The pandemic is breaking parents

Shannon Proudfoot: We’ve done what we were asked to do, at great cost to our wellbeing and that of our young kids. And still, the pandemic cruelty continues.
A health-care work walks along the line up of people waiting outside a COVID testing facility in Ottawa, on Sept. 15, 2020 (Adrian Wyld/CP)
A healthcare work walks along the line up of people waiting outside a Covid testing facility in Ottawa, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Like anyone, I can list off for you the pandemic moments that have broken me, as a parent of young kids.

The first, I suppose, was having a newborn, a five-year-old and a two-year-old suddenly stuck at home in my full-time care in the spring of 2020, when the first COVID-19 lockdown began. I don’t have many clear memories of those days, and I can only hope my kids don’t either, because let’s just say I was not operating at my preferred level as a parent.

But that first stage of the pandemic for everyone was blind, panicked necessity. Nobody knew anything, we just trudged through every day doing what we were told we had to do, with some vague idea that this was temporary and the people in charge would figure things out soon. Life was impossibly awful, but it was like that for everyone, and it didn’t seem like anyone’s fault.

Now, nearly two years later, parents with young kids are still living through a seemingly endless upended purgatory, only now it is infinitely more cruel, because it feels like the pandemic is effectively over for everyone else, while we have been forgotten. And it no longer seems blameless.

READ: The pandemic has proven that kids are not as resilient as we think

The next event in my personal catalogue of pandemic brokenness was Halloween 2020. A joyful, manic pinnacle of the kid year for children who had already lost so much (and would give up so much more that we didn’t yet know about), an outdoor event with all the safety that implies and a host of medical experts who gave their blessing, but the answer from politicians and public officials was a dour “No.”

This established a pattern that would repeat over and over: if the slightest bit of imagination or effort could be employed to make something available for kids that would improve their well-being or happiness, we would get a dismissive wave-off instead, or maybe a sanctimonious lecture about how it was better to be safe than sorry.

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The January school shut-down in Ontario was awful, but short-lived. It was the spring 2021 shut-down that destroyed me and most other parents I know. Week after week, my husband and I tried to work (incredibly fortunate to have jobs we could do at home) while giving our seven-year-old the bare minimum of attention and company we could spare as she sat through the dystopian hell of online Grade 1. She wandered around the house like a sad little ghost; watching her swing alone on the tree in our front yard for “recess” broke my heart daily as I failed at both working and parenting simultaneously.

In April, with the province’s ICUs bursting with entirely predictable calamity, Doug Ford staggered around and landed on the idea of shutting down playgrounds again. It would inflict cruelty for absolutely no public health gain, and he was screamed into retreat within 24 hours, but there again was the pattern: great losses to children had been calculated to have little value, so again and again, in the cost/benefit analysis of pandemic life, they were easy pickings.

READ: COVID vaccines for children are almost here. How well have we protected the kids so far?

By the end of May, with cases falling rapidly and the ICU situation easing up, I thought that surely Ford would follow through on his bromide that schools should be the first to open and the last to close, if only to land the political win of not being the only province in the country with its schools shut down.

But no. For the second year in a row, Ontario students walked away from their schools when there were still tendrils of snow clinging to the edge of the playgrounds and never went back. No closure, no transition, no goodbyes, just another blur of loss trailing off into a summer of limbo for an entire generation of kids.

Since then, so much has changed around us. We have extremely high vaccination rates, relatively low and seemingly stable case counts, hospitalizations and ICU admissions, and most businesses back to full throttle, albeit with measures like masking or vaccination checks still in place.

But, as Lindsay Tedds, an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary, tweeted recently: “Just a reminder that while for many the pandemic is over and [they] are going about their day-to-day lives, for those of us with young and unvaccinated kids, it is March 592nd 2020.”

Right before Thanksgiving, public health officials advised that it was fine to gather indoors if your whole group was fully vaccinated, and there was a distinct air of permissive victory to this advice. Children under 12 could not be vaccinated at the time (and still, as of this writing, cannot) because no vaccine was approved for them in Canada. There are not a whole lot of extended families that include no young children, but acknowledgment of that fact and practical advice on how to handle your Thanksgiving if, by definition, your family could not be fully vaccinated was in short supply.

READ: The collapse of parenting: Why it’s time for parents to grow up

There is the persistent feeling that families with young children are invisible or simply ignored. This, despite the fact that there are so many of us, we are in the prime working age group and a huge market segment, if you want to take your pick of the cold, mercenary reasons why you would think someone might take notice. Good luck fully re-opening your economy when a huge swathe of your adult population is ready to collapse.

