If Tolstoy were alive in 2020, maybe he would write that every stressed-out pandemic family is stressed out in its own way. My stress has been learning how to adjust to a new family in a time when everything is changing. And yet others are experiencing far harder family struggles.
It’s mid-March, 2020. COVID-19 is shutting down coastal cities; here in Indiana, there’s a sense that the storm could be at our doorstep any day. I’m on the phone with my boyfriend, Sam. “Why don’t you pack heavy and come stay here for a while?” he says. He’s concerned that at my house, where I have several roommates with jobs in the service industry, it will be too difficult to limit exposure. And if I can’t limit my exposure, I won’t be able to see him at all.
Sam is a divorced dad with a 6-year-old son, Dillon, who lives with him half the time. He tells Dillon that I need a place to stay because of “the virus.” While Sam and I think that I may be there for several weeks—longer than the “two weeks to flatten the curve” we’ve been hearing about—we have no idea that the move is about to become permanent.
We’ve been talking about moving in together for a while, but in mid-summer. We’ve planned to get engaged then talk to Dillon, let him ease into things. My quick visit-turned-move forces us to skip ahead, which is particularly hard on Sam, who likes to know where he’s going and move forward methodically.
Within days, Dillon’s school has closed, and my activities—a 32-hour/week job, PhD studies, and a research assistantship—have all gone online. And Sam happens to be on a leave of absence from work—which turns out to be fortunate for Dillon’s childcare but is also challenging because he has no other distractions. So we have not only been thrown together unexpectedly, but now we are all packed in a moderately sized house together all day long.
Kindergarten goes online instead of resuming in person after spring break. Classes are on Zoom, but Dillon only sees his teacher for an hour on two or three mornings a week. We get a couple of packets of learning material to do at home, and then those disappear. Dillon sits in front of the laptop coloring, only partially registering what his teacher is saying.
He no longer has any contact with other children his age. There are several kids in the neighborhood, but we’re concerned about exposing him to families outside our bubble. Even when he was in school, he often wanted to play by himself, and the pandemic is amplifying that tendency. Following the CDC’s recommendations, he doesn’t go on errands, we don’t take trips, he doesn’t visit restaurants or any of his favorite locations to play. From mid-March until June, he is at home. Research suggests that we should try to do social activities remotely, but while we are fortunate enough to have access to remote connections, Dillon is not interested in video calls with peers. He does want to play video games online, but we are not comfortable letting him play games with people we don’t know.
As an only child, he is accustomed to being the center of attention. His make-believe games evolve spontaneously as he makes up new rules, setting up situations where he almost always wins. And as the pandemic goes on and he has no other kids to play with, having his own way becomes more and more habitual.
But at the same time, without the stimulation of a routine that takes him outside the home, he seems increasingly bored and listless, spending more and more of his time playing video games and watching TV. We try to limit his screen time, but there’s so much stress in the world and allowing him a space to relax with video games seems to comfort him.
Sam and I feel like we’re unprepared, navigating in the dark, never having expected a routine like this.
Eventually, restrictions start to lessen. Sam and Dillon go to the pool in the summer almost every day, comforted to know that as long as we maintain some distance, there is little health risk. In the fall, Dillon’s school resumes in person – and continues in person throughout the year.
We’ve come to feel like the isolation and lack of social time is the biggest risk to Dillon, so we are fortunate that he is back at school. But we are still concerned that he is not having the amount of time with peers that he normally would. And studies indicate that children exposed to isolation during pandemics often have adverse mental health outcomes like increased anxiety, depression, or ongoing loneliness up to nine years after they resume their routine – in Dillon’s case, through most of his adolescence.
And we are aware that we embody a relatively privileged US family. We were fortunate that Sam in particular could still spend so much time with Dillon. We have not had pressing financial concerns, even though I eventually take a pay cut commensurate to working fewer hours. We have not had to worry about food or housing insecurities, as so many families have. Emerging data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities now shows that 1 in 6 adults with children experienced food insecurity during the pandemic, and that it was twice as likely for Black and Latinx families. The same study showed that 22% of renting parents were not caught up on rent, compared to 13% of adults not living with children. Another preliminary study shows that financial stresses like these—whether caused by parents losing jobs or being forced to leave work to care for their families—correlate with some of the highest rates of family stress, along with higher coparenting conflict and lower family cohesion. It is difficult to imagine the degree of stress these families must be under, even while they go unnoticed or ignored in media discourse and public conversations.
The proposed American Jobs Plan uses policy to address needed relief for working families through jobs, including those in the care economy, which are disproportionately occupied by women and women of color. It is my sincere hope that an upcoming plan may also address the diverse needs of American families, including children and those who care for them—and particularly those whose stresses and pandemic-related traumas have been so much greater than mine. The needs of children—including their mental health, learning, and general well-being—are incredibly important to the future of our country, and we can learn to create systems that support them as we move forward.