“Not Okay” Is a Distant Memory for Parents

Where we are now is well past the breaking point

Street art in Washington, DC. One woman, two directions (artist unknown to author). Children in the middle. Photo taken by the author.

The Atlantic recently published a piece titled “Parents Are Not Okay” by a father, Dan Sinker. It detailed the many ways in which the pandemic has taken its toll on families, and now, as we return to school, the concerns parents continue to have regarding child safety in the midst of COVID-19.

The thing is, I already wrote this article. I wrote it back in January 2021. It was called “We Are Not Women Who Can Stand Things”. It was personal and revealing. It touched on my life, and the lives of mothers I know, who were broken, tired, and scared by pandemic life, but continued moving forward because there was no alternative.

The truth is that it’s almost (almost) impossible to accurately put into words what parents are truly feeling. I’m going to try anyway.

Stress. Constant worry. Giddiness. Relief. Guilt. The weight of knowing that we’ve had to choose between our children’s mental health and physical health. And, knowing that we are simultaneously doing the right thing and the wrong thing. Relief from never, ever being alone, for even one minute, unless it’s one o’clock in the morning. Parents are also, somewhat guiltily, thrilled that their children are back to in-person school. It feels like a return to some kind of normalcy, even as we send them to school with masks and warnings to wash their hands often. I use the word parents because I don’t want to exclude fathers from this equation altogether. There are plenty of dads out there that have taken on the primary parenting role during the pandemic. And, in two parent families, both parents usually make decisions together. But, the reality, and the numbers, show that when push came to shove, mothers were the ones who’ve dealt (voluntarily or involuntarily) with the most difficult parts of pandemic parenting. Whether it’s trying to work and parent and help with virtual school or giving up, or being forced out of, their jobs because having the children at home full-time demanded full-time parenting, mothers have taken the brunt of the pandemic hit.

The similarities between his piece and mine show that not much has changed in the last eight months. If we were already broken in January, imagine what we must be feeling now. We all know that it seemed to get a little better, but then the Delta variant arrived and quickly changed the positive outcomes we were seeing.

Both my piece and Mr. Sinker’s piece, linked above, are well worth reading. As we watch video after video of people screaming, protesting, and generally being awful to one another about mask mandates in schools, we need to face the reality that none of this is ok. Children are getting COVID-19. The Delta variant continues to prove to all of us, including scientists and medical experts, that what may have been true about children and the original incarnation of the virus no longer holds true. Hospitals are seeing record numbers of pediatric hospitalizations.

Parents are worried about their children, particularly those under 12 who do not yet have a vaccine available to them, and children who are immuno-compromised or medically unable to receive the vaccine for a variety of reasons. My children’s school, which tests all students and staff weekly, had a positive COVID test on the first day of school. My kindergartner got two days of school before having to stay home and get another test, with a negative result, before returning to school. Our story is not unique. Most parents I know are worried because their children’s school had a positive COVID case in the first week. It feels insane that this is where we are now. It’s not just physical health at stake here; their mental health is just as important. My ten year old’s mental health has absolutely been affected by this pandemic. She is clearly uncomfortable in situations where there are larger groups of people, even outdoors. She wants nothing more than to be vaccinated. She wants to feel safe again and I don’t blame her. As parents, all we want is for our kids to be safe, happy, and introduced to the “real world” in ways that hopefully don’t scar them for the rest of their lives. Clearly, the pandemic has thrown all of us into the deep end of an infected pool. We all like to hope that this will be something we look back on and shake our heads at, but in our hearts we know that it’s going to take a long time before that moment comes.

The silver lining to find in all of this stress and worry is that we know the protocols laid out by health and medical professionals work. Masks work. Our school’s upgraded filtration system, plastic shielding between students, keeping children in their pods, enforcement of masks for all, and their decision to test everyone, every week has worked. And, at least in our house, the kids are so, so happy to be back in school, to see their school friends in-person, and to be back in the classroom. It makes the difficult decisions easier when you can see the joy on your children’s faces.

If we all work together, we really can move past where we are now.

So, Mr. Sinker, you’re right. The parents are not okay. Women, mothers, have been telling you this for months now. The current situation only serves to highlight what we already knew. None of this is normal. There are no easy, pat, answers to be found. We’re all trying to find the light wherever we can, even as stress continues to plague us. Parents aren’t just “not okay”; they’re broken. But, as I wrote in We Are Not Women Who Can Stand Things, “We don’t have time for a mid-life crisis. We have too much to do.”