In praise of moms on the front line against coronavirus’ cabin fever
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In praise of moms on the front line against coronavirus’ cabin fever

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Jamie Heit and her son Brandon Heit, 10 work on making zucchini muffins at their home in Frisco on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. The change of lifestyle brought on by coronavirus has been stressful and overwhelming. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Jamie Heit has spent precious little time obsessing over the daily coronavirus tally. She’s worried, for sure. But she’s got her hands full playing substitute teacher and traffic cop in one of the countless households dealing with pandemic-induced cabin fever.

The fast-moving illness — unlike anything our generation has ever seen — is sowing apprehension and occasional moments of paralyzing fear. Thank goodness, we’ve got mothers on the front line to fight back.

Jamie, the parent of three Frisco ISD students and a well-known community volunteer and advocate, offered one of the most apt descriptions I’ve heard for these times: “It feels like being snowed in — except without the snow and with no clear end in sight.”

The ways that mothers are coping are as varied as the mothers themselves. Some must corral their kids while working remote; others are school teachers themselves — with an entire class of students as well as their own children depending on them.

All these moms are playing a daily strategy game of assess and reassess as families adjust to long-distance learning and home confinement. What seems an extreme decision one day, may not feel extreme enough the next.

Last Monday, Jamie and her husband still felt OK about her two youngest kids going to their outdoor tennis lessons; “but by Tuesday we pulled them out.” A non-emergency dental visit: Canceled. Tutoring: Canceled.

Even the logistics for this interview changed overnight. Originally, we agreed that I would spend most of the day at the Heits’ home, but the morning of the interview both Jamie and I thought better of that optimistic plan.

“I’ve been agonizing over every decision,” Jamie acknowledged while I “virtually” observed her household via calls, texts and photos to see how the family was managing. “It’s a fine line of over-worrying and not worrying enough.”

The crisis has so muddled our sense of time that Jamie has difficulty believing it was less than two weeks ago that she and 10th-grader Lilly kicked off their spring break by flying to Richmond, Va., for a soccer clinic. Three days later, as they boarded their ominously empty plane home, Jamie suspected that things were about to change drastically.

“It really hit our family last weekend, when my father-in-law, who’s a doctor and not one to overreact, said, ‘This is really serious,’” Jamie told me. “That’s when we pulled back the reins and began wondering what would happen with daily life.”

Jamie and her husband, David, are very aware that they are far luckier than so many local residents who are living paycheck to paycheck — or now with no paycheck at all. But the Heits’ newly straitjacketed lifestyle reflects what many local households are experiencing: A family that used to have a jam-packed schedule — barely managing to fit everything in — now looking for things to do at home to stay busy.

Yes, what was once the rare opportunity for all five of them to sit down at the same time for dinner and leisurely conversation is now a nightly ritual, but there’s no sugar-coating the fact that interminable self-confinement is a slog.

“It’s lonely because we are a fairly social family,” Jamie said, pointing out that usually when life slows down, it means doing things the Heits normally don’t have time for — a movie, a museum or a new restaurant. “Instead, when we slow down now, we think about why we are self-quarantining and that is sobering.”

After only a week of isolation and e-learning, Jamie told me that “all three of my kids have said repeatedly how they miss their friends and ‘there’s nothing to do.’ They miss school — even my high schoolers.”

The girls are old enough for iPhones and the virtual connections it allows, but not 10-year-old Brandon. Now his parents are re-evaluating that decision and looking at other ways he can communicate with his friends like his older sisters do.

Ninth-grader Naomi sat in the kitchen while Jamie cooked and talked with me by phone. “This is so weird,” the teen said. “I’m used to being so busy, and now I don’t know what to do with myself.”

Brandon, the family’s eternal optimist, responded, “We just have to find new ways to have fun.”

As the week wore on, the Heit house remained surprisingly quiet: The children focused on full days of various online-lessons provided by Frisco ISD. David, a Dallas-based lawyer, put in his usual long hours, many of them at the dining room table. Jamie cooked, cleaned and tackled some of the volunteer work she could handle online from her kitchen.

“Already I’m constantly looking for things to do around the house to stay busy and I’ve already made a list of projects,” she laughed.

Jamie rarely mentions it but she must be particularly careful navigating the coronavirus because she has lived with an autoimmune disorder since she was a child. Her lupus puts her more at risk when she becomes ill because her immune system fights off the infection and then keeps right on fighting her body.

But it’s for her children’s sake that Jamie is taking no chances.”The fact that people are contagious while asymptomatic scares me more than anything because it gives people a false sense of security,” she said.

She is still trying to figure out exactly how she wants her daily “home school” to run, but for now, the kids get to sleep a little later before their e-learning begins. “Everyone must be downstairs for breakfast by 9 and we start school at 10,” Jamie said.

Her two teenagers are accustomed to working independently and are familiar with the online programs. But even helping fourth-grader Brandon set up the required apps — basic stuff such as creating logins and passwords — has been a little overwhelming. “It turns out we did two hours of unnecessary work that first day, but as Brandon said, we got ahead,” Jamie told me.

Cancellation notices of much-anticipated spring events continue to roll into the family’s email: ACT testing, college visits, art competition, soccer and tennis tournaments. “All three kids pour so much into their school and their sports,” Jamie said. “It’s awful (for them) seeing all your hard work be put on hold.”

She also already has noticed her two high schoolers struggling with another fear: “They have both commented that they are more worried about their grades with distance learning after working so hard to get their GPA’s up to where they are right now,” Jamie said.

Acknowledging that everything could change tomorrow, what’s caused Jamie the most stress in recent days has been her Frisco Residents Who Care page.

Jamie’s community advocacy includes running a Facebook site, which has become a virtual coffee shop for locals the past four years. Now, with residents mostly confined to their homes — and tensions growing around both local and national decision-making related to the coronavirus — the conversation that Jamie has long sought to keep constructive has reverberated with more bickering than usual.

Since the coronavirus broke out locally, the page’s membership has skyrocketed to 7,000 members and almost all of the posts — which have grown from about three a day to more than a hundred daily — are about the pandemic. “It’s faster than I can keep up with. I literally go to bed some nights and dream about coronavirus,” Jamie said.

Things got so bad early in the week, “I had to just put the kids and the car and drive — with no destination in mind — to get away from social media for the day.”

When the sun’s out, Jamie feels less overwhelmed. “But it’s been rainy and gloomy so much of the time. You can’t even get out and walk.”

Then she reminded me — for about the zillionth time in our conversations over the week — that she has nothing to complain about. Instead, she’s intent on doing her part for as long as the coronavirus crisis requires.

“I am extremely concerned for the safety and well being of everyone — my family, my neighbors, my community. This is a virus like no other and to not take every possible precaution would be irresponsible.”

For now, she is trying to do everything possible to keep her family from going stir-crazy between now and when this ghastly episode is behind us. “FISD put out a note referencing ‘out until April,’” she laughed, “but I’m not holding my breath.”

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