As a special education administrator, Elizabeth Rollins is keenly aware of the upheaval that ensued when schools closed three years ago this month at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But as a parent, she confessed to sometimes feeling a little bit nostalgic about that spring of 2020, when the usual treadmill of afterschool care, playdates, and extracurricular activities for her daughter Erica, then 4 years old, ground to a halt.
“We live next door to a lovely large park, and we would go there every day,” said Rollins, of Arlington. “Erica learned to climb a tree. There’s a pond encircled by rocks, and we had a goal of trying to walk the entire circle.
“At first, I was conscious of trying to make every moment an educational experience for my daughter. But at some point during those long days, it occurred to me that maybe I don’t have to do that. I can just be with her, just be present as her mom.”
Many parents share Rollins’ sentiment, even as they hasten to acknowledge the profound tragedy of so many lives lost in the pandemic. Three years after life changed drastically in households across the country, some adults cling to the habits their households developed during that time – or wish they could retain just a little bit of that forced tranquility.
“We spent most of that spring outdoors,” recalled Teydin Romanowsky, a mother of four in Carlisle. “The kids would ride their bikes on the bikeway while I walked along behind. At home, they’d kick around a soccer ball or jump on the trampoline.”
Absent their usual soccer teammates, the boys taught their 4-year-old sister to goaltend. “We could pass hours that way,” Romanowsky said. “It was a big change for our family; typically our kids have a lot of scheduled sports and activities.
“One warm evening, we carried pillows and blankets outside and lay on the trampoline gazing up at the stars.”
While for some households the changes transpired organically, other people were deliberate about using the pandemic to create new rituals that they continue today. Clare Fortune-Lad of North Billerica remembers the occasional tedium of being home with a small child day after day during the lockdown, and it inspired her to start a “tech sabbath” — a tradition of setting aside her phone every Friday evening through Saturday evening.
“Like many other parents, I became aware during the pandemic of how often I was turning to my phone to keep me company, to entertain me, to serve as an adult talking to me, whether in the form of a personal text from a friend or an article I’m reading online,” said Fortune-Lad, who now has two young children. She still maintains the tech sabbath tradition, though the frequency has dropped to monthly. “It feels like a great reset, and it’s something I look forward to,” she said. “I use that time to do more cooking, more reading. And when the 24 hours come to an end, I’ve been reminded once again that I don’t need to turn to my phone quite so quickly.”
Robin Risso, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Chelmsford and Tyngsborough, observed that more people were staying connected with extended family and friends through technology. “Some of them are continuing now to have Zoom get-togethers, or at least to use Zoom for holiday celebrations,” Risso said. “Maybe previously they called grandma every few weeks; now it’s a regular Sunday morning tradition. I’ve noticed some really positive ways that these pandemic traditions have been maintained consistently and authentically.”
“A lot of families made adjustments during the pandemic, unplugging and putting away screens in favor of time together,” remarked Matthew DuBois, president of the Massachusetts School Psychologists Association and assistant director of guidance for the Brookline Public Schools. “Now, I see some families who are struggling to continue with those practices. As much as they see the benefits they experienced, some parents are really focused on having their kids make up for lost time, so they are scheduling similarly to how they did pre-pandemic.”
“When COVID started, our kids were 6 and 4,” said Rachel Saphire, a rabbi at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. “Because they were so little, they had been only superficially involved in our Shabbat practices up to that time. But since we were all sharing a small space in which I was also leading Shabbat services for my congregation online, they became part of it.
“With services now in person, my kids insist on coming along. Were it not for the pandemic, I would have believed they were still too young to sit through services. But because they became familiar with it on Zoom, I know they can take part in it.”
Pam Howell of Concord was in touch with many families during the early days of the lockdown through her role as a director of family ministry at Carlisle’s Unitarian Universalist church.
“Parents shared with me the new practices that their families were developing,” she said. “Things like making time to express gratitude at the dinner hour, lighting a candle and sitting quietly in the dark, or taking long walks. Now I frequently hear that families don’t want to return to the fast pace and full schedule they lived in previously. They’re being more intentional about not running from one activity to the next all the time.
“Even with all the turmoil that the pandemic caused, we had the gift of time on our hands, and people found a new kind of joy in that.”
For Romanowsky, the Carlisle mother of four, the days are once again filled with taking her children to birthday parties and playdates, helping them get ready for sports practices, and ensuring that they remember their lunches and homework assignments as they leave for school in the morning. For the most part, she’s happy with this return to normalcy.
But once in a while she and her husband Andy take comfort in reminding their kids of the quieter times they lived through together. “Sometimes,” she said wistfully, “we all talk about the night that we were stargazing on the trampoline, and one of us will say, ‘Remember that time when there was nowhere else we needed to be?’”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.