Another day is beginning for a young family in quarantine. It’s been beginning for hours. Weeks. It never stops beginning.
“Okay,” the father says. “Let’s clean up and go brush teeth.”
“Avery,” he says, as neither child moves, “Do you need help? Let’s go brush.”
“Colby — it’s time to brush teeth.”
A minute later: “Finish up. You’ve got to brush teeth.”
Again: “Guys, let’s go up and brush. It’s time to brush teeth.”
But the teeth are not brushed, there are dishes in the sink, a first-grade Zoom class is about to begin. There is so much to be done and, also, nothing to do. The coronavirus has closed schools and offices and left Toby and Jenny Senff, a pair of working parents, and their kids, Avery and Colby, to navigate the practical and emotional hazards of pandemic life within the four walls of their three-bedroom house.
They are luckier than most. Toby, 42, works for a defense contractor. Jenny, 39, is a project manager at a clean energy alliance. Neither lost a job, and both can telework. Avery and Colby are healthy, with no special needs. The marriage is strong, the paychecks are steady, the Internet is reliable.
The Senffs nevertheless find themselves spending their waking hours holding back the chaos with both arms. Like many American families, their lives had been predicated not just on a stable household but a stable society buttressing it from the outside: public school and after-school care to protect and enrich their kids on weekdays, grandparents to visit, restaurants to escape to on date nights, babysitters to facilitate those escapes.
Alone together, Jenny and Toby’s attempts to focus on work are in constant competition with the need to occupy, distract, discipline, educate and entertain small children, and an endless cycle of feeding, cleaning and making sure that all parties pee in an appropriate place. The easy days are hard. The hard days are almost impossible.
Another day had begun, and the Senffs invited The Washington Post to spend it with them. Minute by minute — or meltdown by meltdown — we’d find out what kind of day it would be.
“You’re supposed to hold it with your whole hand,” Avery, the 6-year-old, tells her younger brother as he struggles with a zipper.
“No!” shouts Colby. “I’m doing it, Poopyhead!”
“Colby,” reprimands Toby.
“Colby John. Please don’t use your yucky words,” says Jenny as she sets up a small computer for Avery at a table in the living room. Soon, a first-grade teacher appears on the screen.
The Senff kids go to a public charter Montessori school rich with materials that help students explore the world through hands-on projects — resources that are out of reach now. Avery and Colby, who is in Pre-K 3, log on to connect with their teachers once or twice a day. The rest of the instruction falls to their parents, who already work full-time.
Between the kitchen and dining room hangs a whiteboard that has become the family’s lifeline. On this day it says Toby has four scheduled meetings, Jenny has one, Avery has two classes on Google Hangout, Colby has one. Avery has actual schoolwork to do, but Colby is . . . 3 years old. “His schoolwork is play,” Jenny says.
Mom has slipped away to the basement to focus on her job for a few minutes, so Dad is running interference with Colby while his sister tries to listen to her teacher read a story.
“Grrrrrrrr!” the little boy growls.
“Be respectful of Avery,” Toby says.
The growling continues.
“Can you stop that?”
Toby reads his son one book, then another. Then he sets him up to play with some toys and slips into the adjoining dining room, where the table, too, has taken on a second job, as a desk. Toby, a manager at a government contractor, sits at the computer and reorients his brain from the rhyming lines of Dr. Seuss to the decidedly non-Seussian email he must compose about transportation data integration for a piece of software that will ultimately be used by members of NATO. He types for 20 seconds and then looks up to see the round-faced little boy climbing precariously across a row of stools at the kitchen counter.
“Bud — where you going with that? You got a plan?” Toby asks, getting up from his chair.
The email is abandoned. Toby pulls a third book from the shelf.
Avery’s Zoom class has ended, and Jenny is back from the basement. Colby has rejected entreaties to play independently, so all four Senffs are in the dining room. Jenny’s eyes dart back and forth between her computer (she is setting an agenda for an upcoming virtual gathering of a research advisory council) and her daughter’s independent-study assignment on starfish (they have no brains and some can grow up to 50 arms!).
It’s not just the fact that work and school are happening in the same place, at the same time; it’s also that Jenny has lost those precious moments of solitude that once existed in the space between the home and the office. She used to use her commuting time to make the mental shift from parent to professional. Now that’s gone. She has a childless colleague who walks to the Metro and back each weekday morning — “to set his mind” — then sits down to work. But Jenny doesn’t have that luxury.
For moms and dads working from home, the parent brain and the professional brain are smushed together, quarantined in the same skull. “You’re kind of thinking about work from when you wake up until you go to bed.” Even when you’re also thinking about starfish.
Fifty arms, no brain at all. Lucky starfish.
Colby is looking at a book of mazes. “Will you come help me, Daddy?” he asks, with a finger on the page’s instructions.
