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Coronavirus Diaries – A working parent’s tale.

By Andy Jones
Parent of two boys, aged 6 and 5

There was a time when the only ‘corona’ I knew was the sweet lager that was accompanied by lime… but, here we are!

Early March saw the rumblings of the coronavirus pandemic increasing in severity. Despite having seen daily brief news reports, there was a part of me that thought we’d be invincible.

The first worry for my wife and I was the closure of schools. Our boys love the school routine – up early, breakfast, uniform on, then the grandparents would arrive to whisk the kids away to school whilst my wife and I left for our respective roles. After school, the grandparents would collect the kids and either dutifully wait for my return at our house, or I would collect the boys from their house. It was a very well-rehearsed process that had been like this since they were, well, kids.

Schools within the UK closed on 20th March. Immediately following this, I watched the mother of my children adopt the role of ‘teacher’. That following weekend was a flurry of planning, printing and digging out every felt tip, note pad and crayon we could find. Luckily, my wife had booked some time off work, so we knew that we could keep up the education momentum (at least for a week). We also had sight of the Easter Holidays, and had agreed to honour this time away from studies for the children.

But then something unexpected happened… the weather was glorious. Bright sunshine consistently welcomed us every morning – something unfamiliar in Manchester. This meant a new battle of study vs. playing outside raised its head.

My two sons are very different characters. One is sensitive and academic, the other is outdoorsy and easily distracted (the jumping bean, we call him), but the days of sunshine had balanced them. Both wanted to be outside making the most of the glorious weather.

We have a local field near our house on the outskirts Manchester which they’d be taken to when their ‘hour daily exercise’ was allotted. They’d take a football and nets, and their mum would be ref. They’d come home, tell me the score and show me their muddy knees. They were having a whale of a time.

“These first few days are going swimmingly!” I thought to myself. At this stage I was still office-based, taking on several different roles, helping staff get ready for remote working and ensuring people had the right equipment. Communication at this stage was critical, and my employer, MoneyPlus, never let us down, with the CEO providing daily updates and checking in with staff.

An initial worry was that due to my role in development my team and I would be furloughed, but not so! MoneyPlus was great in recognising our cross-skills and gave us different tasks to ensure we remained in work – one immediate stress dealt with.

Back to the boys…

I would return from my job and be greeted by a paraphernalia of home-school work they had completed that day, and they would enthusiastically recall the challenges they had, and how mummy had helped them. What was an initial concern seemed so unnecessary. We had this (the wife, had this).

At this point I was still commuting and working in the office, but I eventually set up a workspace at home. This was a mix of emotions for me. I’ve always felt I could easily work from home, and I regularly saw my wife doing this and tell me how much more productive she is, but I worried about the boys being there – would they really sit quietly for hours on end whilst Dad completed his daily tasks?

The simple answer to this was, of course, no.

Day one of working from home passed, and instant dread and fear of failure kicked in. I am proud of the career I have built, I am proud I have a strong work ethic (not always the case in my early 20’s) and I am proud of the company that I work for. But after that first day, I felt that I was failing the organisation that put food in our fridge. The following few days all felt the same. Although I felt busy and I was ‘doing stuff’, I felt I could be doing more.

I don’t know why I felt like this. There has never ever been any question raised about what I was doing and communication has been constant with my colleagues. I think I felt that in a crisis, I had an obligation to ramp the gears up and give 150%, but I’d forgotten this was an unprecedented time – work at this point needed to come second, and the family had to come first.

Each day I watched my wife exhaust herself (she had now picked up a cough and cold, but no persistent coronavirus symptoms – we checked every 30 mins one day) with educating and playing with our kids each week day, and then at weekends I would spend much more time with them than I ever had. We didn’t have any sports/social/play clubs that I could take them to and get half an hour to myself to change my fantasy football team… so what now?

Well, I became ‘Super Dad’. Weekends were like a military plan of ‘fun and entertainment’! I spoke to all the parents I knew to get ideas of what to do and then I made a long list. The first weekend was going to be amazing. I’m not one who gets easily excited but even I couldn’t wait.

Weekend 1 – failure.

Both boys woke up completely shattered. The two weeks of intense home schooling had wiped them out, and all they wanted to do was watch Disney + (a recent addition to our household, and a blessing). All my plans were shot down and I felt rejected as ‘entertainer’. My wife took me to one side and patiently explained that she had learnt to not plan. Have ideas, but be flexible. I felt patronised, as this was how my working day felt most days – I set plans but then react according to what the day brings, but she was absolutely right (I later told her this, very quietly).

Now came the biggest challenge. My wife’s annual leave had ended, and we had a week left until the Easter Holidays. We both sat down on the Sunday night and panicked about what the week ahead would look like. We spoke to friends and we read up on what we could do.

We both decided to get up extremely early the next day and try and get some work done. My wife managed to cram all her working hours into three days and so had Tuesdays and Fridays off. I had made a claim for those days to be my most productive, and I agreed I had to move away from my desk (the kitchen table) more.

