Single parents are drowning during the omicron wave

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So, in September, when her now-6-year-old son finally returned full-time to a first-grade classroom and her 2-year-old was thriving at day care, and Hayes-Birchler found herself inundated with new clients, it felt as if maybe they had crossed a finish line. “Like now we were going to be okay,” she says, “and now I was able to actually establish my baseline as a single parent.”

Then came omicron. In December, her older son’s school abruptly returned to virtual learning. Her younger son was already home — he’d come down with an ear infection, which required antibiotics, which he did not tolerate well, which meant he couldn’t attend day care for 10 days. Then his older brother tested positive for the coronavirus, and the whole family had to begin a lengthy quarantine, and their holiday travel plans to visit family were canceled. (And of course, in the midst of all this, their refrigerator broke.) For 33 days in December and January, Hayes-Birchler found herself home alone with her boys, and unable to work. Again.

“But this time there was no unemployment benefits, no stimulus check, no child tax credit,” she says. “I felt very much like I was in the middle of a PTSD episode.”

About 3 in 10 families with children are headed by single parents, according to the US Census, and 75 percent of those parents are mothers. Single-parent families comprised more than 10 million households in America — yet those who spoke to The Washington Post said they often feel like outliers, especially during the pandemic, and especially during this traineeship of the pandemic, as they cope with years of cumulative stress as well as the fresh chaos unleashed by the omicron variant. Many parents say they’ve felt painfully overlooked: by school systems who expect them to be able to accommodate virtual learning; by employers who aren’t flexible when a day-care closure upends a workweek; by lawmakers who have withdrawn financial safety nets; and by health guidelines that are often impossible for a solo-parent household to follow.

There has been plenty of public acknowledgment of the cumulative, crushing toll these past years have taken on parents. Hayes-Birchler has read many news stories about the trials of parenting in the pandemic, she says, “and almost always there is one line somewhere that says, ‘and this is what it’s like for dual-parent households — for single parent households, it’s even worse!’ but then it rarely delves into what ‘even worse’ looks like.”

For Lauren Smith, a single mom in DC, ‘even worse’ looked like a particular afternoon in May 2020 when she was attending a work meeting on Zoom while caring for her then-11-month-old twin boys. One of them had a diaper blowout during the meeting, and while Smith was in the middle of changing him, her other son dropped her laptop on his foot and started screaming. She was expected to deliver a presentation to her co-workers within minutes, she recalls, but instead she closed her laptop, lay down on the living room floor with her two babies, and sobbed along with them.

“I think I cried more over the whole first year of the pandemic than I had my entire life,” she says, “and almost always because I had to choose between my kids and work.”

The memory alone evokes a surge of visceral anxiety, she says, which is why it felt like a particularly destabilizing gut-punch when her sons’ day-care facility announced in early January that it would be closed for a week because several teachers and staff had developed covid-19 over the holiday break. Once again, she found herself trying to figure out how she would make an impossible situation somehow possible.

“That was a really, really rough way to start a new year,” Smith says. “I don’t know if I’m numb, but I just — I live in terror. It was just another sign that this year might not be anything different, that this situation is just ongoing.”

If you ask single parents how they’re doing lately, one answer is: They don’t even have time to tell you. They’d love to, but they simply have no spare minutes to schedule a call, between the relentless demands of caring for their kids, doing their jobs and keeping a household running.

Another answer: They’re weary of being told how incredible it is that they haven’t completely fallen apart yet, here on the cusp of the pandemic’s third year, in the wake of another miserable surge.

“I get a lot of: ‘Oh, Rachel, I don’t know how you do it,’” says Rachel Perrone, a single mom to a 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter in Northwest DC “My answer is, ‘what else am I going to do? You would do it, too.’”

“So many people say ‘How have you managed?’” says Hayes-Birchler. “And my answer is always, ‘I have no choice.’”

“As a single parent, we have this mind-set to just ‘figure it out,’ and this pandemic exposes that we don’t have as much control as we think we do,” says Tal’Meisha Frontis, a mental health counselor in North Carolina with an 11-year-old son. “You always have another thing coming, you can’t catch your breath. If I had to sum up this whole entire thing — it’s just drowning.”

When Frontis and her son both tested positive for the coronavirus in December, she says, it was almost a relief that they didn’t have to try to isolate from one another. The CDC recommends that covid-infected family members stay away from all other members of a household — “but those guidelines, they’re irrelevant to us,” Frontis says. “We always knew, if either of us tests positive, we’re here together.”

