This year I have felt panic, anxiety, confusion, guilt, frustration, hopeless, and tired…so tired. As a working mom and doctoral student raising three young children during a pandemic, this array of emotions is understandable and is not unique. Recently, I felt a new emotion linked to COVID-19. I felt shame. A deep shame, the “getting caught cheating on a test, stealing candy” type of shame. The root of this shame is throwing my 6-year-old a birthday party.
My 6-year-old is a middle child and is so sweet. He is kind, responsible and he is the kid that keeps us sane. He often gets lost in the chaos that surrounds his older brother and younger sister. My oldest son, who is 8, has ADHD, which consumes a lot of our time and attention. My middle child misses out on the praise and excitement that the oldest gets, and the coddling of the youngest. I’m a middle child so I remember how that feels. Growing up as a middle child can be busy and lonely all at the same time. My sweet 6-year-old’s birthday party was canceled last fall and we vowed to throw him one this year.
It seemed that wouldn’t be possible after COVID-19 overtook our lives. However, in the summer, our region’s cases continued to decline. I checked the county dashboard every day and the cases were low with an under 2% test positive rate for months. The kids had started school in person 5 days a week with no COVID cases. I felt like this was our window to give our little guy his party. I work in public health and am a medical provider; I was up for the challenge of throwing my son a safe birthday party.
We decided to have the party at a large gym full of obstacle courses. The invite started with: “Everyone has their own relationship with risk, we understand if you or your child do not feel comfortable attending the birthday party,” and the invite detailed all of the precautions that would be in place at the party. We were privileged enough to rent out the entire gym and the equipment was cleaned before we arrived. We did temperature checks at the door, everyone used hand sanitizer when entering, and masks were required. We didn’t serve food because we didn’t want the kids to take off their masks to eat, so we handed out a bag of prepackaged cookies when they exited. Water and juice boxes were provided and the kids were spaced out at tables when they took their masks off momentarily to drink. The party went off without a hitch and joy permeated the air. It felt good.
We are all getting tired of the pandemic, but this party wasn’t in response to that. Having the party was exhausting; taking all of the extra precautions was expensive. The party was a well planned, calculated risk. However, that is the thing with risk, sometimes you lose.
The call from the Department of Health came four days later that a child who attended the party tested positive for COVID-19. Shortly after, the school called everyone who came to the party and told them their children would have to quarantine for 14 days as an extra precaution and they would be contacted by a contact tracer. The staff member that called told them they “shouldn’t have attended dangerous community gatherings” and admonished them for going to the party.
The party where we took every precaution has led to this feeling of guilt and shame. I wonder if this feeling is justified, if I did something wrong. That is what makes this so complicated — everyone did take a slight risk by leaving the house and being around other people. I don’t know how we keep our children connected without taking these small risks as the months drag on.
It’s difficult to know how to keep our kids safe, without keeping them in a bubble. How do we balance risk with childhood? If you take every precaution and can still have this happen, it makes you wonder if there is any risk that is acceptable. I know that this is not a snow day, like a popular blog post from March reminded us. I have come to realize it is a frozen tundra, and finding a balance of normalcy feels impossible as I trek across the icy ground. As parents, we already have so many important decisions to make for our children, and now this balance of risk and childhood feels impossible.
This experience has been challenging and there have been a few lessons that I have learned that I hope will help other parents in a similar situation.
I found myself saying this exact phrase into the phone when I spoke to the school staff member who was calling parents and lecturing them on the reasons why they should not have attended the party. This is a lesson we learn over and over again in childhood but it still rings true. Her words to those parents mattered; they may have instilled shame, anger, and fear. Her words compounded the worry we all felt. When faced with these situations, of being exposed to someone with Covid, we need to pause and choose our words carefully. Right now our kids are watching us, listening to see how we handle these situations. We need to model how to react to this situation for our children so they can face these situations with compassion. With my children, when they express anger or sadness about missing school while in quarantine, I remind them about safety. I remind them about how germs are spread. Several times I have said to them, “I hope the student that is sick is feeling better” so we can remember that it is not always about us. Words are powerful and can invoke damage, especially during this intense time where we all feel scared.
We are all doing our best.
I texted my sisters about what happened and one of them texted right back, “Wow. Do you feel mad at the parents?” My first reaction had been a moment of anger, wondering why would anyone bring a sick child to a party. I had taken such great lengths to keep this party safe, but you can’t control whether someone attends that is sick. However, this feeling was quickly replaced by worry. I worry about the child who is sick and how she will feel that first day back at school. I worry about the parents that attended and if they feel the shame I do, or if they feel angry. I worry that I have scarred my children from ever wanting another birthday party. I worry that I will let my anxiety and shame show too much, that it will overflow out of me and spill onto my kids.
This anger and worry gave way to remembering that everyone is really doing the best they can. I’m sure the parent that brought the child did not do so with evil intentions, nor were they being careless. They were probably just like the rest of us right now, consumed with endless tasks, stressed about politics, social justice, and scared of the world their children are growing up in. Empathy for others in these moments is incredibly helpful. We can show our children how erring on the side of compassion can keep bitterness and anger from taking hold.
You are not alone.
It’s a challenging time, filled with so many unknowns and choices about risk that we have to make multiple times a day. Parents everywhere are trying to determine what is safest, both from an infection control and social-emotional standpoint.
These questions and feelings are difficult, and represent a distinct time to the group of us parenting during a pandemic. That is the thing, there is a group of us, we are not alone. Remembering that I’m not alone grappling with these decisions gives me comfort. When you reach out for connection with others, it can help tamper the anxiety and shame. The tension between risk and letting your kids have a childhood is painful and is felt by all parents, many are wrestling with this daily. Parents are all trekking through the tundra together, putting one foot in front of the other, figuring it out as we go, and waiting for the ground to thaw.