In the hospital parking lot, I pulled a stiff painter’s mask over my nose and mouth. I took a selfie on Snapchat, sent it to my brother and sister. My brother responded: “Whoa. That’s apocalyptic.”
This was mid-March 2020, when we feared COVID-19 the way you fear an animal’s yellow eyes in the dark, not the way you do when you’ve felt its teeth. I was 15 weeks pregnant with our second child and had recently been referred to a high-risk obstetrician. After our first visit, guests were no longer allowed. My husband, Adrian, had dug the painter’s mask out of a garage drawer before I left for a solo appointment, an improvised solution before our first mask order arrived. “Be safe,” he’d said.
In the small, dim room, my hands opened and closed like fish gulping on shore. I wanted Adrian’s hand. I wanted us to share a teary smile as the shape on the ultrasound screen cohered into something familiar, something ours. I wanted his calming presence when the doctor came in, brusque and aloof, and I tried to remember all the questions that kept me up at night.
Of course, we never got that. We live in San Antonio, and South Texas was often a hot spot for the virus. My hometown, Laredo, was at one point ranked worst in the nation for active cases per capita, despite being the first city in the country to issue a mask mandate.
In April 2020, our daughter, Jo, turned 2. She wore a dress with a pink tulle skirt and TWO written on the chest, and crammed chocolate cake into her mouth while our family sang to her on Zoom. We gave up our 10 hours of babysitting per week to limit potential exposure, passing Jo between us like a baton in order to work from home. My entire pregnancy, I never even went to the grocery store. I was terrified of catching COVID-19 and going into preterm labor, or delivering a baby who would never breathe, or dying before meeting our son, never seeing Jo grow up. My body was a pitch-black greenhouse in which a flower bloomed alone.
In September 2020, my parents quarantined and COVID-tested before driving from Laredo to stay with us for our son’s birth. Only Adrian was allowed at the hospital with me, and I couldn’t help remembering Jo’s birth—the way my parents came in and rubbed my feet until, to all of our shock, I was almost 10 centimeters dilated, and how afterward, the room sang with voices, my sister bringing me a coffee and taking photos, Jo passed arm to arm.
This time, there was only a brief FaceTime with my parents and Jo amid four days of trying to collect colostrum on a spoon and soothing our jaundiced newborn as he screamed beneath intense blue bili lights, fists clenched and eyes hidden beneath tiny goggles.
When we got home and passed our baby to my parents—when we watched our daughter lean close to him, their sweet breath mixing—I couldn’t help imagining the worst: the virus already in one of us, seeping into the next with an embrace, a laugh. A careless moment of love.
I remember the night we brought Jo home from the hospital in 2018, when my mom came into her nursery to say goodbye. Up until then, we’d been surrounded by doctors and nurses and family. Now, I realized, stricken, we’d be on our own. The sole caretakers of a fragile human life. It was terrifying.
The last two years of parenting young children in a pandemic have felt like an extended, unyielding version of that moment. Every day we measure the threats and perform intricate cost-benefit analyses. What’s more damaging, for example: unrelenting isolation or the possibility of a child contracting the virus from a return to daycare? The stress of playing Russian roulette with our children’s lives—or refusing to, keeping them home as much as possible—is crushing. I think of that old carnival ride, the Gravitron, which spins so quickly that riders are lifted from the floor, held against padded walls by forces three times that of normal gravity. The fun of the ride (if you like such rides, which I don’t) is that it stops. The pressure eases. You can move again.
For two years, we have not been able to move. We have felt that force against our chests, hearts gone pulpy and bruised, and it has not stopped.
Vaccines were supposed to be the solution. In March 2021, Adrian and I took turns driving to a grocery store in a small town 45 minutes away for our first dose of Pfizer. I was ecstatic. Jack was 6 months old, all cheeks and smiles and full quizzical eyebrows, a delight we never got to share. His whole life had been as isolated as my pregnancy. We still had no childcare, only now for two children, and my heart broke every time Jo asked, in her high, clear voice, “Would you like to play with me?” because, between working and breastfeeding and trying to get Jack to sleep, I never had time or energy to play. Soon, we thought, that would change.
When Jo turned 3 in April 2021, her second pandemic birthday, we told ourselves that next year everyone would be vaccinated, even the kids. We’d have a real party. Our kids wouldn’t need to keep growing up in this unnatural seclusion, with parents so fundamentally depleted from the mental calculus of keeping them safe that we had little else to give.
