Self-isolation during the COVID-19 crisis for working parents with 5-year-old triplets is exhausting—and precious.

Funny memes have been circulating recently as families isolate together during the COVID-19 pandemic. My favorite is “The 16 Stages of Pandemic,” by novelist and podcast host Brandy Ferner, a play on the stages of grief, listing as normal such phases as “heavy snacking” and “abject terror.” When I saw the meme, I laughed out loud, then kept laughing in a high-pitched squeal I didn’t recognize. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I couldn’t speak. My 5-year-old triplets watched me, concerned. They asked what was wrong. They rested their little hands on my forearm. Until then, I’d presented a cool, calm front, but inside, I was a twisted mess of nerves.

When schools announced they’d be closed—perhaps for the year—the teacher in me wasn’t afraid. I’d teach life skills, like 21st-century pioneers. We’d thread needles, darn blankets, plant root vegetables and boil chicken bones for noodle soup. I considered making a schedule and sticking to it, rotating between guided, researched activities and free play. I told myself our time in self-isolation would be fine, maybe even fun, and that our lives wouldn’t change much. My children would only be home two extra hours a day, after all, and my husband, Chad, had already begun working from home as a consultant a few months before.

Like most good intentions, isolation started smoothly. After reading a book about salt in the ocean, we dissolved salt into water and set it on the counter, waiting for the water to evaporate. We streamed yoga from YouTube, mirrored it to our basement television and named poses: tree pose, up dog, down dog, savasana. Chad and the kids did Insanity workouts together, the four of them lined up in front of the television wearing athletic shorts and no tops, lifting knees higher and higher still. We tuned in to the Cincinnati Zoo’s live animal lessons and created bird art out of feathers from the couch cushions. The time ahead didn’t seem so terrible. My children were learning organically, staying positive, getting involved. I could almost pretend we were on summer break. I had only taken a few deep breaths since shutting our doors, had only dreamt of going out for the proverbial milk once or twice.

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It wasn’t long, though, before my children started asking if they needed to get dressed in the morning. We had already stopped brushing hair. They began complaining about foods we didn’t have, like Nutella, because the grocery store was out. It rained, a lot. Friends’ houses flooded, and we left fans and a Shop-Vac on our driveway for them to retrieve. Once, alone in the shower, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the silence, until I was interrupted by three little girls who joined me, and then I wondered if I should stop showering. Our salt-water experiment didn’t evaporate in a reasonable time, and the kids cried.

Keeping the house clean felt like brushing teeth while eating Oreos. As usual, I employed my children in chores, like dusting, which they did with reckless abandon, leaving their brooms, mops and dirty rags all over the house for me to pick up. They began boredom eating, dirtying every dish, pan and utensil so we never had enough. They brought up the Lego box from the basement and dumped it in the living room, stray pieces scattering everywhere we walked. I couldn’t keep up with the upkeep.

Then, insomnia set in. The children stayed up late, squirming in their beds, and woke from nightmares. Likely, they weren’t getting enough stimulation and exercise; perhaps they, too, suffered from anxiety. We all looked ragged, listless, our clothes mismatched, our hair tangled and matted, our eyes bloodshot and heavy. Our lives seemed on repeat, my words like mantras: No, you can’t have friends over. Sorry, you won’t be going back to that school. Yes, tomorrow will be the same.

Chad continued to work normal hours and conduct regular phone meetings, but instead of leaving the house to give him quiet, we stayed insufferably loud and incredibly close. He rearranged his schedule to allow me work time in my own office—a half-hour here, 20 minutes there—but by the time I was able to clear my head and focus, by the time my computer had updated and synced and opened the relevant documents, Chad was called back to work.

Mostly, I tried to write among my children, sitting on the couch with my laptop, producing a disjointed thought or two before fielding requests for snacks or covering boo-boos with Band-Aids. Once, while I was on a business call, my children decided to chase one another around the house, screaming after the leader who had a toy the other two wanted. I wandered from room to room trying to find a quiet spot, but it was no use; my colleague’s children were just as loud. We gave up and rescheduled. Neither of us could hear the other speak.

It was then I realized I couldn’t keep the professional pace I’d established since the triplets started school. I knew I’d need to pause my writing career like I had my teaching one five years before; only this time I didn’t feel confident about the change. Full-time parent once again, I remembered how taxing it had been caring for three infants, arranged assembly-line style, sucking on bottles propped with rolled-up blankets, crying out of hunger, pain or boredom. My children were no longer infants. They had grown into school-aged people with intellectual needs, and I had been called to become their mother-teacher, leading a three-child, 24-hour preschool class without a lesson plan or supplies.

Perhaps the most difficult part of us being together constantly, though, was that I missed my husband, only feet away. He felt out of reach, the children always—often literally—on top of us, our conversations reduced to fragmented snippets interrupted by burning preschool questions, fighting or yelling. I knew Chad was stressed, too, locked away in our bedroom office, unable to help parent, without the space or the quiet to talk about it. I considered giving my children unlimited screen time, thinking I might call this new stage of the pandemic “marathon cartooning.”

But then one night, all three girls started playing, each laughing and squealing and piling on one another, the din of the coronavirus news in the background, my husband and I sitting quietly on the couch, absorbing the noise and chaos. One child said to another, “I don’t like you. I love you!” and it was as though nothing in the world existed but us. I thought, if we had to be stuck, at least we were with our best friends.

That night, after the triplets finally fell asleep (now in the same bedroom, not wanting to sleep alone), Chad and I sat and talked, not about the end of the world, but about podcasts we’d discovered while waiting for kids to fall asleep, interesting articles we’d read while making coffee and how it was technically spring. No cars sped down our streets. The television sat blank. We were home, not surrounded by loud restaurant patrons or interrupting waiters. We had nowhere to be, no invitations to accept, no calendars to sync, no to-do lists to create. Life felt slower and more present. Suddenly, we weren’t mourning our old lives, full of date nights and parties, gymnastics and swim lessons, excess toilet paper and invitations. We weren’t even worrying about the lives we still might lose. We were just being. I could’ve stayed there forever.

I was right about the hours of our days not changing much during isolation. But I was wrong to think our lives wouldn’t change. My preschool-aged children now know what a novel virus is and how it is different from other viruses; they know that a community needs to work together when faced with a crisis and that those who can provide should; they understand rationing and why it’s sometimes needed, and that going without sliced bread is not the same as going without. I’d not planned on teaching my 5-year-olds these lessons so soon, but I’m glad they learned them from me.

Someday, when the government announces school and business openings, we will collectively breathe and celebrate. New memes will circulate, and other subjects will consume us. But many of us will secretly miss having this time with our families. The house will seem too quiet; the drive to work will feel too tedious. We will become busy and rushed. These days have been both lovely and heartbreaking, the downtime and togetherness so rare.

And, after it’s over, we will go back to passing one another on our way through the house, having felt like we endured something significant together, even if that something was one another, the people we love most—the people we couldn’t bear living without—for a short time.