Opinion

America's parents are not okay

The brutal truth of pandemic parenting in America

The pandemic has revealed many uncomfortable truths about life in the United States, but the revelation that has hit me the hardest is that no one — not employers, not Congress — cares nearly enough about supporting America's parents.

I remember the moment early last year when we realized our lives were about to get very, very hard. "We're going to have to take him out of daycare," my wife Sheerine told me. Sitting on the couch, my 1-year-old, Anoush, on my lap, I couldn't quite process what she was saying. It was March 10, 2020, the day before the NBA canceled its season. The three of us had all been sick with the flu for a week. We were struggling to care for our son and looked forward to sending him back to the home daycare facility where he was enrolled.

I distinctly remember laughing when my wife made this statement. How would we work, and pay the mortgage, without daycare? What are you even talking about? Sheerine is co-director of a small non-profit, and I was in the middle of a particularly brutal semester of teaching. Our pre-pandemic lives were a chaotic operation, navigating the endless little illnesses from daycare, balancing our desire to provide a rich, caring environment for our son with our professional obligations and aspirations. Racing to catch the last train out of downtown, stumbling up the steps to daycare at the last minute, collapsing in exhaustion at the end of every day. We are marooned nearly 1,000 miles from our immediate families. Between the two of us, we've had maybe seven nights off from parenting in our son's 30 months on Earth.

My wife, of course, was right that day, though none of us knew how long of a trial we were in for.

Even before the pandemic, I was blown away by the lack of support for parents in this country. You'll either be forking over a third or more of your salary for childcare, or someone in your household (usually moms, quelle surprise) will be hitting pause on career aspirations indefinitely. We pay nearly $500 a month for employer-sponsored health insurance for our family, yet it cost us $10,000 out of pocket just to bring a perfectly healthy, complication-free child into the world.

There is no paid paternity leave where I teach. When my son was born, I was sending work emails from the hospital. Despite spending months discussing my difficult situation, the student evaluations of my first semester post-fatherhood were heartlessly brutal and prompted awkward discussions with supervisors during an annual performance review. No one cared that I had a new baby, and by then I knew not to expect them to. As a parent in America, you learn pretty early on that you're completely on your own.

The early months of the pandemic were almost unimaginably difficult for our young family. Sheerine and I split the childcare duties by dividing weekdays in half. I covered the six or so hours from wake-up to naptime and Sheerine closed out the evening. Initially, Anoush was a mess in the face of such dramatic change. As much as we tried to be present with him, the pressure of working through it full time combined with the constant worry — about our parents getting the virus, or about getting sick or dying ourselves and leaving our son alone — was often too much. We had a plan for what would happen if we both got COVID at the same time, another for who would raise our son if we died. What we did not really have was much of a plan for staying sane. The stress and exhaustion was immense. Our brains were mush. There were a lot of tears, and many long, sleepless nights of despair.

The government, despite its ineptitude in confronting the multiple crises menacing this country, did rouse itself out of its indifferent stupor on two separate occasions to provide relief for the unemployed and for businesses, as well as cutting everyone a couple of (much-appreciated!) checks. But apart from a loophole-festooned parental leave provision in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act from early on in the pandemic — the meager provisions of which did not apply to as many as 106 million private sector workers in the country, including me — there's been no further help specifically aimed at the baby wranglers among us. And as it was before the pandemic, many who actually tried to apply for that 10-week leave were either stonewalled by management or ostracized for not being a team player.

It wasn't just about getting time off — there was also the sinking feeling that came with watching society prioritize everything but getting kids back to schools and daycare safely. Most states and municipalities, realizing that aid would not be forthcoming from the drown-government-in-the-bathtub crowd in charge of the Senate, seemed more interested in the fate of the restaurant and bar industries than anything else. Despite the obvious risks of indoor dining and bar service, mayors and governors leapt at the first opportunity to allow people to eat and get drunk together indoors. Consequently, the first COVID wave in the U.S. never ended, instead blending seamlessly into the second and third. In some places, schools have been closed the entire time.

Where I live in Chicago, I could hang out all summer, unmasked, at a table inside a bar (for the record: I did not) but I couldn't take my kid to a playground or the city's Lake Michigan beaches. Even though we've known almost from the get-go that it's safer to be outdoors than indoors, the mayor never budged on shuttering beaches — one of the only free respites from the grind of pandemic life for less wealthy Chicagoans in particular. The priorities were crystal clear: Tax dollars first, business owners second, and the interests of the vast majority of people who don't have little kids third. Parents come last. In truth, they have always been last, as generations of women know all too well.

