Carrie and her family. Photo: Courtesy: Carrie

In the days since Berkeley schools closed, Jessica Stiles has been thinking up ways to keep her children occupied. With so many hours in a day – and so much high energy around – Stiles instituted her own instructional curriculum.“We’ve been having our 8-year-old daughter write letters to people as part of her writing lessons, just to help keep her connected,” says Stiles, who lives in the Berkeley Hills. “But I’m kind of nervous about even sending letters because I don’t want them to get infected along the way. So, I’m thinking maybe we’ll just take pictures of letters, and email them to relatives.”

Carrie, a Berkeley mother who didn’t want Berkeleyside to use her full name, has worked with other mothers to develop an outdoor game where their kids can socialize safely.

“My latest idea is that we can come up with a game where we’re all wearing mittens and throwing a Frisbee with our friends,” she said. “And then you just take off your mittens, carefully, at the end of it.”

With schools and daycares closed and a mandatory shelter-in-place order in effect until May 1, many local parents are operating at Level 10.

“How many of you have already lost it with your kids?! And we’re only on DAY ONE of the shut-down?” one parent posted on Facebook.

“Today I learned I’m not especially suited for homeschooling,” a mother posted on Facebook

There are already signs that the burden of raising kids while working remotely is taking a toll. Barbra Silver, executive director of the nonprofit mental-health agency Family Paths, said her organization’s helpline for Alameda County parents is seeing a stark departure from the typical questions about marriage and community resources.

There are already signs that the burden of raising kids while working remotely is taking a toll.

“Now there are starting to be calls about how, for the first time, do I teach my kids in their home? How am I able to process with my children their disappointment they’re not currently doing the things they love to do?” said Silver. “Those themes were never there before because that wasn’t the reality of parents’ lives — trying to balance the everyday stress of being a parent. Now you have to be an everyday parent and your child’s teacher simultaneously, and also somehow manage your own work needs.” (The Parenting Stress Helpline is anonymous, 24/7, and free, 1-800-829-3777)

Playgrounds are off-limits during the shelter-in-place order. Photo: Pete Rosos

How are Berkeley parents adapting to this new world?

Some are using the time to teach their kids about contagion.

“It’s a funny way she and her friends talk about it,” said Juliana Wesolowksi, a UC Berkeley professor living in North Oakland with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. “She’s like, ‘Oh, I’m inside because of the coronavirus.’ And her friends are like, ‘Yeah, it’s the germs that are going to get us.’”

The socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic are harder to convey.

“As far as explaining a bad cold virus that’s making people sick, and making everybody stay home, and the whole economy crashing because of ‘shelter in place,’ we haven’t gotten into all the details with them,” said Carrie. Instead, she and her husband try to find humor by joking about people buying an eternity’s worth of toilet paper. “We’re explaining to them about the economy of hoarding, and how it’s important to just buy what you need so other people who make it to the store can also buy what they need.”

Jessica Stiles and TJ Stiles and their children. Photo: Patrick McKenna

One of the first things Stiles did was to write a daily school schedule on a whiteboard.

“I think the structure is helping, just to have some idea we’re touching on each of the subjects each day as best as possible,” she said. Reading is at 9:30, social studies at 11:15, outdoor activities such as gardening at 1:45, and throughout are computer courses on Spanish and math that don’t require much parental supervision. She’s pulling in her wildlife-biologist father to teach evolution via Zoom, the video-conferencing service whose stock is understandably exploding right now.

“One piece of advice is to give yourself some time to feel this out,” she says. “It’s OK if you’re not an expert teacher right away.”

Starting April 6, the first “school day” after the end of BUSD’s spring break, Stiles will be able to rely on a school-designed virtual curriculum for her two children.

Heads of the household are also benefiting from a structure. Christine Carter, who now suddenly has four live-in college and high-school kids, discovered that after initially treating the partial quarantine as much-deserved downtime.

“I never had a reason to get dressed or whatever,” said Carter, a Marin-based parenting author and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. “I was doing a lot of video calls, but somehow I just pulled that off — put a turtleneck sweater on over my pajamas, flushed my hair up a little, and sort of sat farther away from my computer. I mean, seriously, I wasn’t proud enough to look like I showered.”

She noticed things might be heading to a dark place after realizing she hadn’t brushed her teeth all day and that one of her kids had rocked the same pajamas for half a week. So they made a family pact: The children decided how often they’d bathe each week, and she made a spreadsheet outlining her daily goals with work and exercise. “We aren’t sick, fortunately, but by sitting in our pajamas all day we’re acting like it’s a weekend or like we’re sick.”

Carter and her spouse also adopted a division of labor, with his share involving a heavy amount of vacuuming. “I think it’s essential and there’s an opportunity here to make it fair, right? We hear again and again women are still doing more child care and food preparation and housework. And this is the time to let kids contribute to the cooking and the meal prep and the housework, and just divide up what needs to be done in an equitable way.”

For parents of younger children, the situation is more difficult. Jose Estrada works full-time at home while helping his wife in South Berkeley care for an infant and a 5-year-old daughter, whose preschool has shut its doors. The school recently held a video call where all the kids could see each other, and the amount of excitement that exploded in the virtual room made him concerned with the social time the young ones are missing.

“This is the time to let kids contribute to the cooking, the meal prep and the housework, and just divide up what needs to be done in an equitable way.” — Christine Carter

Estrada’s already detected glimpses of cabin fever in his daughter. “You can just tell she needs probably a solid two hours of going to the park or riding a bike, but now the park is not there anymore,” he said. “I’d say it’s hitting them a lot harder than it’s hitting us.”

It’s debatable. In fact, 2020 might go down as the year of kids photo-bombing their parents’ work meetings. Wesolowksi, the Berkeley professor, said she hasn’t been able to conduct a video call without her 3-year-old daughter popping up in camera view to say “Hi!” to her colleagues. In turn, she can watch her coworkers on videoconference deal with kids roaming their home offices like lawless, baby buffalo on prairies.

“One was just jumping up and down on the bed in the background, which was distracting for all of us,” she said. “But the person assured us that it would be worse for all of us if they stopped that behavior. So, it’s like, just let them go, they’ll go off in a little while.”

Wesolowksi has a message for childless folks enduring this pandemic. “My online colleagues that don’t have kids are like, ‘I’m getting all this work done.’ They’re able to focus on anything they want,” she says. “From my perspective, it’s, ‘We’re living in chaos. Like, total chaos. We don’t know what every day is going to look like. I can’t plan anything, I can’t do anything. So maybe it’s just like have mercy in terms of recognizing that we’re going to be subpar humans for a while. We’re going to be underslept and things are going to be chaotic, you know?”

That’s where precious downtime comes in, if at all available. Wesolowksi has experimented with backyard camping with a tent and fire to stave off her family’s cabin fever; other parents are escaping with meditation breaks and sweating at improvised home gyms. For the Stiles clan, relaxation comes when they gather at night to play games like Hearts and Catan.

“It’s family time, we’re just having fun,” said Stiles. “We’re not going to have a date for like 12 or 18 months so that’s kind of out of the question. Fortunately, we all get along, more or less — nobody’s throttled each other yet.”

Correction: The spring break dates in this story were temporarily edited to reflect an inaccurate end date. The first date back “at” school is April 6, with the distance learning plan going into effect then. 

John Metcalfe is an Oakland-based freelance reporter who's written for Berkeleyside, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. He enjoys covering science, climate and weather, and urban...