Coronavirus: Three weeks of no school – our new reality in Italy

Sheenagh Daly in Milan: Staying indoors has brought both tense and funny moments

As we reach the end of the third week of closure of schools and creches here in Milan, Italy, one thing is certain: juggling children and smart working (the Italian term for working from home) is our new reality. It requires a great deal of patience and a lot of creativity. Organising a childcare rota with other parents goes against the intent of the decree imposing restrictive measures, grandparents are urged not to leave their homes and babysitters are mainly heeding advice to stay indoors. It is difficult to "mobilise your village" when your village is under quarantine. Our (almost) four-year old daughter, Ailise, is used to having companions during play and asks why we can't go to the park. As of March 13th, the parks in Milan have been closed by the government. During our weekends, we are used to going to the markets, the hairdressers, the Chinese bar underneath our home for a cappuccino, one or two restaurants and the swimming pool. All of the above-mentioned commercial and recreational activities have been shut down under the latest decree. We can leave our homes for "urgent, verifiable work situations, necessities or health reasons". Children aren't aware of the police presence as they are confined indoors. The recommendation from the government is that one member of the family go to the supermarket alone so we can't take our children.

Distance learning appears to be working well for some of our friends whose children are older than ours. The distance learning efforts introduced by Ailise’s school have, however, failed to hold her attention. She watched the videos sent by the school suspiciously and asked: “why are my teachers singing with no bambini (babies)?” We worry, of course, that she is less physically active, has too much screen time and that we resort too often to bribery (in the form of junk food) in order to be able to work. It frustrates us that she has no outdoor activities and no interaction with her friends during this quarantine. We attempt to create a routine and to occupy her time by having her make one rather messy craft a day and involving her in tidying up and cooking, the latter mainly involving splashing batter around in a bowl. She will occasionally allow her nine-month old brother, Patrick, to play with her dollhouse. They giggle more frequently together since we have been confined. Hysterical giggling that results from tiredness at the end of a long day at home.

When work beckons and we cannot play with Ailise, we console ourselves that her bond with Patrick has become stronger since we have been quarantined, and that it is wise to allow children to become bored so that their inner creativity emerges. We have good days and bad days during this strange period. On good days, we get some respite when they nap, Ailise may catch a few rays of sun on the terrace where she sets up a picnic and invents her own games assigning Patrick a minor role. On bad days, the routine we attempt to impose doesn’t work, they won’t nap when we would like them to (or at all) and Ailise will proclaim that she “can do nothing,” “it is so boring,” and entreat us to invite some of her friends to our home (we can’t according to the latest restrictions).

One point of contention is when we have work calls at the same time with one eye on the children and the other on the screen. I won’t deny that there are moments of tension between us, but we have moments of hilarity too. We generally divide the tasks in the home and with the children between us so that one of us doesn’t become resentful of the other. The other day, we agreed that Patrick would have our leftover risotto. I was tending to Ailise’s needs when my husband announced that he had mistakenly thrown away the risotto. Intensely annoyed at having to make another meal for Patrick, I marched into the kitchen shouting: “why did you have to throw away perfectly good risotto”. Once in the kitchen, I saw my husband’s spoon on the pan and caught the heavy guilty, expression on his face. “You ate the risotto!” I exclaimed. We then fell around the kitchen laughing. The hysterical reaction of two stressed out parents having been confined indoors for too long.

The greatest challenge of our new reality is to be patient after a day of interacting solely with each other. The other is to be positive in the face of uncertainty over the duration of the restrictive measures. The coronavirus crisis is a test of our parenting skills: how not to transfer our fear and anxiety to our children, how to temper our reaction to each new restrictive measure so that our children do not become alarmed, how to stave off boredom and calm anxiety and how to devise creative games to keep children entertained and safe as we work.

Italian companies have been slow to introduce smart working. They had no choice but to do so for office-based roles under the latest decree, which stipulates that “maximum use needs to be provided by companies to facilitate smart working for activities that can be performed from home”. Italy has a culture that has thrived on face-to-face interactions in business. While our current conditions are not ideal for smart working due to the juggling of childcare and work matters, my husband and I acknowledge the benefits not least for our quality of life and the environment. I wonder, when this crisis has passed, how willing Italians will be to return to 10 to 12-hour days in the office and busy commutes after months of smart working.

Covid-19 has, naturally, upset the order of Northern Italian life. It has necessitated a slowdown in Italy’s economic powerhouse, and the Milanese are not used to this new slow pace of life. We are also not used to spending extended periods of time with our children due to the long hours culture in Northern Italy. One of the recent jokes which raised a smile on our chat was: “I stayed at home with my family. They seem like nice people”. Most Milanese delegate the care of their children to schools, creches, babysitters, grandparents or a combination of the foregoing. The coronavirus crisis has forced us to find creative solutions. It has compelled us to stay at home with our families - and in a world in which we put in 10-12-hour days in the office, that does not have to be a bad thing.

The coronavirus has also shown us what we miss. We are urged to keep distances of 1m from each other. Italians, however, are used to embracing each other, and queues in Italy entail "huddlers", even when space is abundant. The Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte said when he unveiled the government's most draconian measures to date: "Let's keep our distance today so that we can embrace each other tighter tomorrow". The congregation of people - for social, cultural and educational events - is the fabric of any society. Keeping people apart will have repercussions - on morale, on the economy and on the psyche. I have often heard Italians remark "you would need a dictatorship" to keep Italians at home such is the emphasis placed on social interaction. Roberto Burioni, one of Italy's most renowned virologists, explained: "We already have a dictator. It is this virus". These were to be prescient words. In the space of 10 days, the hashtag changed from #milanononsiferma (Milan doesn't stop) to #iorestoacasa (I stay at home).

The test to society is great. We have lived in a time of unfettered freedom. We now have an intangible and devious dictator in our midst. However tough it is for us, it is far far tougher for people working in hospitals. The image of a nurse, Elena Pagliarini, who collapsed as a result of exhaustion at her computer in Cremona hospital has become a symbol of the battle against Covid-19. On national TV, she later described a situation which is chilling: patients unable to breathe and the fear she felt as she tended to them reflected in their eyes. These are the words and images that we must keep in our minds as we make sacrifices.

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