Parenting with COVID: What are we supposed to do?

by Casey Newman

When her husband’s COVID test came back positive, Erin Mooney knew it wasn’t good. Then, when she started feeling the symptoms, she knew a positive test result was in her cards, too. 

Normally, when stricken with a possibly deadly virus, Mooney and her husband would spend a lot of time on the couch or in bed, resting and recovering. But the couple has two young kids, so the opportunity to rest and recover is mostly non-existent. If the pair had the flu, bad colds or maybe even the stomach flu, they might be able to have outside help from family members or friends, but not with COVID.

“[My husband] was extremely sick by the time I tested positive and I was not feeling too good myself and unfortunately got worse. I really wasn’t sure how we were going to manage taking care of our kids on our own while we both felt so terrible or how we were going to get food since we were in lockdown at our house,” Mooney said. “Fortunately, both of our parents live in town. They made us meals, took care of shopping for food, and dropped everything we needed off in our garage to avoid contact. So really the hardest thing for us was managing two young ones all on our own, while we were both very sick.”

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Unfortunately, Mooney’s experience isn’t unique. Stories abound online of parents being struck with COVID and trying to figure out what exactly they’re supposed to do with their kids. 

If you’ve got young kids and have COVID, the CDC recommends sending them to stay with an alternate caregiver. But, of course, that caregiver can’t be someone at risk for severe effects from the virus so that likely means having grandpa or grandpa watch them is off the table.

For the child to safely have no interaction with the infected parent, they either have to be old enough to stay home alone or go with another caregiver out of the house, the CDC says.

After testing positive for the virus, Jenna Overbaugh planned to quarantine in her home away from her husband and toddler son. Her son, however, had other plans.

“All of the recommendations say to isolate, isolate, isolate, send your children to be with another family member, and rest as much as possible,” Overbaugh says. “Those things are impossible to do when you are the primary caregiver and the preferred parent.  [My isolation] lasted about 3 hours before all hell broke loose and no one could handle the tears anymore.”

Overbaugh continued, “My son nearly fell down the stairs through our baby gates trying to get to me. It was awful. It was impossible to sleep or rest. My son also stopped napping during this time so I felt like my gas tank was empty yet I needed enough gas to drive across the country.  It was really awful. The health advice out there for parents to isolate and rest as much as possible just is not realistic for families in this situation.”

Trying to take care of yourself in the middle of a pandemic with little to no help can be a lot for someone to handle, so it’s no surprise that parents sick with COVID face an incredible amount of stress.

“This is a real challenge for anyone who is in this situation,” said Scott M. Bea, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. “If there are social supports nearby, that can make a big difference. Asking friends, relatives or other potential caregivers to lend a hand as one recovers might be as good as it gets. Staying present in the day that you are in and not looking too far down the road can also be helpful.”

Keeping the focus on the present — the next 15 minutes, then the next 15 minutes after that helped Overbaugh get through the experience.

“I feel like I just coped literally by trying to make it through the next 15 minutes, the next 15 minutes. I tried to sleep when I could and set boundaries with my husband like I need you to come upstairs when you’re done, because I need to get some rest and time away,” she said.

Mooney and her husband knew that naptime and bedtime meant they could finally get the rest their bodies needed, but in between those times, they tried to conserve their energy for anything the kids needed.

“We tag-teamed taking care of the kids when they were awake. Our older child can be pretty independent and would play on her own when the younger one napped so we could rest during that time,” she said. “Our older child would also play with her sister a lot and would get things for us that we needed. We really didn’t get the rest we needed with taking care of the kids, but we reserved any and all our energy for them. Housework, laundry, etc., were all on hold. And thankfully with our family providing meals, it was a matter of just heating and serving food for the most part.”

It can be hard enough dealing with a run-of-the-mill illness while trying to parent your children, but with COVID, things can turn emergent at any time, which can lead to a lot of additional anxiety. What are you supposed to do if you have trouble breathing, need to go to the emergency room or require hospitalization?

