As a new mother, I struggled with isolation and loneliness, as many new parents do.
I was an older mom, and most of my friends were childless or had older kids. My new-parent schedule didn’t leave much time for seeing anyone whose day wasn’t structured around naptime and bedtime, and that was hard enough. Harder still, though, was the way everyone, even those who’d once had babies at home, seemed to have forgotten just how hard caring for an infant or toddler really was.
How else to explain the way they told me I should enjoy these precious years, when I wasn’t yet sure how I’d survive them? How else to explain how they kept saying everything would go by far too fast, when all I wanted was a break from days that never seemed to end?
How else to make sense of the way they insisted motherhood looked so good on me, that they could see the happiness shining through on my face, when I was exhausted and drowning?
From the very start, I loved my daughter. But I didn’t love the loneliness and the disconnect that seemed an inescapable part of early parenting. I didn’t love how many people outright refused to remember just how rough the early days of this journey could be.
With time, things got better. I caught up on sleep. I met new friends who had littles of their own and so hadn’t had a chance to forget yet. My schedule became more flexible, letting old friends back in. By elementary school, surrounded by an entire cohort of parents in the exact same place I was, the memory of isolation had faded into the background.
Until the pandemic hit.
Until schools closed, cities went on lockdown, and my family and I were once again on our own.
All of us parents did our best to support each other, in the beginning, through that first impossible spring of remote learning — while our kids had screaming fits during Zoom sessions; while the spark left their eyes as they stared, glazed over and depressed, at computer screens all day; while we fought our own depression and fear as we tried to get our own work done and support our children at the exact same time.
By the end of the school year our cheerful text threads fell silent, though, as we all focused on the same single critical question: Would schools reopen in the fall? Schools had to reopen, didn’t they? None of us could imagine doing this again.
During the endless summer that followed, everything else reopened instead. Bars. Restaurants. Gyms. Disneyworld. In Arizona, where I live, early lockdowns had kept Covid case numbers in check all spring, but now, one reckless reopening at a time, our numbers rose, and rose again, and rose some more. Like most of the US, by fall Arizona’s Covid cases were so high that schools couldn’t reopen. Somehow, we were going to have to get through another season of remote learning after all.
Yet once again I found little empathy from non-parents for the challenges ahead, because once again, adults not actively parenting their own kids had forgotten what parenting was really like. They had to have forgotten, because how else could they sleep at night knowing bars were open but schools were closed? How else could they be good with letting families struggle just so they could go out for dinner, or see a movie, or have a drink with friend?
But they were good with that. More than good with it — far too many people convinced themselves that overwhelmed parents were the selfish ones for wanting it any other way. Friends whose children had left home years ago told me how happily they would have homeschooled during a pandemic. Grandparents who hadn’t seen their grandkids in months insisted those grandkids were totally happy with remote learning so my kid should be too. Strangers on social media insisted parents were self-centered for needing child care, for caring about our children’s mental health, for wanting to hang on to our jobs, for not having the skill to more cheerfully teach our kids, in social isolation, about subjects we didn’t fully understand in a format they weren’t developmentally wired for.
Too many people still seemed to think that parents could, through a simple act of will, choose to be glowing with happiness instead of drowning from exhaustion.
Again, things eventually got better. Covid case numbers dipped enough that schools opened again, with far better Covid mitigation plans than most of the businesses that only briefly had to close. Mine and my child’s mental health — along with the mental health of most families I knew — improved dramatically, and whatever the social media forums said, this was not a trivial thing.
There were ups and downs after that. Covid numbers spiked again in the winter, spiked alarmingly as people bought plane tickets, visited family, traveled for the holidays, and traveled some more just because they really needed a vacation, all while still happily shopping in person and eating out as well.
When Covid numbers finally fell again, it wasn’t thanks to anyone’s good behavior. It was because the winter holidays were over and there was less time for traveling. It was because vaccines had become more widely available, at least in the US.
Even so, for the first time in a long time, I almost felt hopeful. I got vaccinated as soon as I could. I watched as the age for vaccine eligibility kept dropping. I outright cheered when the FDA approved the first vaccine for kids 12 and older. A few more months, a few more trials and approvals, and kids under 12 would be eligible to be vaccinated too. With Covid numbers still dropping, with mask mandates still in place, I began to think that maybe even before then my daughter and I could venture out safely come summer.
I should have known better. I should have remembered that my child — that any child — was the last thing most people cared about.
The CDC decided, reasonably enough, that vaccinated people were safe without masks in most settings. My city decided, not reasonably at all, that this meant it was time to completely lift public masking requirements. In response local businesses put up meaningless signs saying masks were “strongly recommended” for the unvaccinated, made it clear they had no plans to enforce this recommendation, and declared they were good to go. If half the adults in my city remained unvaccinated, if those unvaccinated adults were surely taking off their masks along with everyone else, if all those unmasked unvaccinated adults caused another spike in Covid cases? Not the businesses’ problem.
If my city was suddenly a more dangerous place for everyone under 12 — a huge group of children who couldn’t get vaccinated even if they wanted to be? That wasn’t the business’ problem, either.
And once again, most adults not raising children just didn’t care, maybe because they were too busy celebrating their newfound “right” to take off their own masks.
Try telling them that lifting mask mandates puts kids in danger? They say it doesn’t matter, because they personally are vaccinated so can’t possibly be part of the problem. Try telling them their unmasking encourages the unvaccinated to unmask too? Well, they can’t possibly be responsible for anyone else’s behavior, and besides, by unmasking the unvaccinated are only putting themselves at risk anyway. Try telling them that rising Covid cases, even among the unvaccinated, threatens my child and countless children like her? Again — they’re vaccinated. They’re officially not responsible for anyone but themselves.
Never mind that the first lesson of any contagious disease should be that we’re all responsible for each another, that our actions affect not just ourselves but others too, because that’s how contagious diseases work.
Other local venues are opening here now, too. Public pools, where masking isn’t even possible, opened Memorial Day weekend, while the whole country is talking about getting back to “normal” by the 4th of July. Never mind that kid vaccines aren’t expected until September. Everyone is so, so glad to be moving on.
Everyone except for children and their parents. We don’t get that luxury.
So here I am. Facing down a long, isolated summer where every trip out is a renewed exercise in risk calculation. A summer spent worrying about which public places, if any, are safe for my daughter, all while around me others celebrate the end of the pandemic and look for more restrictions to lift. After all, why should anyone let the existence of a few million children under 12 get in the way of their personal happiness?
I know, I know. It will get better. Probably. Eventually. But until then, the message from my community and my country is painfully clear: this summer, I’m on my own, as surely as any sleep-deprived new parent.
The only difference is that this time, it’s going to be a lot harder to forget how much all those around me refused to see, when one day normal catches up with my family and all the other families like us at last.