Opinion

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Reporter's Notebook

Toddler Isolation

The state of affairs at Household Reece amid the pandemic

My 3-year-old son’s interpretation of “Jingle Bells” took a jarring turn when, midway through his 30th straight rendition of the song, he changed “jingle bells” to “jellybeans” and suddenly raised his decibel output to an impossible level.

It was, I believe, day 217 of home isolation. The calendar is now an opaque concept. Fisher had broken into Christmas music in lieu of napping, and I turned down the volume on his baby monitor in an effort to, finally and for once, hear my own thoughts. But his shrieking voice carried through the walls and floor directly into my already addled brain. “Jellybeans! Jellybeans! Daddy all the way!”

My thoughts would have to wait.

The simplest explanation for Fisher’s two-week rebellion against napping is that his “schedule has been thrown off.” That’s the diplomatic way of saying that his world, like ours, has collapsed into itself, rendering time and language meaningless. Jingle bells become jellybeans, Thursday becomes Tuesday, and I find myself speaking to my wife in the white-flag surrender tone of a father who has been telling small children all day to remove objects from their mouths and quit harming each other.

“What do you want for dinner?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Goodnight.”

This is the state of affairs at Household Reece, populated by a 3-year-old and 18-month-old. I’m sure it’s similar to other families’ kid-filled homes right now.

Despite our best efforts to concoct healthy routines, our sons’ ages defy tidy daily systems, with very few mutually agreeable activities available to strong-willed boys at opposite ends of the toddler spectrum. Thus, much of the day passes in a blur of art projects, toy cars pushed across dirty floors, strange cartoon creatures haunting our TV screen, books read on constant repeat, endless “exploration” strolls around the neighborhood, and bursts of brain-stimulation activities that increasingly end in conflict between brothers exploring their own personalities and each other’s personal space.

Often, I’m unable to recite the day’s events, only knowing that it was once morning and now it’s not. It’s neither fun nor boring, but simply an earnest answer to the existential question of whether time exists. I know it does because naptime and bedtime tell me so.

But if the single lasting memory from a mundane day is two boys giggling, or one practicing jellybean songcraft, or both cuddling with me on the couch, I don’t need any more confirmation that life is good, even if it’s upended and riddled with anxiety.

As with countless others during the pandemic, my wife and I are mired in uncertain stasis: waiting and worrying, living and compartmentalizing, laughing and stressing, manufacturing a sense of normalcy while wondering how long this new normal will last. The virus is at once ever-present and somehow distant, almost abstract, clouding the horizon and hovering over the community, but for now stopping short of our doorstep.

To find humor and warmth in the daily tedium of our uneasy isolation is to pierce holes in those dark clouds and let in sunlight. For that and more, I depend on my boys, in a different way than they depend on me, but maybe not all that different.

Of course, I worry about how this all plays out, how the world will look when the dust settles and how it will impact my boys. Those concerns will still be there tomorrow morning, but so will Fisher and Gus, greeting me with unconditional love. No matter what happens from there, that’s already a fine day.