbled on Post-it Notes; when a task is completed, the Post-it Note is moved to the “Done” sheet.
On Pinterest and Instagram, I’m sure this looks fantastic.
In reality, though, the paper curls, and the Post-it Notes lose their stickiness, and the ceiling fan carries them to all corners of the room. By day’s end, we’re not sure what we’ve completed, what we still have left, and what might have been a Post-it Note from two days ago that has only re-emerged now.
Meanwhile, the kids have systems of their own.
The first one is to take snack breaks whenever we’re not looking, and to leave the empty Goldfish and pretzel packages behind furniture (where it often comingles with the old Post-its).
The second system is to take frequent water breaks, and to grab new cups from the pantry every damn time.
Ordinarily, I’d be thrilled at their independence and their concern for their own hydration. But our house has become a graveyard of half-empty plastic cups, most of them representing some dining establishment that we’re not currently able to visit. Every time I’m about to put down a piece of mail or a TV remote or my own phone, there’s a water cup right there, a puddle of condensation from long-melted ice moving slowly across the furniture.
Additionally, Jackson has now decided that he is our mail retriever, so — several times a day — he slips away from schoolwork and walks to the community mailboxes around the corner and opens up our box and hopes for letters or packages.
Today he does this in his underwear.
I’ve read stories about various cities issuing reminders to their residents about wearing pants when leaving the house to get mail. Jackson could be the reason for these warnings.
I’ll file this under “It’s Funny If It’s Not Your Kid.”
But hey, at least he found a shirt.
V. Something I Didn’t Tell You
I guess there’s something I didn’t tell you.
While the above narrative mostly represents an average day in our quarantined life, there have been some added complications in the past few days.
Jackson is sick. Has been for a week. Running a fever and coughing deeply. And when doughnuts are not involved, he moves through the house slowly, like he’s marching through a marshmallow. Whenever he has a break from schoolwork, he cuddles up beside the dog and just lays there until we remind him 20 or 30 times that the school day has not finished. Distance learning is measured by tasks completed; sick or not, he’s expected to complete his work.
Two days after Jackson’s first fever, Heather developed her own, and it’s now burned for five straight days, bringing along with it a vicious cough and chest pain.
All of this is scary news. The State of Florida issued its stay-at-home order at the start of April, but we were locked up under quarantine for two weeks prior to that. In that time, I’ve been the one making grocery trips, and we’ve only ordered take-out a few times, trying to be as careful as possible. But what can you do?
Sometime in the late morning, Heather leaves to get tested. She’s had two virtual physician appointments, and the advice has mostly boiled down to “you’re not an at-risk patient, just wait it out, this will be with you for at least three weeks,” and “only go the hospital if you absolutely need to.” It’s early April, and the idea of “testing” seems unimportant in these physician visits, but Heather wants to know for sure. So she’s gone.
Which means I am now alone.
This is important for you to remember: She’s the clear ringleader of this home-school circus. Things are about to fall apart.
VI. The Zoom Meeting
It doesn’t take long.
A few minutes later, I’ve got a department meeting on Zoom, and the second I try to log in, my computer decides to download updates and restart, a process that always comes at the worst times and seems to take 30 minutes longer than I want it to, so I grab my phone and position it on my desk like it’s a laptop webcam, hoping no one notices.
(No one cares. No one’s looking at me. I know that. Everyone spends the whole time staring at themselves. But still.)
It isn’t long before one of my children is hitting another (during the workday, there are many times when the screams blend together and you stop asking “who” and instead just ask “Was that an injury?”), and then the sliding glass door to the patio is opening and the dog is barking, and so now I’ve got to dart out into the living room and manage the chaos while trying to pay attention to updates about the university and classes and summer semester…
I check and re-check the “mute” button, certain that — at the very moment when I have to yell at a child to not throw his underwear across the room — my Zoom app will somehow become unmuted.
I check the clock. It’s almost 11:30, and the behavioral breakdown of the children suggests that it’s time for lunch.
I can’t leave the meeting, though.
So, as carefully as I can, I begin removing the deli meats from the fridge, and Jackson’s requested SpaghettiOs from the pantry.
For a few minutes, it goes pretty well. There are sparing glimpses of my kitchen, but mostly it’s my face and chest. But then I have to tell Jackson to stop laying on top of the dog, and Gavin and Carson to put down the lollipops they stole from the pantry while I was making their sandwiches. This is what my coworkers see for some excruciating stretch of time:
And then, of course, I finally mute the video, too, and become a giant “N.”
That’s the ultimate sign of failure for a work-at-home parent, isn’t it? When things get so rough you can no longer allow the world to even see your face.
VII. Quiet Time
At a certain point, I send the twins to their bedroom for “quiet time,” my attempt at recreating nap time from their daycare. But these kids haven’t napped at home since they were 2. Each keeps the other awake.
They trudge off in their blankets, their clothes having been torn off a solid half-hour after we forced them on.
We like to think that they use “quiet time” to — at the very least — rest, but mostly they play on their tablets and take toys out of the closet and make extinction-level messes. Twins are, by nature, collaborators, so the destruction they enact is all-encompassing.
Still, I’ve got papers to grade. I’ve got the twins contained in their bedroom, and I’ve got Jackson working on an online learning module, so I now have an hour of precious work time.
But the productivity doesn’t last long. Just as I start reading a student project, Jackson wanders over to ask a question and then again to register his disapproval about his online tasks and then again to let me know again how much he misses his classmates and his teacher.
It takes me an hour to grade a single student essay. I have nearly 100 students this semester.
Lately, I’ve been waking up at 5:30 a.m. to grade for a couple hours before the house devolves into chaos, but that doesn’t quite equal a full workday.
VIII. The Afternoon
Heather returns in the afternoon from her test. She’s feeling worse than before.
Jackson, too, is feeling a deep afternoon fatigue brought on either by the illness or the general quarantine grind, and has found his familiar spot on the couch.
I joke about the wild antics of my kids, but this time in the house, away from school and their friends… It’s taken an emotional toll on them.
I let Jackson rest awhile, but when “quiet time” ends for the twins, I open the doors and let all three of the children charge into the pool. This has become our afternoon “recess.” Heather sets up her laptop on our outdoor patio furniture, Carson practices cannonballs, and for about 60 minutes, this could be an average summer afternoon rather than a quarantine.
After “recess,” the kids are (blessedly) exhausted, and they flop onto the couch for an afternoon movie, another of our new daily rituals.
I cook popcorn, and Jackson hoards it, and the twins fight for scraps.
Overall, the afternoon movie and popcorn buys us a solid 30 minutes of work time. When the popcorn runs out and the energy returns, I have to start prepping dinner.
IX. Now It Is Night
And that’s our day, mostly. Just one day, but for a month and a half, it could’ve been any day.
When the kids brush their teeth, I make tea, and Heather — spent, fever picking up — heads to the bedroom while the sun is still setting.
It’s just me and the dog now, and he’s grown accustomed to life as a pillow.
One day in my quarantine, and I am just one faculty member at the University of Central Florida. We are one family in Orlando, in the State of Florida. Fortunate to have our jobs, fortunate to have a house, fortunate to have one another. Fortunate to have one healthy parent, at least for a time.
We know all of this keenly, and we have not forgotten it, will not forget it.
One family, and just one day, and tomorrow there will be another one. And the doughnuts are gone, but (and the kids don’t know this) I’ve got chocolate chip muffins.