During a recent virtual happy hour, my two best friends and I were catching up on all things pandemic-related. What’s happening with our schools in the fall. What’s happening with our jobs. What’s the latest Netflix show we started watching, when we might decide to go to a salon to get our hair done, what’s the latest meltdown we have had to endure (from both our kids and partners).
And the most important pandemic topic of all: How are we keeping our kids occupied this summer?
I sat there, popping Reese’s Pieces in my mouth, as I listened to them each talk about how they were bringing their kids every day to the neighborhood pool. And the difference bringing their kids every day to the pool made. Their kids were getting really good at swimming.
I kept popping Reese’s Pieces into my mouth—one after another, as I listened to their pool stories—until I went in for another handful of Reese’s Pieces…and realized the big bag was now empty. I felt sick. Nauseated. Numb.
My kids used to be good swimmers. We started both of them in swimming lessons when they were young, in the tadpole class. They went from seahorse, to starfish and then to minnow. Now at 5- and 7-years-old, they had graduated to Turtles and Sharks. They had been swimming really well.
That was pre-pandemic. They haven’t been swimming in close to six months. They try a backstroke in the small, dirty bathtub. They blow some bubbles, try to hold their breath, and it seems like they are 3-years-old again, back in that beginning tadpole class. They don’t remember how to swim.
My kids seem to be unlearning everything. Unlearning swimming. Unlearning playing piano. Unlearning how to tie their shoes, comb their hair, brush their teeth. And on occasion how to properly use the bathroom on their own.
I can’t blame them. I seem to be unlearning a ton too—skills that I once mastered that I fear might be slipping away.
Unlearning how to drive: I don’t drive to work anymore, and as city dwellers, we have most things delivered. Unlearning how to run: With no access to a treadmill, I try to run outside, start people watching, and 10 minutes later I am back inside. Unlearning how to say no: Working from home, I have a hard time setting boundaries, and I am saying yes too often. Unlearning how to meet new people at large events: I recall the days of standing with a bad glass of Chardonnay, pinned near a corner table unable to escape a conversation and wondering why I had come in the first place. Unlearning to wash and style my hair and put on my makeup, not that I was ever good at that anyway.
Unlearning how to be social. I worry about when I see colleagues again if I will shake hands or hug, and how it will be to adjust to social interaction in person versus video. Will I be able to make eye contact when I present to a large team or it won’t matter, because the mask will take up most of my face? Will I stumble over making small chit-chat in person? Or will I just be so excited to be with my colleagues I won’t be able to stop talking?
At the same time, my kids and I are also learning new things. Learning to spend more time with each other in close quarters. Learning to break up their own fights. Learning how to make their own breakfast and get their own snacks. Learning origami, learning how to act out Lion Guard episodes, learning how to play Scrabble. Learning again how to brush their own teeth and get themselves to bed. I am learning to let them do all of these things, on their own.
And for all the things they are learning, six months into this pandemic, I still wonder and worry about all of the things they are unlearning. I can’t help but have a moment of guilt that they can’t swim every day and have access to a pool. And then I realize not having access to a pool is a ridiculous “worry of privilege.”
So what’s the real fear behind my kids “unlearning?” That they will be academically behind everyone else their age? That they won’t remember how to socialize? That they won’t remember how to control their tantrums in public? That they won’t stop calling “Mommy, Mommy” and asking me for everything? That they won’t be productive members of society?
Maybe these skills are all like riding a bike. Once you learn to bike, you can always grab your helmet and get back on. Maybe some of these things they can easily do again and don’t ever really forget.
I guess it’s OK if they aren’t swimming anymore. I am coming to terms with it. Maybe they weren’t destined to be the next Michael Phelps. They can learn to swim as an adult, can’t they?
Now, if I can just get them back into piano. Maybe there’s a YouTube video I can look up, or find virtual lessons. They still have a shot at becoming the next John Legend or Lady Gaga. Because I am not ready to let go of that dream just yet. And I don’t think I have to.
Mita Mallick is the head of diversity and cross cultural marketing for Unilever North America and loves living in Jersey City with her husband and two young kiddos.