“Mom, when can I have a sleepover?” I felt my eight year-old daughter’s body stiffen as she lay next to me in the dark, waiting for an answer. I enjoy our bedtime chat, but dread questions like this. Before the pandemic, we had planned her first sleepover with friends. At the point of this conversation, sleepover plans were on hold indefinitely.
My three children had generally handled social distancing well. To protect our parents, we had treated the pandemic as though we also were vulnerable late-70-somethings: remote schooling, no shared indoor spaces, etc. We did not want to cut the grandparents off from our kids, especially my mother who lives alone and had recently moved two thousand miles to Denver to be closer to her grandchildren.
In many ways, our kids seemed happy. They played with each other and made up increasingly creative projects (a whole village of cardboard forts, for example). But all was not well. At least once an hour, screaming arguments erupted among some combination of the kids. I’ll admit, my husband and I, struggling to manage childcare along with two demanding jobs, did not always keep our cool with these disputes. My previously mild-mannered son became rebellious. My daughter complained regularly of stomach aches that the pediatrician finally attributed to anxiety.
Now, in the dim light, I saw my daughter’s hands gripping her belly. At a loss, I tried something new.
“Once upon a time,” I began, “there was a girl who lived in a house just like ours. One day she heard a cracking sound. She ran to the window and saw her street breaking apart. The ocean had rushed in and now each house was separating into its own island …”
I could feel my daughter’s body gradually relaxing beside me. Like most parents, I had discovered that stories work wonders at soothing, entertaining, and explaining the world to children. My kids ignore a lot of what I say, but stories leave them demanding: “keep telling it!”
Over the months, I came up with a stream of bedtime stories. There were stories in which each family lived in a separate submarine or everyone was stuck in bubbles. In one story, our house spun off in a tornado to “Covidia.” Brave girls and boys went on adventures to solve the problem or sometimes just learned to adapt to their new world.
Even though relatively protected from the virus, the pandemic has been hard on children. The nonprofit Feeding America reports that 1 in 7 American children does not regularly get enough to eat. Young children are left at home to fend for themselves by parents desperate to earn a living and with no school or childcare options. Even children like my own, with the good fortune to have parents at home and no worries about their next meal, struggle with emotions they do not yet have the ability to name or manage.
Stories help my children work through their emotions in a way that seems to feel safer. It’s only “once upon a time”; they can see that the houses on our street haven’t really turned into islands. But imagining houses floating away appears to help my kids process a scenario in which it certainly feels like we are each marooned on our own islands.
Unfortunately, we cannot make the pandemic magically disappear. Telling stories, however, is one thing we can do to help our kids make some sense of it all.
Zoe Argento is a mother, lawyer, and writer living in Denver. Her new book is an illustrated children’s book called Isolation Island: A Pandemic Story, available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08PX94MCJ. Zoe can be found on Instagram at @ZoeArgentoLives and on Twitter at @ZoeArgento.