In the hospital parking lot, I pulled a stiff painter’s mask over my nose and mouth. My brother and sister took me a snap on Snapchat. I sent the picture to them. My brother responded: “Whoa. That’s apocalyptic.”
This was mid-March 2020, when we feared COVID-19 the way you fear an animal’s yellow eyes in the dark, not the way you do when you’ve felt its teeth. We were 15 weeks pregnant and had just been referred by a high risk obstetrician. After our first visit guests were banned. My husband, Adrian, had dug the painter’s mask out of a garage drawer before I left for a solo appointment, an improvised solution before our first mask order arrived. “Be safe,” he’d said.
I felt my hands open and close like a fish swallowing on the shore in this small dimly lit room. I wanted Adrian’s hand. As the image on the ultrasound screen merged into something familiar and ours, I wanted to see us share a teary-eyed smile. He was brusque, distant, and I needed his calm presence as the doctor entered.
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That was a lie. San Antonio is where we live, but South Texas was frequently affected by the virus. Laredo was once the worst city for active cases per head in America, even though it had been the first to issue a mandate for masks.
Jo was 2 years old in April 2020. Jo turned 2 in April 2020. She wore a dress that had a pink skirt with TWO written on it. We sang Zoom to her while she ate chocolate cake. In order to reduce exposure, Jo was given a baton and we stopped babysitting for 10 hours per week. The grocery store was the only place I went during my pregnancy. Fear of getting COVID-19, going into labor preterm, or giving birth to a baby that would not breathe or being born prematurely, terrified me. I also feared losing Jo. My body looked like a dark greenhouse where a single flower could bloom.
In September 2020, my parents quarantined and COVID-tested before driving from Laredo to stay with us for our son’s birth. Only Adrian was allowed at the hospital with me, and I couldn’t help remembering Jo’s birth—the way my parents came in and rubbed my feet until, to all of our shock, I was almost 10 centimeters dilated, and how afterward, the room sang with voices, my sister bringing me a coffee and taking photos, Jo passed arm to arm.
My parents and Jo were unable to facetime me this time. Jo was busy trying to gather colostrum from a spoon, and Jo soothing my newborn who had been jaundiced by intense blue bililights. Jo clenched his jaws and kept his eyes closed with tiny goggles.
When we got home and passed our baby to my parents—when we watched our daughter lean close to him, their sweet breath mixing—I couldn’t help imagining the worst: the virus already in one of us, seeping into the next with an embrace, a laugh. An accidental moment of loving.
It was a memorable night.Jo was brought home by my mother in 2018 from the hospital. Up until then, we’d been surrounded by doctors and nurses and family. Now, I realized, stricken, we’d be on our own. We would be the sole caregivers of an extremely fragile person’s life. It was scary.
Two years ago, parenting children during a pandemic was like reliving that same moment. We measure and analyze the dangers every day. What’s more damaging, for example: unrelenting isolation or the possibility of a child contracting the virus from a return to daycare? The stress of playing Russian roulette with our children’s lives—or refusing to, keeping them home as much as possible—is crushing. It reminds me of the Gravitron carnival ride. The Gravitron spins quickly and lifts the riders from the floor. They are held on to padded walls by three times the normal gravity. The fun of the ride (if you like such rides, which I don’t) is that it stops. You feel less pressure. It is possible to move again.
We have been stuck in a rut for two years. It has been two years since we felt the force of it against our chests. Our hearts have become mushy and bruised.
Vaccines are supposed to provide the solution. Adrian and me drove together to 45-minutes away a local grocery store for our first Pfizer prescription. My excitement was contagious. Jack was six months old. He had full cheeks, smiles, and full quizzicalbrows. It was a joy we didn’t get to experience together. He had lived a life that was as isolated as my own pregnancy. We still had no childcare, only now for two children, and my heart broke every time Jo asked, in her high, clear voice, “Would you like to play with me?” because, between working and breastfeeding and trying to get Jack to sleep, I never had time or energy to play. That would be soon, we thought.
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Jo, who turned three in April 2021 was the second anniversary of the pandemic. Her parents promised that everyone next year would have been vaccinated. We’d have a real party. Our kids wouldn’t need to keep growing up in this unnatural seclusion, with parents so fundamentally depleted from the mental calculus of keeping them safe that we had little else to give.
We all know that’s not how it happened. Early May saw children make up 1 out of 5 cases. In the United States, only half of the adult population was fully vaccinated by May end, even though early research showed that Pfizer’s vaccine had prevented the deaths from COVID-19 at 98.9%. Adrian and me were stretched to breaking point that summer. Jack still didn’t sleep through the night. Jo began asking for her tablet early in the morning. It was worrying to see how anxious Jo became before she even saw her family. I eventually developed chest pain. Adrian had trouble falling asleep at night. These are simple pleasures that seem so ordinary. Now, each day was a slog just to survive—to literally survive, when hundreds of thousands of Americans so far hadn’t, and to make sure our children survived, too, which meant mostly continuing to live in semi-lockdown despite our own vaccination. This was not sustainable.