The week started well. Before lockdown we had purchased school desks for the boys so we moved these into the kitchen with us and we adopted the role of teacher to each of the children. Work had been provided by the boys’ school, and over the years we had acquired a number of learning books that ordinarily the boys wouldn’t have looked at.

It felt good! We agreed that as long as the boys did at least a couple of hours of school work a day then this was sufficient, and then they could enjoy the (still unexpected) glorious weather.

Dinner hour for me was rushing a sandwich, then taking the boys to the field for a 45-minute kick about, listening to them fighting over who would be on my side as I couldn’t be tackled, annoying me by declaring free kicks for falling over, and the youngest using the yellow and red cards I had bought him on every occasion. During this time, my wife would try and get her calls done and plan the afternoon.

Fortunately, we had kindly been given an Xbox, as well as iPads donated by grandparents, and Kindle Kids. Netflix and Disney+ were on hand and, if all else failed, there was Sky, which allowed the boys access to mindless watching on YouTube. We have a smallish yard but walls aplenty to chalk on and plenty of outdoor games. The week flew by, and we all started to relax into a routine.

Easter Holidays – mild success.

We had both agreed that the boys could still take their holiday time, so we again sat and decided what this would look like. A lot of the afternoon routines were covered, but it was now the mornings that held the biggest issue.

Ordinarily, the boys would go to their grandparents’ over holiday periods for sleepovers, but times had changed. There were many tears shed about missing the grandparents. Virtual contact has been great, but nothing can replicate the warmth of a Grandma hug.

Distraction was key at this point, so we started ringing other parents and letting the kids chatter on to each other – it amazed me how quickly they had adapted to the virtual world. Film watching was carefully planned to coincide with work productivity, and we agreed that Mum would work late and Dad would stick to his shift to cover meal times and other activities.

It worked. For days and days we had fun, we did crafts, we did work and the boys slept well (always a good sign of a productive day). Weekends became family time, with long walks exploring our unseen surroundings, runs around a local running track, lots of football and lots of BBQ’s, garden discos, hair dying and quizzes (I had taken to running numerous quizzes for work, family and friends). We even relaxed bedtimes and allowed the boys to join us on Thursday nights clapping for the NHS, something they both loved (twice they have now broken our wooden spoons).

Day one million in lockdown – we have a disaster.

I’m happily beavering away at the kitchen table and I check my phone. Numerous emails have suddenly appeared from SKY, thanking me for my purchases. My heart sinks as I immediately think ‘FRAUD!’. I look at the purchases and they are for movies I definitely hadn’t bought – I rang SKY. The movies had definitely been bought using my account, with my passcode. I calmly flew into the front room and interrogated the kids. Using all my years of watching police shows, I ask them all the relevant questions:

What have you been up to?
Have you clicked on anything you shouldn’t have?
Are you worried you may have done something wrong?

The eldest crumbled first. He hadn’t realised that the SKY Store cost money… He spent some time in his room, to reflect, whilst everyone calmed down. After reflecting myself, I had to admire his intellect. He had never been told the PIN number, but he had been using devices that had PINs, so he took a chance and tried them, with success. A lesson learnt for us, change all passcodes and try to be discrete with them.

Day one million and one in lockdown – a gentle nod to a great employer.

Saturdays are always special (especially now) as they are recognised by the boys as days where mum and dad don’t work, so they know they will get lots of attention.

The day started as usual – a loud shout of ‘can we go down yet’ at the normal 5.45am, met with the typical muttered swear words and shouts of ‘not till 7am’. The boys have started to get into the TV-famous, yellow-skinned family, so we had started a marathon of trying to make a dent in the hundreds of episodes when the doorbell rang.

It certainly wasn’t going to be a visitor, so I wasn’t surprised to see the postman, as both myself and my wife had increased our purchasing of ‘useless necessities’ (the doorbell being one of mine).

It was a box addressed to Andrew Jones! I never go by ‘Andrew’, always ‘Andy’, so I worried about the abrupt formality. I gingerly opened the box, my heart beating and the kids getting more and more excited.

It was a thank you gift box from my employer, MoneyPlus… what an amazing thought!

Inside the box there was a warm message from our CEO to say thank you for the hard work I, and my colleagues, have been doing during the pandemic. There was also various snacks and treats that my wife and kids grabbed before I could get to them, but what a lovely gesture! My wife was almost in tears at the sentiment of it!

Final thought.

I’ve learnt a lot from this situation. My boys are clever, entertaining young kids that crave learning and attention. Along with millions of parents, we miss seeing this side of our children and having experienced it, I have a greater respect for teachers than ever before.

Family time is all the time. We annoy each other without knowing it and patience is stretched, but the reality is that we are surviving what is being thrown at us, and we are doing it together. Thankfully, both mine and my wife’s employers have been really supportive and productivity is increasing due to becoming more relaxed and having better routines.

If something doesn’t go to plan, never think you have failed. This feeling has been constant in my mind, but some of the happiest moments have been when I’ve thought to myself ‘well done for trying’.