A year into the pandemic, my then 3-year-old daughter seemed to have a running list of the dogs we had seen out and about that she was no longer allowed to touch, for fear of interacting with a potentially infectious dog owner.
“When the virus is over, I’m going to pet that dog,” she’d say, pointing to the puff with legs on the sidewalk, or a golden retriever on the other side of the park.
The way she said “virus” filled me with a measure of pride and pain, a crisp, clear pronunciation learned from hearing the word in nearly every sentence for months. We couldn’t have friends over, the playground didn’t feel safe, and masks should stay snugly over your nose — all because of the virus.
Maybe parenting has always been this fraught. I was not the first to raise a child in a pandemic, or amid political uncertainty, or in a world where war and violence ripped into the headlines. I’ve been told worrying is just a symptom of parenthood.
But for many, parenting in a pandemic feels uniquely hazardous, like sailing in squalls without a mast. “We’re going through this global existential crisis,” says Dr. Erica Lee, a child and adolescent psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “So many families just say to me the hits just keep on coming . . . It’s a hard time to be a parent.”
It didn’t take long to realize that the pandemic was wearing on families. A study published in April 2021 by researchers from Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU found that 55 percent of parents reported that their stress level had increased in the early months of the pandemic and remained elevated through September 2020.
But even as the pandemic has unfolded, society has contended with a succession of other catastrophes, from war to school shootings to political upheaval.
“I had a child say to me, ‘I think the world is becoming a quite dangerous place,’” Lee said. “I have the same thought in my heart....It’s very daunting to say, ‘How do I reassure my child that the world is safe when I myself don’t feel safe?’”
The cascade of crises seem spaced just far enough apart for me to barely catch my breath.
COVID concerns arrived first, rolling in like a gray cloud over my daughter’s childhood. We restricted outings to my parents’ house, a lifeline that itself felt risky. She took to asking me for “hanitizer” — the shorthand for hand sanitizer made up to save time, given the dozens of times a day we’d apply it.
My daughter adapted to the ever-changing concerns of the pandemic, but they flung me with such force I felt seasick. Day care closed and then reopened; masking requirements at day cares and schools came and went. In January 2022, Omicron found us, hiding in the holiday hugs we shared with some small groups of family. After all the worrying, avoidance, and 6 feet of separation, my daughter barely showed signs of illness at all.
On the other side of our isolation, I felt the tightness in my chest loosen. My daughter had come through with some immunity, and no signs of long COVID. In the limited time in which I hoped she had immunity, we ventured back into the world. We strolled through an antiques market, her tiny fingers touching clip-on earrings with the adoration of an explorer. My husband and I took her to the aquarium, and watched her press the pads of her fingertips to the glass tank to inch ever closer to a turtle as large as her.
Whatever lightness I had come to find was soon overshadowed by new worries. I dreaded reading news from the war in Ukraine, which calculated daily the number of children among the dead. I wondered what we might do in the event of a nuclear attack. Meanwhile, hundreds of children globally and nationally soon began reporting startling signs of liver inflammation. The resurfacing of monkeypox has seemed a further taunt to my parenting anxiety.
COVID concerns arose again and again, with new strains piercing the surface of our awareness like shark fins. I worried about reinfection. At least, finally, she could be vaccinated, though I struggled to time the shots in between bouts of normal childhood colds.
Most times, I could coax myself out of worry. New viruses were rare and global threats seemed far away. But I couldn’t make sense of a gunman hunting and murdering patrons at an East Buffalo supermarket in a racially-motivated attack. Or, a week later, another gunman storming an elementary school in Texas. Details about the children’s lives haunted me, reverberated in my soul. I found myself sitting in my daughter’s room longer at night.
And yet, there are reasons to be grateful. Parents of even younger children are scouring supermarket shelves for formula, in a kind of Depression-era horror about how to feed their children.
Lee, of Boston Children’s, suggests parents take time to process big news before discussing it with children, so we can communicate what is happening while still helping them feel safe. Parents should take heart too in the fact that, though horrific things can happen, they are rare.
Regardless of whether generations before have felt parental anxiety like this, what matters most is we collectively feel it now. The unending trauma and death of the last 2½ years have forced us to remain vigilant, made us overprotective and insecure. However we cope, Lee reminds me our fear is valid.
“Be careful,” I say to my daughter as she wanders through the world, traipsing into the tick-infested woods, or bounding down grocery store aisles. It’s a mantra, or maybe even a prayer. I think I say it more for myself.
Jessica Bartlett covers hospitals, health insurance, and health policy for The Boston Globe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.