We all know that’s not how it happened. By early May, 1 in 5 new cases were children. By late May, just over half the eligible adult population in the U.S. had been fully vaccinated, despite early studies showing that the Pfizer vaccine prevented 98.9% of COVID-19 deaths. That summer, Adrian and I were strained to our breaking points. Jack still didn’t sleep through the night. Jo started asking for her tablet first thing in the morning. We worried about how anxious she was becoming before seeing anyone, even family. Eventually, I got chest pain. Adrian struggled to fall asleep before 4 a.m. Before all this, we had slept well and taken Jo to restaurants and asked my parents to babysit so we could watch a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse. Such simple, ordinary pleasures. Now, each day was a slog just to survive—to literally survive, when hundreds of thousands of Americans so far hadn’t, and to make sure our children survived, too, which meant mostly continuing to live in semi-lockdown despite our own vaccination. It was unsustainable.
In June, we decided to enroll Jo in a few hours of daycare, several days a week. Teachers were masked, and the class had only about 10 kids. Jo brought home glittery art projects and stories about her friends. Those nine hours a week gave us something like an air pocket, a gasp of breath when we’d thought there was nothing left. It gave her joy, learning, stimulation. Then in August, the Delta variant began spreading. We worried about catching the virus from unvaccinated people in our city but also, increasingly, about breakthrough infections. Soon, Texas children’s hospitals were running out of beds because of a double whammy of COVID-19 and RSV. When I asked our pediatrician whether we should withdraw our daughter from daycare, she—a mother of young kids herself—looked pained. “If you can, I would,” she said. So we did. No more air.
We knew we couldn’t go back to how things had been, so we hired a nanny five mornings a week, someone vaccinated and as cautious about the virus as we were. We also began navigating getting speech and physical therapy for Jack, who’d just celebrated his first pandemic birthday. For the first time in 18 months, new people were coming into our house. I imagined each person with an invisible stream of family, friends and patients trailing behind them, some of whom were likely unvaccinated. I worried constantly about exposing our kids. But cost-benefit analysis: we needed childcare, and Jack needed these services. We had to risk it.
Vaccines for kids 5 to 11 began rolling out in early November 2021. Every social media image of a child being vaccinated brought a surge of hope—but also, of jealousy. When would it be our turn? When would our kids get to return to any semblance of normalcy, of community? When would Jack get to meet the other side of his family in Australia, where Adrian is from? When would we get to breathe a little, to know that while we’d always be our kids’ first line of defense, we wouldn’t be their only one?
Not soon enough, it turns out. Pfizer and BioNTech announced on December 17 that the two-dose vaccine they were testing in kids under 5 failed to produce enough of an immune response in kids 2 through 5. (The vaccine did produce an adequate immune response in kids 6 months to 2 years, but the company is–bafflingly to many parents–still not yet requesting authorization for that age group.) I wanted to wail, to howl. A lifeline, taken. That’s how it felt to me. The dizzying, sickening ride continuing, our backs against the wall, no end in sight.
Sometimes it feels like we’re living in an alternate reality to the rest of the world. People say, “Now that kids are vaccinated,” as if toddlers and babies don’t exist, and neither do their broken parents. Reports tell us the most important thing in the fight against Omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant and by far the most contagious, is to get vaccinated. They reassure us that it’s mostly unvaccinated people landing in hospitals when there are more than 23 million kids under 5 in the U.S. who can’t be vaccinated. For us, the world has become a new wilderness of lax and inconsistent mask guidance, of apathy disguised as protection of individual liberty. Here in Texas, continuing his tradition of putting as many people in danger as possible, Governor Abbott actually tried to ban schools from imposing mask mandates, which, thankfully, a federal judge overturned. Still, most places we go these days, 90% to 95% of people are unmasked.
Meanwhile, New York and Washington, D.C., posted record highs for new daily cases on December 17, with more than 21,000 new cases in one day in New York alone. There are those who say Omicron might be no more severe than Delta, that kids are at such low risk anyway of severe illness and death. And that’s true—it’s been the one saving grace of the pandemic. But it ignores the numbers. As Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the UCSF Department of Medicine, recently pointed out on Twitter, even if Omicron is less severe, but cases increase 5- to 10-fold (both plausible, he notes), we are going to see catastrophic effects. We are going to see the most vulnerable among us die.
That doesn’t include only children. What about grandparents or immunocompromised family members—or strangers—to whom a mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic child might pass the infection? What about losing beds and medical staff for cardiac patients or cancer patients or accident victims? You can’t abandon millions of kids under 5 in the U.S. and expect there not to be a tidal wave of repercussions for everyone.
We can’t hurry the vaccine production timetable, but we can remember these kids exist—these wondrous, inventive, forced-to-be-resilient tiny humans, who never knew or don’t remember a life of playdates and family gatherings and vacations. In the U.S., this country that claims to care so much about the youngest of us, childcare and home tests should be affordable and accessible to all, mask mandates should be consistent and enforced, and we should have that barest minimum of six weeks paid family leave.
Don’t get me wrong: we, these children’s weary husks of parents—many of whom have lost careers, income, partners, ourselves—will keep doing our part to protect them. We will run ourselves into the ground every damn day and dig ourselves out the next. But we need help.
Do you hear me? We need help.
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