The children of health-care workers in the United States are not okay. While reimagining your parent as a modern-day, masked superhero may be momentarily soothing, it doesn’t replace them at bedtime. Like many other health-care workers, my husband and I are currently living apart from our children — and temporarily, from each other — as we do our part to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus to our loved ones and our patients. We are appreciative of the outpouring of support for health-care workers, but frankly, I wouldn’t miss the 7 p.m. clapping for a second if it meant I could just have my kids back — and know it was safe.
Though I’ve re-swaddled at least five newborns today and changed two dirty diapers at the hospital, I haven’t seen my own kids in person for more than a month. I am as exhausted and sleep-deprived as I was when they were colicky infants. But this is a more depleting form of fatigue than nursing a 6-week-old. The constant vigilance of maintaining my patients’ and my own personal safety at work is a drain.
When I need an emotional lift, I try to call my kids, who are with my folks in Connecticut. But I stream into their day at odd intervals, often interrupting the construction of a castle or a brisk scoot in the driveway. Children are tactile. On the phone I am just a distraction from the comfort of people and toys they can touch and hug. And privilege check: I am deeply, profoundly grateful that my kids are safe, fed, sheltered, healthy and reasonably happy. Working at an inner-city children’s hospital, I have already witnessed the secondary devastation that the covid-19 pandemic wreaks upon vulnerable American families in the form of chronic illness, abuse, hunger and neglect. It’s a hell of a time to be a doctor in our country. But it is an utterly wretched time to be living in poverty.
At ages 4 and 2, my kids are both too young to grasp what is happening in the world. But I also have no doubt they’ve picked up that something is very different and very wrong. I’ve been vague, protective — but also honest. New York City caught a cold. Mommy is still helping to clean up some germs at the hospital. It’s okay to be scared. My 4-year-old has even started asking profound questions about death and this doozy: “What is God?” I answer her as best I can. But I’m trying to teach both of us that living with uncertainty — as basic as “when will I see you again?” — forces us to find beauty and joy in the simple moments in between.
I know my children are on the cusp of personhood. This pandemic will shape their lives in ways that we can’t know yet. They’re just toddlers, but their faces seem wiser to me suddenly. Kids are always so much more intuitive than we even know. And despite the webinars, listicles and supposed experts out there, there is no great guide to parenting in a pandemic — especially for doing it over the phone.
My friends at home with their children full time are facing a different but equally vexing crisis. Just this morning, one of them sent me an S.O.S. — “I’m having an impossible time managing my job and Olivia at home. Lucas is also trying desperately not to lose his job. My Mom wants to come over and help — she’s been isolating too. Do I do it? I’m at my wits end!” [Note: I’ve used pseudonyms in this column.]
She was asking me, essentially, for a doctor’s okay. “Every physical human interaction going forward is going to be a calculated risk,” I warned her. “What you’re trying to do — work and parent full time, simultaneously — is near impossible.”
When we rebuild, our child-care policies will need an overhaul. It has never been clearer that our school and child-care workers are underpaid, underresourced and underappreciated. Mandatory, paid sick and parental leave, alongside robust, subsidized child care, should be made a basic employment benefit.
As a physician, I’m obliged to warn my friend that sheltering in place is the best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But I can also recognize that we are facing a mental health crisis in American homes. If you’re a parent on the brink of a psychological break — by all means, I’m happy to be the doctor who gives you permission to ask for help.
Full time or FaceTime, all parents need it now.