this is hard

Seriously, How Are Parents Doing This?

Photo: Catherine McQueen/Getty Images

Parenting was never exactly easy — but now, in The After or whatever this still is, it feels like a labyrinth. Like a never-ending quest with twists and turns. Accompanied by a scream into the abyss. The homeschooling, the paranoia-tinged playdates, the fear of what isolation is doing to development. It’s too much. And despite the COVID-19 vaccine rollout this spring, and newly rolled-out office vaccine mandates, the Delta variant continues to be a major threat (particularly for vulnerable communities) as it proves to be more contagious and, in some cases, more deadly. To make difficult matters even worse, there’s so much conflicting information about how the variant is affecting children and what measures parents need to take to protect their kids. Topping all of this off, there’s also the issue that state and school mandates have been inconsistent, leaving many parents to fend for their children’s health by themselves.

And so, here we are in a new phase of worrying. Parents are now forced to monitor their kids’ interactions with the outside world more closely, while the outside world relaxes, sometimes prematurely. Even more frustrating: There are no rules. Every family is tasked with setting their own strict boundaries when it comes to schooling, babysitting, extracurriculars, and more, without any help.

The Cut spoke to five parents about how they’re handling their families’ social lives amid the threat of the Delta variant and what they’re doing for their kids’ health in the upcoming months ahead. Ultimately, there are no “right” answers, as so much of the pandemic — and its consequences — is still unknown, and every parent is doing their best to figure out what works for them and what doesn’t.

Johanna is the CEO of a public-affairs firm; she lives in Los Angeles with her husband, CJ, and her son, Hugh (9 years old).

Our family has all had COVID-19. One of my son’s friends tested positive this summer. So we all went to get tested and despite us parents all being fully vaccinated, we all tested positive too. As soon as we found out we were exposed, we notified everyone we’d had contact with and began quarantine. Vaccinated, it was relatively mild. My son wasn’t yet eligible for the vaccine, but thankfully he never had symptoms. That’s not true of all kids and all cases, and so after we quarantined the ten days, we’ve maintained masking and tried to enjoy time with friends as much outside as possible.

At the beginning, he only saw one other child and our two families allowed the kids to play unmasked. This summer, that circle grew to about three families, but they would also play with others outside without masks. He goes to school and wears a mask always, as those are the rules. He does swim at a pool unmasked, but generally, we wear masks in settings where we don’t know people.

The thing my son missed the most was his friends. He’s not the same without social interaction. Human beings are like oxygen to our family. So this pandemic has been exhausting, frustrating, and hard on all of us. But I know we’ll look back at it and also treasure the time we did have together, and the appreciation we’ve learned to have for simple things, like having friends over for dinner.

Rachel is a university fundraiser; she lives in Overland Park, Kansas, with her husband — who works from home — and their two children, Anne (3 years old) and Lucy (5 weeks old). Rachel is on maternity leave until the end of October.

A friend said to me the other day that she felt like this pandemic has stolen the childhood she always imagined her children having, and I couldn’t agree more. At the start of the pandemic, I would say that I was thankful my oldest daughter was so young and wouldn’t remember any of this. Now I know some of her very first memories will be of a COVID-19 world. My oldest wasn’t even 2 and a half when this started. Our youngest will always be known as a pandemic baby now.

Since the pandemic started, we’ve stayed very much in a small bubble that consists mostly of a few family members that live close by. Our oldest daughter was attending an in-home day care (five kids with ages ranging from 12 weeks to 4 years old), but in May we made the transition to a center for her so that she could be around other kids her age and have more of a curriculum focus. It was an agonizing choice, even though the center had many mitigation practices in place. In the end, we sent her, and honestly, just prayed that she would stay safe. Our baby will go to the same center at the end of October. Each day, we have to fill out a questionnaire that asks questions about symptoms and exposures, and temperatures are taken at the door.

We’ve received two notices of either staff or other children testing positive, but not in our daughter’s class. With the first notification, I was 38 weeks pregnant, and our daughter came home with symptoms, and we chose to keep her home and have her tested. It was the most gut-wrenching feeling watching our daughter get tested, even though she did it very well. Thankfully, her test came back negative and it was just a summer cold. I was never more thankful she was sick with “just” a bad cold.

