Things got worse for parents in Covid (again).
But are we getting attached to the perks of the new normal?
I have news for all the parents out there. Life as we once knew it will never return – like ever.
January 2022 was utter chaos, the stress for parents more palpable and the anger hotter than our most frustrating freshman moments in this eternal saga I have lovingly titled, Sweet Pandemic High. As we enter our junior year of the pandemic, the worst should be behind us, but it is not. We are supposed to have learned our lessons and accumulated the stealth-like skills required to walk down the halls of Sweet Pandemic High without getting pulled, pushed, or shoved by the biggest bully in school – COVID-19 and its endless variations.
Why did no one warn us that year three would involve iterative testing, so much testing, and elevated angst with less than 12-hour notices of schools moving virtual (I must work, awk?!). Not to mention the unexpected calls from school to immediately pick up kids for a 10-day quarantine due to COVID exposure. Who anticipated all this insecurity in our junior year? Does anyone know when it will (actually) end? Can any of you see the light at the end of this cold, dark, torturous tunnel? Just as we breathe a sigh of relief from the last wave of pandemic chaos, another mutation of this horrific viral disease is sure to come barreling into our lives.
Like endlessly watching Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street in my youth, I am forced to clutch my pearls in angst as mothers repetitively scream and shout into the void. Doing their best patchwork to quilt together their daily lives as we roll through each pandemic wave, all the while being ignored by those privileged enough to not be raising children during a once-in-a-century global health crisis. Parents, particularly mothers, are exhausted and barely clinging to paid work amid all the care insecurity Omicron has now thrown their way (again).
Meanwhile, teachers and school districts have been at each other’s throats. Chicago’s school system shut down while teachers and administrators battled out the best way to keep everyone safe and healthy. In Maryland the Montgomery County Public School teachers’ union voted no confidence in the Board of Education and its executive leadership after a fumbled start to the new year that included bus driver shortages, rapidly increasing COVID cases, and a pickle of last-minute communication disruptions to families. School districts in the frozen tundra of Minneapolis, Minnesota, moved virtual due to bus driver shortages and incoming frigid weather as Omicron swept over the land of 10,000 lakes. Teachers, burnt out from it all, are looking to quit, to find a way out of this mess and into alternative careers. Can we blame them?
All this insecurity has parents yelling into a cavernous abyss. Everyone hears the heart-breaking, echoing screams, but we seem unable to act. Parents’ conversations turning into half-baked discussions of walking into the sea together like a dramatic made-for-TV movie where they all choose to end the pain and suffering – together – because they see no other way out of the cold, isolating halls of Sweet Pandemic High. We live in a place where care is invisible and its infrastructure is not a priority for enough policymakers to make actual change, even when care is a basic need to make the world go ‘round, the economy hum, communities healthy, and economic growth advancing.
But even as I sit here writing this while wringing my hands towards a snowy cloud-covered sky, I cannot help but think of some of the unexpected perks I have experienced since the pandemic started. Of course, I wish all the uncertainty would go away, and I, like parents everywhere, am frustrated fighting for survival and struggling to get policymakers to pay attention to our needs in the eye of this storm. But is it possible we might be getting attached to our new normal, one where we all are spending more time, maybe even more (dare I say) quality time, with our immediate family members? Is this new-found rebalancing a potential glimmer of hope from all these stressors?
I have spent more daytime with my spouse and kids over the past two years than, perhaps, ever. And even though this entire experience has been tough, I must admit, I’m not sure I am ready to go back to my pre-pandemic life. Instead of waking up every morning to an hour-long commute, I have breakfast with my kids and spouse. Instead of the hour commute back home at the end of the day with a rush to figure out dinner, I am working at home when my kids get back from school and see their smiling faces as they walk in the door. And on the days when they are not smiling, I am able to ask them what happened, listen to their frustrations or struggles, and help them troubleshoot. Less commuting also means we have more time to prepare and eat healthier meals, and we spend more time together at the dinner table than ever before. I am pretty sure we are all better off for it.
For many, the pandemic has been a nightmare - straight out of Elm Street. But for some, the pandemic may have increased quality of life in ways that are not yet clear. Some of us have reprioritized the rat race of job and career for more meaningful activities that give us increased joy. And I venture to bet that for some of us this new arrangement would never have found itself into our lives on its own – without a push. Research shows that spending more quality time with supportive loved ones has the potential to improve family relationships, strengthen mental health and wellbeing, and increase happiness, if we let it and that may just be what some of us need.
Stepping back from the chaos and stress, and once the uncertainty (really) calms down, we might just realize it was not all bad to have roamed through the big, treacherous halls of Sweet Pandemic High. And, as we eventually come out on the other side of this pandemic, life will never be the same but, perhaps, we all just might be living a better, more fulfilled life with the ones we love.