What Is It This Time?

Photo: Deborah Faulkner/Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, our younger kid’s preschool, which also operates our older kid’s after-school program, temporarily closed with 12 hours’ notice because of a concurrent outbreak of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and hand, foot, and mouth disease along with lice cases, which aren’t dangerous but definitely don’t help. After months of closures and rebuilding and safety protocols and constant COVID-19 exposures and flares, the staff is now dealing with other illnesses that are spiking well above normal seasonal rates around the country.

This desperate day of regrouping fell on one of the days my husband is required to be in the office, and when he went off as usual I felt the hot burble of resentment that characterized the height of the pandemic days, when I, the freelance and flexible parent, necessarily took on the caregiving that can never be anything other than in person. It didn’t occur to my husband that he wouldn’t go in; then again, it didn’t occur to me to ask him not to, so I sat working on the bed next to our younger child while she watched the iPad and so, so cutely sang the theme song from Mira, Royal Detective. I texted through the day with my mom thread, one member of which was sick with something, the other just getting over it. We exchanged “blargh”s and “lol”s and clowned each other and ourselves in the loving and seeing way we have clowned one another for almost three years as we honed a wry and poisoned vernacular about parenting in America. I don’t know any parent who hasn’t recently been home with a sick kid, been sick themselves, or in some other way been reminded of the continued miserable frailty of our national human infrastructure. In October, there were more parent-workplace absences for caregiving reasons than even at the height of the pandemic.

After the closure, our preschool sent a brave and cheery message that any kids who were not sick could come back the following day. They have previously begged parents not to send their kids in before 24 fever-free hours have passed. This is easier for some parents than others since we as a nation continue to have no guaranteed paid sick leave, so people go to work sick and send their kids to school sick, which is, of course, what leads to everyone getting RSV and HFM and H1N1 and many other series of numbers and letters yet to be identified.

I brought my younger child in her two little braids and her little mask. When we got there, it was snack time, and I overheard her teacher talking with the director, trying to figure out the staffing ratios for the day. It was the first time throughout all of the turmoil of the past few years that I heard them sound so openly beleaguered and beaten down. I told them I would happily take my kid home if it would help the ratios, and they said, “No, no, we are good, we’ll make it work, don’t worry,” and my heart broke.

A few days later, the same child woke up febrile and barfing, and I tried to figure out if this was RSV, HFM, flu, COVID (again, since she already had it in September), or some secret fifth thing. She went back to preschool after two days at home, but three days later her nose filled with green snot and her cheeks turned red, and it turns out the secret fifth thing was literally “fifth disease,” which is also known as “slapped cheek” disease and is now, according to our preschool, rampantly circulating around the class, bringing further strain to a staff that has already been stretched to its breaking point.

This has been said in so many different venues and so many different ways, but America’s child-care infrastructure is a fucking mess. Even before the pandemic, it was a frayed net intricately woven together by huge numbers of mostly women and disproportionately women of color, and it’s now a net from a cartoon where the rope has stretched so tight it’s actually starting to smoke and pieces of it are snapping off and breaking windows and lightbulbs and there’s a sound like the sound of the Titanic breaking in half.

So many caregivers are leaving the profession, including at our preschool. They leave because the work is hard — physically and emotionally laborious — and doesn’t pay a lot or enough. Our preschool is one of the only places in our area that offers a full day of care on the five traditional workdays of the week, which are of course still not all the days and times many people work. I was on top of the world after the most recent election because we passed universal preschool in the county where I live, and it was a glorious triumph that puts any sports movie or majestic battle scene to shame, but the work is so daunting and slow. The program was always going to take ten years to become fully universal, and there are already around 700 kids attending, an amazing, life-changing number of kids. Even so, the infrastructure challenges are becoming clear. If preschools don’t have enough physical spaces with affordable rents or enough teachers, and everyone has RSV and HFM, and parents can’t work but also can’t recover from illness, and teachers don’t have the will to live, it is going to take a long time for anything to get better here or anywhere else in America. There are a lot of people working very hard on these problems, but they need help, and they need it soon. What are Democrats planning to do with their wild and precious Senate majority? What about states? What about city governments? What about you and me?

There’s this unfortunate rhetorical shift that has happened in which anyone who talks about pandemic shit enters into an awful nagging-wife trope. You don’t have to be a mom or a wife or a woman to fall into this category — it’s very capacious. I see tweets all the time about pandemic parenting or general pandemic life that are in this key; they start, “It’s almost as if …” or “I still can’t wrap my head around …” or “Maybe you didn’t notice that …” before pointing out some unpleasant current reality. I have the same sentiments as these tweets yet still sometimes find myself rolling my eyes. I’m trying to excise this response from my soul because the malevolent inaction and multidirectional bumbling of the past three years relies on that same ungenerous impulse to say, “Get over it.” Rhetoric is hard; it feels impossible to find another way to say things are not going well, whether you are a worn-out parent, an exhausted preschool provider, a terrified immunocompromised person, a fed-up worker, a child covered with pustules, or some combination thereof.

After staying home a few days, our youngest went back to school. But then I got a sore throat and maybe a little sniffle in the nose. I bought some elderberry-and-zinc lozenges in the checkout line of my local expensive grocery store, and they are carrying me through this week, psychosomatically speaking. My older child came home from her second-grade class and showed me the inside of her mask, green with snot. Now she is home, being partly raised by an iPad, and I’m here with the tissues wondering how many elderberry lozenges it will take to stave off further pestilence. Asking for myself, asking for my family, asking for my nation.

What Is It This Time?