We were harvesting wild oysters from the cold Tasmanian waters, three days after visiting family in Sydney, when the South Australian government announced the border closures.
“Fourteen days,” I said, aghast, to my husband. “No leaving the house. And no daycare.”
As we returned home to the Adelaide Hills, that feeling of dread grew. How was I going to make it through two weeks without a single break from our 18-month-old, Simone? Since I sold my book to a publisher when she was only five months old, Simone has attended a wonderful local daycare. At first, she refused to take a milk bottle, so I would drop her off, then sit in my car, in the rain, with no cafes or libraries open due to the virus – writing and waiting to be called in to breastfeed my child. Over time, our daughter settled into daycare and began to really like it, reaching out her arms to hug the educators at drop-off.
I relished the chance to write my book and run the magazine I publish, from 9am to 4pm, four days a week. I loved knowing that our baby was playing with other little ones, climbing and singing and learning. However, at home, I found it difficult to create a space that might compete with the daycare zone, designed explicitly for children to play.
Our farm, where we grow veggies and make wine, felt like the most stressful place to be with my child as she learned how to walk. There were giant hills, tractors, machines whirring in the shed – all of which she gravitated toward, despite my pleas to play with toys inside.
As months passed, I became increasingly uncertain about how to be at home with Simone. The hustle of driving her to and from her daycare, a 50-minute round trip, twice in a day, wore me down over time. I began smoking again after a 14-month cessation to relieve the boredom of the return trip after drop-off, and to cope with a rough bout of postpartum depression. And because every writer loves distractions, I used pick-up as an excuse to spend time at the shops – there always seemed to be some ingredient missing at home.
While my daughter was away I felt pangs of guilt, and I missed her. But still, every Monday, I awoke like Pavlov’s dog, frothing at the mouth to get our child to daycare.
Now, we were facing 14 days without it.
At a local “bush playgroup” we recently attended, the instructor, who was influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s educational philosophy, mentioned that “a day at home” with a child is important for their development. But it terrified me. How to fill the gaping day, when my toddler could hardly hold a crayon, had the attention span of a butterfly, and I was loath to let her watch more than a half-hour of television? Mummy blogs offered activities which made me shudder thinking of the giant mess I’d have to clean up – pink-tinted water all over the couch? No, thanks.
The first few days of quarantine, it rained. We watched Peppa Pig and Bluey on the couch until I couldn’t take it anymore. I closed the iPad, and announced that we were having a dance party. My husband projected Whitney Houston on to the wall and our daughter bounced to her feet and began sashaying and wiggling. We laughed, for the first time in a while.
The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast of pancakes as if it were not a Wednesday. Then, all morning, I followed Simone’s lead – if she crawled on the floor and growled like a monster, I pretended to be scared and she chased me. If she pointed at balloons, we blew them up and bopped the globes around. When she banged on the door, we rugged up and went outside. At one point, I planted snapdragons while Simone used her children’s gardening tools to pour water all over the patio and dribble a mixture of compost and wet sand throughout the herb garden, screaming with glee. Back inside, we brought out some plasticine, rolled it into logs and made hissing sounds like snakes. The day went by in a blur of activity, and I felt a complete absence of anxiety.
Before long, a week had passed, and then two. The dance party became a nightly routine, branching out into Salt-N-Pepa and Kate Bush. When the sun came out, we took walks, looking for edible mushrooms. And something unexpected was happening – now, I awoke to the luxurious awareness that our daughter would be with us, all day. I welcomed this new sensation.
My daughter, too, was different: never had I seen her so happy and calm. And perhaps it was just a matter of her crossing the 18-month threshold, but she seemed to play independently in a new way. Simone even obliged me answering some emails while she ransacked a bottom drawer filled with phone chargers and accessories, interrogating each one.
I suddenly felt totally fine – relaxed, even – about being at home with our toddler. Being forced to spend two full weeks on our farm with her, having no playgroup to break up the day or childcare to rely upon, revealed that the problem was never my relationship with her, nor was it that we needed more toys, or a different kind of home.
The problem was my own inability to do nothing, to just simply “be”. Quarantine, surprisingly, provided emotional release from the crippling feeling of “mum guilt”, the sense that I am a bad mother because someone else is caring for her – even if Simone herself enjoys it.
Obviously, quarantine might have felt differently if I worked, say, as a florist, and missed out on two weeks’ pay. Running a business from home, however, has always meant that the separation between domestic life and work is blurry – a tricky balancing act that now I’m aware I need to work on. In the end, our daughter has returned to daycare, but I’ve learned that our family life can exist without it.