My son was nine months old when COVID began. The first few months were terrifying. No one knew exactly how dangerous or contagious the virus was. Even the news that it was relatively mild in children was little comfort; the regular flu can kill an infant. Then we all settled into quarantine.
Slowly, we all developed a new normal: grocery pick up, masks in public, a wave from a distance instead of giving a hug. Most of us were able to find a way to adapt and go about our lives. Except a baby cannot wear a mask and they cannot social distance. In fact, they are more likely to run right up to your face and sneeze in your mouth. If you take them to a public park, even if you find one empty of other people, they are very likely to lick the playground equipment. I remember after seeing almost no people for weeks, I tried to have a socially distanced hang out with a friend in my backyard. We sat in chairs around 12 feet apart and wore masks, and I spent the entire time running after my son who thought it was a great game to run towards my friend and get grabbed halfway and hauled back to my chair… over and over and over.
Then my husband had to go back to work. He is an electrician with IBEW 112, so no work from home option for him (the state government deemed most construction essential, so they have been working the entire pandemic). And it’s hard to practice COVID precautions when you have to stand close to your coworkers to put something together and there is no running water on the jobsite to wash your hands. It would be risky even if most of the workers took COVID seriously and employers enforced masks and other precautions. Which they did not.
Now we were a couple months into the pandemic, and we were still figuring out exactly how the virus worked. I was home all day with a one-year-old and I literally could not go anywhere without risking exposure for my baby. And I couldn’t have anyone over to help me without risking exposure for my baby. If Grandma had come over wearing a mask to watch my son, the first thing he would have done would be to climb into her lap and rip the weird thing off her face. At the same time, my husband was working ten-hour days, five days a week, at a workplace with a very high risk of exposure. So, every day I stayed home in almost total isolation, while knowing that any day my husband could bring home a new contagious disease and infect my son.
I haven’t even mentioned the horror stories from my friends that gave birth in 2020.
Now it’s two years later, and while between vaccines and delusions that most of the rest of the world has moved on, my situation is more or less the same. There is no vaccine yet for children under five. I am still not comfortable taking my son to indoor public places, not only because he will not keep a mask on, but because most of my community will not wear one. I know my family has been more extreme in our precautions than most, but when you have lived through as many freak medical things as I have, you end up rather paranoid. I also understand that many parents don’t even have the option of being so careful; many children must be in daycare because both parents have to work. I have seen parents struggling with these decisions, trying to weigh the risks of their child going to daycare versus losing the job that provides half their income or their health insurance. While I am so thankful for the vaccine, it does feel like in our community’s discussion of whether or not life can go back to ‘normal’, those of us with unvaccinated children have been forgotten. For us, the pandemic is still the same, and it has been for two very long years.
The role of a stay-at-home parent to young children is isolating in normal times. It is easy to find many discussions of the loneliness new parents (mostly moms) feel when they are the one now home all day with their tiny human. With the pandemic on top of that, it has been absolutely brutal. Day after day of nowhere to go, no breaks, and no other people. Like everyone else, you learn to make do. I have a headset and I chat with friends on the phone a lot while I’m doing chores. My son is pretty comfortable talking to family on Zoom by now. But especially when he was younger, those alternatives don’t work that well. Auntie on Zoom can distract a baby for you, but she can’t rock him to sleep so you can take a shower.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on social media about how important it is to reach out for help, to ask for what you need and seek therapy if you can. And my family, friends, and community have mostly been amazing. We check in with each other, uplift each other’s spirits, do meal drop offs and Zoom chats. I have found a community of parents who are also COVID careful, and we meet for playdates. But the reason I don’t reach out more for help is that the help I need is not what my friends can provide. Trying to get my son to nap or do quiet time on an exact schedule so I can do Zoom therapy in another room is stressful and unreliable. You can only ask your friends for so much childcare as they have their own schedules and struggles. Meal drops offs ease the pressure on a specific day, but what I need is to be able to take my son to the grocery store and trust that everyone else there will wear a mask and keep six feet away from us. Which has never once happened. I need a toddler vaccine. I need places to take my son where he can get his energy out without risk of exposure. I need access to reliable and safe childcare. I need my husband’s workplace to not have an extremely high risk of COVID exposure. And my caring friends and family can do very little for these problems.
If you know anyone who is a parent to children under five, check in on them, because we are not okay.
Chiarra Lohr spends most of her time wrangling her two-year-old minion. She has recently gotten into writing a variety of fiction and nonfiction genres that somehow all end up being about women and against capitalism. Her other interests include reading, existing outside, and sewing extremely fancy clothes she then has nowhere to wear.