While my husband and I, and those family members in our small bubble, are all vaccinated, we are all still vigilant about wearing masks and washing hands. Whenever we’re inside places with our daughter, which, to be honest, isn’t often, she masks up and so do we. And she masks up like a champ. No complaints. She knows and understands that we wear masks to protect ourselves and others from “the big germ.” We’ve also talked about how each family is different and some families choose not to wear masks, but that our family does wear them.

Janice is a stay-at-home mother with four daughters, two of them (both under the age of 18) having a rare genetic illness that disqualifies them from being candidates for the vaccine and also puts them at a high risk for contracting COVID-19. She lives in California with her husband.

My children’s medical team has stated that contracting COVID-19 could be detrimental for them, so with all that said, they have been fairly strictly quarantined at home with family. The only exceptions are the three consecutive days they are at our local children’s hospital for 10- to 12-hour infusions each day every month and a (very) few visitors at our home who are vaccinated, tested with negative results, and are masked and socially distanced during visits.

To keep morale up, we have created a fun backyard space for the family, but with the heat, we do spend most of the time indoors and try to respect each other’s privacy.  We have gotten a noise machine to help with private virtual appointments and virtual visits with friends. We are not comfortable with the use of any outsider service (like babysitters or food delivery) coming inside our home.

My children are tested often — every time they have procedures at the hospital, it is required. Anytime family members are in contact with high-risk or unvaccinated individuals, we are tested before being back home.

For school, it’s been online classes for everyone up until the last few weeks. One of our daughters is a junior in college and has recently returned to in-person classes. She attends a private university that has very strict COVID-19 guidelines in place, and they actually adhere to them (meaning no one is allowed on campus unless a student, faculty, or otherwise has permission to).

This pandemic has been tough on the social aspects of life. The very few times they have interacted with friends, it has been virtually. Birthdays, holidays, graduations, and other special occasions that would have normally been shared with family and friends have been shared with only those at home. I feel that a lot of social growth for their individual ages has been hindered from its expected progression. Though I have my doubts, I’m truly hoping we can all make up for lost social growth as this pandemic is overcome.

Rachel is a stay-at-home mom in Minnesota; her husband is a resident at the Mayo Clinic, and they have two sons, Mason (4 years old) and Wesley (2 years old).

We decided to keep our youngest home this year instead of starting him in preschool. It was one decision that we could control during the pandemic and we felt the most peace about it. Most mornings, the boys and I will have “school,” which consists of tracing letters and numbers, learning colors, and some sort of craft. It helps bring structure to our day and prepare [Mason] for kindergarten next year.

We switched Mason from preschool to home school because of the mask mandate. We weren’t comfortable with him being around ten-plus kids and multiple adults unmasked. On the flip side, we weren’t comfortable with him being masked for three-plus hours. He does well with a mask for a short shopping trip or doctor’s appointment, but we didn’t want to have to wear a mask for a long period of time. We are extremely fortunate to be able to homeschool, but we do hope he will be able to go to in-person school next year for the social experience.

We recently moved from Kansas City to Minnesota, so we don’t have family in town. We do have two families with young children that we spend time with (their dads are also residents at Mayo). We mainly do outside activities, and if we are indoors at a public place, we will wear masks with the exception of my 2-year-old. All adults have been vaccinated and we are careful not to get together if anyone is ill. It is so nice to see our kids playing with other kids again, and I know it is so great for their mental health.

Jessica is a freelance marketer and content creator working remotely; her husband works full-time (in person) as a tech director. Both sides of their family live within 30 minutes of them to provide child care as needed. They live with 18-month-old twins in Fort Worth, Texas.

My twins were born in March 2020, so pandemic life is all that they know. Since they were preemies, we were extra-cautious during their first year with extremely limited interactions. Once vaccines were accessible in Texas, we started spending time with immediate family members and close friends. With the influx of Delta (and specifically the high case numbers in Texas), we have primarily been doing outdoor meetups.

In the first year, we only did curbside pickup for food, had limited hangouts with people outdoors and socially distanced, did grocery delivery and curbside pickup, and did not attend any indoor gatherings. The only exception to this was a few small family gatherings where everyone remained masked. All of our child-care providers were asked to mask indoors with the kids until vaccinated.

My kids have only been tested a handful of times due to their age and the fact that we have been so cautious. We would definitely be doing regular at-home tests if they were in day care. While we have a wonderful support system, it has still been isolating to be in a state that has extremely limited precautions in place. I am very thankful that I have been able to keep my kids at home where my vaccinated family or a few trusted babysitters watch them.

Seriously, How Are Parents Doing This?