Making Sense of the New Normal

We are living in a historic time, whose stories will be told for a century. This month, we try to capture some.

When the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic turned everyone’s world upside down, Westchase and Northwest families braced for the changes.

Plenty of resources and opportunities were lost. But in some respects, as people were forced into creative thinking, unexpected positives emerged.

People worked from home (if their jobs were spared). Kids began online school. Streets and sidewalks swelled with walkers, joggers and bikers. Scarce supplies were shared with others. Neighbors gathered in driveway lawn chairs—with proper social distancing—and had long, unhurried conversations. Many relationships grew closer.

“The whole thing has been horrible, but I feel like it’s the earth telling us to slow down,’’ said Fords resident Debbie Steinfeld, a middle-school teacher who works at the same school as her son, 22-year-old Brett, a recent University of Florida graduate. “I think a lot of us are doing things in life that we haven’t done in a quite a while. Even through the hardships, there have been nice things.’’

“It has been crazy because I hardly ever work at home, but what other chance have I had to eat lunch with my wife and kids on a weekday or take a family bike ride in the middle of the afternoon?’’ said Greens resident Ben Milsom, an executive with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who kept busy remotely with the organization’s high-profile signing of quarterback Tom Brady.

“We’ve had a lot of ridiculous laughs and everyone has gotten closer because, really, we don’t have a choice,’’ said Greens resident Kelly Carothers, who is in a 10-person household (along with her husband, seven kids and friend who is living with the family). “I guess they’ll have a great story to tell their grandkids one day. The scary part is we don’t know where this is going. Most days, truly, all we have is each other.’’

In the pandemic’s early days, when her kids complained about being cooped up and whined about missing beach time at spring break, Carothers showed the movie “Contagion’’ to her family.

“Then they were like, ‘Oh, that’s not cool at all,’ and they kind of understood why we had to do this,’’ Carothers said.

But even with proper perspective and grind-it-out discipline, the pandemic produced a “new normal’’—or is it an abnormal?—that no one could have anticipated.

THE ROUTINES

Darcy Milsom of The Greens had grown accustomed to her routines. Once her children, Cooper, 10, and Parker, 7, were off to Westchase Elementary School, her day had a predictable pattern.

“I was used to having my own space until the kids got home,’’ she said. “Then we would have activities, then Ben (husband) would get home … and that’s the way the day went.

“It has definitely been interesting doing all of our things around everyone at the same time. It hasn’t been easy. But we know there’s a bigger picture.’’

In the smaller picture, though, even the best of families experienced tension when routines were altered.

“When both parents were working outside the home and now they’re all home, those families have more stress,’’ clinical psychologist Maria Aranda said. “Even while working from home, there were seven hours a day where the kids were at school and they could get stuff done. Now it’s like they have two jobs simultaneously.

“Kids always take their cue from what’s happening at the parent level. You have to know there will be mini-eruptions (from kids) and you have to weather that. If you start blowing your top and yelling, it’s not going to help. You need patience and calm. We’re not parenting during normal times. We’re parenting during a pandemic. It’s not going to be 100 percent. Try your best and know that many families just aren’t used to spending so much time together in such close spaces.’’

At the Steinfeld household, there are two teachers (Debbie and Brett) and a Robinson High IB student (Rachel) competing for workspace.

“We have some makeshift tables, but we’re kind of on top of each other and sometimes we’re all on Zoom at the same time, so it’s crazy,’’ Debbie Steinfeld said.

For Carothers, a 10-person household (“We’re at the legal gathering limit!’’ she said with a laugh) presents special challenges.

“On the positive side, I don’t miss getting up and packing all those lunches,’’ she said.

But with kids ranging from 3-year-old twins to an 18-year-old, the scheduling and daily dynamics can be tumultuous.

“The mornings are great and the nights can be rough,’’ she said. “They get bored. They fight. They cry. We’ve had days where it’s a complete debacle.

“All things considered, it’s really not that bad. It’s just different. Everyone struggles in their own way. The older kids hate being cooped up. The little ones can’t understand why they can’t go to school and see their friends. One way or another, I think we’ll all come out of this as better people.’’

WORK AND SCHOOL

It’s the major rhythm of every household.

The parents have jobs.

The kids have school.

In mere weeks both institutions were thrown out of kilter.

Harbor Links resident Ngoc Pham, a physician who owns Tre MedSpa, now does most of her consults through tele-medicine. When the pandemic began, some of her patients reported upper respiratory ailments. Two of Pham’s employees were pregnant, so she feared for complications.

