It’s August. I’m at a (socially-distanced) picnic, munching a sandwich and keeping half an eye on a slightly shifty New Forest pony, when I have a realisation: my ten-month-old son has never touched another baby.
He’s sitting on my picnic blanket with me, watching on with his trademark frown, while a couple of his friends tussle over a lift-the-flap book. These babies are going to nursery now that their parents are back at work, and they’re clearly confident about playing with other children. But my baby just watches, a little unsure. If the rules stay the same for the foreseeable future, is he going to grow up like this, always sitting on the edge?
Due to the global pandemic, he isn’t technically allowed any physical contact with other babies, unless he’s at nursery. The long and short of it is, he’s not allowed to play with his friends, but if I pay £50+ a day for a nursery place that we don’t need, he can play with children we don’t know.
After that picnic, we had a lot of worried conversations over the dinner table. Will distancing damage our baby’s social development? Should we just ignore the rules, and let him play with other babies? These feel like privileged worries – we’re healthy and safe, and others aren’t so lucky – but I can’t help but obsess over it.
We’ve been cautious all through the pandemic, and we’re particularly worried about inadvertently passing anything onto our parents. But now that my son is active enough to play with other babies, it feels like I’m weighing up two risks against each other: the risk of catching or spreading the virus, and the risk to my son’s social development. Which is the greater risk for him? Which would be more damaging in the long term?
“For months, the only people who held him were my husband and I, and he only saw family and friends through an iPhone screen.”
My son has spent more than half his life in lockdown. He was only four months when the pandemic hit, and at that point (in the pre-crawling era) he dutifully sat, lay, or slept where you put him. Social distancing was not an issue. I was more feeling sorry for myself, sad that I’d lost the maternity leave that I had imagined for myself.
To begin with, my main concern was that my baby couldn’t cuddle his grandparents. For months, the only people who held him were my husband and I, and he only saw family and friends through an iPhone screen, which might explain why he’s so obsessed with getting his hands on our phones – to him, it’s where Grandma lives.
Outdoor, and eventually indoor, meet-ups were finally allowed, but still he couldn’t go in for a cuddle. It was love from a distance. Then the rules became more and more complex, and harder to navigate. We bubbled with one grandparent, and once babysitting was allowed the other grandparents were finally reunited with their only grandchild for play dates. But that was where the socialising ended.
Now, baby classes are running again. But as we row, row, row our boats, we’re spread out in a hall with two metres between each mat. When my son crawls off at the speed of light towards his friend and I hurriedly swoop him back up before he plants a drool-soaked hand on her face, I feel like I’m telling him that interacting with others is wrong. I’m teaching him to not socialise. It’s natural for babies to play together, so what damage are we doing by keeping them apart?
“It feels more and more like we’re being left to make our own decisions. What if the decisions we make are the wrong ones?”
A few weeks ago, I got a message in my mamas’ WhatsApp group: Anyone want to go to soft play next week? I worked in a soft play centre as a teenager, and in two years of Saturdays and summer holidays, I can’t remember a single time when it was cleaned. In fact, I distinctly remember the time I was asked to go and remove an actual poo from the ball pit (I’m a terrible person and delegated the job). Those places are gross. But up until now, I wouldn’t have worried about the germs – that’s how kids build up an immune system. I knew this would be a good opportunity for my baby to socialise with others and put his new crawling powers to good use, but I worried about whether it was the responsible thing to do. Should we go? Should we stay home?
We went. The centre limited visitors, took our temperatures, and had plenty of signs up about hand-washing and mask-wearing outside the play area, but the signs were pretty much the extent of the measures. There is no way that children in a soft play centre are going to stay two metres apart from each other. My son had an absolute blast, and perhaps predictably we both came down with a cold a few days later.
As the rules become murkier, riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, and that trip to Barnard Castle, it feels more and more like we’re being left to make our own decisions. What if the decisions we make are the wrong ones? Ultimately, we can only be responsible for our own choices, and go into it with our eyes open to the risks.
This week, I’m taking my son back to swimming classes. Inevitably, he’ll come within splashing distance of a baby friend. I desperately want him to play freely with other babies, have a normal babyhood, and explore his social skills. But whenever he crosses that invisible two metre barrier, with his unashamedly unmasked face and newfound love of fake coughing (great timing, kid), I can’t help but worry about that lurking virus.
Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @Katie_Dancey
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