Testing is perhaps the most maddening example, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it profoundly affects quality of life for families with young kids. In September 2020, if anyone in your family had any symptoms, you could count on standing in a line for upwards of six hours to get a test in Ottawa where I live—if you were lucky enough not to be turned away and told to come back the next day—and then waiting three or four days for results. So a snotty nose often meant an entire week out of school and daycare, and effectively, out of work for parents.

The waits escalated until people were lining up at 4 am, before Ottawa Public Health moved to a booking system. The appointments made things much better for a time, but when this September’s entirely predictable surge in back-to-school demand hit, if a kid had symptoms, you were waiting a minimum of two days for an appointment and then waiting again for results after that, with no one in your family allowed to go anywhere in the meantime. By late September, take-home test kits were available, which would have been more of a game-changer if you didn’t also need an appointment to pick one up, and if you didn’t also have to wait two days for that appointment.

In other jurisdictions, take-home PCR and rapid tests have been part of the arsenal to keep schools open and safe for months, but those are among the nice things we apparently can’t have. When groups of enterprising and desperate Ontario parents managed to procure rapid tests on their own, the provincial government shut it down, saying they were only for businesses.

READ: One mother’s human-rights victory over hardline COVID restrictions

By this point, demand for testing seems to have settled down and take-home test kits are widely available at schools. But it is ridiculous and cruel that families had to go through two years of the exact same entirely predictable bureaucratic nightmare, while being asked to do the right thing for everyone else.

A friend, Laura Payton, illustrated this as only a former journalist could, with a hand-written calendar showing the days upon days of school her son has missed since mid-September because he or someone else in their family had to be tested. “My kid’s school just sent him home for a cough and shortness of breath that we have never seen,” she wrote. “I gave him his second covid test since Friday there at the school. This is the third time they’ve sent him home a few days after a negative test and after his symptoms have eased.” Her son has had five negative COVID tests since school started less than two months ago.

Most parents I know have developed a reflexive calculator in their heads: if we find out a kid has symptom at this time on this day of the week, here is how fast we’ll be able to get a test, here is how long we have to wait for results, so here is how many days of school/daycare/work we will all miss. And even now that this whole routine has been made “easier,” you are still looking at a minimum of two days with your family locked down if anyone has symptoms and requires a test. Any given week or day can bring this all crashing down on your head, given how frequently little kids get sick.

Even when kids under 12 can be vaccinated (I appreciate your commitment to thoroughness, Health Canada, but please god, soon?), this is unlikely to improve, given the rules still in place for vaccinated adults with symptoms. It is this miserable merry-go-round, more than anything else, that is grinding all the parents I know down to dust right now.

We have done what we were asked to do, at great cost to our own wellbeing and that of our kids. We have spent hours standing in line waiting for tests, or days waiting to get the first testing appointments we could seize or for the results to come back, while we failed at both parenting and our jobs because no one is supposed to do both at the same time.

We have had to tell our kids that they couldn’t go to the playground because it was shut down, or that they couldn’t go to school because their sibling had a cough, or that someone said Halloween is cancelled or that you are sorry and you were wrong, because they actually aren’t going the re-open school before the end of the year. And these are the sadnesses of middle-class parents with take-home jobs; there are thousands of kids who missed months of school where they normally get meals or clothes, and thousands of parents with show-up-or-you’re-fired jobs who are dealing with this nightmare on another level entirely.

The pandemic has stretched across so much of our children’s lives that when they go through a difficult time now, we can’t tell if it’s just a phase or the pandemic or just them, because they are in fundamentally different developmental stages than they were when this thing started. And the kids are not all okay, they really aren’t. You can repeat “Kids are resilient” a million times over to justify the policy choices about who you are throwing under the bus, but it is not a magical incantation that makes that sentence endlessly true. And it says nothing about whether their parents are still holding it together, either.

Children have sacrificed so much with no say in how all of this would go down: two entire school years, a sense of careless normalcy, any semblance of routine or stability, countless birthday parties, hockey games, recitals and playdates, even the version of their parents that they would have gotten if all of this were not hanging over our heads, still.

In the early locked-down days of the pandemic, I remember a friend describing her family’s impossible balancing act by saying “We feel like we’re slowly drowning.”

We’re all still drowning, we just didn’t realize how slow it would be.