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10 June 2020

Like most children, mine still cannot return to school. I fear for their well-being

Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, depending on how you look at it – I know a thing or two about dealing with depression.

By Alice O'Keeffe

It’s Sunday morning and Larry is lying on the sofa. He wouldn’t eat breakfast, just sat at the table looking pale and miserable. Then he sloped off to lie down.

“Are you alright, Pops?” I put my hand on his forehead; no temperature. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m just tired,” he says. A tear runs down his cheek. He curls into the foetal position.

“Are you feeling down?” He nods. My chest feels tight and heavy. This has been building up for a few weeks. Larry, who has a naturally sunny disposition, is increasingly withdrawn. He doesn’t want to do his schoolwork; he doesn’t want to go for bike rides, or walks. He doesn’t even really want to see his mates – it’s been so long since they spent time together, in child-time, that they have become distant, like people he once knew.

I stroke his forehead gently, staying calm on the outside, but inside I’m in pieces. My heart breaks to see my ten-year-old son showing symptoms of depression. The pain it causes me isn’t only emotional; it’s physical, like something ripping.

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This is what the people who call for more lockdown, who tell us that schools are opening too soon, don’t see. You can’t measure children’s well-being in the same way that you measure deaths from coronavirus; you can’t display its peaks and troughs in daily graphs or come up with R or K numbers. But there should be no doubt that these measures have been punitive and damaging for kids of all ages.

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Many are returning to school now; as such, this will be my final column. But most will not. I worry for those kids.

Children need other children; they also need a purpose and direction in life, just as adults do. If you deprive them of social contact, routine and education, not merely for a few weeks, but for months on end, then that has a serious impact. Add to that the stress that parents are under, and I feel genuinely scared of what lots of kids are going through.

“When you feel this way, it’s really important to get up and do some exercise,” I tell Larry. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, depending on how you look at it – I know a thing or two about dealing with depression. “Come on, let’s go for a bike ride.”

Larry shakes his head and glowers. He doesn’t want to go out with me; he has seen too much of me as it is.

Eventually Husband persuades Larry to go for a walk, and his mood lifts. But I can’t stop thinking about it. Husband is going back to work full time on Monday, and even though he is a key worker the boys have not yet been offered any time in school. So for this week – and maybe for months – I will be responsible for every element of their lives. I will not only be their mum, but also their teacher, dinner lady, PE instructor, and cleaner. When I think about it, the responsibility feels overwhelming; I see it towering before me like a great wave, ready to crash.

But the thing about motherhood is that being overwhelmed is not an option. When things get tough, that’s when you find strength from somewhere. My kids need purpose and routine? I’m going to make sure they get it.

Husband and I have been relaxed about home schooling so far, and that was OK for a few weeks. But we have months more of this limbo ahead of us, and it can’t go on. The boys need me to take this seriously, to make it my job. I was determined to resist our home becoming like an institution, but for now, that is exactly what it needs to be. A loving and beautiful and inspiring institution.

I work on my plan late into the night. I go through the home learning the school has sent through, looking carefully at every activity and every worksheet. I get out my coloured pens. I draw up a timetable. I sharpen the pencils. If I need to be a teacher, I’m going to be the best damned teacher my boys ever had.

This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt