At the start of lockdown, I felt almost cheery about the prospect of home working because, as a card-carrying introvert, it’s something I generally really love. I skipped out of the office, thinking we might be off campus (I work at a university museum) for a month, maybe two, but back in time for a colleague’s leaving party in May. For some reason, we assumed nurseries and schools would stay open.
That first week at home before the schools and nurseries closed was a strange one, and I felt like I was holding my breath waiting for the hammer to fall. I can distinctly recall listening to the sound of children playing at Emmer Green primary one lunchtime during that week and feeling desperately sad that we might not hear that for some time.
It later turned out that I almost certainly had coronavirus at the time – a colleague had been in Italy in late February and went on to develop pneumonia, then four or five colleagues developed coughs that were assumed to be coronavirus (no testing at that time). I felt a little under the weather with insomnia and a nearly permanent headache (which I chalked up to stress). I also lost my sense of taste and smell, but assumed that was a symptom of a cold because this wasn’t to be announced as a possible covid symptom for another few weeks, by which time I am fairly sure I became a local super-spreader. I hope you can imagine how guilty I have felt about that.
Our son had just turned 3 a few weeks before lockdown. He was then and is now a cheerful, engaging, generally quite compliant little boy who loves to play and explore. He sleeps pretty well, crack of dawn wakings aside, and eats pretty well too. He has occasional meltdowns, but we mostly take them in our stride and work through them in a way that supports his development. We parent as gently as possible.
Anyway, from mid-March when the nurseries closed, my husband and I settled in to a system where we took turns to work or to care for our son, with a family lunch break in the middle. It all seemed so easy, and rational, and structured. I have no idea why we didn’t anticipate the train crash ahead of us, but we didn’t.
Fast forward a few weeks to the week before Easter, and things were very different. Our son had transformed into a monster who had epic tantrums and screaming fits many times a day. He became very physically violent, hitting us and throwing things at us. He ran away from us, or ran to the other parent, disturbing our work constantly, which made both of us stressed.
Meanwhile, my husband and I transformed as well. We became physically and verbally violent, basically becoming unrecognisable monsters. We both hit him. There was one particular morning in the golf course where ended up standing over our crying little boy talking about how much we couldn’t stand him. I’m in tears writing this, remembering that day. I still can’t believe it happened, and still feel so much shame.
I felt an urgent need to leave, to find a way not to expose my son to my uncontrollable cruelty, because I became convinced I was a real danger to him. I felt such a bubbling sense of panic, but couldn’t think of a safe way to leave without putting other people in danger.
In the end, it took a five day break from work over Easter to realise how messed up we all were. I broke down in tears to my manager and she was able to put me onto indefinite carers’ leave (paid, thankfully). Eventually, I was furloughed instead. My husband wasn’t able to be on full time leave, but was able to work vastly reduced hours without losing pay, and then between us we could refocus our energy towards our son – something we should have done to begin with (hooray for hindsight!).
After that, unbelievably, we entered an almost halcyon time: we went for daily walks into the Chilterns, picnicking outdoors every day, and spending hours under trees or up hills or paddling in rivers. Life became very slow, and very sweet. From a point around May we started to meet up with another family for our walks so that the boys could play together. The adults maintained a distance and we spent each visit outside to reduce risk as far as possible. The change in two lost and lonely little boys after being able to play and run about with each other again was dramatic. They desperately needed that interaction.
It wasn’t all joy and sunbeams; of course it was hard not to see friends and family, and I lost a lot of myself by leaving work behind (my career is something I am quite passionate about), but this refocusing and regrouping of our small family unit was our bottom line. We were privileged to have paid jobs that kept paying us even when we couldn’t work, and access to the beautiful countryside north of Reading. I ended up making a printed book of our lockdown life as a memento of this time and a reminder of what really matters. Our son is old enough now that he may even have this time as some of his earliest memories. I hope that he remembers the good things that came from this.