“There is no way to get around the tension that one might be experiencing in this case,” said Dr. Bea. “General tips for managing anxiety are advisable. Practice mindfulness ‒ make an effort to stay in the present moment. As best you can, try not to predict the future. Let some of your attention flow to your children or concerns outside of yourself so that your brain is not unduly driven by the tension of potential futures. Take care of your symptoms, get some rest and, once again, elicit the help of others who care about you.”

As a practicing therapist, Overbaugh used some of the exposure and relaxation techniques she teaches her clients to help her get through her illness.

“I did try to practice some respiratory control and breathing but mostly I knew that I just had to wait for time to pass. I knew that I had to treat it as an exposure and allow myself to feel the uncomfortable feelings, not just physically but mentally as well,” she explained. “I knew eventually that it would pass and that I would come out of it stronger mentally in the end and that’s what kept me going.  But for the most part, everything went out the window because I was running on empty and I felt like my physical and mental health took a huge toll.”

Another way to ease anxiety while you’re sick? Put everything else on the back burner. Messy house? Who cares. Laundry piling up? You’ll do it later. And, if you’ve got older children or someone else who can safely come to your home, ask them to help with these chores.

“It is ideal if one can [recover] without having to solve many problems. Be direct in asking loved ones to take over all of the challenges, chores and burdens that one faces in daily life. Not everyone can anticipate what an individual with COVID-19 might be facing,” Dr. Bea said. “Expressing gratitude for any assistance you receive increases the likelihood that the assistance will continue and that the supports will be maintained through the tougher phases of the illness.”

Got COVID and kids? Here are some coping ideas:

  • If your kids nap, use that time to rest
  • Have a family member or friend drop off meals for you or order food and have it delivered
  • Don’t worry about chores
  • Make a list — or several — of who can help care for your kids if you need them to. This can include people like siblings, friends or neighbors. Make sure your list includes people who can get to you in a short amount of time if needed and excludes high-risk family and friends.
  • Use all the screens

If you’re sick with COVID — or any other illness — however you cope, whether that means having more screen time, shutting yourself in a bedroom, asking for help or whatever else you can think of, Overbaugh and Mooney want you to know that you’re doing a good job. 

“I want parents to know that they’re validated in feeling extremely frustrated at the continued suggestions of ‘get as much rest as you can,’ ‘sleep as much as you can,’ ‘isolate from your family,’” Overbaugh said. “These things are not feasible when you’re the primary caregiver/default parent. Just knowing that there is solidarity in other women who also deal with this can be helpful. I would encourage moms to relinquish expectations of themselves as a general person and especially as a mom with things like making meals, cleaning the house, screen time, etc.”  

Mooney echoed Overbaugh’s statements, saying:

“Don’t feel guilty about letting your kids watch TV. Put on a movie (or two) and take that time to rest,” she said.

Living in a pandemic, becoming sick with the virus that caused the pandemic and trying to juggle your family can leave you feeling shaken, but it’s important to remember you’re stronger than you think.

“I learned that if I can handle those two weeks, I can handle pretty much anything,” Overbaugh said. “Small periods of time alone with my child now and little bouts of sickness no longer cause me the anxiety that it used to because doing it with COVID for that long pretty much had an umbrella effect over everything else. It set me back in a lot of ways but also reminded me of the importance of taking care of myself mentally and physically.”

If you find that after you’ve recovered, you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety or emotion, you could have experienced trauma, said Dr. Bea. In this case, he recommends seeking the assistance of a counselor, therapist or psychologist. 

“If the aftermath of the illness phase is producing interference and limiting one’s capacity to follow through with activities of daily living, work or social obligations, then professional assistance is strongly advisable,” he said.

Whether you’re dealing with COVID or any other situation that requires you to take care of yourself, try to be gentle with yourself. If you put on five movies a day, do nothing but lay on the couch eating crackers, ask for help or complain to your friends to cope, it’s all OK. You’re doing the best you can and that’s good enough. Just remember to stay off Google. 

Casey Newman is a mother of two from Green who depends on wine to get her through bathtime and bedtime. She is a maternal and women’s health advocate who volunteers with several birth and maternal rights organizations and has spoken to Congress members about issues affecting moms.