In early summer, we had just returned home from our first guilt-free, parents-only vacation in years. The trip was guilt-free in a dual sense: both that we knew we deserved real time away and that we probably weren’t going to transmit COVID-19 to our young daughters when we returned. For the double-vaccinated, the science and statistics were clear, and with infection rates plummeting in our area, it felt like we could open up our world a bit. We enrolled the kids in new fall activities, even let them visit some stores. Our toddler saw the inside of a Target for the first time in her conscious life, deeming it “The Peppa Store” and confirming how resilient children can be.
But then came the announcement. The Biden Administration declared that if you were fully vaccinated, you wouldn’t need a mask indoors anymore. Hooray! The elders cheered through their Instagram squares. Little confetti dropped from the sky. Some people celebrated, eager to dance bare-faced through the mall. Yet, the parents of young children I know felt forewarned of problems to come. We all thought some version of the same thing: the U.S. has ditched our kids, and in turn, us too.
The guidance was offered to incentivize the vaccine hesitant, reward the vaccine recipient, and stimulate the economy with the prospect of normalcy. I get it. But the millions of children under 12 who don’t qualify for the vaccine didn’t fit into this equation. They weren’t considered at all. Parents were forced to either rely on the honor system with people who have shown no interest in honoring anyone’s lives but their own, or withdraw from the public even more. I won’t take my girls grocery shopping when no one’s in masks. And there’s millions of single parents and caregivers who don’t have a choice, their children falling second to the fear of not meeting The Consumer Demand to shop without cloth on their faces.
And of course, this was before the Delta variant, which changed the rules in a playbook that hadn’t even been written yet when it comes to school. There never was a plan for school. Instead, it seemed, the hope was for our vaccines to do a decent enough job on the adults to have a trickle-down impact on younger members of the community. Like we could just will in-person school to happen if we kept talking about its importance. Not so. Details are opaque. Protocols are unclear. Guidance is a game of roulette. This is not the fault of a single public or private institution but of leadership for not prioritizing it above all else. For many children across the country, school was their safest place – their constant. This is most dire for them.
School is not childcare, but the two are inextricably linked. This generation of parents’ ability to participate in the workforce operates on the assumption that their children’s education will be facilitated through a safe, stable, and reliable construct outside of the home. There are jobs that can be done remotely and jobs that cannot, but in either instance, parents cannot cling to their contingency plans forever. A record number of women have left the workforce, because they are the contingency plan.
I am an in-house attorney for a large company, which has supported us incredibly well throughout the pandemic. Yet, even with the most accommodating of circumstances, I am on the verge of unwell, uncertain how long I can continue to suppress the daily decision fatigue around my family’s risk management to focus on actual business decisions. Also, I am losing sleep over what happens when my colleagues return to the office (even one day a week) and I elect to stay remote; which I have, for now. It’s the way we often feel after returning from maternity leave, a subtle shift in our ability to participate that eats away at our confidence. I used to like being the last person at the office, and it took me years to reconfigure those expectations of myself once I had kids. But I did, until now. Now, I fear, my decision to stay remote will be perceived as some personal wish-list rather than knowing in-person instruction for my kids is hanging by a thread, ready to revert them back to virtual with one cough during cold and flu season. Or that the hundreds of strangers I encounter on a 90-minute public commute to the office could expose me to the virus, and if given a choice to avoid it, how could I rationalize opting in? I’m endlessly grateful to have a choice, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy with the one I had to make. I want my life back, too, but it’s a lot more complicated than opening the office doors.
Most upsetting of all isn’t our government, schools, or circumstances at work. It’s the people close to us who are not in our shoes. Family and friends who we thought understood what we’ve been through this past year, because we’ve told them, or they’ve watched us struggle. But ultimately, our kids aren’t theirs. They can go home after the barbecue, run errands without worry, make choices regarding their personal risk that make sense for their lives.
Yet, they still have opinions about what we choose to do or not do. They autopsy our every decision. Yes, Aunt Carol, we sent our kids to day camp, but no, we won’t come to the indoor reunion without talking about who is vaccinated. The pandemic might feel over for you. I’m glad your protection came in time.
As a parent, it’s hard to be an optimist right now. I don’t always see an end in sight. Any discussions of our children’s vaccinations are still just rumblings, this even as we’ve just learned our boosters will probably come before the holiday season. But unlike the many who have reduced our children to an afterthought – a mere complication in reopening protocols – they will remain at the forefront to us. And to be honest, we won’t forget the people who showed up for us and the people who didn’t. We will use our wallets, our skillsets, our influence to advocate for our children, because “everything” is all we know how to do.
The little things
One positive of this Back to School Season are my custom sneaks. I spruced up these matching Air Force One’s for my kindergartner and her classmate. They are truly like walking smiles, which many of us could use right now.
(I promise to be less angry next week.)
On September 15, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched the Inspiration4 mission, the world’s first all-civilian spaceflight to orbit the earth. These humans are not astronauts, but the individual stories that brought them to liftoff are extraordinary. Watch Netflix’s Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space to learn more about the mission and feel like anything is possible.