Over the course of Fourth of July weekend, my 4-year-old son stole his teenage cousin’s hat approximately 1,675 times. He did this about the same amount as he grabbed this cousin’s arm and yelled, “Got ya!” We were on a trip with my husband’s parents, his siblings, and their children, and I observed my kids as they swam, watched fireworks, dug in the sand, and generally messed with their older cousins. They were so comfortable with everyone, despite how infrequently we had gotten together over the past few years.
My family unit of four was on the stricter side when it came to COVID-19 precautions, and we had opted out of most group gatherings. We had taken this same trip for my mother-in-law’s birthday the year before, but it was at a dude ranch, all the activities were outdoors, and my husband and I had insisted that our group eat all our meals outside, even though every other family ate breakfast and dinner in the dining hall. We’d done our own thing for the Jewish holidays. We’d celebrated Thanksgiving with only my sister. We’d masked up for a socially distanced bar mitzvah ceremony, leaving our kids at home with a babysitter.
We were worried about the health risks posed by this new virus, especially as we waited for our kids to be vaccinated. Yes, we knew that kids tend to fare better than adults. No, statistics do not always bring comfort when you are making decisions about your own child’s health. But beyond that, we also wanted to avoid the disruptions that would result from a confirmed case. Our now-6-year-old finished pre-K remotely and spent much of kindergarten on a hybrid schedule, meaning he got a significant portion of his early instruction in critical skills like reading over the computer. We did not want him to miss more school than he had to. We also, as much as we love him, did not want our younger son home for 10 days, possibly more since a new positive test in our household could restart the clock. We needed to work, and it turns out children can get bored of TV.
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Doing my job from home, skipping parties, RSVP’ing no to weddings. None of it felt like a major sacrifice to me, or at least I couldn’t justify the participation weighed against the risks. To be fair, I am not someone who needs a lot of in-person interaction. I catch up with close friends when I see them, but even in non-pandemic times, I rely on the fact that we have a solid foundation and sometimes go for long stretches in between. The past few years, I’ve really burrowed into my introversion, finding relief in the hours spent alone in my apartment during the day, the aimless walks around my neighborhood at night. I also know that my children are not me and my older son somehow makes a friend every time he goes to the park.
Still, for all the talk of the very real isolation that children have experienced during the pandemic, I was not especially concerned about mine. We were fortunate to have consistent childcare for all but the first three exhausting months, so our kids spent nearly every weekday of the summer of 2020 in the park with their friends. We got to know families in the neighborhood and met for picnics and soccer. We layered with long underwear and ate under heat lamps when it got cold. Once vaccines became available for adults, we began seeing my sister, who lives nearby, and my in-laws indoors, and after we learned that breakthrough infections were not just possible but probable, we did not go back.
My parents came up from Texas in December 2020 to quarantine and test before seeing us and then returned at intervals after that. We tried to visit them too but got derailed twice—first when Delta made the trip too intimidating, then when my grandma and my older son separately contracted Omicron. Finally in February 2022 we got there. It had been more than two years since my kids had seen my grandparents, and my younger son did not remember being on a plane. (When I told him we would eat breakfast at the airport, he responded incredulously: “For real life?!”)
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I thought we were doing OK. We drew the lines that made sense to us as we tried to strike a balance. I was tightly wound in the way most parents were and certainly the conditions were not ideal, but I kept thinking the kids, at least, were not missing much.
Now I’m a little less sure. This summer, the month after the trip with my husband’s family, we traveled to meet my parents, grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins in Colorado. We stayed in a handful of units in the same condominium, and most of us were together for a full week. My kids got to meet their baby cousin, and they asked for her every morning as soon as they woke up. They enlisted family members for games of Candy Land and jumps on the wobbling bridge at the playground. They finally got everyone’s name straight after years of knowing some largely from photos. I watched my little one hold my 28-year-old cousin’s hand to cross a stream and my older one inspecting maps with my 86-year-old grandfather.
Perhaps it is simply vacation I’m romanticizing, or having more grown-ups around to entertain my kids, but I don’t think so. One day, as my younger son and I walked down the road, he told me he really likes our family. Several times, I looked over at my kids playing with my relatives, their relatives, forming their own bonds, and felt something that I rarely feel about being with other people: longing, the desire for more of this.
I don’t regret how my husband and I have behaved during the pandemic. We’ve done our best to take care of our kids in the face of a disease whose long-term effects are not yet fully understood. And as COVID-19 is very much not over, we are still trying to keep our exposures limited. But with our younger son finally vaccinated and these summer memories fresh in my mind, we are cracking open the door, just a little, to be around the people we love. Our kids are fine, but they also need this. We all do.