We Are Six Weeks Into Social Distancing, and I Am Worried About My Toddler

Spring has long been my favorite season. In spring, everything is on the upswing. The weather is getting warmer, the landscape is getting greener, the hours of sunlight are increasing by the day. At long last, we can take in the sights and sounds of people enjoying themselves outdoors.

This spring was going to be special. It was going to be full of fun for my almost-two-year-old daughter. Little did I know, this spring would unfold unlike any spring we have ever known.

This spring, when my daughter and I step outside, we can feel the warm breeze and we can hear the birds chirping. We can see the neighborhood kids swinging in their yards and blowing bubbles in their driveways. But, as my daughter has quickly come to learn, she is not allowed to join in their fun.

When my daughter points to the girl doing cartwheels across the street, I tell her she can watch, but only from a distance. When the little boy next door asks to join my daughter on her wagon ride, the answer is a regretful “no.”

Social distancing is the mantra these days. And, to be sure, it’s an essential tool in the fight to contain the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, it’s taking a hefty toll on all of us. It’s keeping our kids at home, it’s putting many people out of work, and it’s stretching our collective sanity to the breaking point.

For us parents of toddlers, social distancing is an especially bitter pill to swallow. It requires us to forbid social interaction at the very stage when our kids are suddenly most eager to explore it.

Back in February — what seems like a lifetime ago — my sister and her kids came to visit. My daughter was over the moon. I’ve never seen her cling to anyone like she did to her five-year-old cousin. Her cousin’s name was the first word she uttered each morning and the last word she mumbled each night as she drifted off to sleep. She followed her big cousin everywhere, trying to reach the shelves her cousin reached, play the games her cousin played, and mimic the words her cousin spoke. When the weekend was over, I regretted to see my daughter alone with her dads once again. But my excitement for a springtime full of outings and playdates had been sparked.

Then, over the course of one week in March, all the fun was canceled. The local playgrounds were shuttered. My daughter’s weekly music class was relocated to Facebook Live. I stopped bringing my daughter along on trips to the supermarket, where the lines were getting long and the risk of infection was rising.

As a result, for the past six weeks, my daughter’s world has shrunk to the size of our house, and her playmates have been limited to her two loving, but ever-exhausted dads. Because she has yet to master the art of independent play, she relies heavily on us to entertain her at all waking hours. But as my husband and I face challenges to our own mental state, we find ourselves giving our daughter less attention than she needs, and more screen time than we would normally allow.

Simply put, we are struggling the same way all parents are right now. None of us knows how long this is going to last. And we are all frightened about the impact it may be having on our kids.

There’s no question that social distancing feels wrong for a toddler. Day after day, my daughter is trapped inside the confines of our house, tinkering with the with the same doll house and kitchen set that she played with the day before. At best, I worry she isn’t getting the stimulation that would make her happy. At worst, I worry that she is being deprived of an important part of her development.

To be sure, we are doing our best to vary her daily activities, and we try to keep in touch with friends and family online. But Skype sessions with Grandma and Grandpa are no substitute for the sensory experience she gets when they occupy the same physical space. There is learning and growth that comes with social interaction, and without it, I worry that my daughter may be falling behind.

Even more painful to me, I fear that my daughter will come to internalize the notion that closeness to others is a “no no,” not unlike touching the stove or digging through the trash can. Before social distancing, our daughter was apprehensive around people that were not her dads, taking extra time to warm up to her peers in music class, even cowering away from Grandma’s hugs. Because she wasn’t in daycare, she didn’t get the daily socialization some toddlers do. But in recent months, we watched her make tremendous strides, growing more and more comfortable in the presence of others. My sister’s visit in February seemed like a breakthrough.

Now, it’s been more than a month since she has seen any friends or family, other than through social media or occasional walks around the neighborhood. It’s been more than a month since she waved to the cashier at CVS or smiled at the servers who fawn over her in restaurants. Now, when she points to the neighbors shooting hoops in their driveway, beseeching us to approach them with that eager look in her eyes, we are forced to say “no.” And then, when she tries to run towards them anyway, we are forced to hold her back.

As the pandemic drags on and social distancing persists, I worry that the ease my daughter was beginning to show around her peers will regress. I worry we are stifling the curiosity she’d been demonstrating for interactive play. Are we teaching our daughter that isolation is OK? Will all this social distancing lead to social anxiety?

I hope that these worries that plague me now, in the heat of the pandemic, will one day prove to be vastly overblown. I know that listening to my worst fears is a dangerous pastime, not unlike listening to the pundits on cable news. I am sure my daughter will grow to be a well-adjusted young woman, blessed with close friends and family, hampered by the same hang-ups and anxieties that all adolescents experience.

But there is no question in my mind, the current state of affairs will make a lasting imprint on an entire generation of kids. Older kids are missing out on school and extracurriculars. Younger kids are being deprived of peer interaction and attentive caregivers. Social distancing is not the parenting strategy any of us envisioned. Yet here we are, victims of these frightening circumstances, forced to play the role of prison guards and prisoners all at one time. And when our collective sentence is finally over — however long from now that may be — it will fall on us parents to make up for the lost time.

In the meantime, I’ll be here in my house, dreaming of next year’s adventures.

Previously published on “A Parent Is Born”, a Medium publication.

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Photo credit: Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

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