The season of pandemic parenting

My daughter asked me the other day, “When it’s Christmas time, does Coronavirus go off?”

It wasn’t a bad question. We’ve been discussing the seasons lately. First came fall, with Halloween and Thanksgiving. After the turkey, then it would be Christmas, with candy canes and a tree in the living room.

Simple enough. Except where did this coronavirus thing fit in?

She’s newly three years old. When the world first started to shut down, she was thrilled to have her brothers with her all day long. She liked playing school, and liked screaming while we played school even better.

She asked to go to the store. We said no. She asked to go to playgroup. We said no.

So she stopped asking. And her world became small.

Now, she puts on her mask when she wants to play store at home. She dooesn’t ask about going places anymore, and she doesn’t remember her babysitters’ kids. She used to call my friend who watched her while I worked one morning a week her “other-one mommy,” but when I mentioned her last week, my daughter’s face was blank.

The transition between two and three is a delicate one. It’s no big leap out of babyhood, no big jump into toddlerhood. But when you turn three, the world starts to become a little more real. Memories start to form, a few of which may last forever. What you learn when you’re three stays with you forever.

In March, we all relished the fact that there was at least one member of our household who didn’t know what a pandemic was. For her, there had only been an amazing turn of events that resulted in Daddy wearing sweatpants all the time and no longer being woken up from her nap for school pick-up.

But now she listens. And she knows something is going on. She knows coronavirus is why the neighborhood kids can’t come in the house for a playdate. She knows her brothers have a long list of things they plan on diong when coronavirus is over. Things she’s never done – trampoline parks, bowling alleys, and flying on airplalne to meet her baby cousin.

When her brothers were three, it was a lot easier to explain what germs were: “Don’t pick your nose, that’s kinda gross. Wash your hands after you go potty. Don’t drink bath water.” Even if I’ve had to repeat these basic rules of hygeine more than I ever expected to, my kids would at least acknowledge there is a bit of obviousness to them. But their breath is different.

It wasn’t fun explaining to my kids, back in the spring, why they couldn’t go to school and why they couldn’t go see grandparents. Sure, we listened to all the kid-friendly podcasts and news specials explaining in the most gentle terms what coronavirus is. But think about how that conversation was going to go:

“Kids are going to be totally fine, even if they get the virus, it’s just like a bad cold,” I told them.

“So, if we are fine, why can’t we go play with our friends?” they replied.

“Well, because you can spread coronavirus.”


“No! Honey! Of course not! You’re totally fine! Don’t worry! You DON’T have coronavirus,” I hastily assured them.

“Well, then why can’t I play? Why can’t we go see grandma?” they pushed back.

“So…you actually don’t know if you have coronavirus. You can feel healthy, and still spread the disease. And that can make some people very, very sick.”

As I talked, every word I said came out slower, thicker. Have you ever tried to tell your kid their unmasked nose could be a ticking timebomb of death?

I mean, I didn’t use those exact words. But when has a kid ever listened to your carefully crafted explanation of a delicate topic and not instantly read between the lines?

This is pandemic parenting.

I don’t know when my youngest is going to start asking what exactly coronavirus is. In grad school, I got a Ceritificate of Public Health and explaining pandemics to your toddler was not on the syllabus. We tell her masks are “sneeze-catchers” because sneezes are “icky” but I don’t think that explanation is going to hold water much longer.

We kept our kids out of school this year. I remind them periodically that we didn’t do that because we were afraid they’d get sick. We did it because we wanted a little control over our lives this year, after the free fall of last spring. We do tell them to please avoid getting right up in the neighbor kids’ faces, and to wash their hands when they come home. In retrospect, this was probably something that would have been helpful pre-pandemic as well.

But as much as I try to project calm and confidence, I know they’re still scared. I know this because they don’t yell at me when I ask them to wash their hands. I suggest going to the playground, and they ask if its safe.

Pandemic parenting is alternating between wondering if your kid really needs to know what an adjective is this year, and wondering if and how you would try to isolate from the rest of your family if you get COVID.

Pandemic parenting is spending two hours getting the kids down to bed, then feeling guilty for not immediately heading to the computer when you have deadlines that have been haunting you for weeks. It’s feeling guilty for knowing you have so many other friends burning the midnight oil, trying keep a civilization a float for just a few months longer.


Pandemic parenting is sneaking into their rooms at night to rub lotion on their chapped hands.

I don’t know when coronavirus is going to “go off.” I know that it’s not this year. It might not be the next.

Sometimes, I don’t mind the quarantine life. When I’m drinking coffee on the couch, reading Wind in the Willows aloud, while my kids play with blocks beside me. The moment doesn’t last long – typically evaporating just as it takes shape. Someone will start crying, my phone will buzz with a work e-mail, and I will marvel that previous generations of parents had an entire public school system at their disposal.

But, I pray, I remind myself, I hope, that this is just a season.