Parenting 2020: Hindsight Revisited
Dakshina Gammanpila (Parent)
Dr Dakshina Gammanpila is the author of the collection 'South Side Stories' - a View Askew from a Global Nomad and writes the weekly and fortnightly column. Dakshina is President of the Women's International (WIC), and has been a health and well-being specialist with 20 years of personal and professional experience.
When I sat down in Delhi to write Hindsight 2020, a look at parenting in a time of Corona, for the summer edition of The Roar, little did I realise that half a year on I would be writing a “Part Two’ (not a sequel, I hasten to add, as the end is still not in sight), and doing so from a different continent. Reflecting on how the panacea has altered and what equipped us as a family to weather the pandemic, I look to my own children, and moreover children and young adults across the oceans. Unexpectedly that view has been further informed by the experience of living, working, and schooling as an ex-pat family in India during Covid-19 and also, for the time being, the UK. But back in March, I had no inkling that I would undertake this amateur comparative study.
In May writing about parenting during lockdown we were focused and engaged in the day-to -day of family, trying to thrive, not simply survive, despite the necessary restrictions. Moving through the months and putting our heads above the parapet we were acutely aware of being vastly privileged, having choices that were denied to so many. We are a political family: I have been involved in rights-based activism or advocacy in some guise my whole life; my husband works in climate change; and my children care deeply about this planet and the events that shape it (as I am sure you do); how could we ignore what was taking place around the globe and on our doorstep? The plight of daily wage earners on the long trek back to rural villages; the Black Lives Matter movement; families losing their livelihoods; the rise of domestic abuse and children plunged into hunger and poverty. This was not just in India but in the US and the UK too.
The feeling of impotence was all consuming. What could we do whilst observing lockdown restrictions, was it enough to simply remain informed? To stem this sense of inaction perspective was required. As a parent you choose your battles and when to fight them and part of your armour is recognising that we can’t always fix everything immediately. Emergency situations have to be dealt with in the here and now. However, it should be remembered that for many families in many countries life in lockdown feels like a prolonged emergency.
Being in England this year was not part of our plan, despite forming the foundation for our Summer since moving away from our ‘home nation’ 13 years ago. With Covid front left and centre we felt that we would forego our annual return road trip to see our nearest and dearest, and our families had emotionally prepared for that. So what prompted the decision to go and why did we take the risk? The tagline on my book SouthSide Stories is ‘a view askew from a global nomad’ and at no other time has that view been more skewed or indeed more nomadic. For those of you who live in Delhi permanently, you may have family and friends nearby, or at least in the same country or continent. For many families at AES our families, parents, siblings, cousins and godchildren are back in our home countries. Our own families - the English and Sri Lankan branches - are in Britain. Added to that my father- in-law has cancer and my Mother is on her own (after the death of my Dad 3 years ago). They had been sheltering in place (as it was known), lockdown for 12 weeks. We knew that seeing their grandchildren would give them the essential boost they needed.
In April my husband had been involved in the repatriation of the largest number of people in peacetime, with tens of thousands of people waiting to return from India to England. It was a massive logistical operation. For us the options and deadlines came and went; we steadfastly remained in Delhi, our home for the past 7 years. We had not ventured out of the house, adhering to the strictest of lockdown restrictions from March to July (the children and I left our house only once, for an hour in May to wave goodbye to an AES faculty family). A repatriation window came up for us and we decided to take it.
Dressed in head to toe PPE we boarded the flight operated by a nation lauded for its organization and precision. They did not disappoint. It felt like running the gauntlet. I recall a moment in the middle of the night peering at one another through our visors and looking at our fellow passengers 20,000 feet up in the air, a sea of blue protective gear, the dimmed cabin lights glinting off transparent face shields, like an army of low-rent storm troopers armed with bottled water and Haribos (kindly supplied by the airline). We erupted into giggles - what else was there to do? My 13 year old son astutely observed “This is surreal”. It remained so. We flew to Heathrow via a well-orchestrated transit stop in a European city and stepped into the Summer sunshine. Restrictions in England had just been lifted, we emerged as if into a different universe to enter our two week quarantine. It has turned out to be the longest time that we have spent in England for the past 13 years. My daughter was three years old when we left for Brazil in 2007 and my son a babe in arms.
We were in our home nation but homeless, our house in London was rented out to long-term tenants and we wanted to be near to our respective parents (who live at opposite ends of England) but due to vulnerable health we would engage in socially distanced visits, as opposed to the customary weeks-long sleepovers. We had to rent houses that accommodated our zoom calls, work, school and recreational needs. Every week we were setting up a new home. A camel train without camels, a tribe of four. Our main goal was to engage in some way with our parents/grandparents and nurture our mental and physical health. On a micro level nothing more sophisticated than that.
On a macro level I was fully aware of the bigger picture. I wrote at the end of the Summer piece that we need to live with hope not fear and that seemed to ring true in the movements for justice and equality of treatment of people across continents protesting against racism and cruelty. This was history and future in the making; something gargantuan in meaning. News junkies that we are, our family watched it all unfold. As part of a ‘blended family’ how could we ignore it? I had been brought up in England and was for many years the only non-white face at school, and as a barrister in London in the 90s my brown visage was a rarity. My own children’s school experience has been so different and diverse. To draw attention to the prevailing disparities is essential; how else to wrest a better, brighter, fairer future? In the UK throughout the Summer we saw evidence of changing attitudes and in October, as I write, black history month is well underway. My habitual scepticism has been tempered by a younger generation of activists who will not take no for an answer and will fight through protest, music, art, poetry, humour and guts to make change. Hope overcoming fear. Action versus inaction. Love besting hate.
