Stephen Lowe is feeling the strain balancing a full time job, full time parenting and school work. Today is the first day his kids go back to school...
If you happen to hear a very high pitched whistle when reading this article, it is only your author letting off steam.
Please note, this will be a very personal opinion piece. It will be open and honest and will likely spotlight elements of my personality I tend to keep hidden.
Far from being a 'confessional' in the traditional sense, it will be warts and all.
I will be staying away from all the news reports and the stats.
I will avoid all the data and the talking heads.
I will turn my back on the many, MANY 'specialists'.
And will willfully ignore the many self-proclaimed know-it-all-if-not-betters.
Why? There are many reasons and I've wasted a lot of your time on this introduction already.
There are a dozen or so reasons why I needed my youngest to go back to school this week (it is his birthday today) and for my eldest to follow soon after...there's at least a dozen more why I'm scared witless as to what could well happen thereafter.
But first, let's look at why I 'want' to write this.
Dropping him (the youngest) off this morning, in his ickle mask and watching him skip off down the school stairs to 'greet' his mate was conflicting. Am I being overly protective or too relaxed about this situation?
It is clear he needed the environment to change after seven weeks at home, and it is also abundantly clear that the parents (my wife and I) needed some help.
Over the past few weeks, I believe it is reasonable to state that I have never felt so 'stressed' in my life.
Even as someone who would classify themselves as being fairly resistant to stress (others may disagree), when I do 'go', I go big - not in a Carry On way. A more likely analogy would be one of those videos which regularly stink up the web, I am the proverbial pressurized bottle of fizzy sugar water, I go boom when adding mentoes (additional stress).
In the last week alone the internet went down, printer ink and toner ran out, the heating oil leaked, my kids had a meltdown and my wife got very sick, very fast (in large parts due to her own commitments and pressures external from the family responsibilities and it would be unfair for me to comment on those further), we've had difficult times, sure we have. And we are able to call ourselves relatively fortunate, living through this crisis, it was, however easily our lowest point...so far.
The beginning...easy enough
At the beginning of the COVID isolation stage - before TV and radio ran increasingly frequent reports, before 2 metres, before masks, before weariness set in - there was a sense of togetherness and altruism. A stiff upper lip, to coin a Brit phrase, we would be 'whole'.
Being at home with the family would be nice. Fun, even.
We would get 'things' done. Sort those stuffed drawers and wardrobes. Get a real spring clean on.
My wife and I joked about how much we would miss the commute.
We would be super organised and we would be so on top of all of our hitherto out of whack shit, that it would make us all wonder just how foolish our before 'Vid lifestyle had been.
The reality has been far, far harder.
While I certainly cannot talk for everyone (not for the want of trying, mind you), all of the parents I have spoken to have been at varying stages of crisis.
Languages of the Loony Bin.
P.E and the Oh F ME!
It's safe to say that there have been far more brick walls on which to bash our tired heads than there have been satisfied brain houses hitting the pillow come lights out.
If we can all take a trip down memory lane and try to remember when our parents clumsily attempted to 'help' us with our homework...how much of it was actually helpful?
Then think, how you felt the majority of homework was pointless, as how much of it would you put to use in the future possibilities that were still available to you pre-life-changing choices?
That moment of needing to remember hypotenuses, adjacents and opposites, when to carry the remainder, carpels and stamens, osmosis and semi-permeable membranes and how to accurately sketch and eye, it's right now, in your adult life, trying to home school your kids via methods you can scarcely remember.
I would happily hop in a time machine, head back to Somerset in the mid-90's and tell the Joe Bloggs Jeans-wearing, 16-year-old me to pay some frikkin' attention.
The work struggle and the two handed juggle
Now, despite my employers being fairly supportive during this crisis period, allowing home-work and a decent level of flexibility, the same cannot be said for my wife's.
Whereas, in theory, all I need is a laptop, an internet connection and the wherewithal to stop misusing it's instead of its, I can pitch up anywhere and everywhere.
Being head of a pan-European team that staffs over a hundred is not quite the same.
Where my work stress is based on information supply and speed of relay, my wife's is a shit tonne of conference calls and a solid slice of 'everything is a priority' and needed for the day before yesterday.
Nor does any level of flexibility allow for the fact that trying to home school two boys aged 10 and 12 is about as easy as getting a greased up eel to solve Pythagoras theory while cooking lunch, answering mails and scheduling posts.
For some it may have been easier, and I both offer you applause and that you suffer a minor toe-bash. For those co-existing in our house, it has been the stuff of nightmares.
It's not all been terrible.
There were those five-blissful minutes back in early April when all was quiet. Deadlines had been met and everyone appeared content. We've enjoyed board-games, table-tennis, cycle-rides, walks in the woodland (certainly more than we did when we were ferrying kids from school to hobbies and from hobbies to bed).
Timetables and times tables
The most common source of conflict in our house has been that of scheduling.
We are talking day to day. We are talking work deadlines. We are talking acceptable time for learning. We are talking housework. We are not forgetting relaxation. We cannot pass over social interaction (digitally) time - i.e video games (yes, the kids get time online). We are not wanting to gloss over meal times.
We certainly will not ignore the 'actual' teachers' responsibilities and I have an axe to wield here.
Whilst understanding that the situation was a thinking on feet moment, there was no thru line across the different process flows. The teachers in my eldest's classes, while all lovely people, simply threw work onto a hastily developed app and did so at infrequent and irregular times. On occasion stating a piece needed to be turned in on the same day and not having considered which other subjects had similar deadlines.
