Our 4-year-old daughter came into our bedroom at 5:27 in the morning sounding like Darth Vader.
“I don’t feel well,” Ria said.
My wife, Kathleen, grabbed my hand. The moment we’d spent nearly two years guarding against – dreading – had arrived: Our daughter contracted COVID-19. That was last Wednesday. Since then, our 9-month-old son, Callum, has also fallen ill with the virus. His case warranted a trip to the emergency room, turning our parental nightmare into a terrifying reality.
The omicron variant has forced many parents to confront COVID-19 directly. After two years of isolating, sanitizing and washing hands like crazy, of constantly reminding the little ones to pull their masks up over their noses, of regularly sticking cotton swabs up those noses, our kids still got sick.
Parents have borne a huge burden throughout the pandemic. Some have transformed their homes into offices/day cares/classrooms, facing the hassle of keeping the kids on task during virtual school lessons while attending to their own work Zoom meetings and deadlines. Others have had to significantly limit shifts or quit their jobs altogether, putting a serious strain on finances. Meanwhile, stress levels and anxiety are soaring, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that 70% of caregivers are experiencing adverse mental health symptoms.
“It’s the constant risk assessment tied in with the fact that the information is constantly changing. So you are trying to make decisions, and every decision takes so much energy,” said Sarah Kuriakose, associate commissioner for the Division of Integrated Community Services for Children and Families of New York State’s Office of Mental Health, which offers many resources for parents available on its website. “Omicron is such a great example of that because for a long time, I think, parents were more able to believe that ‘My little kids won’t get it.’ Or they will be protected because this is how it’s been. And now, all of a sudden, day cares are wiped out because all of these kids have omicron.”
Federal labor data shows that families have been hit hard on the unemployment front.
In 2020, 9.8% of families included an unemployed person, twice the figure of 4.9% in 2019, according to an April U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. That increase meant the number of families with at least one member unemployed increased by 4 million to 8.1 million in 2020.
The report notes that families of color faced a higher rate of unemployment than white families.
“In 2020, the proportion of families with an unemployed person increased for White (9.0% of families), Black (13.4%), Asian (10.9%), and Hispanic (14.3%) families. White families were the least likely to have an unemployed member, and Hispanic families were the most likely,” the report states.
Caregiving duties are a huge factor in the increased unemployment. A Nov. 5 Board of Governors of The Federal Review System article notes “that caregiving burdens appear to have weighed substantially on labor force participation rate during the pandemic.”
Mark A. Castiglione, executive director of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, said numbers he has examined point to parents, especially those of young children, having their work situations impacted by caregiving duties – whether that means stepping away from the workforce or simply trying to juggle it all. As a father of two children under 5, Castiglione knows from personal experience.
“It’s been extremely challenging for parents of children under the age of 5 to manage being a good parent and also complying with the obligations that we have for school or day care or otherwise. Layering on top of that is the mystery of quarantine and not being able to plan your life, and the stress of not wanting to have your children or yourself be vectors of disease for other family members,” Castiglione said. “It’s been really stressful for a lot of people. But I think the data will show that a particular burden has been borne by parents with children under the age of 6, and also between the ages of 7 and 16.”
For what it’s worth, New York state unemployment numbers don’t show parents of children under age 18 being unemployed at a higher rate than people without kids under 18. In 2019, 3.1% of parents with kids under 18 were unemployed, according to data supplied by the state Department of Labor. That number jumped to 9% in 2020 and fell to 6.1% in 2021. But the numbers for those without kids under 18 are similar, moving from 4.3% in 2019 to 10.3% in 2020 to 7.4% in 2021.
The quieter burden
I spent more than a year watching our daughter and collecting unemployment insurance after the publishing company I worked for in Seattle shuttered due to the pandemic. Largely, that twist turned out to be a benefit. My daughter and I are surely even closer than we would have been had I not lost my job. I’m still the one she calls to from her bedroom when she needs the spell cast to ward off monsters or when she needs to use the potty – daddy duty indeed.
But the quieter burden parents face is that of constant worry. Through most of the pandemic, children – mercifully – have been largely spared. With omicron, however, pediatric hospitalizations, while still remaining relatively low, reached their highest point ever earlier this month, according to data from the CDC.
And the unvaccinated are at heightened risk, with the vaccines having more than 90% effectiveness at preventing hospitalizations, according to numbers from the state Department of Health.
Children under 5 are the only ones left in America who are not eligible for the vaccine. Like many parents with young kids, my wife and I have lived with the relentless underlying fear that our children would be the ones to contract severe cases, to end up in the hospital on a ventilator. Anxiety comes with the job, but add a pandemic into the mix and it’s a wonder that parents can even get out of bed.
Now, parents of young children are isolated in their worry.
