Let me tell you a little bit about my best friend from 2020.
(Also my only friend. Because, 2020.)
She has an unpredictable sense of humor, alternates between adventurous and timid, loves reading and art. Thinks rhymes and wordplay are hilarious. She enjoys bike rides but strongly dislikes wind. We have similar taste in food.
Oh, and she’s 4.
Many parents are their child’s first best friend; they’re often just too busy and distracted to realize it.
When schools and daycares first shuttered in 2020, I had a 2.5 y/o at home (suddenly All. The. Time.) and another child on the way. With my wife pregnant and thus being extra careful about any potential infection, the toddler and I were often on our own to try to find something 1) outdoors 2) open 3) appropriate for tiny humans, and 4) free (ideally) or inexpensive. For the better part of a year, my child was pretty much the only person I did anything with outside of our house.
Not that I haven’t had some stiff competition for her attention. Early pandemic months saw my child processing a sudden homebound existence absent all classmates and friends in some…interesting ways.
I learned to entertain not just her, but also ‘Lorna’ – an invisible, pint-sized version of a real-life friend, who most often sat in the palm of my toddler’s hand. We spent hours and hours (and hours and hours) playing ‘sick’ with dolls and imagined family-members alike. I much preferred ‘Sleep’, a marvelous game where my toddler forced me to lay down and close my eyes while she turned off the lights…
Later on, I met John-Baum (or “Jon-Bom”; there’s some contention on the proper spelling), a full-fledged imaginary friend of variable size and constant mischief.
Between exhausted tears, frustrated tears, and anxious tears, I realized at some point that year a little gift in a huge pile of horribleness.
I enjoyed my kid, and liked spending time with her.
(It also reinforced that not spending all the time with her was better for both of us, but I don’t have to tell you that.)
We did lots of pickup orders for cookies from coffee shops, and enjoyed racing around in the cafe areas that were completely cleared of seating. We went on bike rides, and scouted for playgrounds or sandy areas that were not closed (Don’t get us started on Chicago’s epic – and very-much OUTDOOR – lakefront being off-limits for the entire 2020 summer). We picked up from fancy restaurants that my wife thinks are overly extravagant [like…Wendy’s], and generally tried to find fun and normalcy in a year determined to be anything but.
Like any friendship, we had lots of bumps in the road. Plenty of miscommunication, unexpressed expectations, and close proximity to another human’s messiness. We had to navigate afternoons when one of us desperately wanted a nap, and the other refused any sort of rest (guess which role we each played in this scenario). We had ample opportunities to practice apologizing, empathizing, and admitting ways we’d messed up.
We each learned a lot about each other and about friendship in the process. I’m pretty sure she could tell that I enjoyed hanging out with her, and I saw her thrive in a context where she was known, valued, and appreciated. While the outside world was even less safe than usual, she had the security to explore her own identity with the support of best friends who knew and understood her so well (most of the time).
I don’t need to be her best friend forever, and most likely won’t. But having me as a best friend now helps her grow and develop and learn about love and friendship. It equips her to find other best friends – and to be one herself.
Sure, throughout the pandemic we mostly struggled and complained (and continue to struggle and complain). But I’m also grateful for the relationship I’ve gotten to develop with this tiny person, with her big ideas and even bigger feelings.
And I look forward to sharing this beautiful, mortifying detail with my teenage daughter someday: I was her first best friend.
Luke Chitwood is a writer, non-profit professional, and education advocate based in Chicago. A beginner-level husband and father, you can find him wrangling words and images, in perpetual pursuit of his next cup of coffee.