Parents Are Not Okay

We’re not even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken.

High school students wearing masks
Bing Guan / Bloomberg / Getty

It was two weeks, originally. Who couldn’t do two weeks with the kids at home? Two weeks to bend the curve. It was simple.

Then it was two months—because nothing bent—and, well, we did two weeks and that went okay, so two months would be doable, right? Right?

And then it was summer, and kids are always home in the summer, so how was that different? Sure, we can’t go anywhere, but we’ll just do a little more TV, a little more iPad, a little more of everything we’re already doing. Besides, school is just around the corner and finally they’ll go back.

Except they didn’t. Instead it was a year in limbo: school on stuttering Zoom, school in person and then back home again for quarantine, school all the time and none of the time. No part of it was good, for kids or parents, but most parts of it were safe, and somehow, impossibly, we made it through a full year. It was hell, but we did it. We did it.

Time collapsed and it was summer again, and, briefly, things looked better. We began to dream of normalcy, of trips and jobs and school. But 2021’s hot vax summer only truly delivered on the hot part, as vaccination rates slowed and the Delta variant cut through some states with the brutal efficiency of the wildfires that decimated others. It happened in a flash: It was good, then it was bad, then we were right back in the same nightmare we’d been living in for 18 months.

And suddenly now it’s back to school while cases are rising, back to school while masks are a battleground, back to school while everyone under 12 is still unvaccinated. Parents are living a repeat of the worst year of their lives—except this time, no matter what, kids are going back.

I am a father. I have a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old. And what I can tell you is that I am furious and I am afraid. I can also tell you that the only real difference between this year and last is that the most effective tool for keeping our kids safe—remote school—seems to be off the table. When cases were plummeting this spring, most every district and state board of education made the quick decision to stick a knife in remote school. It was awful last year, don’t get me wrong, and I understand what motivated that decision. But now we’re stuck with full-on, 30-kids-in-a-room, wide-open school as the Delta variant rages.

It’s a real monkey’s-paw situation, because, as a parent, all I’ve wanted for a year and a half is for my kids to go back to school—for their sake and for mine—but not like this. Now I’m stuck wishing that the thing that barely worked last year was still an option, because what’s looming is way worse.

School is only just starting and already kids are being quarantined in mind-boggling numbers: 20,000 across the state of Mississippi, 10,000 in a single district in Tampa, Florida. They’re getting sick too, with hospitalizations of kids under 17 across the country up at least 22 percent in the past month, by the CDC’s count, and each new week sets pediatric hospitalization records for the entire pandemic. The rapid increase of COVID-19 cases among kids has shattered last year’s oft-repeated falsehood that kids don’t get COVID-19, and if they do, it’s not that bad. It was a convenient lie that was easy to believe in part because we kept most of our kids home. With remote learning not an option now, this year we’ll find out how dangerous this virus is for children in the worst way possible.

Of course, things can be done to reduce the risk to kids, but those very things are fueling pitched battles across the country. Masking, the easiest solution to reducing the spread of COVID-19, is at the center of the fight. Fourteen states require masks in schools, eight have banned local districts’ ability to make them mandatory, and every other state has kicked the can down to the local level so that parents can brawl at school-board meetings. Florida has gone so far as to threaten administrators with fines and firings if they defy the mask ban, making it seem like some governors, legislators, and run-of-the-mill assholes just won’t quit until kids are stacked like cordwood. And all of this assumes that the fight should be over masks, and not reinstating the ability to hold school online until every child can be vaccinated.

It’s enough to bring a parent to tears, except that every parent I know ran out a long time ago—I know I did. Ran out of tears, ran out of energy, ran out of patience. Through these grinding 18 months, we’ve managed our kids’ lives as best we could while abandoning our own. It was unsustainable then, it’s unsustainable now, and no matter what fresh hell this school year brings, it’ll still be unsustainable.

All this and parents are somehow expected to be okay. We are expected to send our kids off into God knows what, to work our jobs and live our lives like nothing’s wrong, and to hold it all together for months and maybe now for years without ever seeing a way out. This is not okay. Nothing is okay. No parent is okay, and I’m not sure how we come back from this.

Parents aren’t even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken. And yet we’ll go on because that’s what we do: We sweep up all our pieces and put them back together as best we can. We carry on chipped and leaking and broken because we have no other choice. And we pray that if we can just keep going, our kids will survive too.