Sarah DeVries
child with face mask

Kids and Covid: avoiding both contagion and isolation-induced health issues

Happiness and emotional health is just as important as physical health

On Mother’s Day this year, my 6-year-old daughter had a bit of a breakdown.

She doesn’t usually cry now that she’s an older kid — my theory is that she used up 90% of her allotted lifetime supply of tears during her first two years of life — so when she does, I know it’s about something serious, like the heartbreak of getting your feelings hurt or very real fear.

So what was the breakdown about? Well, a lot of things. Her father and I had separated a few months before, and I’d moved us into a new house. Shortly after I had the house all set up and finally ready to receive guests, coronavirus came sweeping through and kept us isolated there and unable to have company, something we both love that makes us feel normal and at home.

She missed her dad living in the same place as us, even though she saw him frequently. She missed her friends. She missed her school. She didn’t like the new, unfamiliar house. She missed the younger dog that always picked fights with the older dog who now lived with her aunt instead of with us. She shouted through tears of rage and desperation, “I HATE coronavirus!”

Eventually, I cried with her, and sitting with her on those back steps sobbing together on our patio has become, for me, the kind of painfully tender memory that sticks with you forever.

If you have children, you understand. The most succinct expression of that feeling was expressed by the grandmother of the main character in one of my favorite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Every tear you drop squeezes a cup uh blood outa mah heart.”

So what do we do with our children? If you’re me, you learn to be a little flexible, balancing the risk of contagion against the risk of isolation-induced mental and emotional health problems in young, pliable, sensitive brains.

Technically, my daughter should have been only with me since lockdown began if we’d been following the strictest set of guidelines. But keeping her from seeing her father is not something I’ve ever been willing to do: he’s a great dad, and they love each other.

It’s not just that I’m a reasonable co-parent (though I am a reasonable co-parent). First, being stuck at home just with me is very boring. While she can be shy at first, the fact that she was actually an extrovert was immediately evident when we enrolled her in daycare at the age of 8 months. She went from constant crying at home — did she just hate being a baby? — to all smiles when surrounded by friendly peers in a matter of days. My working theory is that she wanted more adventure than her family’s arms could provide her.

Plus, I work at home. I love my daughter more than anything and I love being with her, but when she’s with me, very little of what I need to do gets done. And if I want to put food on the table, things need to get done. My normal pre-pandemic pattern of working while she was at school has now practically been reversed: not only do I need to be present for at least popping in and out of her classes to help, but she needs my computer in order to take her online classes.

So far, so good-ish. When two well-meaning parents calculate risk differently, however, things can get sticky.

My daughter sees and interacts with several members of her dad’s side of the family and another (extended) family close to him. According to him, they have formed a “pod” of what I think are about 10 people who (supposedly) only and exclusively spend time with one another. I simply don’t believe that they can be 100% confident that no one in their circle has had any contact without “outsiders,” but honestly, I don’t begrudge them needing the contact and have not tried to insist on him keeping my daughter completely isolated.

I try to base my precautions and worries on statistics more than on fear. This means researching statistics on causes of death by age group, a macabre and terrifying real-life thought experiment if there ever was one. I don’t always succeed at staying calm, but science is certainly a better benchmark than my anxieties.

For my daughter’s age group the risk of death is higher for the flu and pneumonia than Covid, which most people, I think, know (once you get to the age of 15, the risk of dying from Covid becomes the higher one). One of the few mercies of this disease is that it seems mostly to spare children, if not from infection, at least from serious complications and death as a result.

Throw in the fact that the chances of dying in a car accident are much higher even than both of those combined, and you can guess why I’ve been known to chase after the car to make sure she has her seatbelt on with the kind of urgency that many think I should be feeling about her tiny face mask and antibacterial gel (to be clear, those are also required).

It’s not only about the children’s health, of course: children interact with older, more vulnerable adults, and much of the control of their movement and activity is just as much about protecting their elders.

But like putting a child in a car, it’s a risk people take because the benefit of important needs met is determined to be worth it. Face masks and gel are the seatbelts, but we all know that there are no guarantees for any of it.

When she’s with me, things are a bit more boring, because our own “pod” is much smaller: we have one little friend who lives close by that we go to play with sometimes. We go on walks. We’ve visited with one other family that’s stayed isolated, and we don’t hug, kiss, or shake hands with others. Mostly, though, we just hang out at home.

But my daughter is happy.

Are we taking the absolute strictest precautions? No, we are not. But we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, either: pretty good is better than giving up because perfection can’t be achieved. And in the end, our daughter’s happiness and emotional health is just as important as her physical health. Like everyone, we’re just trying to make it through.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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