“Daddy’s sending an email,” Jenny tells him.
“But I need a grown-up to help me read.”
Toby’s email goes back on pause. Colby climbs into the chair next to his father and they work on how to navigate a series of mazes.
Now it’s Colby’s turn to log into school. “Do you need a tissue?” his father asks, leaning over the boy’s shoulder. “I can see you on the screen, picking your nose.”
Toby stays close to manage the mute-unmute process for Colby as his teachers sing a welcome song to their class of 20 remote preschool students. “Where is Colby? Where is Colby?” the teachers sing.
“I’m right he-ya!” the boy responds.
“Good job! I love you, buddy,” Toby says, giving his son a quick kiss on the head. Then Toby checks his phone for new emails from colleagues who somehow have time to write them.
A teacher demonstrates how to make a paper flower. By Minute 5, Colby is hiding under the table and Avery has wandered into the living room to see what’s happening.
“Do you have work to do?” Toby asks his daughter. “Concentrate, please.”
It’s a tall order, for everybody.
The time has come for couch-jumping.
It’s Toby’s turn in the basement. Jenny is on kid duty, sitting at her laptop. “You guys are going crazy,” she says.
Things calm down a bit when the TV goes on. A British woman in a blue jumpsuit uses yoga moves to act out stories for children. There is a whole menu of options — “Star Wars,” “Trolls,” “Frozen.” After some squabbling, Avery and Colby agree on “Alice in Wonderland” and roll out mats on the floor.
They echo the British lady’s secret yoga code word: “Na-ma-ste.”
Yoga story time buys Jenny about a half-hour, plus some bonus time courtesy of a pair of cake-decorating videos. Then Mom shuts her laptop and pulls out an early-learning chess game sent by the grandparents. She reads descriptions of the chess pieces and leads them through exercises.
Avery is enthralled. Colby is frustrated.
“Poopyhead!” the boy yells.
“Colby John,” his mother scolds.
Downstairs, Toby is on a work call; somebody from human resources is explaining that pay raises had been frozen. The basement offers some isolation, but it’s hardly total. “I’ve had meetings where it’s like, ‘Alright folks, I gotta go. My wife’s upstairs, and I hear a lot of screaming,’” he later explains. “People have been understanding, but I feel bad.”
He, too, has struggled with the constant toggling between professional brain and parent brain. “Like most jobs, you need to be able to concentrate for two-plus hours to do anything,” he says. “And some of those tasks are just impossible.”
When it comes to household tasks, Toby and Jenny are trying to train their kids to help out. During the second or third week of the quarantine, Jenny posted a color-coded chart in the kitchen. Today is a vacuuming day.
But vacuuming requires a lot of parental oversight, and the parents have pressing work, so after a bananas-and-peanut-butter lunch Jenny turns on Netflix and pulls up an episode of “The Magic School Bus.” Avery pouts at the selection but Jenny reminds her, “‘My Little Pony’ is for weekends and vacations.”
“Some days we’re able to get by without watching TV,” Jenny says. But if the weather is bad or the work is heavy, shows are the solution. Neither parent feels particularly great about all the screen time.
“Their education is suffering,” Toby says.
“And socialization,” Jenny adds. “They have each other, but it’s not the same as spending all day with your peers.”
Nothing is the same, except every day spent in quarantine.
“Okay,” I’m going to go down for my 2 o’clock,” Jenny says, handing her husband of nine years the television remote.
“You gonna be done by 3, you think?” asks Toby. He has a meeting then.
“Hopefully,” his wife says.
Jenny’s call is not done. Avery is finishing up an online class about gardening, a challenging subject to convey to first-graders through the Internet. The crowd of cooped-up 6- and 7-year-olds are as excited to talk to each other as they are to see the inside of a seed.
“Hey guys, can you mute?” the teacher asked repeatedly. “Can you mute so we can get through this?”
With Jenny tied up, Toby has to lead a Zoom meeting with his staff and hope that a popcorn snack is enough to keep his kids occupied.
It is not. Avery and Colby take turns crawling into Toby’s lap to wave at his co-workers.
“Awwwww,” comes a chorus through the laptop speakers.
“Okay, sorry about that,” Toby says after ushering the kids back to their own seats.
“How is everybody doing?
“Good!” Avery and Colby respond simultaneously.
“No, not you,” Toby says, shaking his head.
Jenny is back from the basement. She’s on her 10th hour and second Diet Coke of the day, and the family is 45 minutes from the shining beacon on their calendar: a daily dance party where one neighbor blasts music and everyone on the block comes out to dance on their own lawns. For a moment, kids and parents are able to cease their negotiations and let it all go.
As for this moment, Colby has stopped eating his popcorn and begun smashing it on the counter and floor.
“Hey Colby,” Jenny says sternly. “Knock it off, Bub. I’m serious.”
