“Is everything OK?” my coworker asked, concerned, as she peered into the camera.
“Oh, yes,” I reassured her. “Would you mind repeating what you just said?”
I smiled and nodded, grinding my teeth. We continued our meeting, with the persistent screaming and wailing and howling background, like a strong gust of wind knocking me off my chair and making me lose focus. I had become an expert at muting and unmuting; and muting again. And sometimes, I just don’t mute fast enough.
It has been a long 28 weeks of this pandemic.
I can’t imagine what my coworker must be thinking. Was a small animal wounded? Had someone broken their leg? Was my husband having a tantrum? Should someone call 911?
I texted my husband stealthily as my coworker was distracted, searching for a file on her laptop: PLEASE MAKE THEM STOP.
Welcome to the new soundtrack of my life: the constant, incessant fighting of my 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. Like this pandemic, their fighting is relentless, exhausting and nonstop. All this togetherness has only intensified the fighting and sibling rivalry.
They fight over everything. Who gets to brush their teeth first (we have two bathrooms, so they, of course, need to use the same sink). Who gets to pick the first episode they watch on Disney+. Who gets to set the dinner table. Who gets to play with magnetic tiles (which, prior to rediscovering them, no one had touched in over six months, and no, they can’t play together). Who gets to go down the stairs first. Who gets to talk to grandparents on FaceTime first. Who gets to hang up the Halloween decorations first.
When I survey my mom friends who have more than one child, many of their kids don’t seem to be fighting as much as mine. Some of my mom friends seem baffled and confused as I share stories of wrestling, shoving, biting, poking and hair-pulling. My conclusion is that either 1. They are lying, or 2. They are lying, or 3. They don’t remember their kids fighting because they have been to one-too-many virtual happy hours this week.
Some of my mom friends’ kids and kids in our own family—including cousins, nieces and nephews—are just so well-behaved. I had a pre-pandemic flashback the other day of a family wedding last summer where my son and my daughter were rolling around in the hotel hallway after the wedding ceremony. Wrestling and fighting. While the other little kids in the family watched my kids in awe. I recall one of my husband’s cousins coming up and picking up my son like a rag doll and plopping him on the nearby couch.
“We don’t fight and do that in public,” he said loudly and sternly, towering over them both. My son and daughter sunk back into the couch, quiet and scared. It was one of my happiest memories from that wedding.
And it was another mom fail moment. Of not being able to stop my kids from fighting. Actually, I blame it on my husband; I hear he was a “rambunctious” child. It’s his genes.
The truth is, I have never been a great disciplinarian. It used to be the mom guilt of working too much and not seeing them enough. I didn’t want to be screaming at them in the moments I did see them. Sure, I am a fan of time outs, of alone time, of ensuring there are consequences when they do something they know they shouldn’t. But I am petite, don’t have a loud voice and am generally the one who will join them to wrestle on the floor. My kids aren’t scared of me.
Now, in this pandemic, I don’t have the energy to provide discipline in between looking for a lost face mask, dragging through another Zoom call and having to explain to my children why they can’t trick or treat this Halloween. And, yet, sometimes I still find a burst of energy to scream at them at the top of my lungs.
How am I supposed to work and parent and discipline in a pandemic?
So, recently, after ending another night of shouting at my kids, and shoving them into their beds for another early bedtime, I decided to see if Google could help me understand more about fighting and sibling rivalry. In article after article, the advice seemed as easy to implement as making a Pillsbury ready-to-bake cookies.
How to prevent sibling rivalry and fighting? Here are some great tips I came across.
Tip 1. Stay quiet, calm and in control. Can you define what quiet, calm and in control looks like in a pandemic?
Tip 2. Plan fun family time. Does me watching them watch Lion King for the 10th time count?
Tip 3. Create a cooperative family environment. Does me yelling at my husband for leaving his lunch dishes in the sink and finishing the last bag of potato chips and leaving potato chip sprinkles on the counter undermine this?
Tip 4. Make punishments private. Where should I put my two kids in our small apartment? The bathroom?
Tip 5. Give children problem-solving tools. Does giving them fruit snacks to distract them from the fighting count?
So, Google wasn’t much help. There wasn’t much advice on how to stop the fighting in this pandemic. Because winter is coming and I am scared. What will cold New Jersey days and nights bring as we continue to smother each other with togetherness we can’t escape?
“Jay smelly boy, Jay smelly boy,” my daughter started to tease my son one evening. She was singing in a high-pitched voice, dancing around him as he was about to explode.
“That’s it,” I screamed again, sitting up, pushing my laptop aside and grabbing my phone. I started recording.
“This video will be emailed to your teachers for them to see how you behave at home, and to show your whole class over Zoom!”
Immediately, the singing and the teasing and dancing stopped. And she ran out of the room.
Twenty-eight weeks in, this is the best parenting advice I have in the pandemic:
If you kids are fighting, and you can’t make them stop, hold up your phone, and pretend you are recording them, and that you will send the video to their entire school. It will buy you exactly 4 minutes, 30 seconds of peace until that next tantrum, that spilled glass of milk or that next bathroom accident.
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.