When are we moving back to our apartment? I don’t know.
Will we go back to school before the end of the year? I don’t know.
When will I see my friends again? I don’t know.
The Coronavirus has set in motion an unprecedentedly uncertain reality for all of us: severe health and safety concerns, draconian (but necessary) social restrictions, massive economic repercussions, and on and on. For some people, the questions right now might be about survival: How will we pay our rent this month? Can we afford to buy groceries? How will I get healthcare if I need it? For others, the questions might revolve less around daily necessities and more around the bonus experiences that provide our lives with meaning and enrichment. In our household, the big question for kids and adults alike is: “Will there be camp this summer?” And right now, the answer is: “I don’t know.”
For our family, like many American families, summer camp is the spine that runs through our year. Also known as “Living 10 for 2,” i.e. getting through the ten months of the year that aren’t camp in order to get to the two months of the year that are camp, this phrase reflects the importance that camp holds in the lives of people of all ages: campers, alums, counselors, parents. The lifelong friendships and life changing experiences our kids have at camp send them back home to us at the end of the summer stronger, healthier and happier. So with all that in mind, how do we answer when our kids ask us if camp is happening this summer, when we don’t know the answer ourselves?
Some people I know (including my husband) like to offer up the worst case scenario as the likely outcome to an uncertain situation so that if something other than the worst case scenario occurs, they will be pleasantly surprised. Other folks like to offer up the best case scenario in order to delay the pain of breaking bad news to their kids until it’s absolutely necessary. And others, including myself, are working on a new muscle in the current reality — the ability to say “I don’t know.”
Some of you might already have a really strong “I don’t know” muscle. I envy you. Up until recently my “I don’t know” muscle was puny and weak because I am a planner. Not just an amatuer, B-level planner. I am a Grade-A, military-precision planner. But in this new state of affairs, there is no planning. We have no idea how the world will change in even just a few short weeks, so my life is currently not planned more than a week ahead. That is hard, really hard, for someone who adores the calm and control of planning; for someone who is terrible at saying “I don’t know.” Of course I know! I always know! But right now, I don’t know and seemingly no one knows. Frankly, if I give myself time to consider this truth, the uncertainty is almost too heavy a burden to bear.
So here I am, being forced by the crazy circumstances of this world to get better at the “I don’t know.” I am staring down into the abyss of the unknown and a black hole of uncertainty stares back at me. That’s what this moment feels like. And I just have to sit with that uncertainty and be OK with it, because I have no choice. I have no control. I cannot plan my way out of it. Except here’s the thing: I have four people living in my house for whose emotional and physical well-being I am responsible. And while I am slowly making peace with the not-knowing, my kids are well, kids, and haven’t had the benefit of nearly 44 years of life to train for not-knowing. They have questions, lots of questions, that it’s my responsibility to answer.
So here is how I am going to approach their questions about camp (or any other topic) for which there is no clear answer right now:
- I am going to answer exactly what is being asked and not elaborate with extra stuff that confuses the issue. For example, for the question: Will there be camp this summer? My answer: I don’t know yet.
- I am not going to make promises that I may not be able to keep, but I am going to stay upbeat and include my kids in decision-making. For example, for the question: What will we do if there is no camp? My answer: I’m not exactly sure yet, but if camp doesn’t happen, we will sit down together as a family to plan something fun.
- I am going to keep my kid company while she sits in the uncertainty of not-knowing so she doesn’t sit through it alone. For example, I might say: I understand how hard the not-knowing can feel. I have a hard time with it too and it’s something I’m really working on. Is it ok if I sit quietly with you for a few minutes?
- If it turns out (God forbid) that camp does not happen this summer, I am going to make it crystal clear that I value how important camp is to my kid, I will make myself available to her and I will not minimize her sense of loss. For example, I might say: I appreciate that camp is a really special experience for you and I am so sorry that you won’t have that experience this summer. I am here if you want to talk about it now or later — there is no expiration date on that offer.
- I will not try to solve the problem of what we will do without camp while she is still in her early stages of grief. I will not tell her to get over it. I will not tell her to stop crying. I will not tell her it will all be fine. I will sit with her and hug her and stroke her hair and make sure she drinks water (so she doesn’t get dehydrated while she cries some more.)
In the meantime, while we wait to find out if camp is happening this summer, here’s how I’m going to spend my time: I’m going to NOT plan my daughter’s bat mitzvah and NOT plan my son’s college tours and NOT plan a summer vacation See how good I’m getting at not knowing? I’m just going to hope and pray first, that our world gets healthier and second, that my kids get to go to camp this summer.
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