“It’s scary,’’ Pham said. “We had to close down and temporarily lay off our employees. It gives you pause because you know that virus is out there and you want to be cautious.’’

Les and Nancy Young of The Bridges, both working from home, report minimal disruptions.

“We get up and go to separate corners of the house and start our work,’’ Les Young said.

Brian Carothers of The Greens, a chief technology officer, has sent his 100 employees home. But he still reports to his Davis Islands office—alone—because an eight-kid household isn’t conducive for working at home.

As for school?

“Some of the elementary schools’ kids, particularly, were slammed with online learning demands they were not equipped to handle,’’ Aranda said. “They were going to five different websites to get five different textbooks. They don’t have the typing skills. The parents were really stressed. The older kids were more tech savvy and that made it easier.

“I think overall, the more introverted kids are fine. ‘Hey, this is great! I’ve been trying for social distancing my whole life!’” Aranda added. “The more outdoorsy ones might be all over the place. Mostly, the parents have needed to set up routines and spaces for the kids to work. It came a little more intuitively for some.’’

Carothers’ son, Colin, said he’s making the most of his situation as he finishes his senior year at Alonso High School.

“It stinks being cooped up in the house, but it has been a lot more school, probably a lot less working out,’’ he said. “You can develop new hobbies, things you didn’t think you had time for. But it’s definitely a chance to knock out some school.

“Still, you miss the people and you miss all the things that would be going on. We won’t get this time back.’’

THE LOSSES

For the high-school seniors, the list of losses is considerable.

No Grad Bash.

Possibly no Senior Nights for athletics.

The prom was rescheduled (for now).

Graduation ceremonies are in danger.

Pham’s daughter, Emma, is a senior at Berkeley Prep. On the scheduled night of her prom, she put on her dress and received a corsage from her 8-year-old brother, Jacob.

“The whole thing for the seniors has been an emotional roller-coaster,’’ Pham said. “We have shed a lot of tears.’’

“So many of our senior kids have been working so hard and they’ve been looking forward to these months,’’ Carothers said. “To have it taken away like this is just not fair.’’

Don’t forget about the fifth-graders who will miss their elementary-school finales. Or the eighth-graders who will miss their rite-of-passage middle-school dance.

“Kids are frustrated and angry and the number one thing is to validate their feelings,’’ Aranda said. “Listen and validate. This will all pass, but many kids don’t have experience or maturity to know that.

“People should be sad over this. These are some once-in-a-lifetime experiences that have just gone away and there are understandable layers of grief. It’s OK to cry. It should be acknowledged and verbalized, anything but diminished or internalized. It’s not fair for the class of 2020.’’

MAKING POSITIVES

Through the emotionally charged frustrations, the inconveniences, the diminished income, the lost opportunities, the health concerns and the harsh words between family members, there have been…positives?

Yes, positives.

“I generally work from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., when you include tutoring, and it has been weird being home this much,’’ Debbie Steinfeld said. “I feel like I’m such a busy, busy person most of the time. But we go out on the patio and eat together as a family every night. That hasn’t happened for years.’’

“We go for walks, but we are constantly stopping to talk to people in the neighborhood,’’ Pham said. “We talk from a distance, but it’s unrushed and very pleasant.’’

“Our lives are filled with so many details,’’ Ben Milsom said. “Now the pace has slowed. You can look around and see what’s truly important.’’

“We all can’t wait to return to so-called normal life,’’ Carothers said. “But maybe normal life will change somewhat. We do spend time on things that don’t matter. This experience forces you to look at that and know that as long as we’re all healthy, it’s going to be OK.’’

A verse was circulating around the Internet.

We are not stuck at home.

We are blessed to have a home.

“This is an opportunity to become better people,’’ Aranda said. “Let’s take this crisis, this moment in time, and try to find some meaning in it. It’s a chance to do some things you didn’t think you could do, things you didn’t have time to do, and then you’ll feel like a million dollars.

“You grow through struggle. I run marathons. When you think about it, it’s daunting. You’re on mile one and you could think, ‘How am I going to get through this?’ But you stay in the mile you’re in. So we all must stay in the day we’re in. It’s going to pass. We will return to normal. If we can somehow learn to be better people through this, even through these tough times, then maybe we will have really achieved something meaningful.’’

By Joey Johnston; Photos by James Broome Photography

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