For much of the past year, my then-three-year-old daughter and my husband did what many parents with children did during the pandemic: They wore masks and went biking around our neighborhood at night.
One night my daughter and husband took a long time to return. Out of curiosity, I went out to see what happened.Our apartment complex had over 100 condos lined up next to each other. Redwood and cherry blossom trees surrounded it, and there was plenty of common space for children to run and bike. I walked around the area three times before calling my husband. They were hanging out in a corner he had never been to. Under a canopy of trees, my daughter was playing “camp” with a neighbor’s daughter. They were gathering twigs and sticks and stacking them in one place. My daughter refused to leave. She had found her best friend.
From that day on, every night after finishing work, we took my daughter to play outside with her best friend. He soon found other best friends in the complex. The bike rides were just a ruse. He would get off the bicycle the moment he saw one of the children and began to play. After a day of screens and zooms, she was eager to see someone her age. He could feel his emotional health improving. She felt lighter and happier after these spontaneous play dates.
All of this happened in April last year when much was still unknown about the virus. We did not know that the virus was less likely to spread through surfaces. We did not know that children were less likely to become seriously infected. We did not know that the virus was less contagious outdoors. Still, as parents, we risk letting our child hang out outside with other kids wearing masks. We suspended our disbelief about the virus for a few hours every night. Initially, our conversations with the other parents were awkward and wrapped in anxiety, but still, while our children played, we talked. We shared notes on what each of us was doing to get through the day. We shared homeschooling resources and information about the Zoom preschool classes that had sprung up. We console each other that our young children learned to “silence” and “reactivate” when they barely knew what a computer was. I deluded myself into thinking that I was doing this for my daughter, but in the process, I was talking to adults, real people, parents who were struggling to get through the day like me.
After a few weeks of leaning on each other for support, one of my neighbors said that our community had reminded her of her own childhood in India. I agreed with her. I remember leaving my apartment to play with many children in the common spaces of our complex while my mother prepared dinner. Mumbai is an overcrowded city, but one of its virtues is that there is no shortage of people around you. And like any great city, it can be harsh and alienating, but to survive it is necessary to find pockets of humanity. Remembering my education reminded me how much my mother invested in building a community around her. Finding people who were approachable was much more important than finding like-minded people you’d like to have a beer with. These don’t always have to disagree, but when you optimize for close geographic proximity, it’s rarer to find someone whose worldview exactly matches yours.
Before the pandemic, I would commute three hours to work in San Francisco. My daily routine consisted of dropping my daughter off at a preschool in the morning and afternoon through traffic stops and delaying BART trips to meet the 6:30 pm pick-up deadline. I was completely exhausted when we pulled into the parking lot of our house. There was no bandwidth to get her to a park on a weekday. She had also been filled with friends and playtime at her nursery.
It wasn’t like I had completely ignored our neighbors before. I knew the names of their dogs and I picked up their packages when they were out. But during the pandemic, our neighbors became our friends. When the pandemic arrived, the confinement tied us to our geography. Our community is diverse, with people of different age groups, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Our next door neighbors were a family from India. Along with them, some graduate students got together to share an apartment. Together with them, two single mothers were raising their children and sharing an apartment. Before the moms moved in, an elderly disabled man lived with his sister-in-law and brother-in-law from El Salvador, who cared for him. In the row of apartments across from ours, there was an elderly couple who had lived there for more than 20 years. Our mail and deliveries were often confused with theirs because our apartment numbers were too similar. When we diligently return the packages; we would share a thought or two.
Many times during these brief interactions, I had the feeling that their beliefs differed from ours. A neighbor commented on how lucky we were to live next door to a police station. I discreetly disagreed, but never committed. Every once in a while, she would get cold back from a group of stay-at-home moms with their kids. They made fun of me for not having time to invite them to dinner or attend their weekly potlucks.
When the pandemic hit, everything that separated us, from our socio-political beliefs to our hobbies, suddenly got smaller. We were united by the universal experience of the pandemic.
The pandemic gave us a way to work through many invisible glitches. I was able to connect better with the moms who stayed home all day taking care of their children. I was able to appreciate even more the work that was involved in raising the children during the day. Housewives in our community were appalled at how worst it must be for me to participate in Zoom calls from the office with crying children in the background. Although I was unable to attend the potlucks on Tuesdays, I was at least able to meet them for a few hours at night.
Even if I end up moving out of this apartment complex and even after the pandemic is over, I am going to spend time building a sense of community around myself, finding support as I raise my children. Last year she taught me that children who play with other children is the best form of child care, and neighbors are a low-cost solution to finding support. A community has always been humanity’s answer to survival. I would never agree with some of their views, and they would probably never get to see things the way I did, but we all recognized that our children needed a community. We had found a common language to build on and build trust. My hope is that our commonalities will open ways for us to overcome other differences and learn from each other.