(Asked how single parents are expected to navigate a situation where only one family member has tested positive, a spokesperson for the CDC reiterated the existing guidelines: “CDC acknowledges it can be challenging to isolate within a household. However, it is important for people with COVID-19 to remain apart from other people, if possible, even if they are living together.”)

Allison Plagens, a single mom to a 12-year-old in Michigan, says she’s come to accept that these protocols are not meant for households like hers. “I’ve just thought, ‘well, I’m just going to ignore that — that’s not going to work for my family,’” she says. “I don’t think anyone has taken into account what a single parent has to go through.”

Plagens says she’s felt this way many times during the pandemic, including when she joined a support group for fellow parents of students in Ann Arbor, Mich. The public school system hosted the sessions virtually, led by school counselors and social workers. “But most of the other parents were pretty well-off, and they weren’t single parents,” Plagens says. She listened as other participants asked what to do about their child’s Zoom fatigue, or whether it might be worthwhile to switch school districts; some noted that they’d found it helpful to take paid time off to focus on their children.

Plagens, meanwhile, had no choice but to leave her administrative job because her child, who identifies as gender-nonbinary and struggles with depression and anxiety, could not be safely left at home alone. Suddenly unemployed, Plagens cut back dramatically on their spending, collected free lunches handed out by the school and relied on the now-expired child tax credit disbursements to help keep her family afloat.

She didn’t see her reality represented in the support group, she says: “No one was talking about kids with major mental health issues. No one was like: ‘I’m a single parent struggling, how do I handle this?’ And every time I asked that, they’d be like, ‘go to therapy —?’” She laughs wryly. “Okay. Thanks for the suggestion.”

Even the most basic tasks can be daunting for parents with no backup support. Jason Warner, a single father in Los Angeles who adopted his 10-year-old son four years ago, says he’s been frequently scolded for bringing his child along when he goes to pick up a prescription, or visit a doctor’s office, or even shop for groceries.

“I have a lot of other single parent friends who have experienced this, too,” Warner says. “At one point I had to get an MRI, and they were horrified that I brought him. He came when I went to the orthopedic surgeon a couple of weeks ago for a follow-up appointment. But what am I supposed to do? I can’t leave him at home, and school was not in session.”

And alternative arrangements are expensive, says Jessica Dillman, a single mom in DC who has her groceries delivered because her toddler daughter is not yet old enough to wear a mask. “My groceries cost 20 to 25 percent more than what they would if I felt safe enough to take her into a grocery store with me,” she says. Anytime Dillman leaves the house without her daughter, she says, she pays a babysitter $20 per hour — the going rate in her area — to stay with her child.

Such outings are rare; Dillman works from home for a public relations firm, and she has postponed enrolling her daughter in day care while the omicron variant is still rampant. So for now, Dillman’s days remain a blur of nonstop multitasking.

“The chores, the work, keeping a home running entirely on my own, trying not to let anyone else down. I’m tired. I’m anxious. It’s winter. Everything is harder in the winter,” she says. “It honestly just never ends.”

The longer it all goes on, the harder it is to believe it will actually end. So Tal’Meisha Frontis says she focuses on reasons to feel thankful — that her son is back at school, that she’s back at work, that she’s earning money again, for now. “I’m grateful, but I’m not feeling yet like it’s over,” she says. “It’s hard to let myself experience hope.”

Rachel Perrone is pragmatic; panic, she says, isn’t a luxury she can afford. She and her 12-year-old daughter recently finished quarantine after testing positive in early January. Her 14-year-old son is still working to catch up academically after struggling through virtual schooling last year. “We’ll just take it as it comes,” Perrone says, equally resolved and resigned. “I’m exhausted in my bones, but I try not to spend too much time in that kind of head space, because it doesn’t help. Spiraling isn’t going to get supper on the table.”

For Hayes-Birchler, her recent experience quarantining with her sons has made her painfully aware of just how fragile our collective recovery is, how wobbly the return to an orderly existence. It has also made her appreciate the privileges she does not take for granted: her flexible work clients, her solid savings account, an excellent therapist. Lately, she says, her therapy sessions have addressed the fact that, as a single parent facing a barrage of demands and crises, it is difficult to even find time to process it all, or to imagine what a ‘normal’ future might look like .

“People are constantly asking me, ‘do you have any New Year’s resolutions?’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘yeah: to keep surviving.’”

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