How Michigan Lt Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and his fami...

How Michigan Lt Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and his family stay sane while social distancing

The governor's second-in-command is tackling the coronavirus pandemic while juggling parenting responsibilities from his home in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood.

Mich. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist shares how he and his family survive social distancing

By Amy Haimerl

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist is earning his #StandTALLforMichigan campaign slogan right now. He’s helping the state secure shipments of N95 masks and other critical supplies for hospitals treating patients with COVID-19; he’s also working on pressing issues such as unemployment benefit expansion and water shut-offs. He’s tasked with spreading a life-or-death message: “Stay Home. Stay Safe. Stay Alive.” 

But we wanted to know the real dirt: How does he Stay Sane? Gilchrist has shown he’s pretty capable of juggling work and parenting in the past, but social distancing has tested all of our limits. Gilchrist and his wife, Ellen, are balancing work-from-home duties from their loft in Corktown while homeschooling their two first graders, Garlin III and Emily Grace, and caring for their 9-month-old daughter, Ruby. 

He took a moment to chat with Detour about his Netflix picks, keeping the kids from going stir crazy, the joys of sports news even without sports and why we need to practice empathy in times of crisis. 

Detour: What do you miss most during our time of quarantine?

Gilchrist: The way that I approach my service as lieutenant governor is to be very present in Michigan’s communities. I’m constantly on the road meeting with small business owners, community leaders and really being hand-to-hand. And so not being able to do that, or being restricted to phone calls, is a very different mode of public service. So while work is still getting done, I miss that person-to-person interaction. I’m the type of extrovert who gets energy from it.

Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley and President Donald Trump have both cautioned that the cure for the coronavirus can’t be worse than the problem. What do you say to them about “Stay home. Stay safe. Stay alive“?

The Governor and I have a responsibility to promote the public health and safety of the people of Michigan first and foremost. There are challenges to the economy and small businesses, and we are working to get as many resources as we can – especially from the federal government – to support those businesses and the people whose work has been interrupted or stopped.

But the economy, the truth is we can figure that out. We can recover the economy; people who die cannot recover. And so we have to do what we can to limit the spread of this virus.

I know people who have died of this virus. I have friends who are infected. I am concerned if more people got infected, we won’t have an economy to come back to because too many people will have passed away. We are working to get ahead of this so our health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed the way it has in other places.

Tell the truth: What’s your work from home outfit? I just put on clean pants for the first time in three days!

A lot of times in public I have a suit on. It’s a lot less suits now. But I still am wearing sweaters and things like that.

How are you handling homeschooling twin first graders?

We have the benefit of my wife being an education professional, so we have some books and some reading lessons; there is a website they can use for math games and things like that. But look, they are home so they are getting free play. 

We wrote cards to send to the state veteran’s homes. They left a message in sidewalk chalk in front of their friends house, it was like a word puzzle. We take them out every day so they can ride their bikes — while keeping safe social distance. We have the ability to work from home, so we are taking advantage of that, but we know a lot of people don’t.

Did you come up with a daily routine chart that is Pinterest perfect or are you a freestyle family?

We do have a schedule that changes day-to-day depending on the times when my wife has calls and I have calls. There’s lots of conference calls at the same time! We are trying. Our oldest daughter works well with a schedule and lets us know when we are behind.

I’ve spoken to some parents who see others creating this Instagram-perfect schedule and feel like they can’t measure up. But when I talk to those “perfect” families, they feel overwhelmed, too.

Let’s be really clear: We all need to be empathetic with one another. The first and most important thing you are doing is keeping your family safe, happy and alive. If you’re doing that, you are being successful. Trying to have some education experience is important, for sure. But there sure isn’t an Olympic contest for who has the most pristine structured educational experiences for their children. We shouldn’t have that kind of envy. It’s not productive. We’ve never dealt with anything like this in their lifetime. Everyone is trying to get by, literally.

What’s the division of labor in your house? Does one person watch the kids while the other person works and then vice versa?

It’s pretty fluid. My wife may handle breakfast, and I may handle lunch, and we both tackle dinner. I’ll take them outside for a time. It kind of depends, especially with my work. I get calls popping up at any moment.

How are you staying sane, all five of you, in your Corktown loft?

As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to be empathetic with one another. The kids get stir crazy, so making sure they can still get outside is important. That’s one thing we were mindful of when we wrote the order. It’s not a shelter-in-place order. Shelter in place means don’t go outside. This is not that. The first clause is that it’s okay to go for a walk or for a job, to get out for exercise, because we recognize that this is already stressful enough. It would be even worse if people had to stay inside. So I take the baby outside or let the kids ride their bikes around the block. They race each other and even attempt to have me run behind them!

What do you wish someone could tell you how to do or manage?

That’s a good question. I already had a tremendous amount of respect for teachers. I married a teacher. Literally trying to teach a math lesson is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And so the idea that there are people who do this with their eyes closed for 30 children is superhero-level work. This has given me a more deeply renewed admiration for teachers and education professionals who make that system work. I would have needed some coaching on how to do that.

What do you do for yourself daily to keep spirits up?

This is a great time for people to check in on their people. If you aren’t a person who phoned their grandparents, and they are still with us, this is a good time to do that. I’m checking in with my friends out of state. The epicenter of this in the beginning was Washington State, and I used to live in suburban Seattle. I know a lot of people there, so I am calling and checking up on them.  My son’s godfather lives there.

What’s the social media rabbit hole you’re falling down? The live penguin cam at the Detroit Zoo? What silly site brings you joy daily?

I just heard about the Detroit Zoo thing last night, which I think is amazing. I haven’t even shown the kids that yet. That will be on the TV at some point during the day today!

I read a lot of sports websites that have a lot less to talk about now. But some of them transitioned into other elements of culture, like rewatching really high quality television shows or going deep on classic TV shows. It’s given me some guidance on what to fall asleep to.

What are you falling asleep to?

The “Bobby Kennedy for President” and “Who Killed Malcolm X?” docuseries on Netflix. And I just started the new Kerry Washington show on Hulu, “Little Fires Everywhere.”

In more normal times, what’s it really like being Lt. Gov.?

Honestly, being the lieutenant governor has been an amazing experience. I think I had a fairly typical childhood as far as kids from Detroit, especially black kids from Detroit, and I hadn’t seen most of Michigan. As a candidate and now as the lieutenant governor, I have the privilege to visit every part of the state of Michigan. I’ve seen things I’ve never seen before. I took my kids to Mackinac Island; I’d never been to Mackinac Island before. I’ve been to the UP. I’ve been able to expose my kids to things I’d never seen. I didn’t know there was a dinosaur zoo in Ossineke – and my kids have been there. It has been a really humbling experience.

Amy Haimerl is an award-winning reporter and editor who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. She is the author of “Detroit Hustle: A memoir or love, live and home.”