“Not Imaginary” – by Kate Croft

April 15, 2022

We’ve been stuck at home for a week so far, at the beginning of a pandemic we anticipate will last for a few months. My three daughters are crafting a video game system out of our dying marker collection and a wrinkled pad of finger paint paper they scavenged from somewhere in the basement. They choose one of the pre-recorded melodies from our electronic keyboard, tap rainbow circles they’ve traced onto a sheet of paper, and race through their game. They are winning, of course.

I fashion face masks out of an old t-shirt and decide we will survive lockdown.

Weeks pass without the end of lockdown. My daughters turn Amazon boxes into tiny toy playhouses, rocket ships, and television sets. They direct me to a seat at the dining table with a remote control they’ve outlined in cardboard and a guide to an assortment of channels. I choose one and watch them scramble to transform a cooking show on the coffee table, complete with plastic broccoli, to a documentary featuring our stuffed animal friends, and then to a local news channel reporting on the pandemic with a bulb syringe microphone.

I try to convince them I can read a book while watching TV and add more glue to the grocery list, crossing my fingers it isn’t out of stock like half my online grocery order this week.

When the stores finally open again, I buy a few sets of plastic safari animals to join our family, and they find a home in the backyard. My daughters name them and create mud puddles for them, and I watch them transform our backyard into a safari. By the end of the summer, we reach for the duct tape to reattach the legs and tails of plastic gazelles and elephants.

I join them outside on the deck sometimes, stock up on stain remover, and feel grateful that at least Minecraft doesn’t mean muddy laundry.

A year later, sometime between my province’s second and third lockdowns, when earlier sunrises and a growing collection of lost teeth are my only anchors to the passage of time, my daughters play tag with dryer balls covered in blunt rubber spikes resembling the virus wreaking havoc on the world. It stings when someone throws one of the neon pink balls at me, and I kick them back under the couch every few days, annoyed at the reminder of my vulnerability.

I call it play therapy and plan visits with family members that keep us six feet apart.

Our muddy backyard turns green again. My daughters empty our overflowing stuffed animal bins and arrange their animals in a line snaking its way through each of the rooms on the upper level of our home. At the end of the line, they set up a vaccine clinic stocked with a spring-activated, plastic, teal syringe and the animal print masks that don’t fit well enough to wear in public. Clad in ill-fitting masks and bulky winter gloves, they rotate their inoculated stuffies through the three plastic Band-Aids they’ve gathered from the bottom of the toy box.

I scroll through others’ vaccine selfies, feel the warm sun on my face some days, and am a little more hopeful.

This microcosm of creativity and imagination and play unfolding within the walls of my home is beautiful. We are, by all measures, surviving and maybe even thriving in this dark season. Jobs and health intact. Marriage and sanity (mostly) intact. Children growing and thriving. Backyard mud pits and skating rinks. New pets. The resources to stay at home, to add an office to our master bedroom closet to limit naked toddler Zoom call appearances, and to pay for any mental health help we need. 

But I have left out the exhaustion. The worry. The sleepless nights. I have left out the part of the story in which we’re always fighting. Feeling hurt. Hurting feelings. The stories I don’t want to tell. The stories no one sees. The hard things. The exhaustion and the conflict are the soundtrack of COVID-19. 

It’s embarrassing to admit I find this season difficult when so much is going well. So, rather than bear the weight of knowing we’re doing well, and this is all closing in on unbearable some days, I try to convince myself that it’s not that hard. I should stop complaining. Others have it worse. I must be imagining the hard things.

One grumpy afternoon, around the time it’s become clear we are not flattening the curve anytime soon, I collapse onto the couch. Homeschool supplies litter the dining table. Scraps of paper blanket the floor. My back aches and I can see more than one smear of peanut butter on the rug. I am out of ideas. And my daughters are fighting again. Again.

I glance at my husband, who has been working from home more than a year now, and he stares back: a silent debate about whose turn it is to break up this fight. In a decade of parenting, we have perfected the dance-off. I hold his gaze for just long enough that he relents, and, with an exasperated sigh, he walks up the stairs.

When he reaches the top, their yelling stops. I hear the murmur of their appeals. It’s not fair, they plead. She’s breaking the rules, they assert. She started it, they argue.

Amidst the muffled crescendo of their yelling, I hear him say, “You’ve gotta stop fighting about this imaginary game!”

His words do not help. Feeding invalidated now, they huff and clench their fists. In this world of ongoing conflict, we are living our own cycle of ongoing conflict. They are at an impasse. We are all at an impasse.

And then, with all the red-faced fury she can muster, one of my daughters insists: “IT’S NOT IMAGINARY!” 

Downstairs on the sofa still, I shake my head in disbelief. The toys are plastic. The game is fictitious. Of course, it’s imaginary! But to my daughters? To them, it’s real. The conflict is real. The feelings are real. It’s all as real for them as the turn our lives have taken since the pandemic started, and they are not embarrassed about claiming that for themselves.

Upstairs, the other two sisters nod in ironic agreement. Fists unclench. Heart rates return to normal, breath by breath.

Soon after, united in an ironic consensus that their game is not imaginary, the sisters swap their mismatched outfits for bathing suits and haul backpacks overflowing with towels, applesauce pouches, sunglasses, and books into the living room for an indoor beach day. They spread their towels out across the floor and lay down together: three little people in bathing suits on a chilly spring day, not fighting for now.

I boil the kettle and, while the tea steeps, settle into the exhaustion of another pandemic day.

Trying to persuade myself things aren’t as bad as they could be, I sip my earl grey and cling to gratitude. Surely gratitude is the way I will convince myself I can both be thriving and exhausted, doing well and finding this difficult.

But, what I really feel is a furious, fists-clenched, red-faced insistence that the hard things are not imaginary. And, if I’m honest, I think that might be where I find my own resolution.

Kate is a high school English teacher turned homeschool mom, with a little freelance copywriting on the side. She and her husband live in Ontario, Canada with their three daughters. When she’s not reading, baking, or sipping earl grey tea, you’ll find her exploring nature with her family. She writes on Instagram (@pocketsfullofacorns) and on her blog (pocketsfullofacorns.blogspot.com).


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