I think my neighbor put it best. “Look,” he texted my husband earlier this week, “I’m at the point where, if my son takes out his tablet on Shabbos afternoon and starts watching a Christmas show, I’m just going to go with it. I need a break.”
When my husband shared the thought with me, I chuckled at the imagery. A four-year-old Hasidic boy with long, curly payos humming along to “Jingle Bells” on the holiest day of the week, when technology use is forbidden.
My son doesn’t sport the same hairstyle, but I can completely relate. If you’ve been parenting through these last few weeks, you’ve likely gained a newfound love and appreciation for “screen time”- those minutes or hours of the day when children are allowed to watch TV, play games, and engage in other more leisurely electronic activities. With schools closed and stay-at-home orders in place, many parents have taken on additional caretaking and educational roles with incredibly limited spatial mobility. And, whether you’ve been stuck in a two-bedroom apartment or a suburban home with a yard, your kids have likely been within five feet of you for most of their waking hours. It’s nearly impossible to get anything done around the house, let alone work from home. Screens can keep them entertained and preoccupied for a while, and many parents- even those who might not usually allow their kids to mindlessly watch TV all day- are allowing their kids to have a significant amount of daily screen time.
I’m not an expert but I am a parent, and an adult who is on the verge of completing a doctorate degree after having spent much of my own childhood watching TV. Screen time is a savior right now, and I don’t feel even the slightest bit guilty. To me, monitoring what my kids watch is as important as how long they watch it for, and I’m fine with the fact that my five-year-old watches enough “Arthur” that she now wants to write a letter to Marc Brown. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just as reliant on screen time as my Hasidic neighbor. Which makes this week somewhat terrifying.
The Passover holiday begins Wednesday night and, in keeping with observant traditions, that means our screens will be turned off until after Shabbat. From Wednesday evening until Friday afternoon, we will observe the first two holy days of the chag, followed by the Shabbat on Friday evening. These “three-day yom tov” stretches pop up every now and then, but no one alive today has experienced one amidst a pandemic crisis brought on by globalization. And, I’d venture to say, no parent is fully prepared to face three days without screen time.
To be clear, screen time is not just for parental productivity. I don’t jump into work-mode the second my small children settle into PBS Kids. Screen time also provides a few moments of necessary relief. The intensity of the situation needs to subside a bit before I can even begin to think about responding to emails, analyzing data, recording lectures, and writing. Especially if you have young children at home, you might need a few minutes (read: several hours) just to return to your own sense of self — to drink coffee, use the restroom, and/or shower in peace. I’m worried I won’t recognize myself by the time this is all over.
Normally, when we’re without screens for three days, we’ve had several weeks of regular scheduling. These holy days- while still long and intense- are a nice reprieve from the usual hustle and bustle of life. But with life at a stand-still, my kids and I are already spending 24 hours a day together. And, while we haven’t exhausted every conversation topic, there are few moments of silence outside of screen time. Our “homeschooling” efforts can be summarized by the sounds of my daughter and I becoming more and more frustrated with ourselves, each other, and the paper booklets we’re working through. My extroverted son screams when he sees people- and dogs- he hasn’t yet seen in the last ten minutes. “I want to say hi! I want to pet the doggie! I want to be outside!” he yells from the window. If Disney ever remakes “The Little Mermaid,” he’d been a high-quality Ariel, no doubt.
So, how are we going to get through these three days with our whole selves intact? If I’m being honest with myself, I think that’s too much to ask. My kids will likely have several rounds of outbursts, I’m sure I’ll cry at some point, and my husband might finally tap into his Russian roots and start drinking (kosher for Passover wine, of course).
And that’s okay. Everyone needs a break right now, and the parents especially. Kids are demanding, selfish, adorable little monsters and they won’t suddenly transform into tranquil beings- especially when their sleeping, eating, and socializing schedules are completely out of whack. Honestly, parents are pretty flawed humans as well, and we’re not going to be able to handle this upheaval all that well, either. Popular American stereotypes about parenthood might suggest that every child-related decision is a philosophy, that every interaction between a child and parent is a highly engaged and thoughtful one. Parents share their child rearing takes with so much gusto, you might believe that someone’s paying them- and indeed the parenthood advice industry is a booming one. Yet, whether through a socially distanced park conversation, a much-needed selfcare trip, or a rant with an alcoholic beverage in hand, many of us have discovered that we — and our parent friends — are faking it. We don’t know for certain what we’re doing or how it will all turn out. Yet, we hold on to the idea that one day we’ll make it.
When this three-day yom tov hits, I’m throwing out those assumptions. My kids won’t have screen time to keep them occupied, but they also won’t have two parents who think that this will be a breeze or some very high-level bonding experience. We’ll play with MagnaTiles, pray that we don’t lose any more puzzle pieces, and try to come up with some new potato-based recipes. We might even read a few books, if everyone can agree on which ones to choose. I can guarantee my husband and I will need to escape for a few minutes to hide in the closet and hopefully- we’ll make sure the other one can use the restroom in peace. We’ll do what we can to keep it together.
And we — all of us — will forgive ourselves for the less-than stellar experience. It is, after all, the holiday of freedom.
Hannah Lebovits is an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas- Arlington. Her research and teaching focuses on topics related to urban policy, public administration, social justice and sustainability. She is also a freelance writer and has written for local and national publications. Hannah lives in Dallas with her husband and two children.