Last week, I met a newborn baby via Zoom. I observed a drive-by parade from my living room window. I heard a cautionary tale about a 2-year-old who’s too young to understand social distancing trying to hug her 4-year-old neighbor who’s been taught to avoid all human contact (there were tears!). Of the myriad things this pandemic has changed, the parenting challenges we face are perhaps chief among them.
I watch these challenges play out every day on social media. The visits with grandparents through panes of glass. The six-feet-apart picnics with families marooned on their respective checkered blankets. The children’s parties where people sing Happy Birthday out of sync, their smiling faces rendered in glitchy pixels on omnipresent laptops. When my friends and family upload these moments online, it’s always with a sour-sweet combination of wistfulness and resilience.
“Not the birthday he’d hoped for, but he still had a great day.”
“Tough not to be able to hug her tight, but we’re making the best of it.”
“One to remember, though not for the reasons we expected.”
I like all of their posts—placing little hearts, encouraging words, and well-wishes next to each caption—but I can’t relate to them. Quarantining with my own child has demanded none of the day-to-day sacrifices other parents are making; my son has had no plans thwarted or milestones missed or routines upended.
That’s because we’ve been quarantining with him almost all his life.
Nearly two years ago, my son was born several months early, with dislocated limbs and damaged lungs that kept him in the hospital for several months. And when he was well enough to be discharged, he wasn’t the only thing we brought home. In addition to a nebulizer, harness, and casts for his tiny baby legs, we also brought with us—to borrow the phrase so popular at the outset of this pandemic—an abundance of caution.
During the first year of his life, a simple cold could have become a serious problem for him. So we made our world small. My husband quit his job to care for our son full-time. And though I went back to work, I lived carefully—avoiding the coughing co-workers, crowded places, and sticky subway poles that I feared could transmit some sickness to me and then on to him.
Mostly, we stayed home and stuck to ourselves.
Then earlier this year, as our son got healthier, we began to broaden our horizons. We took him on an airplane so he could spend time at my mom’s cottage. We let him tiptoe tentatively around public parks. We brought him to our local library. But he’s still never been on a play date. Or attended a birthday party. Or had a birthday party of his own.
Sometimes I questioned whether we were doing the right thing. I wondered if, by shielding him from the slobbery, messy, germ-filled parts of childhood, my husband and I were denying him something essential. But now, my prudence doesn’t feel panicky. It feels prescient.
It’s polite to ask parents how they’re surviving this situation. “How are you holding up?” my clients inquire when we’re video chatting. “How’s your son hanging in there?” my colleagues ask. But they forget that, for us, things are basically business as usual.
Without friends to miss or freedom to yearn for, the only difference between my son’s life pre-COVID and today is that, instead of watching me walk out the front door to work every day, I retreat to a makeshift desk in my bedroom.
There are upsides to this, obviously. The rhythms of life under lockdown are familiar to me. I’ve been unknowingly preparing for a pandemic as long as I’ve been a parent. Longer, in fact: I spent four months on bed rest, trying to prevent a disastrously early birth after my water broke at 16 weeks. The state of being anxious at home has become second nature to me.
And as quarantine fatigue sets in, I’ve listened to plenty of parents debate whether to relax restrictions for the sake of their children’s happiness. They’re tempted, they tell me, to say yes to just one get-together, just one backyard hangout. I feel lucky to be free from similar temptations. There’s no weighing of beloved friends against health concerns, no struggle to reconcile what my kid wants against my fears for him. My son’s lingering vulnerability makes continued isolation an obvious choice.
But there are downsides to this way of being too. Watching other parents experience my family’s day-to-day reality as deeply painful—using words such as ‘tragic’ and ‘devastated’ and ‘heartbroken’ to describe how they feel about their children being cloistered—has revived my fear that my son has been missing out on something fundamental.
But right now, there’s nothing to miss. And there’s only one way to parent through this pandemic: safely. All the parents I know today are acting like me now.
And when this is over, I’m going to try to be more like them. To give my son some of that joy and exuberance that other parents and kids are missing so much right now. To embrace the dirty hands, food-caked faces, and maybe even—someday—the germs that are part of being a kid.