COVID parenting has passed the absurd point

Last Thursday, a group of 20 mothers met in Boston outside a local high school. Their goal was not to socialize, drink wine or even share COVID-related tips. They were there for one reason and only one reason: to stand in a circle – of course socially distanced – and scream.

“I knew we all needed to get together and support each other in our rage, resistance and disappointment,” Sarah Harmon, the group’s organizer, wrote on Instagram before the gathering. Ironically, about 20 other mothers who had answered “yes” had to cancel at the last minute because they or other family members had COVID, Harmon told me.

When mothers feel that there is no more appealing way to spend an evening than shouting into the cold January darkness, something is very, very wrong. Parents in the United States are living through a universally awful moment. For two years, we have spent every single day navigating a constantly changing virus that threatens not only our well-being but also our livelihood. The situation has reached a fever level during this wave where we are expected to function normally even though nothing is normal and none of the puzzle pieces in front of us fit together.

How do we send our children back to school when no one can find COVID tests and so many students and teachers are sick? How do we keep our children home from school when we are expected to be back at work? How can we be good parents when we also have to be staff, teachers, nurses, playmates, chefs, therapists and spouses? As I write this sentence, Netflix is ​​babysitting my daughter, who is home sick with a fever and runny nose that may be COVID — should I feel guilty that I do not cover her needs, or have a sense of guilt now that luxury parents can not afford to?

Parents were defeated long before Omicron. Now we have reached a stage of the pandemic, where finding the right words to describe our lot is simply an exercise in absurdity. We are broken. We have nothing left in us but screams of anger and pain.

Some parents have done things worse than others. We have different access to support, different senses of what is best for our children, different beliefs about masks and distancing and vaccines. But the burden has fallen on all of us. Even though we are somehow physically messing around through pandemonium, our mental health is being hit hard. In nationwide survey data now being collected, Indiana University sociologist Jessica Calarco has so far found that 70 percent of mothers and 54 percent of fathers feel overwhelmed and stressed; that about half of the parents feel depressed and hopeless; and that fewer than 15 percent of mothers and 25 percent of fathers get enough sleep. “There are really high incidences of mental health issues across the board,” Calarco told me.

For me, it’s especially hard that I thought it was all getting better – that the worst was over. Yes, there would be more varieties, but our vaccines would protect us. My family was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. But you know that scene in every horror movie when the protagonist shoots the evil guy, cries with relief that it’s all over and goes away? And you shout, “No, damn it, you need to check that he’s dead!” Well, we were the tragic hero, and the coronavirus immediately came up again. It just came up again, and then it stabbed us in the heart.

Example: My children were fully vaccinated in late December, the same week that Omicron began to spread rapidly across the United States. They were so excited to weave some normality back into their lives – going to restaurants, spending the night with friends, doing all the things my husband and I had previously told them were not worth the risk of infection. We actually had that promised them we would do these things as soon as they were vaccinated. So because of Omicron and the fear that we might inadvertently make the grandparents sick we were going to visit during the holidays, we had to go back on our word. They were crushed.

It’s hard to know what “good parenting” is when you have to make decisions like this – when you find yourself grieving over the choices you make to keep your family and community safe. In the living room, my daughter just shook and asked for a blanket.

Do not misunderstand me; some things are much better than they used to be. For my family, the vaccines are a huge relief – but it is also disorienting and discouraging to have reached this milestone only to discover that life is still very much the same. We’re still wearing masks. Vaccinated people are still getting sick. Children are still hospitalized, now in record numbers, although fortunately most children who catch Omicron are doing well, vaccinated or unvaccinated. Millions of children are still not eligible for a vaccine, and we do not yet know when they will be, or exactly how much of a difference these vaccines will make. It feels like we have nothing significant to look forward to. There is no long awaited cure just above the horizon anymore. There’s just more of the same. More concerned about school closures. More waiting for a new variant to mess it all up again.

Except life is not the same, is it? It’s worse. It has become even harder this wave. The early days of the pandemic were devastating, but at least back then “there was a consistent story – ‘These are the dangers of COVID-19. This is what we need to do,'” said Joel Cooper, a Princeton psychologist who has studied pandemic cognitive dissonance. Now, he said, the messages we get seem to contradict each other. We are expected to go to work, but warned not to get COVID because the hospitals are almost exhausted. We are told that it is safe to send our children to school, even though we see the school’s COVID number rising every day. We are told to get vaccinated, but that vaccines do not prevent us from becoming infected. We are asked to wear masks, but that Omicron is so contagious that they may not protect us.

“There’s no connection anymore,” Cooper said as we spoke last week – a conversation interrupted by a text message from a close friend telling me that her high-risk daughter had just been tested positive for COVID. What we have instead is chaos. As another of my friends, social worker Carla Naumburg, put it: “Parents are forced to choose between bad and worse, and we have no idea which option is bad and which is worse.”

Many parents have no choice – and no support – at all. Childcare for parents of young children is almost impossible to find. By December 2021, there were 111,400 fewer Americans working in child care jobs than there were in January 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the mandate for paid family leave created by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act expired back in late 2020, and there have been no steps to reinstate them. And while the U.S. rescue plan law, signed by President Joe Biden in March, promises $ 39 billion in funding to support the dwindling child care sector, many states have yet to start spending the money.

Parents who is lucky enough to have daycare, they can barely use it because their children are repeatedly exposed to COVID-19. Kjersten Tucker’s 22-month-old son, Zeke, who is enrolled in full-time day care in Lincoln, Nebraska, has only received eight days of care since Dec. 4 because, although he has remained healthy, he has been quarantined again and again and again, as in a confused version of the film Groundhog Day. “We’ve gotten through this with a combination of help from my mom, my sister and taking time off – some of it unpaid when I ran out of paid time off at the end of the year,” Tucker told me. “I do not know how people are going to make it work.”

We can not make it work. That’s the case. This is why mothers choose to spend their nights – their precious moments of child-free time before the next endless day begins – on screaming into the darkness. We can not do this. That’s not fair. It is not sustainable. Then we do it anyway. We hope that when this wave ends, we will have a short respite to sit down before the next one comes, and dream – in the few hours we actually sleep – of finally washing up on the shore of the more normal world we have been waiting for all along. We do it because we have no other choice.


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