Jo was enrolled in daycare for a few hours each week, and we made the decision to do so in June. The class was small, with only 10 children. Teachers were disguised. Jo took home glittering art pieces and stories about her classmates. Those nine hours a week gave us something like an air pocket, a gasp of breath when we’d thought there was nothing left. It provided a sense of security. Her joy, learning, stimulation. In August, the Delta virus began to spread. Not only were we concerned about the possibility of contracting the virus through unvaccinated citizens in our community, but there was also a growing concern about emerging infections. Soon, Texas children’s hospitals were running out of beds because of a double whammy of COVID-19 and RSV. When I asked our pediatrician whether we should withdraw our daughter from daycare, she—a mother of young kids herself—looked pained. “If you can, I would,” she said. So we did. We have no more air.
We knew we couldn’t go back to how things had been, so we hired a nanny five mornings a week, someone vaccinated and as cautious about the virus as we were. We also began navigating getting speech and physical therapy for Jack, who’d just celebrated his first pandemic birthday. We were seeing new visitors for the first-time in nearly 18 months. As I imagined every person, there was an invisible stream of friends, family and patients that followed them. Many of the people they were probably not vaccinated. It was a constant worry for me that my children would be exposed. We needed to do a cost-benefit calculation. Jack required these services, as well. It was a risk we had to take.
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In November 2021, vaccines began to be distributed for children aged 5-11 years old. Every social media image of a child being vaccinated brought a surge of hope—but also, of jealousy. What would happen to us? What time would it be our turn to restore some semblance normalcy to our children? comunity? Jack would get to see the family from Australia where Adrian comes from. When would we get to breathe a little, to know that while we’d always be our kids’ first line of defense, we wouldn’t be their Only one?
It turns out that it was not too soon. Pfizer and BioNTech revealed on December 17, that they had failed to get enough immunity in the 2-dose vaccine they tested in babies under 5. (The vaccine did produce an adequate immune response in kids 6 months to 2 years, but the company is — bafflingly to many parents — still not yet requesting authorization for that age group.) I wanted to cry, to howl. A lifeline, taken. That’s how it felt to me. It was a dizzying and sickening ride that continued, with our backs against he wall. There is no end in sight.
Sometimes it feels like we’reYou live in an alternate world from all the rest. People say, “Now that kids are vaccinated,” as if toddlers and babies don’t exist, and neither do their broken parents. According to reports, Omicron is the most deadly COVID-19 variant, and the most contagious. They reassure us that it’s mostly unvaccinated people landing in hospitals when there are more than 23 million kids under 5 in the U.S. who can’t • Get immunized. The world is now a wilderness of inconsistent and lax mask guidance. It has also become an area of paralysis disguised as protecting individual liberty. In Texas, the Governor Abbott tried to prohibit schools from mandating masks. This was a continuation of his practice of placing as many people as possible in danger. Fortunately, an overturned federal judge overturned it. However, the majority of places where we travel these days have 90%-95% unmasked.
New York City and Washington, D.C. both posted records for daily new cases, with over 21,000 cases being reported in New York in just one day. Some people believe Omicron is not as severe as Delta and that children are more at risk of serious illness or death than Delta. And that’s true—it’s been the one saving grace of the pandemic. However, it overlooks the numbers. Bob Wachter is the chair of UCSF’s Department of Medicine. pointed out on Twitter, even if Omicron is Less However, severe cases may increase 5-10fold. Both are plausible. We will experience catastrophic consequences. The most vulnerable will die.
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That doesn’t include only children. What about grandparents or immunocompromised family members—or strangers—to whom a mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic child might pass the infection? How about the possibility of losing medical personnel or beds for patients with heart disease, cancer or victims of accidents? You can’t abandon millions of kids under 5 in the U.S. and expect there not to be a tidal wave of repercussions for everyone.
We can’t hurry the vaccine production timetable, but we can remember these kids exist—these wondrous, inventive, forced-to-be-resilient tiny humans, who never knew or don’t remember a life of playdates and family gatherings and vacations. The United States, a country that cares so deeply about children, should make childcare affordable for all and provide home testing. Mask mandates must be uniformly enforced and should not be imposed. We should also have a minimum of six weeks of paid family time.
Don’t get me wrong: we, these children’s weary husks of parents—many of whom have lost careers, income, partners, We ourselves—will keep doing our part to protect them. Each day, we’ll dig ourselves out and push ourselves to the floor. We need your help.
Do you hear me? Please help us.