Here’s What Parents Dealing With Coronavirus Isolation Want You To Know

Everything that was once simple feels difficult, and everything that was already difficult feels impossible.

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“Hank, do you want to come look at my poop?” That’s what my friend’s 2-year-old yelled at his 6-year-old brother the other morning — loudly enough that it could definitely be picked up on the conference call his father was taking in the next room over. My friend texted me that story over our big group chat, which is how so many of us are communicating these days: just keeping the threads going, whether with family members, neighbors, or coworkers, to try to weave some sort of safety net for each other.

Another friend told me that while she was tucking in her 4-year-old son, he said, “I hope I don’t get the coronavirus.” Another struggled to explain to her daughter why she wasn’t going to school and couldn’t see her friends, not even to play tag. Parenting has always been hard. But parenting in the time of the coronavirus, and the self-isolation it necessitates, has made everything that was once simple feel difficult, and everything that was already difficult feel impossible. Add in the growing realization that this isn’t something we’re going to be dealing with for a couple of weeks, but likely months — alongside the looming specter of a massive financial downturn, with potentially millions of people out of work and without regular income — and many parents are edging toward despair.

“We are not making do, and it’s not working,” one mother told me. “It’s brutal.”

Over the last week, I’ve talked to hundreds of parents about the specific challenges they’re facing now — some are unique, others feel near-universal. Some parents feel alone, even though they know millions of others are in the same position; some feel like people without kids just aren’t getting it.

“We are not making do, and it’s not working. It’s brutal.”

“I feel alienated from my friends without kids in a way that I really never have,” Kelsey, who’s from Texas, told me. “They’re all talking about how to deal with boredom and anxiety, and I’m rearranging my life to work 15-hour days so I can split childcare shifts with my husband. They’re sad about not going to the gym, and I’m trying to cram on child development so my kid doesn’t fall behind. The level of disruption just feels so different.”

I don’t have kids, and — at least until we’ve all practiced self-isolation for 10–14 days — I can’t go over and help my friends who do. Instead, I’ve collected testimonies from parents about what’s hard, what’s helping, and what’s not, and attempted to add perspectives and advice from experts. I hope this will be useful to parents and nonparents alike, because we’re all facing our own serious challenges. What feels increasingly clear is that the only way to get through all of this is to try to be as graceful and generous with each other, in every meaning of those words, as we can.

“It’s not about doing everything a hundred percent all the time,” primary care physician and public health researcher Asaf Bitton explained when talking about the concept of social distancing. “It’s about doing as much as you possibly can and contributing your own personal discomfort or inconvenience to protect yourself and to protect others. [...] All the infectious-disease modelling would suggest that something is better than nothing, and a lot of somethings are better than fewer nothings.” In a situation like this, doing “a lot of somethings” for parents starts with knowing what others are going through — and trying to come together to figure out creative, unprecedented, and maybe even weird ways to help.

1) It’s really, really, really hard to work from home and parent at the same time.

“It’s not physically possible for two working parents to both work from home full time during regular workday working hours and care for a baby,” one mom named Melanie told me. That’s essentially asking parents to do two full-time jobs at the same time — when, as she pointed out, childcare alone is more than enough to keep full-time caregivers and stay-at-home moms working hard all day.

This situation is hard for parents of elementary-age children, who, depending on their district, are trying to sprinkle a mix of homeschooling and school-supplied activities throughout the day. It’s also hard on parents of toddlers because their kids can only self-entertain, even with a screen or movie, for about 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

“Things have not been easy, and I know we have it easier than most,” said one mom from California. “We decided not to send our 3-year-old to preschool this week, even though it’s open. My partner’s job is already remote, which means there’s not an expectation for him to be in the office, but it also means that they’re expecting business as usual. I am working from home, but barely able to get even a few hours of real work done every day, and it’s a bit exhausting. With my daughter, we’ve come to the decision that morning will be learning/doing time, and the afternoon will be a movie, pretty much every day. Not ideal, but it’s what we need to do to get by.”

So many parents told me that one thing they’re doing — and, increasingly, not even feeling the tiniest bit guilty about — is letting go of screentime rules. That might change, but for now it’s the only thing that makes working from home while parenting sustainable.

