Parenting in isolation: A COVID-19 Christmas

By Julie A Cajigas

My husband warned me he was feeling congested. We were watching TV, and he looked over and said he’d been tested for COVID-19 at work because he felt a bit stuffy. When you work at a hospital, they don’t take any chances.

The next morning, I started to feel like my sinuses were on fire. A lifelong allergy sufferer, this was not a burning sensation I had felt before. I would liken it to huffing a raw jalapeño.

Luckily, his test came back the next day, and he announced that his test was negative. I piled the kids into the car and took them to see the “Polar Express” at the drive-in theatre that night. We stayed for the second show, giggling, eating popcorn and enjoying a rare winter outdoor movie.

The next morning, I felt worse. I had the covers pulled up around my shoulders and was hiding out, hoping he would just feed them breakfast and let me sleep in. Around 10 a.m. he came up and said “Uh, we have a situation.”

He was COVID positive. The negative result he had seen was a previous one. Throughout the pandemic, he has had countless potential exposures working in healthcare, and he’d been tested several times recently. The hospital called to let him know he was positive and gave him the protocol he would follow.

I found out some interesting things about quarantine that day. According to the CDC (as of December), if you lived with a COVID-19 sufferer, you were supposed to quarantine through their quarantine and then 14 days after to make sure you wouldn’t develop it later. That’s over 20 days in quarantine.

Did I mention it was the week before Christmas?

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I went to get tested. While I sat waiting in my car for the test to be ready, I called to see if we could still drive through the Lake Farm Park Christmas Lights with our windows up and just show our tickets on the phone through a closed window. They said sure. I canceled our winter hike plans and our Cleveland Children’s Museum private rental that I begged my husband to schedule on my birthday (heartbreak).

The nurse came to get me for my test, and while we were talking, I told her about checking on the Farm Park lights. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “you can’t be in the car with your children.” What? 

I had just been in the car with the children for about six hours the night before. Obviously, we didn’t have masks on. Weren’t they already exposed?

She told me that unless they had tested positive as well, until my test was back (and if it was positive), I should not be in any enclosed environments with them, and that they and I should wear a mask for the duration of the quarantine period unless I was alone in my bedroom.

Was she envisioning a 16-year-old child? My kids are 7, 4 and 1. Sure the older two can wear a mask for a time, but expecting them to wear them 24/7 unless away from either parent? I felt like I was going to throw up. She took my blood pressure; it was high.

Thus began three miserable weeks in our household that would include Christmas and New Year’s Eve. 

There were some bright spots. I messaged Salted Dough in Broadview Heights to see about contact-free pick-up. I explained that they could just set the food by my car and I would wait till they were gone, walk out and grab it. 

The owner not only said they could accommodate the contact-free pickup, but she also told us our dinner was on them and she hoped we felt better soon (they are good people who make delicious food). 

Food was a problem in general, though. We are a carryout family. We do have groceries delivered, and we do cook, but as two working parents, we are always on the lookout for high-quality, healthy(ish) carryout to make life a little easier. 

Outside of that contact-free pickup at Salted Dough and another one there on Christmas Eve, we made a lot more food at home than usual. This would have been fine, except both of us were exhausted.

I can’t remember being so exhausted in my adult life. It reminded me of those first weeks home from the hospital with a newborn. I felt drained to my core. I slept on and off throughout the day and then had bizarre, dazed insomnia at night. I would fall asleep at the kitchen table.

There was a lot of bargain parenting. If you change this poop diaper, I’ll change the next. If you give the baths, I’ll make the sandwiches. If you do bedtime, I’ll get up with the kids for breakfast. My husband was sleeping on the basement couch and I was upstairs in the bed. It was the loneliest together time our family has spent. 

Both of us were, to some degree, avoiding our children. We are usually a family that cuddles on the couch, peppering each other with hugs and kisses. During our COVID weeks, we gave them iPads, Nintendo and movies pretty much exclusively. We tried to entertain them at arm’s length for their safety. The 1-year-old spent a lot of time in his playpen with toys and a movie on the TV. 

We watched Boss Baby, Frozen II and Trolls about four times each that weekend.

After two days, my test came back. Negative.

At this point, my husband had lost his taste and smell, and I had as well. I don’t know why I tested negative, but it didn’t change burning sinuses, cough, loss of smell or the debilitating exhaustion.

We did relax a (very) little bit on the kids being near me. I did mask in the house, but I didn’t require them to. Determining the level of risk you’re willing to take is difficult. We are usually a family that follows medical advice to the letter. I may have taken the kids in the car (after I tested negative), even though I knew the safest thing would have been to avoid it.

Thankfully, the older two children had just finished their remote learning between Thanksgiving and Christmas and were already out of school for the holiday.  We were lucky that all three children tolerated the constant digital entertainment and lack of proper bedtime snuggles, story time and kisses. 

Christmas was sad. It would have been sad either way, as we weren’t planning to see family in person, but it was also sad because “Santa” was exhausted.

We bought one of those backyard roller coasters and ended up building it in the basement. Correction: my husband built it in the basement. He started building it in the living room as a temporary Christmas installation, and then we realized that was insane. The coaster is 14 feet in length. We looked out at the deep snow behind the house at 2 AM and decided – basement.

When we went down to start the build, we realized that though we had cleaned the basement with the kids before our illness, they had torn it apart during their unsupervised playtimes. Given that he was sleeping down there on the opposite side of the basement, he probably should have known that, but I guess he wasn’t paying close attention.

So, Santa and Mrs. Claus had to clean up piles of toys. It took over an hour before he could start the build. Side note: why are children’s toys all composed of hundreds of tiny pieces? Is it a conspiracy to make parents mentally unstable?

I crawled upstairs at 3 am and downloaded Santa letterhead. I wrote the kids a salty Santa letter about the state of the toys in the basement. Santa was disappointed, and if the basement was like that moving forward, they would end up on the naughty list.

I put some positive accolades for good behavior in there too, but… Santa was not having that basement.

Christmas morning the kids were over the moon about the roller coaster, but they also took Santa’s note pretty seriously. They are still talking about it when the basement gets a little messy.

Christmas day was another negotiation. My husband slept from breakfast through dinner and then after dinner and family Zoom, I passed out in the rocking chair. We were both a shell of ourselves for at least three days after.

Eventually, I took the three kids and we all got tested. This was to hopefully shorten our quarantine after my husband’s had ended. 

Oh, I forgot to mention earlier that right before all this, my 1-year-old slipped on water in the kitchen and fractured his leg. He was in a cast up to his hip this entire time. We needed to be cleared for an end-of-quarantine so that we could have his cast removed on time.

All four of us tested negative. 

Did I have COVID? According to the tests, no, but according to the symptoms and the lingering fatigue and insomnia – probably. The fatigue and sleep problems lasted over a month after I felt better. My husband couldn’t taste food for about that long, but he’s back to enjoying his favorites now.

Did we do it all perfectly? Nope. Sometimes we got kissed by little faces. Sometimes the baby pulled our masks off. Sometimes we ate one foot closer to each other than we probably should have. But we made it. It didn’t spread in our house, and we didn’t share it outside either.

Three weeks can seem an eternity when you’re trying to protect everyone from a novel virus. I hope that’s one eternity I won’t have to relive any time soon.

If you get COVID-19 and you have to isolate from your own children, particularly with toddlers, I will pray for you. Seriously, send me your name and I will pray for intercession from a higher power on your behalf. Stay safe out there parents.

Julie is a mother of three and Professor of Practice at The University of Akron. Her hobbies include singing in the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Instagramming her kids and sleeping standing up.