COVID Parenting Has Passed the Point of Absurdity
Last Thursday, a group of 20 mothers in Boston met up outside a local high school. Their goal wasn’t to socialize, drink wine, or even share COVID-related tips. They were there for one reason and one reason only: to stand in a circle—socially distanced, of course—and scream.
“I knew that we all needed to come together and support each other in our rage, resistance and disappointment,” Sarah Harmon, the group’s organizer, wrote on Instagram before the gathering. Ironically, some 20 other moms who had RSVP’d “yes” had to cancel at the last minute because they or other family members had COVID, Harmon told me.
When mothers feel there is no more appealing way to spend an evening than to yell into the frigid January darkness, something is very, very wrong. Parents in the United States are living through a universally terrible moment. For two years, we’ve been spending each and every day navigating an ever-changing virus that’s threatening not only our well-being but our livelihoods. The situation has reached a fever pitch during this wave, when we’re 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 kids back to school when no one can find COVID tests and so many students and teachers are out sick? How do we keep our kids home from school when we’re expected to be back at work? How can we be good parents when we are also required to be employees, 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 might be COVID—should I feel guilty that I’m not attending to her every need, or is guilt now a luxury parents cannot afford?
Parents were defeated long before Omicron. Now we’ve 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 weathered things worse than others. We have different access to support, different senses of what’s best for our kids, different convictions about masks and distancing and vaccines. But the burden has fallen on us all. Even if we’re somehow physically muddling our way through the pandemonium, our mental health is taking a serious hit. In nationwide survey data being collected now, the Indiana University sociologist Jessica Calarco has found so far that 70 percent of moms, and 54 percent of dads, are feeling overwhelmed and stressed; that about half of parents are feeling depressed and hopeless; and that fewer than 15 percent of mothers, and 25 percent of fathers, are getting enough sleep. “There are really high rates of mental-health struggles across the board,” Calarco told me.
For me, what’s especially hard is that I thought it was all getting better—that the worst was over. Yes, there would be more variants, but our vaccines would protect us. My family could finally exhale. But you know that scene in every horror movie when the main character shoots the bad guy, cries in relief that it’s all over, and walks away? And you yell, “No, damn it, you have to check that he’s dead!” Well, we were that tragic hero, and the coronavirus got right back up again. It got right back up, and then it stabbed us in the heart.
Case in point: My kids became fully vaccinated in late December, the same week that Omicron began spreading rapidly throughout the U.S. They were so excited to weave some normalcy back into their lives—to go to restaurants, to have sleepovers with friends, to do all the things my husband and I had previously told them were not worth the risk of infection. In fact, we had promised them we would do these things as soon as they were vaccinated. Then, because of Omicron, and the fear that we might inadvertently sicken the grandparents we were supposed to visit over the holidays, we had to go back on our word. They were heartbroken.
It’s hard to know what “good parenting” is when you have to make decisions like this—when you find yourself grieving the choices you make to keep your family and community safe. In the living room, my daughter just shivered and asked for a blanket.
Don’t get me wrong; 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 disheartening 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. Kids are still being hospitalized, now in record numbers, even if thankfully most children who catch Omicron do fine, vaccinated or unvaccinated. Millions of children still aren’t eligible for a vaccine, and we don’t know yet when they will be, or exactly how much of a difference those vaccines will make. It feels like we don’t have anything momentous to look forward to. There is no much-anticipated cure just over the horizon anymore. There is merely more of the same. More fretting about school closures. More waiting for a new variant to mess everything up once again.
Except life’s not really the same, is it? It’s worse. It’s gotten 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 have to do,’” Joel Cooper, a psychologist at Princeton who has studied pandemic cognitive dissonance, told me. Now, he said, the messages we are getting seem to contradict one another. We’re expected to go to work, but warned not to get COVID because hospitals are nearly at capacity. We’re told it’s safe to send our kids to school, even as we watch school COVID numbers rise each day. We’re told to get vaccinated, but that vaccines won’t prevent us from getting infected. We’re told to wear masks, but that Omicron is so contagious, they might not protect us.
“There’s no consistency anymore,” Cooper said when we spoke last week—a conversation that was interrupted by a text from a close friend telling me that her high-risk daughter had just tested positive for COVID. What we have instead is chaos. As another of my friends, the social worker Carla Naumburg, put it, “Parents are being forced to choose between bad and worse, and we have no idea which option is bad and which is worse.”
Many parents have no choices—and no support—at all. Child care for parents of little kids is next to impossible to find. In 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 paid-family-leave mandate created by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act expired back at the end of 2020, and there have been no moves to reinstate them. And although the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in March, promises $39 billion in funding to support the flailing child-care sector, many states haven’t started using the money yet.
Parents who are fortunate enough to have day care are hardly able to use it, because their children are being 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 received only eight days of care since December 4 because, although he’s remained healthy, he has been quarantined over and over and over again, like in a deranged version of the movie Groundhog Day. “We’ve slogged through this with a combination of help from my mom, my sister, and taking time off—some of it unpaid, as I ran out of paid time off by the end of the year,” Tucker told me. “I don’t know how people are supposed to make this work.”
We can’t make this work. That’s the thing. That’s why moms are choosing to spend their nights—their precious moments of child-free time before the next endless day begins—screaming into the darkness. We can’t do this. It isn’t fair. It isn’t sustainable. Then we do it anyway. We hope that when this wave ends, we’ll have a brief respite to compose ourselves before the next one comes, and dream—in the few hours we actually sleep—of finally washing up on the shore of that more normal world we’ve been waiting for all this time. We do it because we have no other choice.