“In the initial period, in that March-to-May 2020, even though everything was so scary there was something that was really wonderful about all of us being in it together. Your social world was locked down in the same way,” Kuriakose said. “And now you’re part of what feels like a very small group of people who are still kind of in a March 2020 mindset in a lot of ways, because you’re trying to protect these little kids. It’s all the same stress but without any of that buffering of social support that comes from ‘we’re all dealing with this together.’”
COVID comes to our family
When our daughter stomped into our room with a nasty cough and a gravelly voice, my wife and I immediately braced for the worst.
Thankfully, my daughter’s symptoms subsided relatively quickly, the frog in her throat turning into a toad, then a tadpole, then clearing entirely. My wife’s case gave her body aches and left her fatigued and worn down. And when I eventually tested positive several days later, I felt like I had the kind of head cold that used to be routine until lockdowns went into effect. We thought we’d made it through unscathed.
That’s because – miraculously – our 9-month-old son, Callum, continued to test negative. Perhaps the fact that he was in utero for my wife’s first two vaccine doses, or the antibodies he was getting through breast milk, afforded him ample protection, we hoped.
Then, on the morning that Callum was supposed to return to his nanny, he woke up with a cough and a slight wheeze. He had COVID-19, too.
Because he is so little, we called the doctor. If possible, she said, we should test his blood oxygen level using a blood oximeter. Anything below 94% was cause for alarm, worth a trip to the emergency room. We tested him three times and got readings of 84%, 90% and 86%. We freaked.
My wife rushed him to Albany Medical Center, where they hooked him up to their professional instruments. Thankfully, his blood oxygen level was at 98%. The nurse explained that Callum’s small, wiggly fingers likely affected the at-home readings.
He was back home and napping within two hours.
A day later he still had a wheeze, a thick hacking cough and an elevated temperature. But his little 21-pound body seemed to be encouraging him to sleep, doing its job in fighting off the virus. A day later, his symptoms were much less severe, and he should be healthy again in another day or so.
Reentering the world
As my family and I begin our emergence from our COVID-19 cases, my wife and I, like many parents, are left wondering how to proceed. Questions remain about repeat cases, the level of immunity that comes from omicron and the threat of new variants.
Still, I think my family and I are ready to enter the new phase of the pandemic. Hospitalization numbers in New York state are on an encouraging downward trend, DOH numbers show, sitting at less than 8,200 patients at the end of the week, down from a high of more than 12,500 earlier this month. That means that the overworked, exhausted health care workers, like the Ellis Medicine nurses I spoke to at the end of the year, should be able to get back to three 12-hour shifts a week, rather than the four shifts that have become the norm during the pandemic. Once that’s a reality across our health care system, I think my wife and I are ready to release our kids fully into the world. Of course, our parental instincts tell us the surest bet is to cocoon our children, stay home to stay safe. But that simply isn’t a reality.
Kuriakose said it’s important to weigh the mental health effects against the physical health risks of the virus.
“Especially in this phase of the pandemic, it is OK, and it is necessary in a lot of ways, to make sure that you are putting your mental health, your kids’ mental health, into the equation when you’re calculating your risk assessment,” Kuriakose said. “There was kind of a long period of time where it was ‘do not go out, do not do anything because the infection is so scary.’ But what we know on the other side of it is for kids, for parents, not being out in the world, too, is very scary.”
Castiglione, of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, predicts parents who can afford child care are likely to head back into the workforce soon.
“As things return more to normal, as restrictions and quarantines become more rare of a situation and we move out of the pandemic phase of COVID-19, I think that’s when you’ll see people returning to the workforce, particularly the caregivers,” Castiglione said. “But another thing to consider longer-term is still the lack of affordable childcare.”
Castiglione said he hopes the pandemic has taught us how important child care is to the economy.
“The ripple effect of people not being able to work because of child care reasons has a tremendous drag on the economy. Hopefully, the challenges that we’ve experienced in the past couple years will drive a focus on affordable child care,” Castiglione said. “I’m optimistic that we will come out of this with a new perspective on the importance of the interconnected pieces of our economy. The issues of supply chain and child care are connected, because it’s all about workers. And if workers are leaving the workforce or can’t stay in the workforce because of child care reasons, it has a cascading impact across all sectors.”
As parents, we face many balancing acts, from our budgets to our day-to-day schedules to our incessant assessment of risks. Our worries will never fade entirely, but I also don’t want to raise children who shrink from the world. So my wife and I, and many parents like us, will do what we can each day. We’ll bring our children into our beds at night at the first signs of a scary virus. We’ll pack bags full of snacks and diapers and extra clothes if, in fact, that virus necessitates a trip to the hospital. We’ll clutch our babies when they are sniffly and want nothing more than to be held. And when the time comes, we’ll take them to the doctor or the pharmacy, roll up their sleeves, and close our eyes along with them as the person with the needle says, “You’ll feel a small pinch.” None of it will be guaranteed, but few things ever are.
All I know is that my son began crawling recently, and he always seems to head for the front door.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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