In my 18 years as a parent, I have returned again and again to some advice spoken by Marge Simpson during a trip to “Itchy & Scratchy Land” in Season 6 of “The Simpsons”: “You know, part of spending time together as a family is spending time apart as individuals.”
The line is funny because we all know that family time, however well planned, isn’t always idyllic. (In fact, I have a theory that the better family time is planned, the more disastrous it will be. Blissful, revelatory, life-affirming moments happen all the time in families — just never when you’re expecting them.)
But it’s not only funny. On a deeper level Marge’s adage sums up what I’ve found most rewarding about parenting: supporting my kids as they’ve grown from helpless infants into independent people, going out into the world to negotiate challenges and build relationships and mourn losses and celebrate triumphs — as individuals, apart from me (although never, so far, for very long).
Until about a week and a half ago, when my family of five — two 50-year-olds and three teenagers — was abruptly housebound for the foreseeable future by a terrifying global pandemic.
You may have heard about it.
This unprecedented event has generated skepticism as well as provocative theories — including one in which “The Simpsons” predicted the coronavirus outbreak back in 1993.
But by now, even the skeptics are coming to grips with the fact that what’s happening is a real crisis. Relying as heavily as I do on “The Simpsons” for life advice, I’m inclined to believe it. I only wish the writers had spun the scenario out a little further, so that I could see how Marge handled the aftermath.
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Plenty of other films and TV shows have dealt with crises of this magnitude. From these I’ve learned what’s expected of us at such a moment: That it’s time to step up. To be heroic and resilient. To tighten our belts and weep with gratitude as we share the last moldy potato from the root cellar.
It’s not the moment to be squabbling over who is wearing whose Brandy Melville booty shorts or sulking because “Super Smash Bros.” won’t load on the Nintendo. If we survive, will we be proud to tell our descendants stories about how we watched 15 hours of Netflix a day? It doesn’t sound very heroic.
Margaret Gray’s kids, Sarah, Daniel and Hannah Mittleman, playing “Animal Crossing: New Horizon.”
But heroism no longer means hunkering down with the GIs in a trench or loading orphans onto a train to safety at midnight. Trenches and trains are really germy.
Heroism means staying home.
And staying home, at least for a family of five, means being continuously distracted by concerns that feel humiliatingly trivial compared with what people infected with the COVID-19, along with the hospital workers caring for them — not to mention the grocery store clerks and delivery people and others whose jobs now entail risking their lives — are going through.
But that’s what we have to do. And it’s super weird. Here’s how the first 11 days of quarantine went for us.
Thursday, March 12: The Dawning
Yesterday the kids’ schools closed, through at least the end of spring break. They were thrilled! I can imagine how thrilled I would have been at their age. At my age, I wasn’t as thrilled. What had me most worried was meals. For some reason I have always encouraged my offspring to be choosy about food. Two out of the three will eat chicken, for example, but in such wildly disparate formats that it’s hard to believe the same animal is involved.
When they’re with their friends, my kids pretend to be chill omnivores. So it’s a relief that so many other teenagers have been dropping by. The seniors are watching “The Graduate” in the TV room for their cinema studies class. The 10th-graders are watching “Parasite” on somebody’s laptop. The seventh-graders are playing Nintendo.
Large quantities of pizza from both Johnny’s and Mulberry Street were delivered. I’m not surprised that my children ordered from two different pizza places, just that both are places they claimed, just the other day, when I was trying to figure out dinner, that they “hated.”
Later: Has school actually not been “closed” so much as “relocated to my house”? Am I the principal? The sometimes fun but annoying dean of student life? The janitor?
Nightfall: I just read three articles urging parents not to let their kids have play dates. Then the principal sent an email “regretfully” asking students not to congregate at one another’s homes because congregating would defeat the purpose of closing the school. The other kids have gone home and my own kids are mad at me. My husband just came in from his last day of on-site work with hundreds of dollars’ worth of groceries, but there is nothing to eat for dinner.
Friday, March 13: The Reckoning
Noon: I had to guess what breakfast each child wanted because I’m still getting the silent treatment — apart from a curt “thank you” for the meal. They can’t believe I’m acting like such a freaky germophobe and not letting their friends come over, when until yesterday I was essentially a free-love hippie.