To make matters worse, expectations for the parents of small and school-aged children in most workplaces never changed. Wow, what a tough situation, everyone said at first. I can't imagine having a toddler right now. They furrowed their brows, asked how we were doing. They wondered if there was anything they could do, but of course there was nothing. The offers to entertain our kids over Zoom tapered off pretty quickly, as the reality of the long struggle ahead picked people off one by one, plunging us — and millions of other parents — into despair and precarity.

While I have personally been treated wonderfully by my colleagues at the university where I teach, many of whom are still selflessly taking some obligations off my plate, I would venture a guess that I am a fortunate outlier. My wife and I have managed to keep our son out of daycare throughout this ordeal — for the first six months with no help whatsoever, and since then with the assistance of a small pod and a part-time sitter. But we can't afford full-time care, and so we are now approaching the one year mark of white-knuckling our jobs, without a single day off. My son, a joyful, magnificent, curiosity-filled little creature, has not been out of my sight for more than four waking hours since last February.

American policies for parents during the pandemic look comically inadequate compared to our peer countries. In Germany, parents of children up to 12 could take a paid "Corona-Sonderurlaub" (basically, a 'Rona Vacation) of up to 10 weeks. The government also added 10 days to the country's already generous paid leave standards for parents. Belgium created a paid COVID leave for parents whose schools or daycares are closed, and didn't exclude half the country's workers like the U.S. did. It's more than just mandating time off: In Denmark, for example, parents receive benefits if their children are sent home from school for quarantine and testing. And the already-existing and expansive sick leave and vacation policies of most EU member states allowed parents to at least take a break from the grind of work and childcare.

Mind you, most functional countries already had parental leave policies that would make Americans weep. Eighteen paid weeks in Australia. A year in Germany. Sixteen months in Sweden, and you can use that time whenever you want until the child turns eight! In the U.S., needless to say, you are legally entitled to zero paid vacation days and zero paid days off following the birth of a child. Congratulations on the arrival of your child, back to work. Chop chop. A lot of American parents stumbled into the Coronazoic near the end of their ropes already, whereas their counterparts in Europe were much better psychologically prepared for the harrowing months to come.

Proposals from the Biden administration — including an ongoing $300 monthly payment to parents of kids younger than six, and $250 a month for kids between ages six and 17 — are a good start to help the millions still relying on in-home care. The Democrats' $1.9 trillion relief package would also eliminate the paid COVID family leave exemption for businesses with fewer than 50 or more than 500 employees.

But the truth is that it is all too little too late. And if these policies aren't augmented with permanent family leave and universal daycare laws, parents in America will be right back to the status quo hellscape when this is all over.

I'm not asking for pity. I'm one of the lucky ones. Essential workers or those without the luxury of working from home were plunged almost immediately back into the maw of risk and suffering and would kill for my privilege. I give thanks every day to still have my paycheck. My wife and I are closer than ever. But one reality transcends particular circumstances: Many parents of small children were barely keeping it together before the coronavirus wrecked the world. And since then, they've been subjected to a truly horrendous ordeal, a relentless, around-the-clock waking nightmare from which there has hardly been a glimmer of escape. Many of us were hollowed-out shells of our former selves by June, and have been staggering on, zombie-like, mostly out of instinct. The scars of the pandemic, those on our children and on ourselves, will never truly disappear. We will carry them with us, as have survivors of traumas past.

In the end, though, there is a paradox. I wouldn't trade a minute of this time with my family for anything. Our son was just one when the pandemic started, and if current projections hold, he'll be three by the time it's really over. We were there for the first time he said our names ("Dada and Mommy"), and "I love you" ("Aye-oooo"). We heard his first sentences and the first time he said his own name. We witnessed the blossoming of his friendship with Asa, the other little boy in our pod, and his falling madly in love with our extraordinary sitter, (Amanda, who he calls "Panda"). I was there the first time he asked for a specific song by name ("Mushaboom" by Feist). He has nightly calls with his grandparents, aunts, and uncles, so beloved that he thinks they are just a part of dinnertime.

It's not over yet, but there's been more good than bad, if I'm being honest with myself.

These moments will be inscribed on my heart forever, alongside the scars. And with them, a steely new determination, that nothing about the way our society treats parents and children will change until we decide it must, and then demand it.

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