What Quarantine With a Toddler in Jenkintown Taught Me About WWII, the Great Depression, and Grit

I have seen the enemy, and it is Frozen 2.

coronavirus quarantine with toddler

What I’ve learned during my coronavirus quarantine with a toddler. Photograph by Cavan Images

In another life – also known as February – I considered myself a homebody. I enjoyed a good movie night. I could lounge away a Sunday. I longed for a proper snow day.

But times, of course, have changed.

My family lives in Montgomery County, which has been under “Stay at Home” orders for about three weeks — or approximately seven years, if you happen to share that home with a toddler.

We’re lucky that my husband is still working full-time. But for at least eight hours a day, that leaves me as the lone parent and playmate to Matilda, who will be three in July. (We’re still doing July, right?)

To be fair, there have been many joyful days during house arrest, and even moments of personal growth. Over the past couple weeks, I have:

  • Rekindled a love of painting
  • Discovered the magic that is the Trolls franchise
  • Introduced my daughter to our Lord and Savior, David Bowie
  • Made passable pancakes without eggs or milk (bananas and coconut milk for the win)
  • Planted a vegetable garden

But on the other hand, I have also:

  • Scrubbed paint off my ceiling, walls, couch, and cat
  • Discovered the hellscape that is the Frozen franchise
  • Introduced my daughter to words that cannot be published
  • Served Easter candy for breakfast (twice)
  • Hid in a closet and questioned every single decision I’ve made in the last 10 years, up to and including the vegetable garden

I don’t mean to complain. While I’m shuffling around in my bathrobe, healthcare workers are risking their lives as COVID-19 peaks in Philadelphia. The absolute least I can do is stay home, flatten the curve, and watch Frozen 2 again.

But at the same time, I can’t help but ask: Have you seen Frozen 2?

I wasn’t always so bad at this. In fact, pre-coronavirus, I was a pretty competent toddler handler. I left my full-time job shortly after Mattie was born, so I’ve spent the past couple years at home with her.

But while I was technically the primary caregiver — a job that, as many stay-at-home moms know, can be lonely — the village was always right there with me.

Until Matilda was 18 months old, we lived on one of those old-school, jam-packed, say-hello-to-your-mother-for-me South Philly blocks. By necessity and tradition, the sidewalk was considered an extension of your living room, and thanks to a collection of stolen PGW traffic cones, kids took over the street as soon as school let out.  If you needed someone to hold your baby for a minute or entertain your fussy toddler, all you had to do was walk outside.

Last year we moved to Jenkintown, a 0.5-square-mile borough that takes its tight-knit, small-town vibe seriously. There’s an unspoken rule against fences on our block — backed up by nightmarish permit requirements — so come summertime, the backyards blend together in a blur of barbecues and water gun battles. I considered enrolling Mattie in preschool, but realized it was easier to simply open the back door.

It’s not that every day was perfect before. There were plenty of frustrating afternoons, plenty of times I came up short. But even on the worst day, I knew I was covering the parenting basics: I was keeping my kid healthy, I was keeping her safe, and I was providing a stable, secure childhood.

These days, that all seems less clear. Information about COVID-19 changes from day to day. Social distancing timelines shift by the hour. In a matter of days, I watched my own income drop from “not bad for a freelance writer” to “oh shit.”

Most of the time, I’m of the “this too shall pass” mindset. But give me a minute alone in my head, and I’m making preparations for a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

LinkedIn doesn’t recognize “Irrational Doomsday Forecasting” as a skill just yet, but I’m hoping that changes in the coming months.

It’s normal to be scared. What’s less normal, I’m now realizing, is that I’ve never truly been scared before. For 35 years, I’ve never worried about survival. For almost three years, I’ve gone to bed “knowing” my daughter was safe.

Part of it is naiveté. Part of it is good old-fashioned white American privilege. And part of it is timing.

For as strange as the country seems these days, we’ve been through worse. Shortly after immigrating to South Philadelphia, my great-grandparents lost their first born to the 1918  influenza pandemic. During the years that followed, they raised two children through the Great Depression, then sent their teenage son off to World War II.

A product of his generation, my grandfather was always stoic when recounting four years on the front lines: it was his duty, it was his job, it was what it was. “You just tried to make it another day,” he would say. But lately, I find myself wondering if he was so pragmatic about the Cold War. He’s no longer here to ask, but part of me already knows — no one is brave when it comes to his children, not even a soldier.

In 2001, I was a couple years shy of grasping the significance of September 11th. But when my parents watched the Twin Towers fall, they understood that the country would never truly be the same.

Like most people, I can’t wait for things to go back to “normal.” I’m looking forward to spending the entire day at the playground, to visiting the Please Touch Museum, to buying Matilda her first proper water ice.

But I don’t want to forget this time. Ignorance has a certain bliss, but so does understanding that the good times are a gift, not a given. We may not feel safe in the same way again, but like the generations before us, we’re strong, we’re scrappy, and we’re getting through this together.

See you on the other side, Philadelphia. We’ve got this.