“Will my childless coworkers be rewarded for working harder than me because I have to take care of my children?”

More suggestions: Get kids to do yoga in the morning. Get on a schedule if it feels helpful (it doesn’t matter if it’s color-coded or not), or, alternatively, refuse to feel bad about not being on a schedule. Set up tons of FaceTime and Zoom dates with your friends, your kids’ friends, and grandparents. People without kids can help too; I’m supporting my local bookstore by sending books to my friends’ kids; you can always offer to be an audience for a play or piano performance, or offer to teach a friend’s kid a new song, or how to draw a horse, or just make silly faces at each other and tell fart jokes for 10 minutes.

“I’m reaching out to everyone I know for a half-hour video call about something interesting to keep my kids occupied,” Melissa, who has three kids under the age of 8, told me. “One friend is doing an Irish fiddle tune concert today, and tomorrow another is going to show her rock collection.”

All of that’s helpful, but it’s still pretty surface-level. One of the key things for parents and nonparents to realize is that most of the parents in your life are probably only able to get a fraction of their work done, and many are cramming it in during their kids’ naps and after they’ve gone to bed. “Today, my husband and I have gone in shifts,” the mom of a toddler and a 6-month-old explained. “We both did email and triage in the morning, then I took the kids out for a long walk while my husband worked, then we both worked during afternoon nap, and we’ll probably work after bedtime. It’s exhausting and impossible, but we are far from being in the worst situation. The hardest part is just the expectations of colleagues.”

Being “understanding” doesn’t just mean letting these parents work when they can. It also means figuring out how not to hold their diminished productivity against them. “This is creating a huge divide between workers who don’t have children and those that do,” Tiffany, who lives in Massachusetts, explained. “Will my childless coworkers be rewarded for working harder than me because I have to take care of my children?”

If you’re a manager — with or without kids — the one really significant thing you can do right now for the people you manage is tell them that the answer is no. And, as one parent suggested, there’s no harm in announcing at the beginning of your conference call that it’s OK if a few little voices chime in from time to time.

2) It’s really difficult to talk to kids about what’s happening — or what will happen — when you’re so uncertain yourself.

How do you manage your kids’ anxiety when you’re struggling to manage your own? How do you talk about time frames — and about when a child will be going back to school or when they can reschedule their birthday party — when it’s so unclear what the actual time frame will be?

“Honesty is the best policy,” said Kelsey Torgerson Dunn, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in child and adolescent anxiety. “Children can really benefit from a parent being upfront about not knowing what’s going to happen next. Rather than giving an answer and then saying you’re wrong, tell them, ‘Some scientists thought it would be a few weeks, and now they think it might be a few months. We don’t really know yet.’ Then ask, ‘How do you feel about that? Do you have questions about it? I might not know all the answers, but we can definitely see what information is out there together.’”

As a parent, you can adapt that approach for different age groups — including your own. Just flat-out ask your partner, your friend, or your own parent, “How do you feel about that?”

Some parents told me they’re most anxious about their child’s development and how they might be impacted in the long run by isolation and stress. On this point, Dunn, like so many others I’ve spoken to, is clear: “We don’t know what this is going to look like in terms of child development,” she said. “But we do know that you, as parents, are doing your best. We also know that children are really resilient. This stress will prepare them to handle stressors in their future. You are building up their skills to deal with disappointment, and worry, and big changes.”

3) It’s really hard to know the right thing to do about childcare and playdates.

The one thing that would make working from home more feasible is regular childcare. Have you been wondering if your nanny or babysitter can keep coming? Is it fair to expose a babysitter who’s otherwise isolating themselves if someone in your family isn’t isolating? What about grandparents who often provide extra care but are more vulnerable to the coronavirus than younger people are?

Some of the answers are straightforward. If there’s any way to avoid bringing someone else into your home — especially someone from a vulnerable population — do it. As Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said last week in his advisory against any sort of large family gathering, “You might be killing your granddad.” Playdates should be avoided if at all possible — even, according to Harvard epidemiologist Katy Stephenson, at playgrounds.

If this is going to be our new normal for a while, we have to figure out how to live everyday life with it.

