“I was sure I was going to throw up from the anxiety,” she recalls. “It was a mix of things — anxiety about covid, because we’ve been protective of him for a while, but it was also just that I feel like we’ve lived together in this little bubble for 15 months, and all of a sudden the bubble was breaking.”
The dominant narrative of pandemic-era parenting emphasizes how exhausted parents are, how utterly depleted, how desperately ready to have their kids leave the house and return to the classroom, to sleepaway camp, to day care. This is widely true, yet there are some parents whose feelings are more nuanced and conflicted as they approach the inevitable reentry to society. They’re quietly dreading — or even mourning — the coming separation from their children after so much time in close, constant proximity.
Snyder, a 49-year-old project manager at the University of Minnesota, eventually asked her husband if he could drop off their son at camp; she couldn’t bring herself to do it. “I feel like this is good practice for us all. It’s only a few hours,” she says. “It’s teaching us all how to live in the world again, where we’re not always together.”
The “bubble” that formed around many homes may be breaking, and although life inside a bubble often meant isolation, fear and lost experiences, it has also held surprising and meaningful gifts: parents who were present to witness a baby’s milestones, or to help a young child learn how to read, or to relish extra time with a teenager who will soon leave for college. The bubble also afforded some sense of control. The kids were constantly around, which was tiring, but they were seldom out of reach, which was reassuring.
“To let them go back out there again, into school, with the threat of violence, and sickness, and people with different ideas, and teachers with different goals — all those things existed before, but they just feel amplified now,” says Christian Lemon, 41, a stay-at-home father of three in Florida who feels torn about the prospect of sending his 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son back into classrooms in late August. “I’m excited to let them explore who they need to become,” he says, “but it’s hard to just let them go.”
For Becky Franklin, a 38-year-old director of administration for an arts organization in Minneapolis, the anxiety has manifested as a recurring nightmare: She watches her 6-year-old son, Archer, as he takes off on his bike at top speed, rounding a street corner and zooming out of sight.
“I could never keep up with him and would shout desperately: ‘Archer! Wait!’ ” she says. “I always woke up just as I was convinced that Archer was gone forever.”
Her mind isn’t much calmer in her waking life, she says, as she looks ahead to September.
“I imagine walking Archer to the corner to watch him get on the bus to go to school, and I imagine walking home alone with a thousand worries,” she says.
“What if he catches a virus and gets sick? What if he catches the virus or a variant before he’s vaccinated? Will he feel cared for at school? Will he be overwhelmed by everything in person? Will he not want to tell me what happened at school? What will I miss?”
When Jeannine Patel toured her son’s new classroom a few days before he started fourth grade in July — his school in North Carolina is on a year-round schedule — she noticed how close together the desks were positioned. She thought about the delta variant and felt a surge of worry. Would he be safe here? How would he handle the transition from being alone with his family all the time to being alone with his peers? How would she handle it?
Patel, 38, knew her child was looking forward to seeing his friends again. “But I’m just nervous,” she says. “Does he remember how to interact with people? Will he be respectful? Will he remember the routines? I know he’s excited, but he’s been extra clingy, too.”
It’s easy for these sorts of worries to spread between parents and children, says Jerry Bubrick, a senior psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute.
“The core feature of anxiety is difficulty tolerating uncertainty,” he says. “And there is a lot of uncertainty right now. But our job as parents is not to give kids the answers. Our job is to help them tolerate not knowing. So we have to tolerate not knowing.”
He suggests being honest and transparent with children, but also projecting confidence: “It’s okay to say, you know, ‘I’m anxious about going back to work, I’m a little bit uncertain about what’s going to happen at school, but, whatever happens, we can handle it.’ ”
Melissa McCeney, 46, has been happy to see her three teenage daughters enjoy spending time with vaccinated friends. Her oldest two girls have recently gotten part-time jobs and are no longer so housebound.
All three teens will return to school in person in August, but McCeney, a psychology professor at Montgomery College in Germantown, Md., will continue to teach from home via Zoom until January — and she says she’s dreading the thought of being home without her girls this fall.
“I don’t want to say I looked at this time as a gift, because it was a terrible thing that happened, and if I could have chosen, I would have chosen for them to have last year, their sports, their friends,” she says. “But at this age, your kids are moving away from you. And so it was a period of closeness that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”
Lemon says he is trying to make the most of what remains of his family’s pandemic solitude.
“I’ve gotten to luxuriate in this time, this pause, where I got to be a crucial part of their development, and I hope that I’m forming bonds that will allow us, as parent and child, to have a great relationship going forward,” he says. “I’m a wistful, kind of sappy guy, so it’s always been hard for me to let them go. But doing the right thing isn’t always comfortable, and the right thing is to let them go out there.”
On a Monday in late June, Franklin lingered after dropping off Archer at camp.
“I stayed close at a coffee shop, keeping my eye on the phone, wildly imagining that Archer might need me,” she says. “He didn’t.”
Some parents calm their separation anxiety by focusing on what they intend to keep from the bubble life: family rituals, a sense of resilience, realigned priorities.
Often, what they want to hold on to most is time.
Patel’s son is back at school now, but she still curls up with him before he goes to sleep at night, and she doesn’t rush those quiet moments when he is most likely to share his feelings or reflections about the day. Lemon says he and his kids will continue to spend hours exploring the outdoors together, like they have throughout the pandemic. McCeney continues to read aloud with her daughters in the evenings, a long-standing tradition that offered both comfort and escape during their isolated months at home.
Snyder hasn’t signed up her son for before-school or after-school care, and she doesn’t plan to. “We are not going back to 10-hour days apart,” she says firmly. “That’s a very privileged position, and I realize that. There are so many people who have no choice. But we are never doing that again.”
Tea Norfolk, a 46-year-old fiscal planning specialist in Wisconsin, was recently required to return to her office full time. She says her first week away from her 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter “was harder than I could have possibly imagined.” She had grown attached to their daily walks, to the constant ongoing conversation, the little chats and check-ins with each other between work meetings and school sessions.
Norfolk has been thinking lately about a day near the beginning of the pandemic, when she and her children set out on a bright, brisk morning toward a nearby lake. As they arrived at the sandy shoreline, the weather turned ominous. Scattered droplets soon became a deluge.
“We just walked home in the pouring rain, and it was so fun to just roll with it instead of being upset about being unprepared or getting your clothes messed up,” she says. “We laughed, and we splashed in puddles. It set the tone for every other kind of weather we encountered over the next year and a half. Now they’re not afraid to go out in any kind of weather.”
Their family walks are relegated to weekends now, and Norfolk misses her kids during the long workdays. Before she returned to her office, she printed a photograph she took on that morning at the beach, when the world had shut down and sealed her in a bubble with her kids.
The framed photo hangs in their home, so they can all remember what that day felt like — how wild and free the kids looked, and how Norfolk was there to witness it: her children leaping and laughing in the sand, brandishing driftwood sticks like swords, their faces fierce and joyful as the sky grew dark behind them.