“Papa! Show me my books!” demands our eager 3-year-old daughter. The camera pans slowly across her little library some 1,200 miles away.
She selects her well-read Paw Patrol book and settles into the comfort of her bed in Florida while her dad, in Toronto, begins a storied tale of puppies working together to protect their beloved community.
Any rules my husband and I had about the use of screens before bedtime have fallen to the wayside. We quietly accept video calls as part of our toddler’s new night-time routine, and it has remained the same, every single night, for the past 13 weeks.
On March 20, the United States and Canada shut their borders to all non-essential travel to limit the spread of COVID-19 across both countries. After more than two months of this historic border closing, this week on June 8, the Canadian Government announced a “limited exemption” allowing some immediate family members of Canadian citizens to re-enter the country. With reunification finally within reach, it seems like an opportune moment to reflect on mine and my husband’s experience parenting a toddler together, while apart for nearly three months.
A bit of background: Prior to the border closure, we decided it was best for me to be in America with my elderly, high-risk parents. When we made the decision, we didn’t know how long our daughter and I would wind up staying here, but we knew it was the only choice for our family, even if it meant being separated for the foreseeable future.
I’m American. My husband is Canadian. Our daughter is a dual citizen. My work as a global health consultant made traveling across international borders a permanent fixture of our family’s life. Though with all travel halted, it’s now been 13 weeks since our family has been together. Thirteen weeks since I’ve held my husband’s hand. Thirteen weeks since our daughter has hugged her father.
While my family’s pain is nowhere near the suffering of those who have lost loved ones or economic security to the carnage wreaked by this virus, we have worried immensely about the lasting impact of this separation on our child and on our ability to parent—together—through this crisis.
In these 13 weeks, we have missed scores of celebrations together: her third birthday, Mother’s Day, the Islamic month of Ramadan, the festival of Eid, and our sixth wedding anniversary.
We have also missed grieving together: the deaths of extended family and friends to COVID-19, the incalculable loss of over 100,000 lives taken in the United States and 7,500 lost in Canada, and the screaming injustice of the wrongful deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
And yet through it all, we have learned so much together. We’ve consciously tried to reframe our concerns about parenting across borders, to the possibilities of parenting beyond them.
This shift in thinking has been liberating. It allows us to lean into the discomfort and embrace the messiness of what it means to parent virtually during this unprecedented time. It gives us the freedom to acknowledge there is no manuscript to follow and no predetermined way of doing any of this right.
Our approach has given birth to some whimsical games such as “virtual hide-and-seek.” This involves our daughter hiding her dad (on my phone) around the house and urging me excitedly to seek him out. Often I find him face down under a pillow or beneath the bed, waiting to be rescued from the dark abyss she unwittingly plunged him into.
It also provides me a few coveted moments of quiet each day, as my husband, propped up against the napkin dispenser or water pitcher, virtually supervises and entertains her through mealtimes. He does the same in the evenings, leaning on the bathroom vanity to ensure he has an optimal view of her nightly brushing and flossing routine.
Initially, I questioned the wisdom of leaving a 3-year-old alone with a virtual parent in the room. Eventually, I learned to let go and instead appreciate the copious amounts of energy and patience it takes on his part to keep a toddler engaged over the ether.
In this era of hyper-hygiene, our digital rituals serve as a constant reminder to ensure my phone and laptop are sanitized. It is now routine for my daughter to repeatedly kiss and sometimes even lick my devices as she peppers her father with her sweet and salty brand of affection.
Our virtual tea parties and pretend play sessions have also become more meaningful. As non-Black parents of color, the times demand more from us to broaden our daughter’s horizons and address any anti-Black bias in the early years of her life. Through “guest visitors” at our play parties, we’re introducing her to the characters and stories of Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Elijah McCoy, Mary-Ann Shad, Katherine Johnson and Rosa Parks.
We hope we are doing the right things, but we don’t actually know how she will remember this time apart. Though we do know this: We are all living history, we are all bearing witness to the trials of our time, and we must all play our part in shaping what comes next: a stronger, more resilient and equitable society.
There’s no denying the past few months have been downright hard and dispiriting. Though as parents, we have become even more mindful that we are blessed with the most unique gift of this crisis: the opportunity to raise the next generation of leaders, activists and change-makers our world desperately needs.
With this optimism and knowledge centered in our souls, my husband and I have freed ourselves from worrying about the impact of this separation on our daughter. We trust we have become better parents and a stronger family for the experience. And with the Canadian border now creaking open to reunite families, we are hopeful that Father’s Day will be a moment we get to celebrate together (in real life) after all.