the hard part

Finding Joy for My Kids in the Apocalypse

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images

Sometimes I take a shortcut at bedtime and let the kids get into bed with me. It’s equal parts laziness and a desire to hold on to this ephemeral moment, this slice of time when they still want to curl up with me and tell me about their day in whispered voices. We end up talking about the little things: what kids said at recess, what games they played with their friends. And when I’m really lucky, we talk about the big things: something they learned, or that made them happy, or that hurt their feelings.

A few weekends ago, my son and I talked about really big things — about the planet and endangered animals and what it all means for us. He boasted that he already knew what “endangered” meant, that he’d learned it in school. But then as we talked about which animals were in trouble, he got quiet and told me that now that he knew whales were scarce, he would have to “think about it forever.” I panicked, suddenly worried I’d given him too much to think about. That it was unfair to make an almost-5-year-old contemplate the vulnerability of the earth. I asked him if what I said was too sad and he shook his head no. He explained he was fine but that he’d simply think about this information “forever.” I thought he’d honestly forgotten about it after that night, but he brought up the list of animals we’d talked about a week later, showing off to his sister what he knew about the world.

It’s easy to lose perspective sometimes on where the line between parental concern and overthinking is, though there’s plenty to agonize over: the planet, the state of democracy, ailing pediatric hospitals, a sharp rise in illnesses amongst our kids. But I also can’t parent from a place of despair. Joy is the centerpiece of our family; even in agony and fear, we huddle around love and laughter and feel our way through the world with tenderness.

It’s not hard for me to find happiness and excitement in the experience of parenting — I love being a mother. Still, I struggle with how to navigate the external crises, the feeling of parenting in a burning fire that only other parents seem to see or even care about. Particularly after the last couple of years, where I worked a full-time job with a toddler and a newborn at home, trying desperately to keep my sanity and my job and maintain kindness and patience with my children, all while worrying they or I would get incredibly sick at any moment. After all that, parents are now facing a terrible winter of health scares: Many doctors are warning of spiking RSV cases and both medicine and emergency-room bed shortages.

A couple of nights ago, my 2-year-old daughter crawled into our bed around 2 a.m. and wrapped her little arms around my neck. She seemed restless and uncomfortable, wiggling around the bed and rumpling the sheets. From the depths of my slumber I thought I heard a tiny sniffle, but I turned over and tried to keep sleeping. And then as she snuggled up closer, I felt an intense heat radiating from her limbs, the telltale burn of a fever. I looked wearily at my phone to check the time — it was now 3:30 a.m.

I started to panic as I rummaged through our medicine cabinet, fearing the worst, that we might be down to our last dose. In Toronto, where I live, there’s a shortage of kids’ fever and pain medication; all of our pharmacies and grocery stores are lined with barren medicine shelves, with parents reaching out desperately on social media and WhatsApp groups and whatever hodgepodge networks of care we’ve patched together to try and acquire basic medical needs for our children. Luckily, we still had one spare bottle, a gift from an internet acquaintance who had mercifully mailed me some meds from the U.S. after I had put out a plea on Twitter. That’s the state of parenting in 2022: care packages of baby fever medicine, overnighted by thoughtful strangers.

My daughter’s fever is under control now, with just enough medicine in our last bottle to hopefully get us through the week. I monitor her constantly, though, listening for worsening symptoms, especially a cough, particularly her breathing. Just a few weeks ago, my 5-year-old son’s recurring RSV forced us to the ER late at night. He had a barking cough and a high fever that we tried to tell ourselves wasn’t so bad, even though he was listless and quiet — much quieter than usual. Then suddenly his breath went from strained to ragged to barely there. I remember calmly telling my husband we needed to take our son to the hospital and us agreeing that only one of us should go, with the other staying home with our toddler so as not to cause more chaos at home.

As soon as my son and husband left for the ER, I burst into tears, my body releasing all the tension and worry and fear it had been holding onto as I tried to manage yet another emergency.

Some days it feels like I’m sleepwalking through an endless series of crises. Other days I’m fueled by rage, wanting to lash out on social media at politicians, government agencies, anyone listening (or not) about the blaring alarm bells that seem to only be ringing for the few of us listening, whether it’s about climate change or gun control or spiking flu and RSV hospital admissions. I feel helpless and hopeless at times, so worried about how vulnerable my kids and my friends’ kids are right now.

These feelings sit like a cry in my throat, threatening to come out in a wail at any given moment. I feel them in moments like this, obvious, smash-the-glass emergencies where it’s necessary to raise my voice and sound the alarm. I feel them when I read headlines about the planet, about the rapidly increasing decay of the green space and wildlife and nature we love. I struggle with optimism on the bad days and the sleepless nights, even though having kids has always felt like an act of true optimism, a commitment to something better, to becoming someone better.

This is an incredibly isolating moment for many parents, and it would be very easy to lean into that and away from others right now. Yet it’s the sense of community that has sprung up around me that is sustaining that ideal to be someone better. So many people — friends, family, other parents and nonparents — have offered help, lovingly filling in the gaps. Empathy may not be revolutionary but in its simplicity is something infinitely bigger than the pessimism and fear and anger that would otherwise threaten to engulf me. These tiny acts of connection ignite a sense of family amongst strangers, feel like finding joy at the end of the world, and make parenting that much more optimistic. Each kindness reminds me of what I desperately aim for as a parent, of a kind of boundless sense of giving that requires nothing in return.

I channel this energy back into my kids, lean into that tenderness as I think about the way they see the world around them and what impact I can have on that perspective. I was raised in a household full of anxiety and chaos and I never want my own kids to feel or inherit that, so I do my best to create an atmosphere of love and honesty and stability, especially when it comes to the hard stuff. They will hear and witness more heartbreak in the world, remember “forever” some of the painful things they see and learn about, but they’ll hopefully encounter these things with a foundation of hope built at home, right now. They will get sick and it will be hard, but there is a community around them, around us, that will rally through the worst of it. As hard as it is to always feel it, I get to show them what it means to be a person in the world, responsible to and for other people, and that to me is the most optimistic thing I can do as a parent.

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Finding Joy for My Kids in the Apocalypse