Sometimes I wake up to texts sent at 2 a.m. Sometimes they’re from Meg, who lives in Scotland and is several time zones ahead, telling us her 4-year-old woke up with a fever. Sometimes Kea, who lives in Maine, was up overnight with her 2-year-old. More texts come through the day in trickles and floods, in the group chat that’s been our support group since we were all pregnant at the same time. How’s your back? How’s your kid’s earache? How long did they tantrum for today? Make sure to swab their throat!
I get up, I make my own toddler breakfast. My husband drives him to day care. I text my friends back, I try to get to work. And I wait.
There is a knife hanging over our heads, as there is for every parent of a kid under 5. The text alert will come, or the phone will ring with a call from school. An exposure. A symptom. Come get them. Come get them and stay home.
We just had to make it to the end of January, I thought. Past the peak of omicron. Maybe we’d even have an under-5 vaccine within sight. Anthony Fauci suggested spring might be possible. Unvaccinated and largely too young to mask, my son and his classmates are still subject to the full 10-day quarantine after an exposure. (A vaccinated 5-year-old who’s been exposed gets to come to school like normal as long as they don’t have symptoms.) We’d had exposures before—one over Thanksgiving 2020, then one in March 2021, both stretching into school holidays for extra measure—but during the summer and fall of last year we let go of the breath we’d been holding. Even through delta, our state kept its numbers low. But then omicron, and then the holidays, and then we were desperate again for the light at the end of the tunnel. When, the week before Christmas, we learned that the Pfizer trial for the under-5 vaccine was extended because the two-shot dose wasn’t triggering a strong-enough immune response, I was the one helping my friends stay positive: Don’t worry, Moderna’s working on it, too. We just had to make to the end of January.
Apparently not. I was chasing my son around the house this weekend—literally, he runs laps to a playlist of four 30-second songs from Blaze and the Monster Machines, and he insists that one of us adults runs with him—when I saw the news: The Moderna vaccine trial for kids under 5 was being extended. Extended and delayed. And I felt like I’d been punched in the chest. I wandered off from the racetrack while Blaze kept blaring and hoped my son didn’t notice while I searched my phone for answers.
The worst part, maybe, was that this wasn’t even a press release. It wasn’t even big news. My colleague (with whom I was texting just this morning about her son’s latest fever; the network of parent support is diffuse and desperate) pointed out that we only found this out at all because a co–principal investigator on the Moderna clinical trials told a local Wisconsin news outlet, and someone else noticed and tweeted about the extended timeline for the study. January was no more. Now it was April. The worst part might be that no one even thought to officially announce it.
It is the awful feeling that the world has moved on. The White House blithely anticipates a “winter of death” and suffering for the unvaccinated, but, well, that’s their own fault, isn’t it! If you’re fully vaxxed, which you of course could be, omicron will be a sniffle and a five-day reality TV binge! The Atlantic writes of reasonable people saying they’re “vaxxed and done,” people who reasonably say “COVID is becoming something like the seasonal flu for most people who keep up with their shots,” as if everyone has the option of shots to keep up with.
I want to scream. If I can scream, for a second? The pandemic is not fucking over, because children under 5 cannot get fucking vaccinated.
Do not tell me it’s usually really mild for kids. I know it’s usually really mild for kids. Do not tell me about your neighbor’s toddler who didn’t even have a sniffle. I know it would probably be at most few days of fever and endless episodes of Blaze. I’ll even accept that my kid might throw up, and I won’t even tell you the hot wave of anxiety that floods my body when that happens. (I just don’t like it, OK.) I won’t even mention that “mild COVID” for adults, which I very well might get—because I would be taking care of my toddler, because you cannot isolate from a sick toddler—just means “not hospitalized.” I won’t mention that if I get it, too, I’ll be able to take off the mask I will have been wearing around the clock inside my own home, but I might have the sniffles or I might spend a few days feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck. I won’t mention that either way I will still have to parent, and by then my son will probably be well enough to run more laps to Blaze.
I won’t mention that hospitals are overwhelmed already, and even where they’re not, health care workers are exhausted. Just this morning I reassured myself with the thought that I live 20 minutes from a very good children’s hospital, which at least won’t be overrun by adult patients. It made sense at the time.
What I will mention is how a 10-day quarantine is enough to break a person. I love my son to the end of the world, but this is not about whether I love him enough. This is about claustrophobia, and monotony, and how the little things in the world that help parents stay sane—a library, a play date, running errands and dragging him along—are off the table when you’ve been exposed. He’s old enough to need friends and playmates, to need the blessed, skilled teachers who can guide a tiny human tornado through a day of activities and circling up and songs. I am not one of those teachers. I am not everything that my son needs. He needs school, even though school right now is the scariest place for him to be.
I will mention how the unemployment relief that once upon a time helped me get through the loss of child care due to COVID has been gone for four months now. I’m a freelancer. I don’t have paid leave to draw from. I can’t even get unemployment at all. But I know my husband and I are lucky to even have the option not to work (and not get paid) so we can care for him. We’re lucky to have a good enough relationship that the negotiations of the work/care schedule, figuring out whose stress and deadlines need to supersede the other’s, hasn’t broken us yet.
I thought we could make it to the end of January. I know we’ll make it to April, or whenever the moving goal posts finally stop, because we have to. Someday we’ll look back on how we lived through something historic. Someday I’ll tell my son about the pandemic that happened when he was a baby, how at first we took walks to the park and he touched cherry blossoms, and the songs we sang when we were trapped inside for the second winter in a row. Hopefully I’ll have to tell him the story because hopefully it will end before he’s old enough to remember. We’ll make it to whenever he gets vaccinated, because we don’t have a choice. I’ll help him through a day of little toddler side effects with juice and liquid Tylenol, grateful he likes liquid Tylenol and that he’s old enough that I can try to explain what will be happening. I’ll read him his little board book about vaccines. He’ll get his second and third shots or however many he needs, and eventually he’ll be just like you, as protected as possible, safe enough to go about his toddlery business with COVID being just another risk like accidents or the flu.
But we aren’t there yet. And what’s worse than not being there yet is how the world seems to have utterly forgotten we exist. How “close everything but keep schools open” turned into “well I’m vaxxed and I just want to go to a bar.” How “keep schools open” became “you must hate teachers” and “you must hate your child,” when the truth is I love my son’s teachers more than I ever dreamed was possible, because I know how badly he needs them, how we all do. Because I know how hard they’re working to keep him safe, and how eventually it won’t be enough.
Kea texted the group chat last Tuesday, the second day back after the holidays—her daughter’s classmate was positive. (Her daughter, weirdly, luckily, had been out on the exposure day for vomiting, too.) “That one day of day care was so deluxe,” she texted. I guess we’ll just take what we can get.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.