‘A Lot of Bad News Out There’: Parenting in a Pandemic

BANGKOK — I didn’t want to be that parent, the one who talks about how when I was a child I had to walk uphill both ways, in the snow, just to get to school.

For one thing, I spent some of my childhood in Bangkok, where I now live with my husband and two sons. There is no snow in Bangkok and not much uphill.

So when my boys, ages 10 and 12, ask me at dinner what I did on a reporting trip — “going away again,” as they call it — I often hesitate.

“Well, Mama interviewed women who were raped when they were trying to flee their homes,” doesn’t seem quite right for the dinner table. Or, “Well, Mama put Mentholatum under her nose because it makes death smell a little less bad.”

But I don’t want to coddle them either. My husband and I ensure that the kids eat what we eat, even if it’s okra. We make them read The Times.

I find myself, too often, comparing them, in their privileged bubble of international school and summer camp in Maine, to the boy I met in a refugee camp or the girl with the big eyes who lost her parents in one of Southeast Asia’s drumbeat of disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, landslides, floods, plane crashes, bombings.

My boys don’t roll their eyes when I bring those kids up but I can feel something almost worse: a kind of tedium with the constancy of catastrophe. I understand. Was it a typhoon I covered in the Philippines that year or an earthquake? When death tolls reach into the thousands, it is impossible to imagine each of the lives lost.

There is, as my children have discovered, a lot of bad news out there. My older son, who normally collects arcane airplane data, now tracks the coronavirus body count. He knows how many people have died of the virus in Eswatini, as Swaziland is now known. (Two deaths have been recorded there.)

My boys do not know anyone who has died of Covid-19. About the only real suffering in their life, so far, is that their beloved summer camp was canceled this year.

In Bangkok, the virus has, for some reason, not spread with the same ferocity as in other big cities. We are on quasi-lockdown but we can put on our masks and walk the dog by the canal. Some restaurants and salons have reopened. The flame trees blaze with vermilion flowers, and the frangipani’s fragrance is at its most intense in May, before the monsoons move in.

For online learning, we have experiments on mold growing on our kitchen counter. We can bake the bread needed to do those experiments. The grocery stores are full.

But part of me is that parent, after all. I want them to understand how fortunate they are, in the middle of a pandemic when my friends’ parents are dying and a woman in Bangkok swallows rat poison in front of a government building because her coronavirus relief check never came. (She survived.)

When their room is a maelstrom of stuffed animals, Legos and puddles of slime — some metallic, some glow in the dark, all of it extremely adhesive — I sometimes resort to threats to take it all away.

That’s what happens to so many children I meet as a reporter, I tell them. One moment, they are sniping at their siblings and avoiding taking the dog out, and the next moment their lives are lived purely for survival. There is no time to grab the glow-in-the-dark slime.

In 2017, while covering the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh, I watched a boy, no older than 3 or 4, slip-slide down a muddy forest path amid unrelenting rain. He wore only a shirt and his legs squelched in the muck with every step. Over his head, he balanced a vivid green jungle leaf, nature’s umbrella.

I have thought of that boy many times since, how he escaped ethnic cleansing in his village with only the shirt on his back, how he walked through the forest with impossibly erect posture, how his chubby hand held that oversized leaf aloft like a banner.

When my children came home from school one day in March, with breathless news that school would soon be suspended, I thought of the Rohingya boy again. When he and his family took flight, he did not know that his village would be burned down. He did not know that the rest of his childhood would, almost assuredly, be spent in a warren of tents in a refugee camp.

I listen amid pre-monsoon rains, as my older son sings with his school choir, the voices reverberating through 14 computers spread across Bangkok, all just a little bit off.

I watch as my younger son designs a quarantine lunch for his school project, a steak sandwich with black pepper wine sauce, melted Cheddar and pickled peppers. We have steak, wine and even okra, which, as it happens, they love.

My older boy is learning how to play Pachelbel’s Canon in D on the piano. He FaceTimes with his teacher. I hate and love the composition with equal measure, the way the chords progress with no way out except for that syrupy conclusion. Johann Pachelbel’s first wife, I read, died in the plague.

My husband and I are making the boys keep quarantine journals. Mostly, they record the monotony of lockdown, an endless loop of meals and snacks, online classes and games of Poison in the parking lot of our apartment building. They plan out the menus for their day of cooking, on Saturday, when they break Pyrex measuring cups and cube tofu for miso soup.

They are lucky, my boys, and I want them to know it. But like any parent, I also indulge in a bit of magic, pretending that life in lockdown can be as full as what exists beyond the confines of quarantine.


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