Some offered PDFs and others word docs. Some used hyperlinks, others embedded videos in the app that you could not use unless in the app and the app blocked use of other windows. Some wanted photos taken of the work and for that to be sent by email. Some requested work be uploaded via a separate system. One or two had set up an altogether different method. Some work was sent to the app which parents already had access, while components were also sent to a version only the kids had.
Timing was problematic, to say the least.
Let's say you had planned your child's day at 'school' to be 9am to 2pm, is that enough? I have no idea. It would seem to be close to the German school system of 8-1. The expectation from the school was that we should be looking for additions throughout the day, just in case a teacher added any work (every 30 mins/hourly/90 mins, once in the morning and then again in the afternoon and evening?), it was a guessing game. There were no alarms, no alerts, no checks. Just an upload at, say 3.30 pm for work to be returned at 6pm. Not the easiest way of trying to instill 'routine'.
With the youngest it was a different beast. His one teacher simply uploaded all the 'expected' work online on a Sunday evening and asked only that a checklist be sent back at the end of the week.
Easy enough but for the fact that files were incomplete, duplicated, corrupt and required books locked in the classroom at school.
After the first week (well the second day, in truth) we knew we were in trouble.
The kids had squabbled, the parents had squabbled. And, yes that popular meme about the kids being the issue not the teachers was partially true. But the element we found most difficult was attempting the setting up of a routine using a system which was fundamentally flawed proved a poor foundation on which to build.
Marking/grading/checking in the evenings proved toughest. The kids felt that they had done their shift, and the parents had carried enough of the shit.
We were all exhausted. More so than normal.
The first flare up came at around 7pm on day three. The eldest had been asked to come off FIFA to check his work. This was not planned for in his mind-palace. He was in full on FUT mode and schoolwork was done for the day. Like hell was he doing corrections six hours after school. The youngest had buried himself in some Netflix
We all learned something new about ourselves through that benchmark fight - it was not at all good.
Work expectations remained the same, the support required from our family had increased exponentially, and outside the world was changing.
I caught myself one day telling my son that I couldn't help him with his school work as I had some commitments on this very website.
The amendments were minor. In the scheme of things, imperceptible to the casual user. Yet I had placed these higher in priority than my child. I felt sick to the stomach. I called my colleagues, my bosses, I asked for the remaining few hours of the shift off. It could not be that this would be the new routine. That my kids' needs should come after my work.
As mentioned before and previous, I work with a great team. We help each other out when and where we can but it was clear we (family) needed to make new plans for home study.
We did take on some home help and that was a relief like you could not imagine.
Kids, well ours at least, sit attentive for 'teachers' whether proxy or otherwise. Trying to 'teach' your kids about things that are not your speciality in an environment already jammed with stressors (both intra-family and borne by circumstances) is a tall order in itself. Have you ever picked up your kids from a friend's family and been worried about what the report will be?
You arrive at the door expecting that the little ball of rage that had shouted abut how unfair life is when being asked to clear up some clutter has acted the proverbial twat. The other parent comments on how wonderfully helpful and polite your sprog has been.
You'd feel pride well up, if it weren't for the fact that you're swallowing down wounded howls and sobbing. Why is that the little shite-bags cannot behave that way at home.
Horses for courses
A return to school and the endless petitions that have come with it has been a constant source of conversation in our household. As we saw other countries roll out models for a return, we wonder which model the German authorities would use as a template.
Needles to say that when the time came to announce the school's slow return, the information came in dribs and drabs.
Online, it is clear that parents and non-parents are not going to see eye to eye. It isn't even a case of agreeing to disagree. It is rare to find such a subject dividing opinion as clearly as this. I can see both sides of the argument and neither particularly helps my cause.
I have no practical idea on whether the return to school is the most sensible. I can only tell you that my kids need their friends, no matter how many metres removed. They need to interact with adults (who are not their parents) in establishing authority and respect, because if they cannot learn that at home - where else will they.
Should my kids have needed to stay at home for any longer period of time (in the case of my eldest this could well be until at least September), I was/am concerned that I am not up to the task.
I feel as I have failed them, somehow.
Further, kids need to socialise, they need the interactions with rational peer groups. They do not need to hear from their annoyed parents that schoolwork is less important than 'work' work. That sets off an awkward precedent, where the future is more important than the present.
The means is the end and the Matrix will require a download patch and a snazzy new skin.
So, faced with the needs of my kids' mental well-being, the measures currently in place, the chances of my kids being 'infected', the risk to others; more vulnerable members of society and the additional stress placed on my teammates, I've avoided taking the 'special allowance' holidays thus far.
When I read such things as 'stay at home parent's just want to stay at home and get paid for it and do nothing else', it makes me incandescent with rage. I concede that there may be some unscrupulous peeps out there, ready to take advantage of whatever welfare the state offers but for those who have stuck it out and done their darnedest to make it work, that is a massive kick in the balls.
There are also those who see kids as being virus carrying 'fuck trophies' who are hell-bent on ruining the survival of everyone else by passing on their 'germs', as if in some form of genocidal attack against 'everyone else'.
These folk must have been born yesterday, fully-formed and aged 18, bypassing education systems and being blessed with all the world-weary smarts there are.
I must admit to being seated firmly on the fence for the back to school debate.
So much so that I am going to be removing splinters for weeks.
That may yet prove less painful than the past month and a half.
That whistle you hear...put the kettle on, would ya...