At Astra, we’ve always had a deep, intuitive sense of how safety, belonging, and connectedness contribute to well-being—in and out of the classroom, for students and adults, alike. As a teacher, creating a space where students felt safe and connected was always one of my primary objectives; as a parent, I’ve wanted to be certain that my children’s caregivers share that priority. When we are safe, when we are connected, when we can experience well-being, learning and growth follow.
But what happens when safety and well-being are at odds with one another? What happens when a painful but necessary emphasis on physical safety gets in the way of other essential elements of well-being? For people with high risk factors for Covid-19 and for parents of children under five (like me and my husband), the pandemic is still impacting nearly every aspect of our lives. Many of us haven’t experienced well-being in a long, long time.
As I write this, I’m just coming back to work after my third quarantine with my kids since the beginning of December. Because they’re unvaccinated, they still require 10-day quarantines any time they are a close contact of a positive Covid case, and that means that I have spent 30 out of the last 56 days at home with at least one (but this last time, both) of my children while we wait to see if any symptoms develop. I’m a rose-colored glasses person by nature, and when I put on my brightest pink pair of those, I can say that I am exhausted. When I try to assess my situation with less tint and more realism, I have to acknowledge that I am depleted and anxious nearly all of the time. From my pre-pandemic parenting days, I know that raising kids is difficult work. It’s tiring, often repetitive, usually messy, and the soundtrack is not usually something an adult would choose. Three years into Covid isn’t an exploration of the difficulties of modern-day parenting in America (with its lack of sleep and requisite conversations about the expense of early childhood education and stances on gentle parenting); instead it’s parents I know constantly reassuring one another that what we’re being asked to do right now is insane, that we’re all getting through by the skin of our teeth, and that we are also not okay.
In talking with other parents of young children, it’s become clear to me that the last couple of months are wearing very differently for us, and I think there are a couple of reasons why. One prominent reason is that our kids are too young for the vaccine. It’s miraculous that so many people can access the vaccine and protect themselves and others better, but there are still so many kids who can’t get it, and that often gets left out of the current narrative. And because the under-five crowd isn’t seen as able to reliably mask, New York State won’t allow daycares to welcome kids back before 10 days after the last exposure to a case. This places an intense burden on parents who need to juggle work and childcare—and I say this as a person with incredible flexibility in my job and deeply understanding colleagues. For single parents or families with less flexibility, I’m sure it’s been even more acute agony. And (to top it all off), of course, we’re all still paying for daycare even when our kids can’t be there. I get it—centers need to pay staff and keep the lights on—but it also feels like we’re approaching farcical territory.
And then, last Friday night, I got a really clear sense of how to describe my feeling about parenting not-yet school-aged kids in the third winter of Covid.
Around 6pm, the boys and I were finishing up our billionth viewing of Inside Out (which I strongly recommend). It was day 7 of our quarantine, and my husband had left early that morning for a rare weekend away. I had loaded up on fun snacks, easy meals, a couple of new puzzles, and the ingredients to make homemade playdough; I had even already ordered myself a delicious meal to be delivered and enjoyed after I put my younger son, newly two years old, to bed. So naturally, it was in this moment of calm, that my younger son, Tucker, put a ribbon dancer wand (see picture) in his mouth, sucked on it, and took it out of his mouth in two newly disconnected pieces—with (of course) one metal piece missing. I went right over to him and hoped to sweep it out his mouth, but there was nothing in it. I furiously searched for the missing metal piece, frantically hoping it hadn’t been swallowed, but to no avail. I called Jack and asked him if he thought I needed to get Tuck to Urgent Care (he thought yes), so I quickly called my dad and asked him to come watch Sullivan.
At the Urgent Care, the doctor ordered two x-rays, and Tuck lay still enough for one of them. We couldn’t get a scan of his airway because he was too interested and fidgety and hungry and upset to keep going. I felt similarly. The tech who was helping us was clearly exasperated and intimated that I should have gone to the Emergency Department so that he could be restrained by something other than his mother. With inconclusive scans, we left the office around 8:30pm; I returned home with a cranky toddler to an off-the-wall four-year-old. After thanking and relieving my dad, I hunched over the kitchen island, eating my room temperature chicken parmesan. My family was safe, but we were not well.
In schools, we talk about safety and well-being and often lump them together or think of safety as leading to well-being. But they aren’t the same, and it’s never been clearer to me that they each impact the other. Throughout so much of this pandemic, I’ve been an ardent supporter of keeping everyone as safe as possible, but I find myself asking, when does our lack of well-being make us less safe? I can’t speak for all parents of young kids, but I will say that I have never felt this socially disconnected, frustrated, or stagnant, particularly in the last few months. While I do have faith that we will, eventually, return to a lifestyle akin to pre-Covid days, I am struggling to even find my rose-colored glasses. In so many ways, it feels hard to imagine the world with a positive outlook or to imagine myself feeling ease and happiness again. I suppose I’ll need to indulge my kids, watch Inside Out again, and try to reassure myself that Joy still exists inside of me, even if Sadness and Fear are currently at the helm.