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The Year in Pandemic Parenting

Sonia Mehta went into labor a little over five weeks early. She hurried to the hospital for labor and delivery, and overnight, the world seemed to shift. A nurse told Mehta and her husband that the hospital was shutting down to visitors. Her parents had booked a flight as soon as her water broke; she called and told them to cancel it. After Mehta’s son was born, he was taken to the N.I.C.U. because of his premature delivery. Mehta and her husband were anxious to get him out. They left the hospital as soon as he hit the four-pound mark, “by the skin of our teeth,” Mehta’s husband Jed said.

Over the last few months, they’ve tried to find a sense of equilibrium. They host socially-distanced dinners on their deck, and have created a kind of calming ritual out of arranging the outside furniture. Their son was born on March 12, and his growth has also been a way for them to measure how long the pandemic has stretched on for. “He’s like a midnight child of the pandemic,” Jed said.

After Gloria Monique Jackson learned that her son’s school would be closing in March, panic set in. A single mom, she was a district sales manager for a telecommunications company, a job that required her to be on the road for field visits sometimes up to five days a week. Jackson cobbled together child care: her 8-year-old went to stay with his father in Chicago for a week, and a friend who was working from home watched him after that. Finally, Jackson was pulled from the field and told to work from home, which was a relief — for a bit. She struggled to manage her son’s online classes on top of her work. “They probably Zoom more than us,” she said with a laugh. Jackson felt added pressure because her son is an only child. “I had to be the teacher, the mom and the friend.”

Throughout the summer, the uncertainty about whether her son’s school would reopen weighed on her. “The feeling was so heavy,” she said. She read articles about women dropping out of the work force to care for their kids; she was passionate about her career, desperate to not become one of them. She sent her son to school in person this fall, but the building has closed three times so far after discovering positive coronavirus cases.

“I would be lying if I said it was easy,” she said. “But you just find a way to make it work.”

For the first few months, Lisa Powell said, all her 2-year-old daughter wanted to do was walk into a grocery store. Her 4-year-old son was so eager to talk to people outside his family that he would shout at strangers through the window as they walked past, “IT’S POPCORN NIGHT!”

Powell, a scientist at a medical device company, lost two grandparents to the virus over the summer. They died within weeks of each other. Her family held an outdoor funeral and a socially-distanced barbecue at the house her grandfather built. She has tried to channel her grandparents over the last few months, modeling her parenting off the selflessness she saw in them. She said that the extra time she has spent with her children while working from home and sheltering in place has been a comfort. They go for nature walks, a slice of her own childhood. “Pre–iPad, pre–everything,” she said. She finds joy in the day to day, so much that she sometimes feels guilty about it, as she reads Harry Potter with her 4-year-old, or collects sticks in the forest with her daughter.

“Your brain tries so hard to safeguard you from change,” she said. “And then something comes crashing in that’s like, this year is not normal.”

The past months have been one of the toughest times in LaKiaya Evans’s life. “I’m a Black woman in Texas who’s also queer,” she said. “I have a lot working against me.” A single mom, Evans was teaching preschoolers with special needs before the pandemic; as she was learning to adjust to working from home alongside her 5-month-old and 2-year-old kids, she was let go. She started adopting routines from her classroom at home — circle time using YouTube playlists and laminated worksheets for her daughter. But the stress has been constant. In her “spare” time, she has started a marketing and consulting company. “I’m changing diapers full-time every day and also still trying to work and remembering to put on deodorant and did I brush my teeth today?”

Her lifeline has been a local mother’s Facebook group that Evans started when she was pregnant with her first child. Recently, she has been able to see a few friends, by taking some careful precautions — Evans has asthma, and worries about how the virus could impact her lungs. She is also trying to take more time for herself, to focus on her mental health. “I 100 percent lost myself in trying to make sure my kids were OK,” she said. “Now I’m trying to walk that back.”

In the time between when Marne O’Brien gave birth on March 1 and when she returned to the hospital ten days later for additional surgery, “it was like the whole world had come apart.” She had suffered from a post–birth hemorrhage that led to her having an emergency hysterectomy, and she was left reeling from her traumatic birth experience.

“It was this thing that might have changed my whole life,” she said. “But everyone’s life is changing.” O’Brien lost her voice for a month and a half because her vocal cords were damaged by the breathing tube doctors installed during her surgery. After her maternity leave was up, she was furloughed from the fashion brand where she worked as a buyer. In October, she was let go.

