“How are we supposed to hold it together?”

The question posed by my 7-year-old son stopped me in my tracks. I knew he didn’t mean for it to be such a loaded question — but it’s 2020 and most questions come loaded at this point.

He was actually asking about the two long rectangular pieces of wood I was awkwardly pressing together for his work desk, which we’d spent the last 30 minutes trying to assemble. I was determined to get this thing built before his school started, which was in 4 days.

“Well, I’m gonna hold these two pieces together with the long screws, and then support them with these other smaller screws,” I answered him, nodding to the small plastic bags containing the tens of screws that needed placing. He handed me the bag, watching to see if my theory would turn out to be correct.

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The idea of virtual learning from home sounded “doable” at first, if not ideal given some of the risks that in-person learning presented. The last few months had forced us down the road of unexpected change, but I was determined to hold onto the decision of choosing which mental vehicle we were taking on this journey.

I wanted to have an answer to the other question though — the one my son didn’t mean to ask, but I heard anyway. How are we supposed to hold everything together? Do I know what I’m doing? Are we ready for school? What are we losing by choosing virtual learning?

Before the pandemic hit, my wife and I had decided to send our son to a new school, mainly due to the opportunities it offered. While those opportunities are still available, it’s obviously different not being there physically. As a family, we’d taken the previous few months of COVID life in stride, but our son has been particularly strong — maintaining his upbeat spirit while realizing he can’t go where he used to go or see his friends the same way he used to.

Still, weighing the short-term and long-term consequences of our decisions isn’t something he has to carry at his age. To this point, we’ve coped by trying to maintain as much “normalcy” as possible. But that doesn’t mean he won’t feel the immediate effects.

I still didn’t have the answers though — a fact that, for me, was both frustrating and terrifying to admit. Change usually isn’t easy, but this was a big change in a series of them, and it came with no instruction manual.

However, for parents, instructions don’t come as readily as hard truths do on any given day. And on this day while doing a project with my son, four particular parenting truths came to light in a way I hadn’t seen before.

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Illustration by Brittany England

In my view, giving a lot of parenting advice is useless because everyone’s parenting handbook says something different. It can also change from one day to the next, based on the circumstances. So the only thing I’m 100 percent sure of is that impossible decisions will have to be made.

I’m talking about all the nuanced decisions that you have to make to prioritize your child’s health over their comfort or even their social development.

As a parent, some things have to be sacrificed, some things have to be postponed, some things have to be picked up to survive. And a lot of it won’t feel good.

The thing is, thinking about all those decisions at once may be overwhelming.

In order to make the impossible decisions feel manageable, we have to practice the art of zooming in on the details and zooming out on the big picture when we need to. When the journey is starting to feel like a bit much, focus on what will keep you on track.

“How do you know that piece isn’t backwards?” my son asked at one point during the desk assembly. He motioned to the piece of wood in my hands that looked identical on both sides.

Zoom in: “You see this hole here?” I said, pointing to one corner. “This is where the stud goes, on the inside.”

“Oh,” he said. “This big piece is one of the sides?”

Zoom out: “Yep. If you look here on the picture — it’s the same. So we’re on the right track.”

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I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “handyman,” but I can follow directions — at least well enough to get a desk built in 2 hours or less. Asking my kid what he thinks, though? Well, that could take a hammer to the whole plan. Not because I’d fear he wouldn’t be helpful. But his point of view could reveal details that force me to slow down or pivot.

Kids don’t have fully developed adult filters, which allows them to still be brutally honest (emphasis on the brutally). What it also allows is for them to see things more clearly than adults can at times, and that can be a little scary.

“Hey, do you think Daddy is strong enough to hold these two side pieces together with one hand while I screw this leg onto the bottom?” I asked him.

“Well,” he began. “Remember when you tried that with my dresser, and the top slid off and crashed into your knee? You got really hurt, and you almost broke my dresser…”

“Fair enough.”

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Establishing an open communication trend with your kids (namely asking straightforward questions) is probably one of the most helpful things we can do as parents. Yes, it’s revealing, which means it can reveal where the cracks are. But growth comes through truth, and giving your kids space to tell you the truth goes a long way toward growing together by establishing constructive dialogue bonds.

Also, don’t make the questions just about you. Asking your child to voice their thoughts about themselves is a great way to help them process and contextualize things that we might have no idea they’re carrying otherwise.

So, back to this virtual learning thing. I get it that even having this option is a privilege that a lot of families don’t have right now. But the idea of my wife and I shouldering a lot of our son’s educational experience is daunting.

I’m married to a professor who has to navigate new challenges with her own students. I’ve “taught” kids at a summer camp before, but I’m not a teacher. I’d rather teach my son to use the Google calculator than dive into his math workbook.

But this year has revealed some areas where taking shortcuts (no matter how bad we want to) might prove to be unhelpful. So, we’re all in. It’s an unsettling challenge that we’ve chosen to accept.

However, that’s the story of parenting, right? Accepting the challenges. Making a plan according to your handbook, then having to rip that page out and frantically scribble down a new plan. Is it always the right way to go? We hope it is. Is it sometimes uncomfortable? Absolutely.

“Dad, do you think this will still be a good school year?” my son asked, handing me another one of the small silver bolts.

I let him drop it onto my palm before answering. “I honestly don’t know. But we’re gonna do the best we can every day.”

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I had no idea if that answer comforted him, but I hoped he at least trusted that we would try.

Getting comfortable with uncomfortable answers doesn’t mean that we need to learn to like all of them. It means that we have to understand that parenting, like life, is a process. Not everything will be pretty. All we can do is our best with what we have and hope that it pays off in the end. Even if all the answers can’t be comfortable, make sure that they’re honest.

“Dad, can we take a break?” my son asked as we were nearing completion of his desk.

“But we’re almost done,” I said, not as annoyed as I may have sounded.

“I know,” he said. “But you said we could watch a movie in an hour. It’s been an hour.”

(Thanks, little digital Lego Movie clock)

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As I’m sure is the case for many others, the days have really blurred together since they’ve been changed by the pandemic. The weekends still fly by, but only because you’re squeezing in work that you couldn’t get to during the week due to not having childcare. With the passing months, it’s been easy to want to slip into autopilot and just get to tomorrow until “normal” returns.

But we have no idea when normal will come, if it will come, or what it will even look like when it gets here.

With that said, we’ve tried to not take for granted the opportunity to be together as a family. Especially for me, the importance of nurturing the day we’ve got is not lost on me. As a Black man raising two Black sons, getting to tomorrow carries additional meaning in our reality.

Staying mentally and emotionally present as a parent is what my family needs — and it’s what I need to maintain my mental health. So we’ve been intentional about being present, each day, as we hope to get to tomorrow.

Yes, you have to be prepared for what’s on the horizon, but looking too far ahead will cause you to miss some important things right in front of you.

I glanced at the desk (95 percent completed), tossed the last bag of dwindling screws onto the flat surface, and put an arm around my son’s shoulders.

“Alright, let’s go,” I said. “We’ll finish this later.”

DeVonne Goode is the lifestyle editor at Greatist, on a quest to find creativity through wellness and wellness through creativity. Find him traversing the waters on Instagram.