In the early days of the pandemic, Crystal Maldonado felt like she was on a desert island. Isolated at home with her husband and 7-month-old baby in Springfield, Massachusetts, she was without child care or family help. The couple traded off watching their daughter between Zoom calls. (Maldonado is a social-media manager and YA author.) Once day care reopened, they decided the socialization was worth the risk of being around other babies.
Getting vaccinated eventually gave the couple a little bit more freedom, but they remained cautious for the sake of their daughter. This August, Maldonado finally decided to try their very first indoor playdate with a trusted friend. It was a success: Her daughter loved playing with a toddler her own age and had so much fun showing off her toys for the first time.
Then their friend discovered her son had unknowingly been exposed to COVID-19 before the playdate, sending Maldonado down an emotional spiral: concern for her friend’s son, frustration with the lack of mask mandates that could have prevented it, stress about finding a test, and guilt that the one time she let up resulted in an exposure.
While the experience rattled her, she recognized it could’ve happened on the first playdate or on the tenth. She’s still open to letting her daughter socialize, but the feeling of being on an island is creeping back. As she watches other adults return to a more normal life, she’s hyperaware that her daughter is only so protected.
“If you’re living in a household where everyone is an adult and you can all be vaccinated, you’re in a different part of the pandemic than I am,” she says.
Nineteen months in, parents across the country are navigating a new stage of pandemic parenting. Schools and day cares are open again, but COVID-19 is still here, and without access to an authorized vaccine, children under 12 are at a higher risk of getting sick. Now the challenges feel even more nuanced: What activities are safe? If I meet a mom at the park, is it weird to ask about her vaccination status before making plans for our kids to play? How do I explain to my kids why we’re masking and our friends aren’t?
Even more frustrating: There’s not one right answer to any of these questions. You should do what’s right for your family in accordance with the risk level of your community. But if you’re exhausted from making decisions daily, you’re not alone. The Cut asked parents and experts around the country how they’re navigating uncomfortable conversations, setting boundaries, and advocating for their children.
If the thought of deciding what’s for dinner is sparking full-on sobs, there’s not something wrong with you. It’s decision fatigue. The barrage of decisions you have to make during a pandemic is relentless — and your brain can only handle so much. Lindsay Malloy, an associate professor of psychology and half of the Pandemic Parenting project, regularly encounters parents suffering from it. The goal, she says, is to reduce the number of decisions you have to make every day. Whether it’s laying out your clothes for the next day the night before or meal planning at the beginning of the week, simplifying your day reduces stress and frees up your brain to devote energy to more pressing dilemmas.
Dr. Theresa Chapple, a perinatal epidemiologist and the director of public health for Oak Park, Illinois, suggests checking your community’s COVID-19 data every week to help inform your decision without having to guesstimate based on conflicting or confusing reports. Knowing your local risk can help you plan in the moment and avoid basing your decisions off of experiential data from different points in the pandemic.
For Claire Reagan, a political campaign manager in Olathe, Kansas, seeing a therapist has helped combat the effects of constant decision-making. With a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old, and an 11-month-old, she’s always assessing changing risks: Do we hold our son back from kindergarten? Do we sign up for T-ball this year? Is this activity more or less risky than their school setting?
“Having a therapist and making sure I’m processing my anxiety and my feelings in a productive way has made my decision fatigue feel less burdensome,” Reagan says. Dakerri Rhone, a data analyst and activist in Nashville, Tennessee, also relies on therapy and has found that volunteering shifts her focus to others and off the stressors in her own life. She sits on several local boards, which she says is grounding and gives her “a sense of purpose.”
Playdates can feel like a minefield right now. Indoors or outdoors? Masks on or masks off? Ask about vaccination status or hope for the best? When trying to determine if a playdate feels safe for your child, Chapple suggests considering duration, location, and age. If you have a rambunctious toddler who loves to wrestle and will definitely stick their fingers in another toddler’s mouth (and then immediately back in their own mouth), even an outdoor setting might not be a controlled enough environment.
Reagan has mostly stuck to playdates with family friends but on the rare occasion her kids are around other kids whose parents she doesn’t know — like at a recent classmate’s birthday party — masks are a must. To help assess the level of risk involved, she compares it to what her oldest two experience at school. “I can’t be afraid to do this because it’s not more dangerous than school,” she reminds herself when weighing the benefits of socialization against the risk of getting sick. For her own kids’ upcoming birthday party, she plans on asking guests to wear masks on the invitation.