O’Brien’s husband is an occupational therapist, and has worked throughout the pandemic. His job has raised anxiety in the family about the risk of infecting O’Brien’s 67-year-old mother who lives with them and helps take care of their 3-year-old son. The hardest part of this year hasn’t been the actual events of it, O’Brien said. “It was the worrying about what could happen.”

For Christy Garcia, part of adjusting to the pandemic has meant not hugging her 3-year-old as soon as she comes home from work. Her husband is usually waiting for her with a disinfecting wipe; then she heads into the shower. Garcia is a child development specialist at a local hospital, and she has had anxiety around potentially infecting her parents, whom she and her husband moved in with last year to save money. Having them available to take care of her son while her husband, an architect, works from home has been invaluable during the pandemic.

“Of course we get on each other’s nerves,” Garcia said. But, she added, “a simpler life has been good for us.” She and her son camp in the backyard and run through the sprinklers; her husband has taken up running and baking. They have learned, gradually, to settle into the uncertainty, and to fill their new blocks of unstructured time.

Haewon Latorre leaves her apartment in Queens about once a week. When she does, she and her 6-year-old daughter tend to wear two masks, to take every possible precaution: a surgical mask on top of a KN95. Latorre has tried to take her daughter to a nearby playground over the last few months, but she worried about the kids she saw there with masks dangling off their ears or around their chins.

Latorre used to be a teacher, but she left the profession in 2018 because she was experiencing panic attacks and severe anxiety. She was offered a teaching position for this fall, but the risks of in-person classrooms scared her.

Her husband works as an Uber driver. There was barely any business for him in March, but rides have picked up again in recent months — sometimes involving customers who argue with him when he asks them to keep their masks on. Latorre worries about her husband contracting the virus from a rider, but the family needs the income. And with the size of the apartment, she said, “if one of us gets sick, we all get sick.”

Severina Ware remembers her first thought when her nonprofit office announced that it was closing: “If they’re shutting my office down, are they shutting my day care down?”

Her 3-year-old daughter’s day care has yet to close though, even as surrounding day cares had outbreaks. Despite the new regulations around the center — the frequent temperature checks, the masks — it has provided consistency through a doubly tumultuous time. Ware had made the decision to separate from her husband back in January, and the pandemic accelerated her timeline; she signed the lease for a new apartment in March. Friends helped her Clorox the U-haul she used to move.

“I never thought I would be in this position,” she said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself as a woman, and more so, as a Black woman in America — I always feel like I have to prove myself even more, so people don’t think, ‘Oh, she’s leaving her husband, she’s a failure.’ I’m understanding the decisions I’ve made over the last few months have been the best for the future I’m trying to provide for my daughter.”

In pre–Covid times, Steve Disselhort’s family would take a trip to Los Angeles every summer to visit his 8-year-old daughter’s birth family. This year, as the pandemic stretched on, Disselhort’s daughter grew worried. She asked him if her birth mother had caught the virus, if she was going to die.

They managed to drive down and see the birth family this year, after a stretch of months that upended nearly everything else. As Disselhort works from home, running his own consultancy, he supervises his 5-year-old son and his daughter taking online classes. Sometimes in the afternoons, depending on his schedule, they’ll drive to the beach with his children’s other father. The kids have become “incredibly close,” Disselhort said. “They’ve never spent this amount of time together, and now they’re inseparable. It’s a really beautiful thing to watch.”

In 2019, when Monica Bridges and her husband decided to have another child, their bills were paid, they had enough savings and they had support from her husband’s family. They thought they had planned perfectly. Then Bridges began to hear about the coronavirus this past February, and panicked. She took maternity leave from her job at Starbucks early so that she could stay home. When she gave birth to her younger son, on Easter, her husband missed the moment the baby came out; he had been waiting for his parents to arrive at the hospital as they were to watch the couple’s preschooler. At 4 years old, he was supposed to visit with his mom and new sibling in the delivery room, but wasn’t allowed in because of virus restrictions.

Bridges is back at work now, with hand sanitizer in her backpack. She showers as soon as she comes home, before she touches the baby. Her husband is a restaurant manager at The Cheesecake Factory, and they hand off child care throughout the day: She goes to work at 6 a.m., then comes back before he heads to his closing shift. She feels “so fortunate,” she said — to have a stable job, that her 4-year-old is “mostly carefree,” that her baby is healthy. But the stress from the virus is pervasive. “Sometimes I worry about going to bed,” she said, “because I don’t want to wake up to another day where there’s still Covid.”