I heard from one nanny who, along with her own daughter, has moved in with the family she cares for. She’ll still get paid, and they’ll still get care. Is it ideal? Of course not. But nothing is right now. If your family has begun to really and truly self-isolate — meaning receiving food and other items exclusively through delivery, and no going out at all — and the kids’ grandparents have as well, and no one has developed symptoms, some experts are suggesting that it may then be safe to interact with each other. (Basically, form a new isolation pod.)

The same basic principle holds true for a playdate with another family — but, again, only if everyone involved has been in full isolation. A friend of mine, for example, has chosen two families whom they’ll interact with after two weeks of social distancing — but won’t go beyond that, at least for the time being. To be abundantly clear: Like ordering takeout, this strategy isn’t fail proof. But if this is going to be our new normal for a while, we have to figure out how to live everyday life with it.

If you’re a nonparent looking for ways to help people with kids before it’s safe to spend time together in person, offer to take small things off their hands (like completing online tasks or canceling appointments). Have alcohol or children’s toys or books delivered to their home (preferably from a local vendor instead of Amazon). Offer to take their dog for a walk. If they have a yard, do some outdoor work. One parent told me she’d love help coming up with age-appropriate activities that repurpose items around the house, so she herself wouldn’t have to buy or make anything. Another asked for people to send videos of themselves (or actual mail!) to their kid: “Any way to buy me a minute where he’s not talking to me,” she said. “Because he’s always talking to me.”

4) Not every parent has the option of working from home or full isolation — and childcare plans will have to change in the future.

Kat, who’s in New Mexico, is helping her friend who works in an ER with her kids. There’s no good way to avoid toddlers sharing germs. Plus, her husband is in food service and still going out in the world every day to work. Another mom in central Washington is wondering if she needs to send her kids to her parents’ house for the next two months — or just stay home with her kids, blast through her 4.5 days of paid time off, and then not get paid for the next two months (and potentially lose her job).

And then there’s the looming question of future care: “I’m very lucky to have a partner in all of this,” one mom told me. “But what the hell do we do if we both get sick, need to be hospitalized, or quarantined outside the home? Who takes care of the kids? Would normally be the grandparents, but they’d be at much greater risk if we had it.”

“What the hell do we do if we both get sick, need to be hospitalized, or quarantined outside the home? Who takes care of the kids?” 

In an ideal world, no one would have to leave their home until the risk of spreading or contracting the coronavirus has passed. But we’re not living in an ideal world. Compromises are necessary, and they will continue to be necessary in the future. If you can stay at home, you’re helping limit exposure and spread for those who cannot.

It’s also important to figure out plans to help with care for those in need today, as well as plans to help those who will potentially be in need next week or next month, even with the possibility of exposure.

Who can babysit if I have to get to the hospital? How can I get my kids to my parents’ house as a last-ditch option?

Families can work to protect themselves to a certain point, but if there aren’t still people at work providing vital services — from picking up trash to staffing the intensive care unit — society, as a whole, will begin to break down. Parents can decrease their overall anxiety by making plans (and backup plans) for care now — and those without children (who aren’t sick) can help lessen parents’ burden by offering themselves as potential caregivers when the time arrives.

5) It’s a very weird time to be pregnant or a new parent.

If you have kids, try to remember those anticipatory weeks before birth — and the hazy weeks and months after. Now imagine adjusting to life with a newborn without in-person support from your friends and family, maybe even without being able to see your doctor or your therapist. In Chicago, Rose gave birth a week before the city started shutting down. “We had to cancel all the scheduled help from friends and family,” she told me. “We’re surviving, but I’m having trouble with the baby blues and the fact that the world feels like it’s falling apart.”

Hannah and her partner in Connecticut are about to become parents of their first child, and are mostly feeling confused. “Happy at the prospect of an upcoming birth,” she said, “but also terrified of the world the baby is entering.” When Hannah emailed me, she was hours away from going to the hospital to be induced. “My doctors are not panicking,” she said. “They keep saying that there’s not too much info on COVID-19 as it pertains to pregnant women, and I get it. The only thing my OB has said is that if I get sick, they’ll ask me to use a breast pump and have my husband feed the baby my breast milk using a bottle. The health care has been wonderful, but do you know how scary it is for a doctor to say TO YOUR FACE that they ‘don’t know’ the answer to a question about giving birth to your baby during a pandemic?”