For older kids who are capable of distancing and wearing masks, Chapple feels comfortable with longer playdates. As far as activities go, she recommends getting creative with outdoor games that intrinsically include some level of social distancing, like jump rope, Hula-Hooping, skateboarding, biking, hopscotch, and swinging. For her own three daughters, she’s sticking with outdoor, masked play.
For Chris Love, an attorney in Chandler, Arizona, and the parent of a seven-year-old, playdates are reserved for close friends only. After a COVID-19 exposure following one playdate in August, she started requesting that kids and parents take a test before playing inside their home. “What’s more nerve-wracking [than asking someone to get tested] is getting COVID-19,” Love says. “I’m willing to take the risk that somebody side-eyes me for asking their vaccination status. And I haven’t had anyone who’s refused.”
Even if your circle of friends takes the same precautions as you, your child may encounter families at school, in the neighborhood, or at the park who have different rules. While she doesn’t want to underscore the consequences of mask and vaccine hesitancy, psychologist Leesha Ellis-Cox recommends talking to your children in age-appropriate terminology they can understand.
“We feel very strongly that masks and vaccines are important, but not everyone feels that way,” she suggests explaining to your children. “We all have choice. You choose what you wear every morning; we choose where we go to church, where we live, our favorite foods, our favorite colors.”
With three children, ages 14, 10, and 7, in Birmingham, Alabama, Ellis-Cox says living in a community with lower vaccination rates adds another layer of stress. Yet it’s important to bring your children into the conversation and explain that while you can still value friends who have different opinions, you might not spend as much time with them right now.
Meghan Block, the owner of Boston Moms Collective and the parent of an 8-year-old, 5-year-old, and 2-year-old, says she’s treating the vaccine conversation like politics. In third grade, her oldest child is starting to understand real-world conversations better and see that not everyone has the same views as his parents. “If you have a friend at school who says their parents aren’t vaccinated, that’s not yours to worry about,” Block reminds him.
Reagan focuses on the tangible benefits of masks in language her kids will understand. They don’t mind wearing masks, but her 4-year-old daughter will point out strangers who aren’t masked. “We wear masks to protect baby Isaac and so we don’t get sick,” she consistently reminds her oldest two.
Angelina Vicknair, a freelance marketer in New Orleans, has presented her two sons with data to help them understand why masks and vaccines are helpful. She explained to them how different countries around the world are reacting differently to the pandemic and showed them how some of those efforts have been successful and others not so much. Especially for her 10-year-old, who is a deeper thinker, she says it has helped put his mind at ease about why they’re doing what they’re doing as a family.
You can’t assume you know someone’s vaccination status, and if that’s an important factor for you, then there’s no getting around asking the question. Shruthi Parker, a blogger in Austin, Texas, with a 2-year-old and 1-year-old, says she and her husband have become comfortable asking friends two questions before scheduling playdates: Are you vaccinated? And has your child been sick in the past two weeks?
Malloy takes the approach of sharing what her own family is doing first. “We did our rapid tests, so we’re all safe to come over,” she’ll text to make it clear where she stands. She recommends parents come up with a go-to phrase or question and practice it. Asking about vaccination status and masks is analogous to any other uncomfortable conversation parents have to become adept at initiating, she says, like asking about supervision at a party or if there are guns in someone’s home.
Rhone discloses her vaccination status first, and if the other parent doesn’t follow suit, she assumes they likely aren’t vaccinated, which helps her decide if she feels safe about a playdate. Maldonado has gotten used to asking, What have you been doing lately and who have you been seeing? “It’s not just the are-you-vaccinated question, which I’ve gotten pretty good at asking,” she says. “It’s all that comes with it. How we all define careful or cautious is totally different.”
And if you still feel uncomfortable, remember your why. “You can make decisions that are different than your best friend,” Parker says. “You have to do what’s right for your own family.”
“Is it more important for me to make someone else feel comfortable or to keep my family safe?” Ellis-Cox asks. “It’s okay to have boundaries. They are healthy and normal and protective, and there shouldn’t be any shame or guilt around boundaries.”
