We Parents Are Tired
Check on your friends who have children.
In a recent issue of The New York Times, Jessica Grose wrote, “I’ve been talking to parents about pandemic stress for nearly two years, and I haven’t heard the level of despair that I’ve heard over the past week since the spring of 2020.”
Over on Twitter Lucy Huber said, “If you're wondering what things are like for parents right now, someone in my online moms group invited everyone to a Facebook event that is just going to an empty field and screaming and a LOT of people RSVPed yes.”
Sometimes there are no safe choices at all.
My dear friend Anna pulled her nine-month-old, a sweet girl born prematurely with tender lungs, out of daycare this month. Our neighbors across the street are juggling two full-time jobs with two children under four because their childcare shut down due to Covid exposure. Every single day that I wake up and learn that all three of our kids—two in preschool and one in elementary—will be able to attend in-person learning feels like a miracle.
In a way, it is.
Parents are tired, y’all. We are tired of pivoting. Tired of painting a good face on the newest challenge of the day when we’ve already faced a fresh one daily for almost two years. We are tired of being resilient, tired of trying to do the right thing and the wise thing and the good thing when they so often contradict one another. Worse yet, sometimes there are no safe choices at all.
A friend visited us from Singapore this month and he marveled at how hard it is for an average American to do the right thing when it comes to public health. His country gives out free at-home test kits. Here, our shelves are bare. Singapore offers easy access to PCR testing. Here, we drove around for several hours over two days so he could get the negative test he needed to board his homebound flight.
His parting gift to us was a pack of five antigen tests.
“This gift is lame,” he said, “but also kind of awesome.”
We want to do the right thing for our kids, our communities, our workplaces, and ourselves, but the decision fatigue is real. After two years of parsing every face-to-face interaction and birthday party invitation and school choice and runny nose and screen time hour, our tanks are empty.
For two years I’ve clung to short-term promises of just getting through this next surge only to find another surge behind it. This one deadlier. This one more transmissible. This one unknown but probably terrible because of course it is.
I feel for our public health officials. They didn’t drum up this brand of crazy and they’re doing the best they can with an evolving pathogen. I feel for our politicians; navigating a viral crisis during a contentious election is enough to make anyone drop the ball a time or two.
I was tired and stressed in 2020. In 2022 I’m something else utterly unnamable.
And I would also like absolutely everyone involved to take a class on marketing communication and stop confusing the heck out of those of us trying to raise our children without inadvertently killing our neighbors.
Take my morning mommy routine, for example. Now, in addition to stuffing backpacks and packing snacks, I also check mask fit and forehead temperature and school Covid case numbers and ask questions that often have no clear answers. How long is too long to re-wear the same disposable-but-expensive kiddie-sized KN95? If the kids are already in school, is soccer too big a risk? What about the dangers to their mental health if we keep them away from play dates? Is the warmth radiating from this one’s tiny brow a fever or simply the product of jumping on the bed for the last ten minutes while Mommy reads her emails to make sure school is, in fact, still in session today?
I was tired and stressed in 2020. In 2022 I’m something else utterly unnamable. A crispy critter. A fried egg. A melted bar of chocolate sliding into a heating vent.
I spent one of my college summers guiding kayaking and rafting trips for campers down Wolf River in Wisconsin. Every week or two I’d have a surly preteen decide he was over it. The river was boring or he saw a spider or it was too hot or too cold or scary or long. The kid would pull his kayak over to the riverbank, step out, and tell me he was done.
“Whatcha doing, bud?” I’d ask.
“I’m finished,” he’d say. “I’d like to get off now.”
“Sure,” I’d respond. “Go ahead.” There’d be a pause where the kid would smile. He’d gotten his way. He could be finished. Then the smile would fade as he looked around, noticing nothing but dense forest in every direction.
“But,” he’d ask, “where should I go?”
“Nowhere to go but down the river,” I’d say. He’d sigh and climb back aboard.
I have much more empathy for those junior highers now. I, too, would like to get off. I, too, would like to be done. These woods are not lovely, dark, and deep, but confusing, oppressive, and filled with stingy, bitey things.
During the spring of 2020 I baked a cake every day for months. When we couldn’t find the right flour or number of eggs on empty store shelves, I improvised with whatever we had, pulling gluey, odd-shaped masses from the oven and setting them on the counter with a flourish.
“There!” I’d say. “Dessert!”
This odd spiritual practice, all carbs and hope, tethered me to the natural laws of the universe. Rising agents still rose. Glutens still glued. Put enough butter in anything and it’ll taste just fine, even if it turns out ugly. God is still God, even in a world gone mad with illness, denial, and control.
This season has revealed the hearts and priorities of each and every one of us, and none of us is as kind or as gentle as we believed.
I don’t bake cakes anymore. Now I watch mindless television on the exercise bike, telling myself that if I can just make it all the way to Greenland, mileage-wise, I can somehow leave the pandemic behind me.
But I know I never will. Even when the virus recedes and we blow out birthday candles in big crowds again, I will be changed forever. This season has revealed the hearts and priorities of each and every one of us, and none of us is as kind or as gentle as we believed.
My prayers have shifted from asking God to return me to safer shores where I can be self-sufficient and proud again to simply asking for mercy. Daily bread. Daily help. Daily wisdom.
I’ve never been so dependent upon the almighty before.
Perhaps there’s a grace in there somewhere too.