My four-year-old called it “the sickness.” After preschool was canceled and we all moved inside, he would look at the calendar and ask, “When do you think the sickness will end?” He doesn’t ask that anymore. Instead, when we go on a drive, once every Sunday, no stops, he’ll point out places and say, “Maybe next year we can go there.” The 7-Eleven. The library. The playground. It’s a long list at this point.
Now he’s five. His birthday was celebrated indoors. His grandma and cousins drove by, beeping. We told him it was a fun parade, but he mostly seemed confused. Pretending these activities are entertaining is familiar to parents now. We’re stuck making the best of it as the weeks turn into months, as one season becomes two. “Maybe next year,” my son will say again, his voice a whisper, a promise.
My five-year-old understands the reality of our uniquely American failure in a way that the president does not: for him, this year is gone, lost in a way that no child should ever have to know, and yet an impossible number of them now do.
Parents’ hearts break over the lost year. A mom I know asked her daughter what she wanted for her third birthday, her daughter replied: “people.” A dad had to assure his daughter that Santa Claus wouldn’t get the virus. That Christmas would still happen. Another bought his child a back-to-school backpack before his state took a deadly turn this month. She’s worn it all summer; he can’t bring himself to tell her she won’t be going back. She’ll find out soon.
It’s not just the crushing pain of now, however, it’s also the pain of then. My phone prompts me to remember last summer, when my family criss-crossed the country, enjoying a freedom we took for granted. Nobody in masks, everyone smiling, crowding in museums and ice cream stands, our faces sunburnt and happy. I silenced the notifications. I couldn’t take it.
Think of the summers of your childhood: bike rides to the mall, icy movie theaters, endless time with friends. That’s all gone this year. A lost year for every child in the country that gave up the fight against COVID-19. A lost year if we’re lucky.
The people who failed to manage this crisis demand foolhardy and dangerous plans to reopen schools, couched in language about doing what’s right “for the children.” The right thing for children has never once been on their minds. They will not do the one thing that will help: aggressively manage this crisis and this virus. And they will forget our children the moment they’re no longer a useful cudgel. The meaningful work to actually support them—to ensure that they have safe homes and are properly fed, have healthcare and good schools, that opportunity is equal and not simply the outcome of location and generational wealth—will not get done.
None of it will get done. The president has moved on. Our leaders have largely abandoned us. Parents are left to make life and death decisions about whether to send their kids to school, or let them play on a playground, while these leaders play politics and look for ways to shirk responsibility. Parents will shield their children from this reality. They will make the most of what’s left, telling their children what they need to hear. Parents always do.
We have a fifteen year old and a five year old, which means my wife and I have a child that is awake before us and another that stays up long after. It means balancing two different sets of needs, two different types of demands, two different approaches to everything. Our only moments alone are spent in bed, bone-tired from another day of keeping the impossible balance of parenting and work from toppling while trying to keep the virus and the sense of dread at bay. We spend those few tired minutes trying to figure out what to tell them tomorrow and how to plan for next week, next month, next year. We spend them planning the lies we will tell to them, and to ourselves.
Being a parent during COVID is to be a liar. You tell your children not to worry while you stay up late, your bedroom lit by a never-ending doomscroll. You say you will keep them safe, though you know that every interaction with the outside world is a possible breach of this trust. And when they say that “next year” is when they’ll see their friends again or go to school or drink a Slurpee, you just nod and say, “That’s right buddy, next year for sure,” even though you don’t believe it yourself, not even for a moment.
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