“It was very different than what you imagine your first childbirth to be,” Sara Ekiss said.
Whether new to child-rearing or long-timers, parents throughout Northeast Mississippi faced drastic change during the pandemic. From juggling childcare to adjusting to fewer hours at work and lower income, four families recently shared with the Daily Journal how COVID-19 affected them and the choices they made.
First-time parent experiences
Sara and Chris Ekiss were five months into expecting their first child when the pandemic began. As full-time working parents — Sara Ekiss is the director of the Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program (RAMP) for United to End Homelessness (MUTEH), while Chris Ekiss is the Director of Worship Leader Development for the Orchard Church — both were sent to work from home.
Ekiss has history helping, housing the homeless
It meant they were both home when they felt the baby kick for the first time. Once Pete was born, they appreciated the extra time they could spend bonding with their son. However, “it was kind of a win-win, lose-lose kind of” situation, Chris Ekiss said.
“We didn’t get to share him with anybody,” Chris Ekiss said.
Carlton and Jessica Wall, whose son, Jack, turns 1 on April 13, felt similarly. They said their son’s first year will be marked by the world COVID-19 created.
“We have a whole year in pictures of us wearing masks,” Carlton Wall said. “There’ll be no confusing what year he was born, even 30 years from now and even if we have other kids.”
The pandemic robbed the family of at least one moment: Jessica Wall isn’t in the photos taken before Jack’s christening at six months. A coworker exposed her to the virus days before, so she didn’t know her status by the time they took photos. While Jack has seen his grandparents, he hasn’t been able to see cousins or many other people.
“It’s been kind of a lost year,” Jessica Wall said.
In the early days of the pandemic, the lack of information about COVID-19 made it easy to be fearful.
Kimberly Cook, a licensed professional counselor, was working two jobs: one for a mental health agency that counseled children inside the school, and then part time at a hospital inpatient program. She gave both up at the end of July to be at home with her eighth-grade son, Karsyn, and help him through distance learning. She began doing telehealth part time with a private practice, but the change in jobs also meant a change in income and health benefits.
As a single mom, it was a tough decision, one that required some adjustment. The family had already experienced sickness, including a severe case of pneumonia that made Cook hesitant to risk her son becoming sick again.
“Anxiety probably played a little part in why I did decide to keep him at home,” Cook said. “Not a lot of information was out about how COVID affects children, and how easy it is to catch it if you’re in a school setting. And the schools didn’t have enough time to say, well this is how we’re going to set up and structure the classroom in order for your children to not get sick or spread the germs.”
Concerns about the virus also plagued Marisole Aguilar. Her husband, Saul Escobedo, works in construction, so COVID-19 affected his work.
Her babysitting job helped because it has allowed her routine during the pandemic to revolve around her family. Every day, she wakes her daughters, fourth-grader Stephanie Escobedo and second-grader Kimberly Escobedo, to get ready for school. Her youngest, 3-year-old son Saul Jr. Escobedo, goes to work with her, but is too young to understand what COVID-19 is. She prays for her daughters daily when sending them to school, but believes it’s important they go.
“Sometimes I’m scared because I think about the COVID and I see in the school it’s a lot of kids, but they need to go to school because it’s better than (being) in the home,” Aguilar said.
Still, every day she sends her children to school fills her with concern. She’s scared of the virus, and knows sending her kids into public every day is a calculated risk.
“I think if I get the COVID, maybe I die, because some people die so I’m scared,” Aguilar said.
While her family had avoided COVID-19, her family in Guatemala has been affected. Last year, her father had COVID-19, and she worried because she didn’t know what she needed to do. She felt similarly helpless with how to help her mother, who Aguilar sends money to every month to support her but worries because there is no one to support her.
While not the most ideal situation, becoming parents during the pandemic has taught Sara and Chris Ekiss some important lessons.
“The parenting aspect of it has taught us a lot about each other and learning how to be gracious and to take each other’s needs and schedule into consideration,” Sara Ekiss said. “It’s not a traditional life by any means, especially if a daycare gets shut down or someone gets exposed at work, but you pick up where the other one (left off).”
Expecting families navigate new concerns amid coronavirus
The pandemic intensified all the traditional stresses of having a newborn, Carlton Wall said. Since they had been in a hospital setting, physicians advised the Walls to isolate two weeks after Jack’s birth.
“It was extremely lonely those two weeks. It was hard, and I felt bad, like I was keeping him from his grandparents,” Jessica Wall said.
Adding to that stress, Jessica All developed mastitis, a breast tissue infection that can occur the first few months of breastfeeding. It caused pain, and at one point spiked her body temperature to a feverish 104. Though a nurse tried to help talk them through it, they found the greatest help when they turned to Toni Hill, a breastfeeding specialist and La Leche League leader. She visited them regularly, checking in on how Jack was latching, showing Jessica Wall how to hold her son and walking them through what to do.
“We were extremely grateful to have her,” Wall said.
It was their own personal low point, and Carlton Wall often thinks it would have been easier to deal with without COVID-19.
During the beginning of the pandemic, Cook lived with her parents, who still worked outside the home. Staying in a home with several generations provoked a lot of anxiety, as they shared common areas and bathrooms. Exposure remained a worry even once she moved into her own home, since her fiance travels from state to state for his job.
“You just have to trust other people that they’re doing what they can to stay safe and not bring the virus home to you,” Cook said.
After a year, families have adjusted to the changes brought on by the pandemic. Sara Ekiss jokes about Pete being “the COVID baby” because he hasn’t been around many people. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, after both parents got their first vaccinations, that they finally went to Buffalo Park.
“I couldn’t tell if he was more interested in all the people that were at the Buffalo Park or if he was more interested in the animals,” Sara Ekiss said.
Jessica and Carlton Wall had a similar experience taking Jack to the Link Centre Holiday Market in December. After mostly doctor or family visits, it was the most people he’s seen at one time. What really made an impression was Jack seeing another child.
“He saw a two-year-old girl at the Christmas market who was walking, of course, and he was still crawling,” Carlton Wall said. “The next 48 hours, you could tell he was working on standing like with a dry focus he had not had before he saw that girl.”
It causes them to wonder if he should be around more kids his age, or if he would be further along. They’ve taken baby steps, such as planning a first birthday party and taking Jack to his first church service on Easter.
While her son continued to perform well with distance learning, Cook noticed around December to January that he was struggling socially.
“Most of the time, it’s just him and I, and so throughout this entire pandemic, he’s just seeing his mom’s face the entire time,” Cook said. “He needed to be back with his peers and back with his friends in a classroom setting.”
After speaking with his principal, Cook sent her son back to school in February. He’s back playing saxophone in the band. Outside of school, he’s taking part in Tupelo Chess Club.
Despite her initial concerns in the fall, Cook feels the district has done a good job overall of being open about case numbers and being serious about mask protocols and is doing what she can to “get back to the way life was,” she said.
Aguilar already received her first dose of the vaccine and will get her second on April 18. When she looks at when COVID-19 first started to now, the difference is “a lot of change, but now it’s like a normal,” Aguilar said.
“Not really, really like a normal normal, but almost normal,” she said. “I feel almost normal.”