The first night our premature newborn slept in our bedroom, I wondered, how can I keep this tiny thing alive?
Eight hours later, my husband and I were back at the pediatrician’s office and then the E.R. to re-admit our baby boy. Heart murmur, low blood sugar, jaundice. Without the hospital, I couldn’t keep this tiny thing alive.
Within three days, he was diagnosed with torticollis severe enough to require a physical therapist. Then came the occupational therapist, and then came more. (A story both new and so, so old.)
Two years later, our twin sons were born ten weeks early. We spent 47 days in the NICU, in isolettes, in a rocking chair. I remember the steady reduction of intervention: five tubes/wires/lines, down to four, and then to three, then two, one. When each boy was unplugged, we swathed him in preemie clothes and chauffeured him home.
For only a night, it seems now, we were just us. Two tired parents, two tiny babies, a toddler whose intervention was increasing just as his baby brothers’ interventions were decreasing, an big anxious cat, a little skittish cat, all of us in need of something.
Educators use a framework called the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR). At the start, teachers bear all the responsibility for teaching a new skill. By the end, students bear all the responsibility for practicing the new skill. It goes like this: Step 1, I do it. Step 2, We do it together. Step 3, You do it together. Step 4, You do it alone.
When our babies first came home, I thought about GRR a lot. The twins were released to us gradually. We got to hold one and, after several days, the other. I remember the first time I got to lift them from the isolettes myself, rather than having a nurse do it, because I’d figured out how to thread the wiring through the tiny door. The nurses did everything, then I did some of it with them, then they coached me from the sidelines. By the end, I did almost all of it myself, even the gentle chest pats during apnea and bradycardia episodes to stimulate their hearts and breath. By then, newer newborns needed more. Nurses trusted me and I trusted they had taught me well. You do it alone.
Ever since, I have been gradually releasing the boys into the world. Into family arms, play groups, activities, babysitters. Into school.
So when school closed on March 12, the responsibility I had gradually given up to the teachers and administrators and interventionists who covered all aspects of my sons’ learning was condensed and placed on the dining room table.
Over the weeks, the schools have provided an enormous amount of material: core lesson plans, videos, worksheets, activities for art and music and PE and social studies and science, portals for posting and interacting, directions for all sorts of activities, invitations to online events held by local organizations, teletherapy, resources for parents, resources for kids… It’s impressive and comforting, overwhelming too. Learning at home is not school. It’s still learning, but it’s learning through a single adult medium. My boys are too young and, as I now know, too nervous to navigate eLearning by themselves. When one has a Zoom session, I’m there, on screen or just off, elbow to elbow.
So all the material comes first to me. I filter, assess what is essential to the boys’ learning, choose. I teach them a lot of what has been provided by the schools. And I design week-long units that interest my boys. Because they are home, they want to learn about home. So I’ve taught them how to make a fire, how circuit breakers work, what’s under the hood of the car. I share the week’s plan with J., who schedules time away from his work to take over so I can work. I don’t feel alone, what with all these resources and supports. But, well, I do feel alone. I feel both immersed in my sons’ schools and alone.
Most of my friends and family members have ventured out. Farmer’s market, doctor, ice cream. For reasons I am just beginning to understand, we have not. J. has gone to the pharmacy and store. The boys and I have not been back in the car since this began. For exactly eight weeks, we have been just us. Two tired parents, two preschoolers with abundant wants, a first grader who finds learning at home a lot easier than school, an anxious cat, a skittish cat, all of us in need of something.
I remember the first day I ventured out of our NYC apartment alone with the boys, after J. had gone back to work. An hour-long process to change them, dress them, pack them and their needs, navigate the double stroller and unsteady toddler into and out of the elevator and out the front door. I was proud. I took a picture.
Today we’re venturing out. It’s on the schedule already. “Special Treat.” They can put on their own shoes this time. I’ll pack snacks and waters and masks. J. will drive. We do it together. Gradually. We’ll go to a local walking trail. We may pass by people we know and miss and love. We’re getting pizza.