Opinion

Parents of Kids Under 5 Are Demoralized

I’ve been talking to parents about pandemic stress for nearly two years, and I haven’t heard the level of despair that I’ve heard over the past week since the spring of 2020. Some of the words parents used to describe their January 2022: “devastating,” “disgusting” and “at a breaking point.” The difference with the Omicron surge is that the upset is more concentrated among parents of children under the age of 5.

Most American children 5 and older are going to class in person, and Covid vaccines are available to them. The vaccine remains unavailable to kids under 5, and it’s still unclear when it will be approved for them. To perhaps point out the obvious, if they’re quarantining, many children under 5 can’t just hang out independently or remain quietly occupied for any useful length of time by TV or sustained silent reading. Which means remote learning for preschoolers winds up either as sort of a joke or requires intense parental involvement.

At the same time, more workplaces are open now than in earlier Covid waves. Most Americans aren’t working remotely, and even for the parents who are, being at home all day, trying to keep a toddler alive, fed and entertained makes it just about impossible to get anything else done. I spoke to a dozen parents across the country last week (and heard from dozens more in my DMs), and here are the themes I saw emerging from these conversations.

They feel they can’t keep their kids safe

“This is the scariest time of the pandemic for sending my kids to day care,” said Margot Zarin-Pass, a pediatrician and internist in Minneapolis. Her two children are 3½ years old and 10 months old. She’s seen the rise in pediatric hospitalizations during the Omicron wave. Because she lives in freezing-cold Minnesota, spending a ton of time outside right now isn’t really feasible; she also doesn’t feel that it’s safe to bring her kids to libraries or children’s museums because of how easily Omicron spreads, so they’re frequently stuck inside for days at a time. “It feels like we’re more alone and abandoned than we previously have been, because our kids haven’t had a chance to get vaccinated,” she said, even though a lot of the rest of society seems to be trying to move on from Covid to live more normal lives.

Their finances are strained

I’ve heard from many parents that their children who go to day care frequently have had to quarantine for stretches of 10 to 14 days as a result of Covid exposures. For hourly workers and single parents especially, this is untenable, and can even lead to financial catastrophe — you still have to pay for day care, even if your kid isn’t attending, and you won’t get paid if you can’t work. Many child care facilities are in a bind as well: They’ve struggled to stay open during the pandemic, and the need for care outstrips availability.

Tiara Johnson, who works with special needs children at an early childhood education center in New York City and is a single mother of a 2-year-old son, experiences both sides of this bind. If enough parents take their children out of the center where she works because of the Covid surge, she explained, it could lose funding and be at risk of shutting down. Meanwhile, as of my conversation with her last Wednesday, the day care where she sends her son had not yet reopened after the Christmas break. “Right now I’m in search of another day care that is open and close to home, because his day care closed due to Covid and I have to worry about paying it, and I’m not being paid while I’m out,” she said. “You have to think about the parents as well, because if we don’t have work, we can’t provide.”

She has to worry about her son’s health, and also the health and daily routines of the children she cares for. They thrive on having a set schedule, she said, and the latest pandemic surge has been a huge disruption for her, her son, the kids and their parents.

Their employers are unsympathetic

Lauren Smith, who works in public relations for a health care company in Washington, D.C., and is a divorced mom of twin 2-year-olds, said that while some employers are trying to accommodate employees, there are limits. “We’re now two years into this and their patience and flexibility is tried, they can’t bend over backward when employees continue to ask for more understanding,” she said of what she’s seeing in her own work situation and those of her friends. This puts employees in a tough spot, though she acknowledges that some employers are in a tough spot, too: Businesses can’t give endless slack and still deliver results. When we spoke, her sons’ day care had shut down for the week because of staffing issues, and she was only able to get her work done because her ex-husband took vacation from his job to watch the children.

They feel betrayed

Over and over, parents tell me they feel that children’s needs haven’t been prioritized during the pandemic, that their own health and well-being as parents hasn’t been given enough consideration, and that in many instances they’ve been left with no good options for safe school or child care. While some parents think that continuing with in-person school or day care is the most important thing for their children and others say staying at home — and hopefully Covid-free — is their priority, almost no one felt that the country had put kids first when making policy decisions. Repeatedly, I heard about how hard PCR testing is to come by, and the parents who could get PCRs told me about delayed results keeping them from work and their kids from schools. A set of two rapid tests is currently running them (at least) around $20, and equipping children in quality masks is expensive.

Lauren Sherbuk, who works as an occupational therapist at schools in Florida and has a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, put it to me this way: “Every single month we have a shooter safety drill where we have to find an ambush location. Yet we have Covid running rampant and you’re not supposed to talk about it.” That what-are-we-even-doing-right-now vibe seems more prevalent the more parents I talk to.

Masking, hand washing and social distancing don’t seem to have eased us into the new year. Getting tested regularly makes sense but the scarcity of tests doesn’t, and if there are long delays for results, the results aren’t as useful by the time they arrive. Boosters are good, but what if you’re boosted and taking care of an unvaccinated little one?

We’re beyond calming platitudes, admonitions to do yoga and promises from politicians that there will be a reasonable fix during the Covid surges that are now predictable parts of our lives. “I think there was all of this fire and anger that the parents are blah blah blah and all this talk, and I think early on made us feel something might change,” said Ellie Erickson, a pediatrician and mom of two children under 4 in North Carolina. “And now it’s pretty clear that it absolutely isn’t.”


Want more on Omicron?

  • As I spoke to parents this week, I kept thinking about the cover line of Pooja Lakshmin’s essay from our Primal Scream project: “This isn’t just about burnout, it’s about betrayal.”

  • This humor piece by Chandler Dean for McSweeney’s, “Here’s Why You’re Wrong for Supporting Either In-Person or Virtual School,” perfectly illustrates that (a) any choice for your kids right now feels wrong and (b) the futility of internet discourse around Covid.

  • I’m sharing this passage from my friend Jessica Winter’s article in The New Yorker about staffing issues in New York City schools, because it so accurately captures my outlook right now:


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