But as for parenting: in the earlier article I mentioned putting on the oxygen mask first as a metaphor and as a lived reality. Well masks seem to be our omnipresent sartorial staple, featuring in our Spring, Summer, now Fall and undoubtedly Winter collections. I spoke too, of creativity and safety - the bedrocks of parenting. For me those feelings of anger and injustice felt raw and my own creativity waned. Initial impotence prevented me from writing post May, I was consumed by providing a support system for my family - it felt the best thing to do at the time. Fuelled by the fire of what I saw, the young adults involved in activism on a global scale and the memories of my own experiences, when asked to be involved in an online magazine about living and loving Delhi, I said yes. It seemed a way of re-engaging and contributing positively. We launched in mid-October and my first column centred on mental health and well-being, something I have worked in for decades.
Twenty plus years ago I was part of an alliance of long term medical conditions centring on physical and mental well-being, and trained in practical techniques to improve the quality of life for people living with chronic health concerns including diagnosed, depression, cancer, HIV, heart disease and respiratory conditions. I saw thousands of people engaged in the workshop turn their lives around and was so successful that it was included in the National Health Service. Having worked in criminal courts and its depths, seeing well-being in action restored my faith in human nature. I recall a severely physically incapacitated woman in one of my sessions, she was listening quietly and scribbling, seated in a small single person motorised vehicle and at the conclusion told me that she had not been out of her house for 4 years and that she had come to change her life. She handed me a piece of paper, not a scribble but a drawing of me and beside it the shakily written words: Courage, Patience, Kindness it was probably the best appraisal I have received and certainly a memory I treasure. She was amazing.
In the middle of lockdown I remembered that as a parent I needed to get back to basics. Parenting sometimes hinges on spontaneous decision-making with the information to hand that is right for your own particular family unit. Academics and the environment were not the most important thing at that point, well-being was and I decided that the best way forward for our tribe was to employ some of those simple techniques I had learned and taught. The safety net and strategies of parenting go hand in hand with the creative and inventive ways of getting through crises. An acute situation changes. What if the situation becomes more long term? Then we have to calm things down in order to function with purpose, even short-term. I’d had experience of that - decades of it.
When I met my husband he was studying adaptation in humans by living and working with nomadic herders in Sub-Saharan Africa, he was writing about resilience long before it became the buzz word it is today. We as a species can endure a great deal but we also have our limits. Prolonged fear and anxiety leads to other issues, feeling swamped and overwhelmed is a natural response. So is overcoming adversity. There are ways through this. Reach out to people for support, comfort guidance or distraction and try not to be exhausted by lockdown fatigue. When the mountain seems too big to tackle, take things step-wise. There are tried and tested techniques to deflect the waves of feeling overwhelmed, sad, isolated, frustrated or bored and prevent that spiraling out of control.Believe me it can make a difference.
Anxieties about the world we live in and the future we have made or will inherit is absolutely justified. Feelings and concerns should be honoured. Uncertainty makes things difficult, so focus on the here and the now. Those basics yet again (that goes for you too parents). We have seen that governments can be flexible (and intransigent too) that funds can be accessed in emergencies; that Universities can adapt their requirements; that people who wish to save others can wear masks. Things are possible, the basics will keep you going until such time that life becomes clearer. In the meantime eat well, sleep well and communicate. Grades may seem the most important thing at the moment they aren’t. Your well-being (physical, mental and emotional) is, everything (grades included) flow from that.
The dilemma facing children and young adults cannot be underplayed. We are social creatures and missing that interaction. The power of friendships prevails, as Sir David Attenborough stated in a recent BBC interview “One does just miss walking around and seeing people”. School is as much (if not more) about social interactions as it is formal education. I know my children cherish their friendships and it is not just about the sport and shared confidences, it is the unarticulated stuff of life that we crave. The ability to blow off steam with laughter and shared memories is an imperative. It is also a way of mitigating anxiety. Research has shown that Covid has increased anxiety in all age groups. However, children and young adults may not be equipped to recognise or diffuse such anxiety and this may exacerbate that sense of hopelessness.
As parents and educators we also can reach saturation point; we have to be both mindful and accepting of that, and cannot be on call 24 hours a day. My Father, a doctor who was head of his Intensive Care Unit, knew how long relentless shifts with no breaks take their toll. Children can see you as heroes some of the time but it is also important that they see you as human. Role model positivity by all means, but it is okay to admit to not having all the answers all of the time whilst letting your kids know that we don't always control every situation. Coping mechanisms involve understanding how we respond and exercising a degree of agency when we can. Small victories should be celebrated taking account of our altered ways of celebrating.
As young adults you will emerge into a different world but you have the capacity to make it a better one. As a parent, as a professional and as an ally I truly believe you will. That is not simply abdicating responsibility, it is urging you to shape the world that is right for you so long as it is more equal, more sustainable, cleaner, greener and brighter. The flipside of Covid has shown us that it is possible to make big sweeping decisions that affect billions both positively and negatively. We can rewrite history and right the balance. You may feel a lack of control or uncertainty as to the future but focus on the small things that you can influence: your own well-being is key.