I want you to know that things will get better.

A conversation with my kids, and a wish that might come true.

In a year full of strange emotions, perhaps the most unsettling of late has been feeling a sense of normalcy.

As I think is true for many people, I divide this year into two very different periods, encompassing the times Before and After March 13th. That was the day the schools closed, the day that many sports and businesses pulled the plug, the day that everything we have lived since went from a vague possibility to a frightening reality. Since then, nearly every month, I’ve felt an added twinge of angst on the 13th, a looming consciousness of the time that has passed since that last normal day.

It’s been a month. It’s been three months. It’s been six months.

Yesterday marked nine months, and though it’s now been the span of a full-term human pregnancy since everything changed, I barely noticed, because everything that’s felt so strange for so long this year has started to feel like Just The Way Things Are Now. I occasionally recoil in mild shock when something reminds me of before—a person on television walks casually into a crowded restaurant without thinking a thing of it, or a picture resurfaces on social media of a not-too-distant time when I squeezed into tightly-packed stadium bleachers with strangers with whom I shared high-fives and beers and, I’m now uncomfortably much more cognizant, recycled air.

Otherwise, though? I pine for the Times Beyond, but I don’t think a thing about grabbing a mask when I leave the house, nor do I feel strange inquiring about the health practices of people with whom I will be in incidental contact. 

It’s all normal now.

That realization came into somewhat sad relief for me this weekend, when we decided to take advantage of unseasonably-warm weather and took a family stroll. My kids asked to go to “The Yellow Playground”, a small playground (so known by them for its yellow plastic slides) behind a church a half-mile or so from our house. It’s the outer edge of a contiguous world that their little legs can imagine traversing, and it’s usually where we go when they’re feeling ambitious. As we neared the church, my son voiced aloud a fear I’ve inadvertently helped foster in recent months, and my heart sank.

“I hope there aren’t other kids there.”

He knows the rules now. Though we’ve been permissive enough to allow our kids to play outside with a few trusted neighborhood friends for some time now, a concession made out of developmental and psychological need, we’ve still been quite cautious about interacting with unknowns. I’ve frequently hedged trips like this by saying “if there’s a bunch of people there, we’re not going to stay.” It’s simple prudence in times like these, but hearing it voiced by an ebullient, social, inquisitive five-year-old as a fear of other people brought me to a stop. 

The past nine months have felt like an exceptionally long time for any of us. I mean, just think of something you did in February, and reflect on the fact that that was this year. It seems utterly inconceivable. But as a fraction of an adult’s life, it’s still barely a blip. For a four-year-old and a five-year-old? It’s become a significant part of the world they remember, a world they were only just starting to understand when everything came apart at the seams. 

Children are exceptionally resilient and adaptable, and they absorb information like sponges. They’ve done a tremendous job in accepting the best practices we’ve struggled to adapt to over the course of this fraught year, and they take them on with a casual sense of composure that many adults could stand to have more of. They know that we have to wear masks in stores, and they don’t blink at forehead temperature checks. They don’t like Zoom calls, but they get why we’re doing them, and they can mute and unmute better than many of my professional colleagues. I recently heard my daughter admonish her older brother for coughing without covering his mouth, sweetly reminding him “don’t spread coronavirus!” in the same sing-song voice she uses to declare that she’s a panda ballerina.

For them, this isn’t just the new normal, it’s starting to become the only normal they have ever known. 

I want them to know that this is not normal. I want them to know that an end is coming, even though it may take the better part of the coming year for that end to be practically felt. I want them to know that a genuine medical miracle is happening, that a vaccine that could have taken many years to be developed is being loaded on trucks and planes just down the road at this very moment, a visual that unexpectedly brought me to tears yesterday as the emotional weight of this awful, uncertain year manifested in joy at the sight of UPS trucks leaving a distribution facility.

I want them to know that help is coming. 

More than that, though, I want them to know that we still need other people.

This age is the time when you first learn about the world being a place that extends beyond the hedge, beyond the car window, beyond the edge of a schoolyard. Their first view of a larger place has been one of fear, of danger, of uncertainty and suspicion. I have not been shy about telling them when I think someone is being irresponsible and we need to steer clear of them, nor have I lied to them about the dangers that are out there. We have had to spend much of our year wary of other people, in a sense that extends far beyond simple stranger-danger talks. 

I stopped our walk, and said that I wanted to talk to them.

I told them that their Mommy and Daddy appreciate how good they’ve been in dealing with all of this so far this year. I told them that we are so grateful that they have been willing to adapt, and that we are fortunate as a family that we have been able to stay healthy. I told them that it will not always be like this, and that a time will come when we can play with kids we don’t know again, when we can go to a baseball game or the theater again, when we can see our grandparents and cousins and we can go inside the hot dog restaurant again. I told them that other people are not bad, and we will bring them back into our lives as soon as it’s safe for both us and for them.

I told them something that I have been saying for nine long months, and for the first time, I started to believe it myself. 

“I want you to know that things will get better.”

—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)