My 10-year-old son has been exposed to COVID-19 three times in the past week.
It started when his dad, with whom I co-parent from separate houses, tested positive after a shift at his grocery store job. I kept my son out of school the next day and told my boss we would have to wait in an unmoving line in the cold outside a testing van for approximately God knows how long. We’d only just gotten our negative test results when I heard from his after-school program that he’d been exposed there and would be required to test twice over the next five days.
On Monday, I sent him back to school. He came home with two rapid tests from the administration and a letter stating that he’d been exposed to COVID-19 in his classroom. I’m not sure if it’s his fairly recent vaccination or if my little dude is a gold star mask wearer when he’s out of my sight, but for now he continues to test negative despite playing whack-a-mole with exposure sources.
Still, six days into a 10-day quarantine of solo parenting without a joint custody break, I’m so, so exhausted. This past week I’ve felt tired down to my bones ― physically depleted in a way that reminds me of when I worked retail jobs and was on my feet for 12 hours a day. Only this time, I’m near-sedentary working from home, and the stressful job draining me is the job of being alive and keeping a small human alive during another soul-crushing wave of this pandemic.
Parents have been through worse: the early days when we were afraid our children could die if they touched the staircase railing; the days when school and outside child care and activities first fell to the wayside, leaving us to adjust to 24/7 caretaking responsibilities, often on top of our other jobs; the heartbreak of initiating children who didn’t yet understand how to wear a mask or why they couldn’t play with their friends.
But over the past year, we have slowly gained back some little, once-taken-for-granted freedoms of normal life ― a whole school day to focus on just the job I’m being paid to do without also being responsible for feeding, home-schooling and generally parenting my child on top of it, that blessed month of day camp I got back in the summer, my first time getting outside child care during the pandemic. And each one has made me feel like that image of Nicole Kidman after she signed her divorce papers from Tom Cruise ― the one where it looks like she’s hearing a chorus of angels or stepping into sunlight for the first time.
Almost overnight, as the omicron variant of the coronavirus exploded, especially here in New York City, much of the progress was rolled back. I kept my son out of school the week before Christmas, when case numbers were doubling by the day, with hopes of avoiding a very COVID holiday. But the idea of going back to mandatory, full-time virtual learning, something that has become a reality in many areas, makes me feel like the walls are closing in on me. We’re right back to choosing from the buffet of shitty options that characterized the beginning of the pandemic.
Exacerbating all of this is the fact that my child, struggling with feelings he can’t fully understand or express, is acting out by yelling at me almost constantly and refusing to do things like eat breakfast in the morning or get dressed for school. He’s worried about his father (who is fine, with a very mild case of COVID), devastated to be spending 10 days away from him, and angry about all of this, about having to live this way, and in a pinch, being angry at Mom will have to do. When he’s not yelling, he’s sobbing and having meltdowns about missing his Dad.
I commiserated with my friend Sam, whose family had COVID-19 in November and whose 6-year-old is also having explosive anxiety meltdowns.
“She’s angry and scared and really worried about school shutting down, and she’s developed a complex about testing so whenever she knows she’s going to have to take a test, it’s all she can fixate on for days beforehand,” she told me.
In between trading hot tips about where to find a rapid test, my friend Alice and I text jokes about how we can always simply walk into the sea together. Half of her family is sick with the coronavirus and quarantining from the other half. She recently posted to Instagram a seven-item list of “Stupid Things About Now” written by her 9-year-old son that included things like “having to wear a mask even at home with my family.” Even as we try to safeguard our children’s mental health, our own is crumbling.
“I am absolute dust at this point,” Alice said. “I’m trying to maintain a separate sense of self, but one kid is home in quarantine and I spent the last 10 nights cuddling a Squishmallow in my other kid’s bed listening to my husband cough. So I have very limited access to to my own mind and I miss it very much.”
Like Alice, during times of lockdown, I miss the things that once contributed to my sense of personhood beyond being a mother. The very activities — time with friends, dance classes, the singing group I can no longer practice with — that help me cope with stress and send me back to my child in a more whole and loving form are now prohibited when I need them the most.
Not only are we cut off from our coping mechanisms, but we’re also isolated from our communities. The other moms in my neighborhood have always managed to help each other out, whether it’s doorstep-delivering a bottle of NyQuil so one of us wouldn’t have to leave the house with a sick kid or an impromptu babysitting sesh so one of us could attend a much-needed 12-step meeting.
As a single mom, I rely on help from my support systems to get by. One of the cruelties of this public health crisis is that by requiring isolation, it bars us from being able to help one another.
Parents don’t have a monopoly on pandemic suffering, of course. Early in the pandemic, my kid’s father took him out of the city for several months to stay with relatives, and my child-free quarantine experience was as lonely and isolating as my previous experience had been harried and overwhelming. This sucks for everyone.
Sam tells me it depresses her to think about the fact that two years of parenthood in these important early years have been clouded by COVID. Not only are parents losing irreplaceable time with their children to fear, stress and grief, but our kids are losing their childhoods, a little more each day. These are memory-making years, formative ones, and as we head into year three of this pandemic, it doesn’t feel like the memories are getting better anytime soon.
Today after I picked my son up from school, he and some of his friends spent some time playing masked in the park in 16-degree weather while the parents stood in a distanced huddle with our own masks up, just like we did back in 2020. I was supposed to be in a work meeting, but I couldn’t bear to drag him away from a too-rare moment of soul-sustaining connection and fun. The kids ran around and chased each other with sticks. Despite the toe-numbing cold, the sun was out and the air was fresh and I took deep breaths behind my mask. The kids were laughing.
We have five more days until my son can be reunited with his father and I will get a break. I expect them to be frustrating and stressful, and I will likely lose my temper with my son a dozen more times. But I will keep looking for the pockets of joy that serve as a bridge from one pandemic day to the next. I can always walk into the sea tomorrow.
Emily McCombs is the deputy editor of HuffPost Personal. She writes and edits first-person essays in all topic areas including identity, love and relationships, sex, parenting and family, addiction and mental health, and body politics. She is based in New York.