It took COVID-19 to teach my kids (and me) the value of money.
“I want red grapes. Where are the red grapes?” my 4-year-old demanded with a scowl creeping over her face.
We always had green grapes and red grapes plentiful. As two working parents, sleep-deprived and overworked, we had red grapes on hand to stop tears streaming down the face and the inevitable rolling and kicking on the floor. To get more fruit (and not fruit snacks) into her system. To make us feel better about ourselves: our daughter wanted red grapes, so we had red grapes.
And that was pre-COVID-19.
“We don’t have red grapes, we only have green grapes,” I explained. “It’s whatever they have in the grocery store now.”
She whined for a bit. I cleaned the kitchen as I watched her move the green grapes around. My husband helped our 7-year-old with his homework. She mumbled to herself. And then, several minutes later, the bowl was empty. Green grapes gone. She went off to play with her Peppa Pig set.
As the child of immigrant parents, there was no choice between red grapes or green grapes. I didn’t even know there was a choice. I didn’t even know grapes came in different colors. I didn’t even know I could have grapes over a banana. And sometimes there were no grapes at all. It was whatever was on sale at the grocery store that week, plus whatever coupons Ma had scoped out for the additional discount.
We never asked, we never questioned. We accepted what was given.
For my younger brother and me, gifts were only for birthdays and Christmas. We knew we only received gifts on those designated holidays. It was understood.
“Can I get some more Pokémon cards?” my son asked. “I did my homework this week. You can just order it off Amazon,” he added, pointing to my phone.
For my younger brother and me, we got McDonald’s Happy Meals a few times a year during road trips. We treasured those little toys; lining them up against our bedroom windows.
When cleaning our car recently, I discovered some McDonalds Happy Meal toys. Much to my embarrassment, I found that two of the toys had never been opened, nestled in their plastic bags.
For my younger brother and me, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were the two occasions when we would go out to eat. We went to Chengdu, the local Chinese restaurant. I would wear a dress with stockings, spray on some of my mother’s Beautiful perfume and tie a pink satin bow at the end of my braid.
“Mommy, food is here!” my 4-year-old screamed as she raced to the door. Our Seamless delivery had arrived for dinner. “Where are the dumplings?”
In a dual career household with two demanding careers, we were constantly racing. Racing out the door with backpacks, racing back in the door on a conference call while ordering dinner to be delivered. Racing to make the presentation; racing to find a silly hat for hat day at school. Racing to make that flight; racing back the next day to celebrate my daughter’s birthday.
Racing to be great leaders and racing to be great parents in a race that seemed to have no finish line in sight.
And as we raced, red grapes were a way to make our lives easier. Red grapes were a way to avoid tears and kicks. Red grapes were for our convenience, more important to us than to my 4-year-old. Red grapes fueled us, helped us to continue this race. Red grapes, green grapes and the abundance of all the fruits piled into our fridge were a quiet reminder of a life of privilege our parents could never have even imagined for us.
The new coronavirus pandemic had brought about the great slowdown. Our races had come to an abrupt stop.
And red grapes? There were no red grapes to be had. Red grapes had disappeared from our grocery store.
As I educated my children on COVID-19 and explained why red grapes were no longer available, why we could eat green grapes instead and why they tasted the same, how on some days we would eat whatever fruit was available, they nodded and kept coloring on the kitchen table. I’m not sure how much they understood about COVID-19. And I’m not sure how much I understood either.
And what I did understand: our on-the-go, on-demand lifestyle of getting what we want when we wanted and where we wanted to satisfy ourselves and pacify our children was a life that was unraveling. And a life that during this forced stop I looked at and no longer recognized and had a hard time understanding. It’s a life in some ways I am embarrassed we had led.
Our lives were slowing down to start up again. It was an opportunity to understand that those things that gave us convenience and allowed us to race around were actually no longer needed. Maybe those things were never needed in the first place.
During a recent family walk, we passed our favorite bagel place, Think Cup in Jersey City. I explained to the kids that Think Cup and other places were suffering because we weren’t allowed to go and sit and eat there anymore. Our new rule is we can pick up bagels twice a week when they have good behavior. And it’s a way to support and keep our local restaurants open.
During family story time, we go through bins and look for books we haven’t read in a while. My son told me he had already read the Magic Tree House books a year ago and he needed more off Amazon. Our new rule is that we reread the books that we have. For Easter, they each selected one new book they wanted. To my surprise, he agreed.
During our family meals, we remind our kids that the grocery store has now limits per family: one milk, one dish soap, one one of each critical item. We don’t need to hold onto items; we need to be sharing. And we need to be using what we already have. Our new rule is that you only ask for what you can eat. And one addition from my mom’s playbook: your plate needs to be clean at the end of every meal.
“You get what you get and you don’t get upset!” my son loudly proclaimed as he settled in for our mac and cheese dinner, this time made with ziti noodles instead of their favorite elbow noodles. And it took COVID-19 to make us all realize that ziti noodles and elbow noodles in fact do taste just the same.
Written by Working Mother Editors for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.