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Opinion: The art of raising a pandemic baby

'The irony, of course, is that our tiny humans are trying to fall in love with this world while we’re mourning the one that was left behind. And maybe it’s them that will teach us how to look forward instead of back.'

A few months ago, right as the pandemic restrictions began to loosen, my wife and I loaded our two children into our RAV and headed down to church for the first time in years. I’m not especially religious, but it was a relief to be mask-free and surrounded by back-slapping congregants.

Just as the sermon was getting going, my wife, Kristina, returned from dropping off our 18-month-old daughter Celista at the church nursery and told me I should really go see how she was doing.

She had a mischievous smile on her face. Curious, I worked my way down the pew mid-hymn and headed out of the sanctuary to see what she was talking about.

After a few moments of wandering down unfamiliar carpeted hallways, I came across a closed door that was practically vibrating from the commotion inside. Approaching a tiny window in the door like a porthole on the side of a ship, I was able to see that an unruly herd of toddlers were amassed in the centre of the room, shoving and jostling and occasionally shrieking at the top of their lungs. One was standing on a chair, another was trying to take off his shirt. All of them were between the ages of one and four, many of them wearing their Sunday Best, and right in the thick of this chaos was Celista in her cute little dress, looking slightly flustered and knocked around. She was wringing her hands nervously in front of her. I’d never seen her amidst that many people before, and my vision began to blur as the emotions overwhelmed me.

“This is all I’ve wanted for her this whole time,” I thought, happy tears leaking out the sides of my eyes. “This is exactly what she needs.”

 It wasn’t until that moment that it really landed, how desperately I’d wanted her to experience the type of normal I had growing up, to be surrounded by the messy reality of people. I know how crucial the first three years of development are. I’d been constantly and noisily voicing my concern about her being stunted by the social isolation of living in a pandemic, desperate to find her a social life. Now here was my dream playing out before me.

This is a parenting drama that’s going on all around us, as collectively, we try to re-acclimatize from the trauma of the last two years. My particular generation has known nothing but developed world prosperity since birth, coming to maturity in the flush 1990s, and all the wars and conflicts we’ve seen mostly left our daily lives untouched.

COVID-19 was the first real rude awakening for us, like being knocked off our pedestal, even if the daily inconveniences were nothing compared to things past generations went through, like the Great Depression. The whole climate of fear and political division is what we’re handing over to our kids, and it’s making people realize we’re not happy with the status quo.

We’re still mourning a society that’s never going to return. The irony, of course, is that our tiny humans are trying to fall in love with this world while we’re mourning the one that was left behind. And maybe it’s them that will teach us how to look forward instead of back.

Since that day at the church, Celista has had a few more opportunities to mingle with important people. She had a dance party on a coffee table with her friend Riley during her second birthday.

We’ve been heading down to the pool every week, where she’s getting to know all the lifeguards and fellow swimmers, and just a few weeks ago, she registered for a Celtic dance class. She led me by the hand into the studio, wearing her pink tutu, and took her place in a lineup of kids who were two or three years older than her. She’d been practicing her dance moves while watching The Little Mermaid at home, and she was eager to put them to use. The one element I hadn’t planned on: I was expected to participate, bunny-hopping around the room with her in tandem, spinning and bowing and everything else. Whether I was willing to admit it or not, I’d become overweight and agoraphobic over the course of the pandemic and felt myself shyly stammering now that I had to interact with people. Celista, meanwhile, was living her best life.

I guess the trick for parents of every generation is that you don’t know the future. You can look at how your parents raised you, in the social climate they did, but it will never be the same circumstances for your kids. Religions change, worldviews change, and politics change. We’re left scrambling to catch up, trying to anticipate the problems before our kids encounter them. It’s kind of like me in that dance class, my brow sweat-slicked and my breath heaving as I try to keep up with my tiny daughter. I glanced exhausted at the other parents, and they gave me that quiet nod of solidarity that says, “I know exactly how you feel right now. You’ve got this.” Because really, that’s all most of us want, right? For somebody with authority to tell us we’re doing a good job.

Now that the pandemic’s chokehold on our consciousness is beginning to wane, people are starting to envision a way to rebuild a society superior to the one we were raised in. Many of our long-standing assumptions have been field-tested and found wanting, and the social movements that have swept North America are radically transforming our culture. There’s no way for me to predict the outcomes of these developments, some of them won’t even come to full fruition in my lifetime, and all of them are outside my control. More circumstances, like the pandemic, will affect Celista’s life in both positive and negative ways. She’ll have to learn to navigate these new realities and make quick decisions on her feet, just like when she’s running hyper circles around the dance studio with her panting Dad.

Somehow, I don’t think she’s going to have a problem.

Will Johnson is a journalist, author and proud father of two. He is also a Squamish Chief freelance writer.