Evening: Dinner was stilted. We couldn’t really talk about what we did today because we all did the same thing — angrily stared at a screen of some size. The conversation picked up a bit when one daughter described a YouTube video she’d seen. The rest of us couldn’t visualize it, so she held up her phone and played it for us. Immediately we realized we’d seen it dozens of times apiece.
We stalked away to separate rooms where we resumed staring at our devices, secretly thinking that that particular daughter is a terrible describer.
Later: The daughter redeemed herself by suggesting a round of “Quiplash.” We gathered with our devices in a single room and used them to make jokes at one another’s expense. Then we microwaved a bag of popcorn we found in the cupboard and started watching an old season of “Survivor” on Hulu.
Saturday, March 14: The Dissolution of the Standards
Evening: We have finished the season of “Survivor” and all have crushes on Boston Rob. My husband pointed out that Boston Rob competed on five other seasons, also available on Hulu. So that’s five more days we can fill! And we might learn something along the way about, you know, surviving.
The only problem is that when I watch TV for 12 straight hours, my eyeballs feel burny, and I start sinking into existential despair.
Meanwhile, it’s killing me that my poor kids are stuck in here when they should be having amazing, age-appropriate adventures! When they were little, I used to kick myself for never having learned to make balloon animals. What a great mom I could have been, whipping out balloon animals all afternoon! Nowadays, I would need a wide variety of talents to entertain them all appropriately. For my 18-year-old, I’d need to become Boston Rob. For my 15-year-old, I’d have to blow up on TikTok. For the seventh-grader, I’d figure out the Nintendo controller.
That last one, alas, is a deal breaker. But at least I can cook! I will cook everybody’s favorite food tomorrow.
Sunday, March 15: Ambition Returns
Noon: Italian feast for lunch! Red sauce, meat sauce, homemade pizza, two types of salad. The kitchen is quite floury, and I had to take the batteries out of the smoke detector after too many crusts caught fire. I will clean up after a short nap!
5:30 p.m.: Whoops! Until an hour ago, we all “forgot” that my seventh-grader’s math teacher had emailed us a take-home test, to be completed in 50 minutes, then scanned and emailed back to her by 5 p.m. I don’t understand how teachers can sit in the same room with adorable children who are crying over ridiculously tricky algebra problems and not press kisses onto their damp cheeks and give them the answers. Have teachers no hearts? I had to lock myself in the garage.
Monday, March 16: The Many Trials of the Wi-Fi
10 a.m.: Everybody in this house but me is learning and contributing to society! The children are engaged in distance learning on Zoom. One is speaking Mandarin. Another is tracing symbolism in Orwell’s “1984.” The third is doing more algebra — there’s really a lot of algebra, huh? My husband is litigating cases, here on the premises, in real time! As long as the Wi-Fi hangs in there, this brave new world of home schooling and working from home might not be so bad.
If all the theaters hadn’t closed, I might be writing a theater review right now. But until they put all the theaters online, maybe I should take a free online university course! There are thousands of options! From coding to financial planning to literary criticism! Every conceivable area in which I lack expertise!
Later: I crashed the Wi-Fi trying to enroll in an online university course. I’m just going to play “Fishdom” on my phone until dinner.
Friday, March 20: The Tiring
I haven’t written for a few days. Everything has been pretty much the same. Literally. I play a lot of “Fishdom.” We watch “Survivor” between the kids’ Zoom classes. We’ve eaten the Italian feast I cooked on Sunday for every meal. If the pandemic ends and we are allowed to travel to Italy again someday, we won’t.
And every day the news gets worse. COVID-19 infections are increasing exponentially. The schools will be closed for the rest of the year. We have run out of ice cream and printer paper.
But the five of us aren’t showing symptoms of infection, yet, and we haven’t killed each other. We’re alive, we’re together, we’re bored out of our minds and we’re glorious unsung heroes.
Sunday, March 22: A New Hope
“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” arrived in the mail Saturday morning. A near-perfect weekend ensued. Then the dryer broke.
Braced for Week 2 of distance learning.