Jessica Arnold moved to New Orleans in 1999 to attend Tulane and quickly realized that she had found her home. She met her husband Zev at Funky 544 on Bourbon Street just before Tinder went mainstream. They live in a chaotic, joy-filled house in Mid-City with their three feral children, huge dog, and resentful cat. Jessica collects university degrees, side hustles, and half-finished craft projects.

The Winding River of Choice

Choices are an insidious source of stress. Not the lack of choice so much as the abundance of it. If the path of our life is that of a river, our youth is spread out before us in a turbulent maze of tributaries from which to choose. Where do we go to school? What do we study? Who do we date? It’s why our 20s feel so intense and exhausting.

The older we get, the calmer our waters get. The options for our own lives dwindle and we float along down the remainder of whatever waterway we ended up on. Some of us may look back in despair on missed opportunities, but I find solace in the fact that my little boat has long since passed the astronaut and ballet dancer branches of the river. With fewer options, the pressure to choose is reduced.

If we choose to have kids, though, our boat gets a little bigger and instead of facing a solo voyage, we are suddenly a captain with a whole manifest of passengers. I had prepared myself to captain the ship when I became a mother, but what I didn’t fully realize is that eventually my passengers would disembark. Pandemic forced our family to live in the moment, but the choices of our quarantine also gave me a brief window into my future as a parent.

Righting The Ship

There are certainly parts of our lives that seem divorced from the choices we make both as individuals and as guardians, times when the environment overtakes most of the decision making for us. Sometimes a brutal storm will force the mighty river to jump its banks and reshape the landscape. The shorelines shift, the levees erode, and we—at these moments hapless passengers of our own experience—are sent careening into uncharted seas. If you can relinquish control, these tumultuous times can be meditative opportunities to reflect.

Life moves ceaselessly on, and as we begin to right ourselves, we raise our tiny sails and shift the rudder in an attempt to pilot safely onward. I am going to assume that I don’t need to clarify that 2020 has been one of the stormier times. In a series of months that felt uniquely much longer and much shorter than normal months, our little family has shifted from one extreme to another.

If you happened to catch the last time I wrote for AG (February 2020), you would have read about how our family handled living apart most of the time. It was a tale of a husband who traveled four or five days a week for work and a semi-solo mother at home who played the wife only on weekends. I hardly recognize myself from a few months ago. My husband now works from home and our kids have no school or group activities. My parents, who once provided much of our childcare support, are locked away from us for their own health. This is all the result of circumstance. The storm brought us to this point, but we have further altered our course by making some critical decisions early on.

We chose to co-quarantine and share the burden of homeschooling with another family, our dear friends the Browns. There are no words for how much this decision benefitted the ability to parent my children and protect my own mental health. For all we may have lost in this pandemic, I personally gained a sister, Mia, who I can’t thank enough for choosing to travel with her boat tethered to mine.

Two sets of parents and five kids, one of each spanning ages 1 through 5, all bobbing along together into unknown waters but with each other for support, a devoted crew navigating an entirely new existence and attempting to chart the path that leads us to well adjusted, healthy, enriched children (and parents for that matter). While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the helplessness of this situation, I am clinging to the small but meaningful choices we can still make to alter our course.

A New Passenger

I feel lucky that at least I am the parent of small children. While they require a great deal more oversight, there isn’t as large an academic or social burden on them. More than once I have been reminded of the parenting trope: “little kids little problems.” This is to say that the issues we face as toddler parents (sleep schedules, eating habits, screentime management, tantrums) pale in comparison to those we will face when our children grow (college, drugs, sex, relationships).

In theory, we build our skill level as parents along with our kids as they grow. Parenting my youngest is far easier now that I’ve been through these stages of development twice with her older siblings. Conversely, the learning curve is steeper with my oldest. Prior to quarantine, I assumed I still had a decade or so before I’d be tasked with navigating my way through those big kid struggles. Cue the crashing waves of 2020.

A friend of ours worked with a student who was being evacuated from the dorms at Tulane and didn’t feel that going home to Missouri was her best option. Bridget, a 21-year-old neuroscience major, needed a place to stay. We happen to have a little room behind our house that my inlaws stay in when they visit. Obviously it would be vacant for the foreseeable future, so we offered Bridget the spot for what we wrongly predicted would be a few weeks. I figured we could use the help with the kids a few hours a week and that would be more than payment enough for using the otherwise empty space.

I didn’t suspect that she would so quickly become part of our family. She took on the role of big sister to our little ones and treats me much more like a mother than a landlady. We binge watch Murder She Wrote while working on our respective needlepoint projects. Even our dogs love each other. She’s been a valuable if unplanned addition to the crew. That in mind, she has also shocked me into realizing that I have a lot more leveling up to do before I’m ready to be the parent of a fledgling adult. The risk of quasi-adopting a grown daughter is watching her make her own choices, as children all inevitably do.

Bridget broke our family’s fairly strict quarantine to join the Black Lives Matter protests. She had our blessing to go, and we encouraged her to do so. It was worth the risk, everyone agreed, but we naively only considered her risk of getting sick. When she messaged me to tell me she had been tear-gassed by the police, my heart imploded. She had made a choice that put her in genuine danger and there was nothing I could do about it but wait. She shared her location. She messaged every few minutes. The gaps between her texts felt like years. When she finally returned home red-eyed, triumphant, and determined, I broke down in ugly tears of relief. All at once I was floored by something that hadn’t occurred to me as a parent before: Our children will do brave things—amazing, bold, dangerous, important things. And I will have to watch from a distance.

The Waters Ahead

Right now my little kids hardly make any decisions about their existence. Their life is filled with false choices. “Do you want to brush your teeth or put on PJs first?” Translation: You are going to bed, we’re just negotiating the order of ablutions. My favorite and the one we use most often in my house is, “Would you like to go right side up or upside down?” My son always chooses to be carried right way up, our daughter chooses inversion—fairly symbolic of their differing personalities. You present a kid with choices to give them the illusion of control, and this sense of agency helps them cope with the frustration that they aren’t actually in charge. Parents are steering the ship and little kids are really just passengers. At some point though, you hand over the helm and let them steer for a bit. And eventually they get their own little boat and you’re not in charge at all.

It is extremely likely that my kids will make both a lot of good and a lot of bad choices. They’ll do things that don’t turn out as planned. They’ll be impulsive or calculated, but it won’t matter. The results of their choices won’t always directly correlate to how well they planned. They might come to their parents for advice or for help after the fact, or they may choose to go it alone. I don’t wish smooth, boring waters on my children. There’s a quote, often attributed to Franklin Roosevelt, that goes “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” But I don’t look forward to watching them face rough waters either. We do our best to shape our kids into strong, independent adults and equip them with the skills and knowledge to navigate their own path. The downside of that is then watching them go off and do it.

Inviting Bridget into our family was my first tiny glance into this future. I am thankful for her pulling her small boat alongside ours and tossing a rope to keep us tethered for now, but I know she is on her own voyage. Joining our tiny flotilla is but a brief respite. Someday my little kids will disembark too, and I’ll do my best not to shout corrections from a distance. That is the river of a parent’s life: Making our own choices, making our children’s choices, then watching nervously and proudly as they make their own choices. While I’ll admit that none of these waterways are particularly serene, it sure beats watching from the shoreline.

illustrations Victoria Allen