Other expectant parents are worried that if — or more likely, when — hospitals become overburdened, they’re going to have to give birth at home. Most hospitals are only allowing one family member to attend births, and additional assistants — like doulas — are being asked to Skype in. Like so many things related to COVID-19, a lot of the psychological toll is connected to very quickly changing plans that have been developed or anticipated over months, even years.

We can and should be particularly mindful of how isolation and anxiety are affecting new families: Check in a lot. Send the takeout food you were planning to bring over post-birth anyway. Ask them to really be honest about what they need and see if you can provide it in some way. And listen when they talk about just how weird, and hard, all of this is right now. And if you’re pregnant or have a newborn, the same advice from before the spread of the coronavirus still holds: go easy on yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and remember that this too will someday pass.

6) It’s especially difficult to be parenting kids with special needs.

“For our autistic daughter, school is so much more than childcare or academics,” Kate, whose family lives in Louisiana, told me. “She is without services — behavioralist, OT, speech language pathologist, counselor — on top of her supportive teachers. Given the strain on the health care system, and preexisting waitlists, we can’t suddenly switch her to new providers out of this system.” Kate wants to be clear that the impact on more vulnerable populations is going to be more severe than on her daughter: “She’ll be okay,” Kate said. “But the impact on her and us is pretty significant right now.”

Cheryl, who lives in California, has been working from home full time and around the clock as a caregiver to a child with a severe disability. “Social distancing doesn’t mean ‘we get to finally clean our houses,’” she said. “It means we have even less support and much more stress.”

“Social distancing doesn’t mean ‘we get to finally clean our houses.’ It means we have even less support and much more stress.”

One woman, who’s a foster parent and can’t reveal her name or location, laid out all the challenges facing her infant foster daughter, who has cerebral palsy. Because family visitation is canceled, she can’t see her birth parents or older siblings. They’ve done video chats, but because babies build attachments from their caregivers meeting physical needs, it’s truly not the same. All therapies for her cerebral palsy, including the fitting of orthotics or braces for feet, have been delayed, which could cause long-term damage to her feet, ankles, and hips. The foster child’s birth parent has a history of substance abuse and has chronic health problems as a result. They’ve been sober for several months, and are doing well, but a big part of their recovery is contingent on in-person support groups.

“Sobriety is a major factor in a parent’s ability to be reunified with their children,” the foster mother explained. “A relapse now could mean this family ends up torn apart legally, forever. It could change the course of everyone’s lives.”

If you’re not a parent facing these particular challenges, what can you do to help? One father said his 8-year-old son is really struggling to understand what’s happening, why he’s not in school, and an illustrated storyboard would be so helpful to explain the situation. Another mom suggested offering up access to your stash of food supplies, as some kids need specific brands — because of allergies, or consistency needs, or sensory issues — that are all sold out.

But the best way you can help is probably by asking the parent what they really need, including money, or just the opportunity to talk. “My son is 13 and has very severe disabilities. The prospect of him being out of his specialized school (that he loves dearly) for months is terrifying to me,” Lori, who lives in Cleveland, told me. “Just checking in and acknowledging that it’s hard helps me more than anything.”

7) Just because tweens and teens are older doesn’t mean they’re easier to parent right now.

In New York City, one mom said she’s sequestered in her small apartment with a teen boy and wondering how much news to keep on in the background, how to deal with his constant hunger, and whether to let him play video games…pretty much all day? In Washington, one dad is struggling with “getting through to their short-term-focused, undeveloped, prefrontal cortex with convincing arguments on why they can’t hang out with friends.” One of his kids is extroverted and in agony; another is introverted and seems fine but is at risk for withdrawing too much from the world.

In San Francisco, where residents have been advised to “shelter in place,” an 11-year-old had to figure out which of his divorced parents he wanted to stay with for the next month or more. He feels incredibly guilty that he’s with his mom — and scared that his dad might die.