After a year-plus of little social interaction, it can feel impossible to remember how to be a normal human being around strangers again or find fellow parents to befriend.
Erin Givarz was three months pregnant when lockdowns began. As an extreme extrovert, it was crushing to realize she couldn’t be around other people or find community with new parents. “Part of the reason I loved the idea of being a mom was actually the built-in support groups and playdates and all the things that come with it,” she says. “You’re opened up to this new social life with people who are going through this really interesting, hard, unique thing with you.”
When she saw someone posting in her local Buy Nothing Facebook group in Austin looking for a mom to take neighborhood walks with, Givarz immediately reached out. After messaging back and forth, they decided to create a Facebook group for new parents in their Zip Code. They started organizing walks, recruiting moms they’d come across in the neighborhood and at the park. They began with 30 people; a year later, thanks to word of mouth, there are 155 moms in the group, and they’re celebrating the first birthdays of their pandemic babies together. This month, Lee launched a support group for anxiety after noticing how many moms were mentioning their struggle with it in the group.
For moms who have struggled to make friends in person, Facebook parenting groups have been an easy outlet for connecting with other parents. In Little Rock, Arkansas, Mckenna Ricardi says it has been so hard making friends in person since everyone is nervous about their kids getting sick. After becoming a member of a Facebook group for new moms, she joined a group chat with other women from the group who had all had kids within the same month. Nineteen months later, the seven of them are still in constant communication and do virtual playdates with their kids. They’re spread out across the country, but Ricardi now considers them some of her best friends; they’ve been through “everything together,” she says, even the stillbirth of a woman in the group’s child.
For Vivian Best, the mother of a 7-year-old daughter in Austin, the early days of COVID-19 transported her back to the experience of being a new parent.
“It brought me back to the isolation of infancy,” she says. “When my daughter was an infant, it was just quiet. You would be at home during the day, you wouldn’t totally know what to do with yourself, you weren’t sure if it was safe to go outside … How am I going to have enough human interaction?” Best responded to COVID-19 the same way she did to having a new baby: She started looking for opportunities to be social.
For the past 19 months, she has regularly hosted Zoom events, and everyone is invited: high-school friends from New York City, connections in Hawaii, where her daughter was born, local acquaintances, mutual friends, basically anyone who sees her Facebook posts. Book club is once a month; conversation games are on Fridays and Saturday, and cooking group is at 5 p.m. on Sundays. “There’s always room for more friends,” she says.
Offline, Vicknair says she has connected with parents through her son’s football team. Before in-person sports restarted, she had found it difficult to meet other parents when they weren’t even allowed to go into school because of COVID-19 regulations. She has also seen moms connect and find invaluable support through the Facebook groups for New Orleans moms she helps run. Rhone joined the PTA this year for the same reason and hopes she’ll make friends through her son’s new Cub Scout troop.
Everyone has bad days, even little kids. What you should be looking for, Ellis-Cox says, is persistent bad days. If your child is chronically irritable, tearful, or sad and uninterested in normal activities and routines, then their emotions could be pointing to underlying anxiety rather than normal nerves, in which case it’s worth seeking professional help. Malloy recommends parents try to be aware of their own anxiety levels surrounding returning to higher levels of socialization and slowly reintroduce it for the entire family, essentially treating smaller excursions as exposure therapy.
At a family friend’s going away party early this summer, Love noticed her daughter was anxious about being around so many people for the first time in more than a year — especially being around so many new people. Love says the key was being really patient with her, giving her time to adjust and letting her sit in another room until she felt comfortable being around others.
To help reduce anxiety surrounding COVID-19 itself, Block limits her kids’ exposure to the news and reassures them that home is a safe place. She also gives them space to talk about their fears when they’re driving in the car together or before bed: Is there anything you want to talk about? Any questions you have for me?
Navigating countless decisions, constantly assessing risk, and trying to protect your family is exhausting, but regardless of their other varying opinions, all the parents I talked to agreed on one thing: The right answer to every question is do what’s best for your family.
“If you’re struggling really badly and you need to ask for help, I think that’s okay, even if there’s a risk involved. Your wellness matters,” Maldonado says. “If you’re wondering if you’re a bad parent, you’re probably not a bad parent. You’re just a human.”