Pandemic Parenting

An abstract collage of a mother holding her toddler with Covid, a face mask and  a body thermometer
Aleksandra Jankovic/Stocksy, Calvin Chan Wai Meng, Yevgen Romanenko/Getty Images

When My Toddler Got Covid, What I Actually Felt Was Relief

I had dreaded this day since he was born 18 months ago, but now I could finally breathe.

by Hanna LoPatin

I was watching Emily in Paris when my husband walked into our bedroom and delivered the news I’d been dreading for the last two years: Our 18-month-old son had tested positive for Covid. As the words hung in the air, I was overcome with an emotion I didn’t expect — relief.

Now, let me be clear that there are several key reasons I didn’t topple over into a pit of despair. First and most importantly, my son’s symptoms were already presenting like a mild cold. His positive test arrived five days after a documented daycare exposure, and he had yet to exhibit anything besides an occasional cough and a runny nose. Secondly, we’d been under quarantine since we got the notice about the close contact so no one outside our family of three was in danger. On this first holiday season since moving back to our Midwest hometown, Jewish Christmas Eve and Catholic Christmas Day with our respective families were unceremoniously cancelled. And finally, my husband and I were both vaccinated, boosted and feeling fine. I was confident our health — and the health of our loved ones — was not at risk.

Of course, not everyone will be so lucky. Getting Covid is a roll of the dice and if given the choice to have it with mild symptoms or not have it all I would choose the latter a thousand times over. But as the Omicron variant spreads with alarming speed, a lot of parents will soon be in the same position in which I now find myself — simultaneously escaping and realizing our biggest fear.

Like most parents, I’ve spent the last two years playing a win-or-die game of calculated risk.

As my husband and I briefly discussed logistics for our extended quarantine, the knot that had been coiled in my stomach gently unraveled. We checked the video monitor to see our son sleeping peacefully, and within minutes I was back to watching Lily Collins prance around Paris in fanciful clothes and getting caught up in various romantic misunderstandings. It was as if nothing had happened at all.

Like most (all?!?) parents, I’ve spent the last two years playing a win-or-die game of calculated risk. Every step out of the house (or open door letting someone in) involved a dizzying calculus of constantly evolving information.

I was six months pregnant when the pandemic began, and my OB gently but firmly told me to stay home. Leave the grocery shopping and all other errands to my husband, he said; I was to avoid all contact with the outside world. The baby growing inside me was the sole survivor of one round of IVF. He had already beaten the odds so many times I wasn’t about to take any more chances, so I followed my doctor’s advice and cocooned for the final three months.

Giving birth in the early months of the pandemic was a singular experience. Stories of partners being kept out of maternity wards were rampant. Vaccines were a distant dream and while children were thought to be relatively safe, it was unclear if that applied to newborns and their undeveloped immune systems. When I gave birth, there weren’t enough tests at the hospital for both my husband and me, so we got one negative result and one “cross your fingers and hope for the best.” Once our son was safely in the world, we hunkered down at home. His brit milah, a Jewish baby naming ceremony, was held on Zoom just like my baby shower had been months before.

As the time passed, I developed strategies for feeding my need for human contact outside my husband and infant. Meals were delivered by friends who would gingerly place boxes on the doorstep and then back away as we stepped out onto the porch and presented our newborn son like Simba on the mountain. My husband and I would trade off eating and holding him up for distant glances as our masked friends cooed from several feet away.

Our most fraught decision came when my maternity leave ended. We felt there was no choice but to send our son to daycare, even as most schools were remote. The home daycare had all parents sign a lengthy affidavit saying we would adhere to strict Covid-safe guidelines at all times in order to keep the pod safe. I had to put my trust in strangers who I only knew in masked passing as we took turns handing off our most precious possessions.

Decisions got more complicated once the world started opening up. The first building my son entered that wasn’t home, daycare, or the doctor’s office was a Hollywood Walgreen’s where he accompanied me for my first dose of Pfizer. Eventually, when Los Angeles had a combination of mask mandates and high vaccination rates, I took him with me to the grocery store a few times. You will never realize how many balloons are in a grocery store until you walk the aisles with a newly verbal child who has just learned the word “bubble” and (logically, I think) associates it with any round object that floats. He squealed with unbridled glee, and I smiled at the normalcy of it all.

Now I can worry like a pre-pandemic mom. Instead of wondering if my son is going to catch a potentially devastating disease, I can instead focus my anxiety on normal things like: is he eating enough vegetables?

My anxiety heightened when we moved back to the Midwest this summer. There’s no mask mandate here and while all our family and friends are vaccinated and boosted, everyone has their own personal set of rules that don’t necessarily align with our own.

In order to keep our son safe, we’ve had to assess and sometimes skip family weddings, birthday parties, and holiday meals. I was the sole mask wearer in a room of vaccinated, boosted adults at an early December holiday party, sipping bourbon and cream soda through a straw. Ironically, so far, I’m the only person that subsequently got infected.

When the vaccine became available for 5-11 year olds, I enviously scrolled through my Instagram feed, looking at my friends’ kids proudly displaying their band-aids and fantasized about when I’d finally get to breathe again.

And now, I guess I can.

I’m still planning on taking precautions, but for at least a few months, I don’t have to fret about every single decision I make. Now I can worry like a pre-pandemic mom. Instead of wondering if my son is going to catch a potentially devastating disease, I can instead focus my anxiety on normal things like: is he eating enough vegetables? Is it bad that I laugh every time he pronounces clock without the “l” sound?

And shockingly, I’ve not felt one iota of mom guilt. This variant is too potent. Every day I hear from another friend who has been infected. We all tried our hardest. We’ve all been wracking our brains weighing the potential consequence of our every action. Our daycare center worked tirelessly to prevent the spread of Covid, but with children who are too young to be vaccinated and too young to wear masks, an outbreak was inevitable.

Every day we get closer to a vaccine. I wonder if he’ll have to wait for his second birthday in June or if he’ll still be under 2 when the shots are approved. The day he qualifies as fully vaccinated? That will be my real moment of relief. What I’m feeling now is probably only temporary. But I’m going to relish in it, nonetheless, and finish up this season of Emily in Paris.