Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have used the phrase when this is over quite so often when talking about the pandemic with my kids.
It wasn’t that I thought everything would return to the status quo, or that the status quo was anything to be content with. And it wasn’t that I believed we would remain unaltered after COVID-19 upended our routines and sense of safety, and prevented us from seeing loved ones before they died. But part of what kept us going through the first year of pandemic—through cascading losses and disappointments, grief and loneliness, remote work and learning—was the hope of life after. Even when it became clear that millions of Americans were unwilling to wear masks and take other basic precautions to limit the spread of the virus, I still believed that most would get vaccinated as soon as they were able—to protect themselves, if the collective good couldn’t sway them.
So when my children asked, “When will this be over?” I encouraged them to look forward to a time when we would all have access to safe and effective vaccines. And for about six weeks of summer, with three-quarters of our household vaccinated, we did experience some of those joys we’d once taken for granted: friends came over for dinner; my sister flew out from the West Coast to visit; the kids spent a week at their grandparents’ house. My husband and I registered our children for what we hoped would be a far more typical school year, with local infection rates so low, we wondered whether our school system would even bother requiring masks. I started looking at flights home to southern Oregon, hoping to visit my mother’s grave for the first time.
Now, back home and in other hard-hit regions, hospitals are filled with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, and infections and deaths have spiked once more. While our family hasn’t retreated into our pandemic bubble, it feels as though our options have contracted—we skipped a party we’d been looking forward to for weeks, wrestled with the decision of enrolling the kids in fall sports, have yet to confirm any holiday travel plans. We’re back to evaluating each and every risk, trying to avoid the unnecessary ones because our children—one of whom is too young to be vaccinated—cannot escape the necessary risk of school.
Sending them into crowded school buildings every day flies against my every protective instinct as a parent, especially after keeping them home for more than a year. The week before school started, I was plagued with insomnia more nights than not; sometimes a painful knot would form in my chest, reminiscent of the way stress had lived in my body during the months when my mother was dying. I know that some part of this is a trauma response, not only from the pandemic, but also from losing both my parents and my grandmother in a two-year span: I was not doing well when all of this began. Yet even without such recent losses, I suspect I’d be struggling now—because when I speak with friends, fellow parents, I hear many of my fears echoed back.
I would say that I don’t know how we got through that first shaky week of this third pandemic-impacted school year, hugging our kids and checking to make sure their masks were secure before they left each morning, except that I do know: We had no choice. We still don’t. Though we’re grateful to their teachers and glad that our kids are once again learning alongside their peers, the worry persists, an undercurrent to which we’ve been forced to adapt as we settle into routines both familiar and new.
Each week brings more pediatric infections, more student quarantines. Each day, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m allowing my children to assume a risk from which I, working at home, am protected, and this feels hopelessly backward. I read every update to the school COVID-19 guidelines so I know what to expect after the inevitable exposure, but I can’t tell my kids what they have long wanted to know: When will things go back to the way they remember?
Nearly every interview with a public-health expert once included the question “When will things get back to normal?” I always found myself reading the replies with an almost childlike eagerness, a need to be comforted—or at least told what to expect. I think it’s all too tempting to look for an end date and a maximized payoff whenever we’re forced to face hardship, give up things we want or need. But part of living through the pandemic—for those of us who have, thus far, been lucky enough to live through it—is realizing that we’ve lost too many and too much for this to ever be “over.” One in 500 Americans have died of COVID-19, with a higher share of deaths in Black, Latinx and Native communities. Millions of people, including a statistically small but heartbreaking number of kids, now live with symptoms of long COVID. No matter how low cases fall, we’ve crossed into new terrain and cannot go back.
And I think this can be a hard truth to communicate to our children, as we toe that line between wanting to be honest and wanting to protect them from further trauma. So many of them were already threatened by racist violence, mass shootings, the deadly effects of a largely unchecked climate emergency, long before COVID-19 came to devastate our communities. So much has been asked of our kids; so much that they should have been able to count on has proved elusive, unrecoverable—they’ve suffered every kind of instability and trauma that adults have over the past year and a half, all while having to rely on us to make the big decisions and shield them from fire and flood, infection and death.
I know my intentions were good when I encouraged my own children to expect an end to the alarming spread, the immediate peril—I didn’t want them to despair, and I honestly believed that vaccines would bring about a return to normalcy, or something like it. But now, with Delta’s high transmissibility rate, fears over still more variants, and millions still unvaccinated—in a country where masks and shutdowns and other public health measures were deliberately, maliciously politicized months before we had any vaccines at all—I don’t think I’m the only parent wondering if I might have pointed them toward the wrong North Star. While I expect that our own relative risk will downshift once all four of us are vaccinated, and continue to tell my kids that things will hopefully get better, I’m no longer certain they believe me. Nor am I certain they have a reason to, given how grievously so many adults have failed to take the easiest and most obvious steps to keep them and others safe.
What can we offer our children now, if not the promise of an uninterrupted school year, or a guarantee that they can trust adults to do what’s necessary to protect them from this virus? How do we help them live and learn when we, their parents and caregivers, lack that most basic of foundations to stand on? I struggle every day to figure out how to talk with my kids about the reality of this pandemic and the choices countless adults have made. For now, I keep telling them that I love them. That many people do want to keep them safe, and are trying their best. And that I know they are doing their best in the hardest time we’ve known, and this makes me prouder than ever.
I didn’t expect to find myself blinking back tears when I picked up my 10-year-old on the first day of school and saw throngs of children streaming from the doors, something I hadn’t witnessed since March 2020. I didn’t know how to feel—I still don’t—about sending them back in the midst of a far more alarming autumn than many of us anticipated. But I still myself moved, some days, at the sight of all those students with their heavy backpacks and heavier burdens—they are doing such a brave thing, every day, and many of them probably don’t even realize it; they’re just excited and happy to be together again. By wearing masks and following rules established for their safety, they are doing everything in their limited power to take care of one another.
If some of our children are disappointed in us now, if they’re frustrated or angry that so many adults continue to make choices that put them and other vulnerable members of our society at risk, if it’s hard for them to picture an end to this pandemic, that’s more than fair. In a time of enormous loss and uncertainty, I’ve come to believe that my focus as a parent shouldn’t be on managing their feelings or expectations, or predicting a more stable future that might not come to be. I can’t supply all the answers they seek, or promise all the outcomes they deserve. But I can acknowledge and affirm what they’re experiencing, while encouraging them to act with compassion and recognize their responsibility to others.
Over the past 18 months, a common refrain has been that this pandemic should compel all of us to recognize our interdependence, the inescapable fact that we will not address this or any of the other grave threats we’re facing without collective action. This is a lesson that I expect many of our children are also learning, though the cost and the danger to them feels too high. I know I don’t want my kids to conclude that they are or forever will be powerless, or that there is no one who will fight with and for them. There are many things I still have to hope for to get through each day, and while our children’s survival and health top the list, I also want them to retain their faith in themselves and in their ability to look forward to something better than this—to find, as they so often do, their own reasons to hope.
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