Other teens will be missing their senior spring, their proms, their graduations — things that might seem small to adults, in the grand scheme of things, but feel like sprawling disappointments to them. Dunn told me that parents should anticipate a real grieving period: “The first step is to really identify and empathize with what’s going on,” she said. “Give your teen time to process with you about their frustration, sadness, and loss. Allow them the opportunity to correct you — perhaps you see that they’re angry, but they really feel more stressed than anything else.”

The next step, Dunn said, is to figure out what — besides Netflix or TikTok — actually makes them feel better: It might be spending time with you (who knows!), using a meditation app, walking the dog, writing it all out. Then you can start to figure out a game plan: Is there a way you can honor their graduation after the fact, and celebrate it together? Can you come up with more ways to connect with friends, even with social distancing?

If you don’t have a teen at home but you know someone who’s parenting one, you can help by not minimizing the care they’re doing — no, they’re not chasing a toddler, but they are managing real existential angst. If you’re an adult with any sort of connection with a teen, offer to Skype or FaceTime and talk about just about anything, coronavirus-related or not. I told some teens that I’d read their writing and provide some feedback; you might have another skill you could share. If you have younger kids, see if teens in your life might be interested in spending an hour a day with them on video chat, helping with homework or teaching them something. Teens are so great, often filled with new ideas — and, in a lot of cases, just as eager to help as adults. We can all acknowledge what they’re going through while also honoring what they’re capable of.

8) The next few weeks may be really dangerous for some parents and children in ways that have nothing to do with contracting COVID-19.

On Twitter, there are already hundreds of joking posts from people who are suddenly forced to spend a lot of time with their partner or roommate in an enclosed space. But being contained with an abusive partner or parent is incredibly dangerous. Some parents whose childcare has fallen through will place their children with unvetted or unsafe caregivers because there have no better options. One social worker, who specializes in sexual and domestic violence and child and elder abuse, told me that her entire field is anticipating massive increases in domestic violence and child and elder abuse due to quarantine restrictions and economic pressures.

“The length of the recommended quarantine in many areas is more than enough time for grooming [for sexual abuse] to occur,” the social worker said, “especially if the groundwork has been laid previously.” She works in a rural area, and her agency plans to remain open, but for many, they’ll be difficult to access: “How do you call a crisis line when you’re home with your perp? How do you drive 20 miles to town when you’re rationing gas because you’re out of work? How do the one-third of people in our region without internet access request advocacy?”

“I want people to start thinking in macro, not micro. I want them to think about the structural inequalities that put my clients at greater risk ... and I want them to care about those when this is over.” 

This social worker is already seeing burnout manifesting in her coworkers, who are so scared that increases in violence are coming, and there’s so little they can do about it. “Our students are going to be traumatized and perpetrated against through the next month,” she said. “And we know we’ll all be getting a ton of disclosures as soon as we’re able to restart programming.”

If you know a parent in a situation that has become abusive in the past, you know to check in on them and their kids and try to create opportunities for them to speak to you in private. You might also consider, if at all possible, opening your home to them. You can also donate to women’s and children’s shelters in your area. You can support the social workers in your life in whatever way possible.

A social worker from Pennsylvania asked me to reconfigure the question of how to help entirely: “I’m not overly interested in what people think they can do today, right now, from the comfort of their homes,” she said. “To me, that’s well-intentioned but shortsighted. People don’t have a lot to offer my clients right now. I want people to start thinking in macro, not micro. I want them to think about the structural inequalities that put my clients at greater risk — economics, education, mental health services, drug and alcohol services — and I want them to care about those when this is over. If you really want to help vulnerable children, spend your time thinking about how you can organize and outreach and demand that from them right now and when this is over.”

This is a terrible time for everyone. The only way to get through it, though, is to try not to think of it as a competition of who has it worse and try to think of how you, as an individual, can help those who are struggling — with or without kids, with or without jobs, with or without safety nets. And then, after you do what you can as an individual, you can start thinking about how much less stress there might be and how much more prepared we might be to weather a similar crisis in the future if we have systems in place that don’t force each of us to figure out solutions on our own. And then, when this is over — we can act, and vote, accordingly. ●

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