Every day for the past two months, my 2-year-old has climbed up onto my bed and asked me to “play spiders.” There is not much to this game. We move our hands back and forth in a spider-like puppet formation, making our imaginary arachnids chat to one another in sing-song voices. A game that can be orchestrated without ever lifting my head is out of the ordinary for me, but it's what I invented to make it through the days when our entire family was sick with coronavirus and I could not get out of bed for weeks on end.
While we hear a lot about dire hospitalization statistics for COVID-19, most people will end up treating their bout with coronavirus in their homes. How do families, particularly those with young kids at home, handle weeks of parenting in isolation while ill?
Julia Allan, a mother of five in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a pediatric physician assistant, has experienced the effects of COVID-19 both at work and at home. The virus made its way through her family of seven this past fall, and her husband ended up hospitalized. When she had to drive him to the emergency room late at night, a friend had to come sit with their children — a big ask during normal times, but bigger in a pandemic. “It was a great risk to her to come into our household," said Allan, "and I’ll never forget that sacrifice.”
No visitors were allowed in the hospital, but my kids, true to form, called me regularly to ask what they could have for a snack.
Allan, who took on much of the parenting when everyone was ill, is still experiencing symptoms three months later. I can relate: Three weeks out from my positive test, when I still couldn’t make it through a full day without a nap and my kids were looking on in alarm when I had to take breaks climbing up the stairs, I finally went to see my primary care doctor. I ended up in the hospital for a week for critical anemia and blood clots. (No visitors were allowed in the hospital, but my kids, true to form, called me regularly to ask what they could have for a snack.)
While my family was classified as low-risk should we contract COVID-19, it was a much more serious situation for Samantha McGovern and her 4-year-old daughter, Josephine. Samantha, Josephine, and her partner live in Springfield, Virginia. Because Josephine was a micro-preemie, and has multiple medical concerns, the family has been very careful with COVID-19 precautions. They usually spend cold and flu season in isolation, anyway, which means they've been isolated since November 2019. When, in late September 2020, Josephine spiked a fever and the rapid test came back positive, Josephine’s parents had to take turns sitting up all night monitoring her. McGovern says she sat in her office working through the night watching her daughter on a camera, taking turns with her partner while they struggled through their own symptoms of the virus. Each of them got sick at different times, which meant that their household was quarantined for a total of six weeks. Eventually, a night nurse came back to their house in full PPE just to watch Josephine so her parents could rest.
As a mom of four kids ages 9 and under, with twins in the mix, I thought I knew exhaustion, but nothing compared to how I felt with this virus. I can’t even imagine trying to be awake all night while battling coronavirus, just to make sure my kid was breathing. I have vague, fuzzy recollections of hearing my kids downstairs fighting while my valiant husband played referee, but for two weeks I felt like I was chained to my bed in a fog.
In January 2021, Krista and Jason Jones experienced that exhaustion, plus the emotional upheaval of a critically-ill child, when they and their four kids got COVID-19 all at once. Despite 10 careful months of masks and distancing, Jason was exposed at work. Their oldest three children (11, 8, and 3) had very mild symptoms, but their 2-year-old, who has asthma and other medical needs, was immediately admitted to the hospital. And so Krista found herself, also very ill, staying with her daughter at the children’s hospital for a week.
Krista just celebrated her first day in three weeks where she did not need a nap (unfortunately, their toddler decided she didn’t need a nap, either).
“Honestly, I lived on friends’ prayers lifting me, and adrenaline, for the week," she said. “I rested when she rested, but it was never good rest. Constantly checking the monitors, watching her breathing, and talking with nurses and doctors consumed my days and nights.” At one point, the toddler’s heart rate was 200 beats per minute, her fever was 104.7, and her oxygen saturation was only 85%. It was a harrowing week.
Thankfully their toddler is home and recovering, though Jason and Krista still have weak days and lots of dizziness. Krista just celebrated her first day in three weeks where she did not need a nap (unfortunately, their toddler decided she didn’t need a nap, either).
My kids' anxiety has been through the roof since my week in the hospital, panicking if I leave the room. At the same time, a week to sleep was literally what I needed. Our community rallied around us with meals and activity drop-offs, but my husband was still mostly isolated with four kids, while trying to maintain his full-time job as a therapist and recovering from COVID himself. I am not sure we have ever experienced such a difficult season of parenting.
"The really challenging thing with COVID is no one can really come in to help, but take all of the distanced-help you can," advises Jason, who had his three eldest children while his wife was in the hospital with their critically-ill toddler. "Meals, grocery drop-offs, toys and crafts for the kids, and so on. Do whatever it takes to be able to get through the day, even if that means TV and screens all day."
When everyone is sick, throw every rule out the window and make rest the main priority for the entire family until everyone is well again.
Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in health psychology in the Chicago area, agrees. She knows parents like us will struggle to take the time to truly heal. Even when there is time to rest, she believes, "There is an enormous influence of cultural messages around prioritizing productivity above wellness." Edlynn focuses a lot of her professional work on parents with chronic illness, and constantly encourages them to focus on self-compassion and grace. The same holds true for households wracked with COVID-19.
While hope may be on the horizon as the vaccine rollout slowly reaches the rest of the population (Allan, an essential worker, just got her first dose of the vaccine this week), many more families will be stuck at home battling the virus without access to their outside support network. Edlynn emphasizes that when everyone is sick, throw every rule out the window and make rest the main priority for the entire family until everyone is well again. “Screen time limits and ideal nutrition come after love and safety in the hierarchy of needs, so save your energy for taking care of the basics instead of sticking to a bunch of rules."
In the meantime, we wait for the vaccine.