first person

The First Time Was Terrifying. Now, It’s Just Excruciating.

Photo: filadendron/Getty Images

Many things in life are unforeseen, but my 3-year-old son testing positive for COVID four days after restarting public school in Brooklyn in early January is not one of them. In fact, it was so inevitable that it almost felt like a relief.

“Let’s just get it over with” was my mantra going into the week. What it was, though, remained murky. Every time I’d get a text message from a friend saying they had tested positive, it was like they were in a wet suit and snorkels, jumping into the water. Submerged, I couldn’t hear them. There were only gurgles on my phone: misspelled texts, a few Instagram stories, a random tweet. I could only wait for a report when they surfaced a week or so later.

Then, of course, it was our time in the tank.

My family got COVID for the first time in March 2020. As I recounted then, it was a scary time. Tests of all kinds were functionally nonexistent. The streets were silent except for sirens. The coronavirus was truly novel; none of our immune systems had ever seen this particular configuration of spikes and proteins before. The four of us were okay, thank goodness, and while my husband had some breathless nights, it eventually passed, and the sun kept shining, and we left our house and tried to regain some semblance of normalcy. But we never really did, and that’s why I’m telling you about getting COVID again in January 2022.

It was Thursday night that Edgar got sick. He seemed more or less okay during the day, but at around 10 p.m., he woke up crying with a fever. In the light of day, on Friday morning, though, he seemed full of energy, and I wondered if maybe it was all a mirage, a nighttime fluke. At-home rapid tests revealed that nope, he had COVID, with a positive line that was so thick and strong it seemed to be drawn by hand. Into the water we went. We signaled to land that we were going down: We told his school and his 2-year-old sister’s school, told our babysitter who comes in the afternoons. I moved around as many meetings as I could and my partner did the same. The TV was on by 9 a.m.

Weirdly, I felt at peace. We had been dreading this moment, and now that it’s here, maybe it’s all not such a big deal? At least that’s what I texted everyone in my phone in a transparent attempt to wrest control of the narrative. That feeling evaporated by day two — a Saturday. The morning started again with a pre-6 a.m. wake-up call from Edgar, who seemed to gain energy from his Omicron. “LET ME WATCH PEPPA,” he screamed into my face in the darkness, coughing directly into my mouth. From morning to evening, everyone in the house was behaving badly. Parenthood — specifically, motherhood — is a flurry of primal feelings that pop culture has recently begun to regularly capture: the pure rage that you feel when your kid bites you and the shame of yanking a little hand just enough to hurt. After one particularly nasty tussle over Edgar’s unwillingness to exit the bath, I went into the bedroom to cry and scan r/Parenting for signs that we weren’t alone. Patrick took a different tack and found some kind of parenting podcast with hundreds of episodes, all with the same message: We’ve been messing it up since the kid’s birth.

On day four, things go south as Lois tests positive for the first time and Patrick and I try to concoct some kind of work schedule — because it turns out that it is Monday. Letting the kids watch only seven hours of Bluey is more difficult than you’d think. But the kids scream when I try to change the show, and my will to fight them is gone. While they are getting their morning screen infusion, Patrick and I devise a scheme where we swap places every 30 minutes so that we don’t lose our minds after we turn the TV off. But splitting your day into 30-minute chunks is also insane. I log on to meetings and then log off 20 minutes later, dashing downstairs to keep the “art project” or whatever is happening going before we inevitably turn back to TV.

Somehow, this is all worse than I remembered with the first COVID go-round, which introduced us to the slog of “working” with kids. But then, Lois was a baby who slept and Edgar was a distractible 2-year-old. Now we have complications: The kids have stopped taking their afternoon naps. Before having kids, I thought naps were something invented by bougie parents to fuss about, but now I know sleep is life, the coin of the realm, the thing that separates the possible from the impossible. The current situation is untenable, but here we are. The kids have COVID but refuse to close their eyes after lunch.

So on we go, falling apart, pasting on a smile, falling apart again and again. Sometimes it’s almost funny how you manifest digitally as “at work” while, say, holding your phone below your child’s bed, frantically replying to a Slack message as they deliver a set of round kicks to your shoulders while you beg them to sleep. Almost funny because in the moment, it’s a crucible.

At night, even though I am so tired that my face looks like melted wax, I lie awake, pondering our situation. I know many people in my privileged cohort who opted, at whatever cost, to keep their unvaccinated kids at home to prevent them from getting sick. That was not the risk calculation that we made. Or rather, we did make that risk calculation in December when we pulled Edgar from school before spending Christmas with my aging parents. But I could not abide starting the year with the kids at home. For all of our sanities — for my sanity — they needed to get out of the house.

Even as I type this, I’m angry that this is all framed as “personal choice.” Rationally, I would say that the fear of contagion was clouding the science and that with vaccines, masks, etc., we have moved beyond the time when it was too scary to rejoin the world. Irrationally, alone, I worried that I loved my kids less than the people keeping theirs home.

In the daytime, though, there isn’t any time to ponder the existential questions that Omicron raised. We need help with child care so we can all live normally again. Unlike the first go-round, there are rules to follow to exit isolation. Unfortunately, they make no sense. Because Lois is 2 years old, her school is governed by DOH while Edgar follows DOE guidance. So Lois can quarantine for five days and come back with two negative tests; Edgar will be out a full ten days, no matter what. His school’s communication, though, was half-hearted at best: After I texted Edgar’s teacher, she told me that only five kids were left in his class. The school had not sent a single note about any exposures. It wasn’t until the following Monday that we learned his class would be shutting down for ten days thanks to the outbreak.

But we are fine. Unlike the first bout, the actual illness has been a mild cold. Edgar had a fever one night and never again. Lois has been the same smiley toddler, save a runny nose. Patrick and I had a hodgepodge of vague symptoms but never actually got a positive on a rapid test. Certainly nothing at all like all four people getting quite sick at once in 2020. But it was never just the virus that made life so hard. It was all the imperfect humans trying to manage it. Even now, as I write this, I struggle to discern any meaning, at this point, from Omicron. We have learned so little about how to live with COVID. The virus is pointless, senseless, and endless until it ends, if it ends. Some parents have become radicalized by the school closures, and their rage has been used as propaganda for the right, who desire to end public education in America. The privileged have had to feel like the underprivileged, and they hate it. Black and brown families have endured the brunt of all of this. Over and over, the collective good has given way to the impulse to control one’s personal risk. And, of course, until the whole world gets vaccinated, the next variant is around the corner.

The issues are so big, and my own vision has shrunk to a pinhole. I can only see my days now in 30-minute segments, waiting for the timer to go off so I can escape my children. There is nothing to do but keep on moving the goalposts so that there is something to hope for around the bend. Day six was my birthday, and my friend stuck an event on my calendar for exactly one month later. In February, the waters will part and we will celebrate with a nice martini inside a steakhouse. I can practically smell the gin; this time around, I can smell everything.

The First Time was Terrifying. Now, It’s Just Excruciating.