the hard part

There Is No Break Coming for Parents — Ever

Photo-Illustration: the Cut; Photos Getty Images

The summer after I turned 30, I drove to Los Angeles from Toronto in order to — I don’t know — find myself? I took an old silver Saab all the way there, and somewhere along the road from Amarillo, Texas, to the California desert, the gas gauge stopped working. The empty light still occasionally came on, but I had no idea if I was five or 35 minutes from being stranded on the side of the road. I was mostly diligent about keeping the tank full, but one weekend I pushed it to the limit and found myself a scary amount of miles away from the nearest gas station. I was camping in the middle of nowhere and had to make the solo drive through a winding valley to a gas station, a drive I’d never made before, let alone on an empty (possibly very empty) tank of gas. I white-knuckled it for what felt like a thousand years through a treacherous stretch of lonely highway and spent the entire time promising every god in the universe that I’d never drive with an empty tank again.

I’ve thought a lot about that moment in the past three or so years, about making it farther than you ever thought possible on what you assumed were fumes and a prayer. I can tell you now, anecdotally, how hard that drive was, but that word doesn’t really do justice to the paralyzing fear and anxiety that took over my entire body — how it felt not to know if I’d make it through — and only once I was safely on the other side did I realize how scared I’d been.

That’s how I feel today: as if I’m getting dangerously close to empty and I just need to get somewhere I can safely pull over and turn off the car.

I need a break. We all need a break.

The Christmas holidays were supposed to be a respite. I made big plans with family and friends and was anticipating a return to a more convivial, communal season. Then we all got COVID-19. Really, all of us: our family, the kids from school, friends and neighbors; it felt as if suddenly everybody had it. I was hit hard and spent almost ten days couch bound but not resting, still trying to push myself through and take care of two small kids, giving them their first festive holiday since 2020. After all, Santa doesn’t get COVID.

So I started the New Year on a deficit, still playing catch up, still on empty. And while that feeling itself isn’t new, it is becoming physically impossible to ignore that I’ve felt this way, nonstop, for three years now.

First, we just needed to get through the lockdowns, then hold on a little longer until the vaccines came. Schools closed again, but if we could just grin and bear it for one more winter, we’d be okay. Summer 2021, that was gonna be ours — moms gone wild! It ended up being a scary few months with COVID peaks across the country. That long, lonely summer turned into another bleak winter, and our reward for surviving it was the tripledemic fall of RSV, flu, and COVID and, with it, empty sold-out shelves of over-the-counter children’s cold and flu medications. And don’t worry, as long as you could find some bootleg kids’ Tylenol on the black market, you’d be fine-ish until the new year.

And here we are. 2023. Already, a few weeks in, and there’s been news that when RSV meets COVID it’s far more dangerous for kids, there’s no end in sight, and I’m starting to wake up to the realization that maybe there isn’t another side to get to. That this is the road we’re on, and there’s nowhere to pull over.

So now what?

I kept telling myself I had to drive just a little farther, grip the wheel a little tighter, and this whole thing would be over eventually. But I’m writing this on my third night of very little sleep, on my son’s second fever since school started a couple of weeks ago. My daughter was up all night coughing, a cough she’s either had for a month or just got again at day care — it’s hard to tell at this point.

I’m looking for the pit stops where I can, desperately clinging to any bit of good news or optimism I can find.

Just before the New Year, I got a letter from my kids’ day care that a planned reduction in fees — the rollout of cheaper day care, which the Canadian government (we live in Toronto) had promised for a couple of years now — was finally being implemented at our center. A couple of months ago, I was paying around $1,100 monthly for my 2-year-old to be in full-time care; today, that fee is closer to $600. That’s a life-changing amount of money.

Because even with the seemingly endless revolving door of illnesses my toddler picks up at day care, there’s no substitute for having safe, reliable, full-time care when you’re working. At the height of the pandemic, I couldn’t get a day-care spot for either of my kids, so for a while I tried (miserably) to work a full-time job while taking care of a newborn and a toddler at home by myself for most of the day. It felt like trying to juggle chain saws that were on fire. I had to say “no” to a lot of work, and I felt so guilty about not being fully present for my kids. When I was able to find child care that felt safe, every single dollar I earned went to paying for it. Things got a little easier when my son was in kindergarten and I had to pay for only one kid. But even then the fees were most of my take-home pay. Those costs impacted every career and financial decision I made. It meant putting off working on a book.

So, yes, at least cheaper day care will give me some breathing room this year. But this break in fees also coincides with a sharp increase in interest rates and a big climb in my monthly housing costs. Just the sticker shock of my grocery bills alone sends me into a weekly panic. Everything is so expensive, and there’s no sign of relief on the horizon. You don’t have to be a parent to feel depleted by the state of things. It’s hard out there for most of us.

I remember, a couple of years ago, talking about the “new normal” as something we’d arrive at, a different kind of landscape that would be shaped by our reaction to the pandemic. It’s dawning on me only now that this is our new normal, and we’re on our own. It’s on us to fight for accessible and affordable child care, flexible work environments, and better health care. But we can’t do that — sustainably, at least — without refilling the tank.

So instead of trying to white-knuckle it through, I’m pulling over. I’m applying my embrace of professional mediocrity to the rest of my life, giving everything just enough and not feeling bad about it. I’m readjusting my expectations of myself as a parent, as an employee, and as a person. I refuse to run on empty anymore.

More From This Series

See All
There Is No Break Coming for Parents — Ever