Lihle Z. Mtshali is a South African mom living in New York. The US is one of the hardest hit countries by coronavirus globally and is currently sitting on 1.3 million cases with 343 000 in New York alone. This financial writer turned columnist and parenting writer spoke to us about her lockdown experience. She has three kids – Thando is 22-year-old, Thakasa is two-years-old, and her seven-year-old son Langa is in the first grade.
Where do you live?
Let me clarify that we don’t live in New York City, we live in a suburb called Roselle Park in New Jersey. It is thirty minutes outside of Manhattan. It’s in the New York City area, and basically people who work in the City live in and around these areas. We moved to the suburbs in August from the city.
What does lockdown in New York look like?
Here, it’s called a stay at home order. Since the beginning, we’ve been able to go out for walks around the neighborhood with the kids. You’re able to go to the grocery store but you have to wait outside in a queue because they have a quota of how many people they can let in at the same time. Also, you cannot go in unless you are wearing a mask. You also cannot have gatherings, you can only be with people that live in your household. They are now starting to open up some places, like parks and playgrounds, which were previously closed. The reopening is a bit scary because it’s getting warm and people are just flocking to these public areas, and you worry about social distancing and being hit by a second wave of infections. Our stay at home order is definitely not as strict as South Africa’s, for instance. From the beginning, people have been able to go and buy alcohol and smokes and go jogging or walk their dogs as they please, as long as they maintain a 6-foot distance from the next person.
How has homeschooling been?
Homeschooling has been the most challenging thing for me because I’m not a teacher. It’s hard enough trying to do homework with your kids during normal times, but it’s even harder when you have to be the teacher every day as well. The teachers have been very helpful. They’ve made themselves available but it’s still a huge task. Langa has a class Zoom video call every morning at 9am with his teacher and classmates. The teacher either reads them stories or they talk about what they did the previous night. She then gives them tasks to do that aren’t linked to the curriculum, things like scavenger hunts indoors when it’s raining and outside when it’s not. They will report back about those tasks the next morning on the Zoom.
The aim is to make them feel as much as if they are still in the classroom as possible and for them to see their friends. It was great in the beginning and all the kids loved it, but nine weeks in, you can just see that all the children are fed up now. It’s not in their nature to sit there and talk with their friends on iPads and computers. They just want to be out there playing and having normal interactions.
There is also a lot of work. Langa has to read two books a day. They are short books, but two books nonetheless. Then there are sight words, phonics, writing, grammar skills, math, social studies, Spanish, gym. You’re expected to do this every day. You know, it’s a lot. As a parent, you still have to do other things. You still have to do your own work while you’re supervising this child and if you have multiple children, you have to tend to them, too. I mean, it’s hard because when they are in the first grade they need your help a lot more than somebody who is in higher grades. So that, I think, has been the biggest challenge for us.
The school year here runs from September until June, so it ends next month and we’ll get a three-month break before they go back again. Nobody’s sure if it will be back to the classroom, or more distance learning.
Do you ever get alone time?
I’m a freelance writer and editor and since moving here in 2010 I’ve been working from home and I’m always here with the kids. Initially, when social distancing and the stay at home order began, I thought, okay well, this is what I do. I’m always with them, this is not gonna be too hard. But it’s kind of different because now there’s no time for me to just be by myself during the day and focus on my work uninterrupted. And everybody needs that time by themselves. You need that self-care for your mental health, especially during this unprecedented period we are living in. So it gets kind of challenging because they would have been away at school during the day and giving me time to do other things. But now they are both here on me all the time. It gets pretty hectic. I look forward to my husband coming home because he still has to go to work through this. Like right now it’s 5:00 in the afternoon and he’s home and has taken them for a walk around the block. And then I get a bit of free time for myself and I’m gardening while talking to you.
How do you answer your kids’ questions about Covid-19?
Well, Langa wants to know when everything is going to go back to normal, why do we have to stay at home and why can’t he play with his friends. We have to give him honest answers. “We don’t know, but we have to stay safe.” We are honest about the fact that this virus is very dangerous. People are getting very sick. People are dying. We have to stay home so that we can stay healthy. You know, you keep it simple, but be honest. Kids pick up on things. So if you’re going to lie to them and not tell them exactly what’s going on and you make up stories, they will know, and it will just confuse them all the more, like, why are mom or dad lying. So just tell them the truth. We let Langa know that he can’t play with his friends because sometimes people are sick with the virus but you can’t tell and they could make him sick, too. So basically, that’s been Langa’s biggest question. He just wants to be able to go and do the things that he likes doing because, you know, we had a pretty active social life before, like museum visits and play dates.