‘Put it on! Put it on, Mama!’ they said. When our little corner of Victoria went back into lockdown my children were excited. They thought the colourful masks all the adults now wore were like some elaborate game of dress-ups. For children, every new thing is shiny and entrancing. That is one of the great gifts of childhood.
But not me. The novelty of this pandemic has worn off. All I am left with is a deep, abiding sorrow at the ways in which the external world is intruding on my children’s childhood. The bushfires of our black summer brought a pall of dread with the smoke haze. The last fires were barely extinguished when the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in Australia. Slowly, the cultural implications of these catastrophic disruptions to normal daily life have dawned on me.
Ordinarily, for children in safe, loving homes in peaceful, industrialised nations, having faith in your parents’ omniscience and omnipotence is a normal part of childhood. It is normal to believe that your parents know everything and control everything. This fallacy is one of the things that make childhood feel safe: relaxing into the security of our parents’ wisdom and power.
But my children are learning at an unbearably young age that this sense of sanctuary is a fantasy. ‘When will coronavirus end?’ they ask. ‘When will we get to see Granny and Babar again? When will swimming lessons start at the pool? When will we get to go camping again? When can we go to the playground? Will I be able to invite other kids to my birthday party?’
These are all reasonable questions. But I cannot answer any of them.
Yet there are some things I know. I’m not a scientist. I can’t tell you the particulars of how pandemics spread, or the details of how the destruction of wild places unleashed these viruses into the human species in the first place. Likewise, I can’t tell you the specifics of how climate change works. But I am an observer of the cultural world, especially the past and present of motherhood and childhood. And I fear that they are changing irrevocably.
Childhood has contracted to the home in this plague year. Ordinarily, children expand their territorial range as they grow older, their sphere of confident movement radiating outwards from their home as their spatial competency grows. They learn to walk to school by themselves. To ride their bike to the local park. To take public transport into town or city. These excursions in independent mobility are often done in the company of friends, extending relationships outside the family. But now, children are kept on a short leash, confined to the home, the backyard, or occasionally the local neighbourhood. Their physical sphere has shrunk radically to their family within their home—though, paradoxically, the virtual worlds of many children have enlarged though increased screen time, whether that be online learning with teachers, video calls with family, or social-media and video-game interactions with friends.
Growing up is associated with learning new skills and competencies. Children learn chasey and rules of social engagement in the school playground. They master gross motor skills and group interactions when they play team sports on the weekend. These relationships and activities involve moving beyond the safety and stagnation of home. But all of these competencies are on hold. My five-year-old started Prep this year. She thinks rotating between school-at-school and school-at-home is normal. And who knows? Maybe it is now. Maybe computer-mediated learning, socialising and leisure will increasingly become the new normal for children from now on.
But there is something deeper at play here. We are having to relearn social cues and basic human symbolism. When we go out, I constantly remind my children to ‘social distance’ from other people (a verb I have to repeat often because young children are not naturally spatially aware). Rather than a gesture of warmth or comfort, I have had to teach them not to touch people outside their own family. Not to hug, not to hold hands. ‘Don’t touch the railing. Don’t sit on the bench.’ I hate the necessity of these warnings. I hate the requirement of teaching them to beware close contact with other people, when we consciously moved to our small town to offer our children the warmth of a close-knit community.
Let me be clear: I am not querying the rightness of these pandemic restrictions. I respect the judgement of our public health experts. But my professional expertise is in emotional and cultural trends, and I am quietly cataloguing the very many impacts of these restrictions on our inner and our shared worlds.
We are experiencing something cataclysmic. Rarely does a single event effect everyone in the world at the same time (though we know that pandemic impacts are experienced unevenly, with the most disadvantaged also the most negatively impacted). As we individually live through the heaviness, the enervation, the depression and the existential despair of coronavirus life, we can take some comfort in knowing that these personal experiences are also collective. We are participating in communities of emotion as this virus sweeps the globe, which has the potential to connect us in powerfully affective ways. This virus is revealing that we are all of us vulnerable and interdependent, as children are. And while some of the mutual compassion and support that has been generated by COVID is likely to prove transitory, there exists the possibility of radical shifts in our modes of relation. From these difficult circumstances we could learn to take seriously and support tangibly a reimagined ethics of care that meaningfully values the contributions of carers—those parents, teachers, health professionals and childcare workers who nurture the development of our youngest and most vulnerable members of society.
But as a historian of childhood, I wonder: will childhood ever return to what it was pre-pandemic? Can generation COVID reclaim some of the innocence and wonder that was once theirs? Or has this pandemic permanently erased something so commonplace we barely noticed it existed: the ability to go through the world unmasked, if only for a scant few years.