Nearly three years ago, Wei Lien Dang’s wife died from an amniotic fluid embolism, a rare childbirth complication. He felt like he was finally adjusting to life without her, cobbling together a sense of normalcy. Then his world was upended.

He thinks about his wife a lot, while cycling through the mechanics of pandemic parenting — taking his 5- and 2-year-old girls to their newly-reopened school and day care, catching up with friends over Zoom and planning socially distanced play dates. “I feel like I always have to be on,” he said. When Dang misses his wife, he will often write down his thoughts, to have a “container for what he’s feeling,” he said. And he plays with his children. They bake and build Legos, run around the backyard and try to learn about plants. “It’s a reminder that even amid all these challenges, you can still have these moments of fun or joy,” he said. “And not feel completely overwhelmed.”

For the first four or five months of the pandemic, Jen Bienvenu saw nobody outside of her family. Recently, she and her husband have gradually been expanding their bubble, and their two children have started to adapt. When her 4-year-old went into a grocery store for the first time in six months, she gawked in the produce aisle, naming everything she saw.

Bienvenu tries to find little ways to break up the monotony of each day: alternating which chairs she sits in, ordering a set of nice pajamas. She’ll pack a snack and take her kids, a 4-year-old and one-year-old, through the car wash for fun. Bienvenu recently picked up takeout from a fast-food restaurant, and instead of just eating in the car, her 4-year-old decided to set the table, bringing out the nice tablecloth they only use for Thanksgiving — a move that totally changed the day, Bienvenu said, making a small, special moment out of the ordinary. “I’m trying to be really intentional about joy,” she said.

In 2018, Christa Stoebner’s husband was deployed on a humanitarian mission on the U.S.N.S. Mercy. Her daughter was 3 at the time, and it was hard for her to not know when her father was coming back, or when she would speak with him on the phone next. Stoebner has been thinking about that time period a lot during the pandemic, and how similar quarantine can feel. She separated from her husband a year after he returned, and now, again, it’s just Stoebner and her daughter, trying to navigate an uncertainty with no end date. She doesn’t even know when she will be able to see her parents.

“You have to get creative,” Stoebner said. Her daughter will drop a ribbon out the window to signal to her downstairs neighbor that she wants to play in the yard below their apartment. They go for bike rides, and do arts and crafts. She reminds herself that she can do this, and has done a version of this before.

Marie Kim Sovulj’s year started with “this overwhelming fear and worry for my entire family,” she said. She was pregnant with her second child. Her father had been diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. As the coronavirus spread, her worries about him, immunocompromised from chemotherapy, intensified.

In May, Sovulj gave birth and when she finally went to see her parents, her father sang to her new baby girl. They took a group photo, and Sovulj still tears up looking at it. Just hours later, Sovulj’s mother said that she felt sick.

Sovulj remembers sitting on the floor, her father and husband beside her, praying over and over again that her mother didn’t have the virus. That her family would be all right. Her mother tested negative, and Sovulj saw the scare as another test of her resilience. “This year has been both me battling my fears and emotions,” she said, “and trying to make sure my children are enjoying life.”

“From the second I wake up to the moment my son goes to sleep, I am just all hands on him,” Cece Flores said. “I don’t really get a lot of moments to myself. It’s just 100 percent parenting.”

Flores is a stay-at-home mother caring for her 1-year-old son. The pandemic started when he was 4 months old, and since then, they’ve barely left their neighborhood in Montreal. Her partner works for a security company and lives half an hour away; he visits once or twice a week. Most of her day is spent finding ways to entertain her toddler, taking him to the park or watching Netflix. Flores wonders if her son will think the small area they live in is the whole world.

She has a few friends who are also first-time moms and gave birth around the same time, and they keep in touch — We picked a really bad time to become moms, they joke. But Flores said that her son keeps her grounded. “He’s such a happy little person,” she said. “If I focus on him, I can realize that this might not be easy, but there are all these things I’m watching him learn how to do. I get to just watch him evolve.”

Produced by Deanna Donegan. Editing by Farah Miller. Photo editing by Tiffanie Graham.

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