And finally, a few weeks ago, the 35-year-old resident of Pearland, Tex. did something she hadn’t done in a long, long time: She sent her kids to school and came home to a quiet house.
Just Chea and her husband, Matt, a tech professional.
They made coffee, looked at each other and marveled at the stillness.
Then Matt went off to work in the guest bedroom-turned-computer cave.
Izzie Chea flipped on Nextflix.
She turned it off again.
She wondered how the kids were doing.
Intermittently, she did something unfathomable: She stopped thinking about them.
“At first it was kind of like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re not here,’ ” says Chea. And then: “There’s so many things to be done.” Piano lessons to be scheduled. Outgrown clothes to be sorted. And one task that seemed especially pressing: “clean out the pantry.”
For parents like Chea, this farewell to sustained domestic chaos has come with a grab bag of emotions: joy, relief — and yes, new flavors of stress. They’re gone. Gone! As in, not here! Not throwing a tantrum in your home office, not bouncing off the walls of their home classroom — gone. Marched off to actual, physical school buildings, to be supervised by adults they don’t call “Mom” or “Dad,” for almost seven merciful hours a day, five blessed days a week.
And yet the persistence of the pandemic, and the threat that the chaos itself might not be gone but rather laying in wait, has saddled this newly liberated parenthood with caveats.
“I’m so anxious for my son’s health and safety all day that I wind up being more short-tempered than I want — sort of shooting for Fred Rogers and landing at, like, ‘Married . . . With Children’ ” says Peter Herman, 45, of Arlington, Va. “I think that’s what a lot of us are doing now.”
His son, Oscar, started first grade three weeks ago, and Herman is hoping that, health concerns notwithstanding, the hours of separation will allow him to inch back toward Mister Rogers territory. Because his wife is a veterinarian who’s had to continue to work in-person throughout the pandemic, oversight of Oscar’s virtual schooling fell to Herman — a requirement that pushed Herman to leave his academic career as a theology professor and take a more flexible marketing job.
Herman misses teaching, but doesn’t trust that his son’s return to school is permanent. His niece in Pennsylvania had a recent covid exposure through her field hockey team. His wife’s boss sent a kid back for exactly one day before an outbreak was detected and a group of students was sent home to quarantine.
“It doesn’t feel stable and steady,” he says. “It feels like, ‘We’re doing this for now.’ ”
Kelly Umaña, 28, is happy that her 8-year-old, hyper-social son is having fun with friends again, and that her 12-year-old brother and 10-year-old sister, who she’s helping to raise, are once again seeing their teachers face-to-face. Still, Umaña is nervous about the persistence of the virus and frustrated by what she sees as inadequate communication from their school district in Montgomery County, Md. She thought a return to in-person learning would be a solution to so many pandemic woes; instead it has felt like a new set of problems.
“It’s like we’re playing Russian roulette with these little kids,” says Umaña, a community health worker. “What happens when they have to quarantine? When I have to bring my son home?” she asks. “I’m trying to get my son tested as much as I can. I’m so fortunate to have a pediatrician. But the stress levels are still there.”
For Linda Sperling, a communications professional, working from home used to mean a quiet, tidy house and the freedom to slip out for coffee or lunch at her leisure. She had been doing it for about a decade, and had become accustomed to its rhythms and privileges. When the pandemic arrived, says the mother of two from Clifton, Va., “It was a big change from the house being my office to the house being my office/home school/day care.”
Her second-grader, Brady, had needed help staying focused on his online classes — “I’d come in and he’d be coloring, turning paper clips into statues,” says Sperling — so she set him up with a desk in her own office and went into exile, becoming a nomad who would move her laptop from place to place and schedule conference calls for times when she could usher her boys out to play in the backyard.
When their school district announced it would resume a normal schedule of in-person learning, it was cause for joy — which melted into apprehension when the virus came surging back.
“We realized we had to turn off the constant news and quit refreshing Twitter,” says Sperling, “and look into the data to figure out, ‘What is the chance our children really will get sick in school?’ ”
Deciding the benefits outweighed the risks, Sperling and her husband started coaching their 4½ -year-old, Ryan, on how to put on a mask and take it off by himself. The boys had to adjust to getting up and out the door in something other than pajamas; the parents had to relearn how to pack their kids up for the day. “Two and a half weeks into it we finally feel like we’ve gotten to the point where we’re not forgetting something in the backpack,” Sperling says.
But the house is quiet again, and Sperling is no longer a nomad in her own home. Those first kid-free days were a rush of productivity: banking completed, forms filled out, new batteries ordered for the garage door. Still, Sperling’s sense of satisfaction was undercut by dread every time an email arrived announcing a new case of covid at her boys’ school.
“Every single time the phone rang and its an unknown caller my first thought is, ‘Oh, God, please don’t let this be the health department,’” says Sperling. Any other kind of random incoming call would be preferable, no matter how obnoxious. “I’ve never wanted to get a call from a solicitor so much,” she says.
So far, the unknown numbers have all been spam. And on a recent afternoon Sperling and her husband grabbed their keys to do something they haven’t done in 18 months: leave the house, together, without their kids. “We’re going to get lunch,” she told The Post before the outing. “I’m really excited.”
Back in Pearland, Tex., Izzie Chea cleaned out her pantry. And organized her online piano instruction business, which has grown exponentially. She packed up the home-schooling materials but didn’t throw them away. “I have in the back of my head, ‘Well, if this completely fails and it’s a disaster, we’ll just pull out again,’ ” she says. “I don’t want to because I know that would affect me tremendously. But I’ll do what I have to do for my kids.”
Chea is especially nervous because in her district masks are voluntary and some students and teachers are opting not to wear them. But most days her boys come home happy, with anecdotes about activities they enjoyed. So Chea is trying to allow herself to do the same.
She has started to let herself relax. To read books, for pleasure. To call friends, just to chat.
“I was in survival mode for so long, I wasn’t even on my priority list,” she says. “I wasn’t even at the bottom — I wasn’t on it at all.”