She asks him to clean the mess. Colby hides under a blanket on the couch. “I’m just a big lump,” he yells out. “Poopyhead. Poopyhead!”
Jenny puts a handheld vacuum by the smashed kernels. “Okay, Colby, I’m leaving it here for you to use.”
“No!” Colby shouts from under the blanket.
“Yep. You let me know when you’re ready to clean,” Jenny says, and then turns to help Avery with a recipe book she is making.
“I’m ready to clean,” Colby sobs, regaining his mother’s attention.
Like the final hour of a long road trip, late afternoons are often the hardest for the quarantined Senff kids. Patience wears thin as the minute hand moves toward 4 p.m. in slow motion.
“Poopyhead! Poopyhead!” Colby shouts.
“Do you need to come upstairs with me for a few minutes?” Jenny asks, with raised eyebrows.
Toby helps run down the clock by playing on the couch with his kids, pretending to be a cookiecutter shark from one of their cartoons.
It’s a sweet moment. Pre-coronavirus, Toby would leave for work before the kids were up and only saw them for a couple of hours on weeknights. Messing around in the middle of the afternoon is a quarantine benefit.
But the sweet moments are still tinged with work stress. It creeps in at the corners.
“Even when I’m playing with them, I’m always kind of thinking, ‘All right, I still need to do this, this, this, this and this today,’ ” he says.
Finally it’s almost time for the dance party and the kids aren’t ready. Avery is upstairs putting on a Rapunzel costume. Colby is by the front door with a Chewbacca figurine.
“Colby, can you go to the bathroom, please?” Toby asks. “You need to put shoes on and go to the bathroom.”
“No!” Colby says, standing his toy on a shelf. “Chewbacca needs to climb his tree. This is a tree.”
“Yeah, okay,” Toby responds. “Okay, can you — let’s just go outside. There are trees out there.”
“No!” yells Colby.
But the music has started and the parents, at least, want to dance.
Jenny and Toby marshal their kids outside. They wave to friends in their beloved Brookland neighborhood. Colby plays on the porch. Avery shouts to a buddy across the street who is wearing the same Rapunzel dress that she is.
For 15 minutes there is contained freedom.
But the limits are still painfully apparent. Avery and her friend would like to hug and dance together, but that’s out of the question. Some kids down the block stopped coming out to the dance parties. If they couldn’t play, it wasn’t worth it.
Jenny had three months of maternity leave with each kid. This quarantine reminds her of that.
“It feels so interminable,” she says on the front porch. “But then the day sort of goes quickly. What did I even do? Where did it go?”
Jenny makes tortellini, and the family sits down to dinner. Nobody has anything revelatory to say about their day. The kids clear their plates. Colby giggles as Avery draws on him with invisible ink. Then they go to the alley to zoom around on wheels. During quarantine, Avery has learned to ride her bicycle, and Colby mastered his scooter.
The days and weeks are cyclical, and for now the outdoor world is mostly a maze of blocked passages. But forward motion is still possible.
“Want to run a race?” Colby asks.
And the whole family takes off in one direction.
“Looks like there are a lot of books to put away,” Jenny says, surveying the living room.
But Toby has promised a quick game of Go Fish.
“Don’t the books need to be put away?” asks Jenny.
“We’re working on it.” Toby says.
While they work on it, Jenny plots out the next day’s schedule. Jenny has three meetings. Toby has three meetings. Avery has two. Colby has one. The dance party will resume at 4 p.m. Another day of getting things done and going nowhere.
This day is ending, in theory. But Colby is hiding under a table again.
“Okay, Col,” she says. “Jammie time. Let’s get upstairs.”
“You’ve been pretty good today,” says Jenny. “Don’t start being a bad boy.”
There are sobs on the way upstairs and a loud thud at the top as Colby’s protest continues. Both kids need to be tucked in, so the parents split up. Jenny sits with Avery, who can read now and might stay awake with a book for another hour or two.
Toby is back on dental hygiene duty.
“Come on, buddy, it’s time to brush,” he says. “Let’s go brush your teeth.”
There are still dishes in the sink. Some tidying up to do. And the workday is never finished. Jenny and Toby will have to catch up with the things they fell behind on while they were being Mom and Dad.
Recently, Jenny saw someone on social media compare being working parents of young children under quarantine to flying across the country with a baby. “When you’re traveling with kids, your only goal is to arrive,” she says, paraphrasing. “You’re not expected to do work with your kid or have your kid learn stuff or be super productive. That’s the same with this.”
At least on an airplane you know how long the flight will be, and where you’re going to land.
This was a good day. Tiring, but manageable. But it’s daunting to imagine trying to string too many more of them together.
“How do we figure out what’s actually sustainable?” Jenny wonders aloud.
She shrugs and looks at her husband, then answers her own question.
“I guess we’ll do it as long as we have to.”