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The One Small Change My Family Made During the Pandemic that Keeps Us Grounded

Like so many families around the world these days, mine has been impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in myriad ways, and very few of them for the better. We haven’t seen most friends or relatives in over a year now. We have missed vacations to points afar and visits to favorite spots closer to home. Holidays and anniversaries and birthdays have passed with little fanfare. We have been bored, restless, listless, and so on. And we lost someone, too.

But over the course of the past year, as a father, husband, and an adult, I have gained some perspective might not have accrued for many years yet, if ever. Yes, I miss seeing people in person. I miss museums and restaurants. I miss fitness classes. I miss getting groceries without a mask plastered over my face. And so on. But I have also come to realize just how fortunate my family is to be safe right now, to have our health, our home, and each other. When I think of it through the lens not of what has been taken away, but rather of what remains, it’s easier to get on with days. Or even to enjoy them.

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But how to share those sentiments with a first grader and a toddler? How to try to put into perspective this strange, awful time?

Seeing my daughter miss the party we had planned for her second birthday in March of 2020 was saddening; so too is the prospect of her third birthday being a miniature affair if anything at all beyond us four alone. Sending our son off to school with a mask over his mouth and nose and admonishments to wash his hands every chance he gets is still odd even months in. And saying, in response to so many questions, “Sorry, we can’t, it’s just not safe yet” is horrible. So we knew we had to try to do something, at any rate.

To try to help soften the sting of these strange times, my wife and I began to implement a routine that soon the kids embraced so fully that it’s now they who always begin it, even on the nights where it has slipped adult minds. Every night, as we sit down together at dinner, we go around the table and we each say our “Thankfuls.”

And I can’t recommend that you try the same with your family highly enough.

Now, to be clear, we’re not a religious family. At all. If yours is, perhaps you already have such a practice in place, but if not, I encourage you not to avoid this type of ritual for any religious association it may have. Because a Thankful, in our family, is entirely personal, and it can be whatever each person wants.

Most nights, our soon-to-be-three-year-old daughter says “I’m thankful for Ben!” Ben being her older brother. So too does a particularly well-enjoyed dinner, an occasional fond memory from the day, and the coming sweet dessert when it’s sweet dessert night. Mom and dad? We get recognized sometimes, especially when she goes for round two of Thankfuls, which is a breach in decorum, but she’s two, so it’s cool.

Our son, being seven, is often more nuanced in his Thankfuls, bringing up anything from something good that day from school to appreciation for our home to an idea he had for a Lego project he wants to build. Or sometimes for sweet dessert.

For my wife and for myself, the Thankfuls are often a way to make the kids feel good. We “spend” our turn on noting an achievement or an act of kindness or on just appreciating family in general. But they are also sometimes a very real way for us to vent, albeit in a manner designed to go a bit past the kids’ heads. On many nights following particularly long days, my Thankful may be that the day is nearly over. My wife’s might be that bedtime is near, and I know she means the kids’, not ours.

But on the good or even just the OK days, I look around the table and say “I’m thankful for all of you.” Now, clearly I always feel that way, but there has been a true power and a leveling effect of pausing multiple times a week to say that, or some take on it, aloud, and thereby to reflect on it.

We’ll get through this time as best we can, and we’ll leave the masks, the hand sanitizer, the quarantine, the missing family and friends, and all the rest of it behind as soon as possible. But the Thankfuls: those I hope we keep with us forever.