Parenting with Omicron: Santa Cruz families with young kids tell their stories of a ‘lost month’

Parents Jeyn and Charles Jack with Lyric, 3, and Phoenix, 7.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Farmworkers, teachers, nurses, physical therapists and writers — all parents — had to scramble as the virus upended their lives. Lookout parenting columnist Liza Monroy talks with four local families — from Watsonville to Ben Lomond — about their experience with Omicron.

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Our family’s monthlong experience with COVID probably didn’t leave any permanent damage, but it was the most traumatic part of the long pandemic yet for us, as I wrote about Monday — depending, of course, on what might happen in the months and years ahead. As I recovered, I have wondered about how families’ experiences, especially those with young kids like mine, affected them.

Liza Monroy

Numerous parents talked to me about the anxiety, depression and loneliness they felt, emotions that come along with having to reenter isolation while caring for children and sick with COVID themselves, even if the illness isn’t “severe.”

As the world moves on in its quest to return to whatever normalcy means now, many feel left behind, off-kilter. Those with small children have added burdens of caregiving while sick. For families I interviewed, a month passing in quarantine was a typical stretch of time back in isolation, yet obstacles continue to present themselves. Immediately following one family’s recovery, their child care providers tested positive, so they were back to another kind of quarantine: no COVID, but back home with kids anyway. That’s not an uncommon story.

While some parents talked to me on the record, the stories I share with you here, others would speak only off the record. Some didn’t want to publicly disclose that they have had COVID. I understood that pervasive sense of shame from having been infected with the virus, as if it’s somehow your fault, that you messed up in your attempts to prevent infection. I realized that’s why it’s especially important to destigmatize conversations about COVID experiences. Stories connect us and show how families, especially those with young children, are hit hard.

These are the stories of four families, parents from Watsonville to Ben Lomond, all with children ages 16 and under. Though their lives are vastly different, the Omicron experiences share similar threads.

Farmworker family

“Alma” (a pseudonym because she fears deportation as an undocumented worker), a mother of seven in Watsonville, delivers an important perspective. For seasonal farmworkers, being out of work means no sick pay or benefits. Alma and her husband live in a two-room apartment with the kids ranging in age from 3 to 16. Catching the variant was devastating for the family of nine. Her husband had to be hospitalized despite being vaccinated.

“It was a very hard time,” she says. “When my husband was in the hospital I was alone with the seven kids.”

Living in a two-room apartment with nine people makes isolation impossible, so “everyone gets sick,” she says. “Being in such a small place, there’s no solution.” The kids couldn’t do their schoolwork and she, while ill, was on her own caring for all seven of them.

“Even vaccinated, this was a serious illness,” she says. “We had no work, no money for food or rent. We borrowed money to pay the rent. There’s no grace period with our landlord.”

They were quarantined for 20 days. I asked if neighbors brought them food, or how they were able to get provisions during their isolation period. “No one brought us food,” she says. “We ate rice, beans and soup — just what we already had.”

Alma’s experience further highlights how the people in our community, who grow our food (and the nation’s), are left without means of their own. How COVID continues, even in this stage, to put the deepest disparities that already existed on full display.

A couple of months after recovering from the virus, “we are doing better,” Alma says. “We’ve recuperated and are back to work, paying off the debt for the money we borrowed.”

Stolen time

Twenty-eight miles north in Ben Lomond, Jeyn Jack, a writer and mother of two children ages 7 and 3, speculates that Omicron entered her household via a child care provider who had traveled.

“The most anxiety-inducing part was having an almost-3-year-old, too young for vaccination, and how it might affect her in the long term,” Jack says. “I was pretty confident she’d survive, but there wasn’t a lot of information other than the reiteration of how highly contagious this strain was.”

Jack’s illness was not severe, but she remained concerned about her unvaccinated toddler and potential long-term consequences.

“I have a best friend who has long COVID,” she says. “She got the first strain and suffers from long-term effects on her health. When I talk with her, my cortisol levels rise a little because I recognize how even for people who survive, it can change their lives. One thing I noticed was how it’s really made people have to slow down in ways they weren’t prepared for. As a parent, I was feeling very stretched in order to have any personal time for myself and my writing. I didn’t have any time for myself. There was no breathing room because of COVID.”

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The most challenging part for Jack was the return to isolation. “My kids are home from school, they don’t feel good, they want to be entertained … that’s the tough part about being a parent,” she says. “We always have stuff going on. I’m lucky that I have a flexible schedule. But it pushes what’s comfortable for my mental health. I tried to keep that frustration in check, reminding myself of how much COVID has affected other people’s lives much worse than mine. I have a lot of gratitude that it wasn’t worse.” Still, she reflects, “I wanted my time back. It was harder taking care of everyone.”

I mentioned the sense of deception I felt about the disease being mild enough that lifting the mask mandate was OK. “That’s probably exacerbated by how bad you get it,” Jack says. “I didn’t get it that bad so to me I didn’t feel like it was a deception. We put faith in the political and public health leaders we put in charge and expect them to know better than we do, but … how much does anyone really know?”

Domino effect

Westsiders Andy Gersh, a middle school math teacher, and Taflyn Wilschinsky, a physical therapist, believe they picked up the virus at a wedding. As parents of two boys ages 4 and 7, “it seemed endless,” Gersh says as he puts out lunch for his younger son. Their home, he points out, is too small to allow the family members to quarantine from one another, so the virus made its way through the household.

Wilschinsky’s symptoms were the most intense of the family. “I was exposed on a Thursday, found out on Friday, then started feeling sick on Monday,” she says. She took a home test and it was positive, so she canceled with all her patients. “We had to alert our kids’ schools. Our younger son is not vaccinated and was not sick, but he couldn’t go to school because he’d been exposed to me.”

Parents Taflyn Wilschinsky and Andy Gersh with sons Lucas, 4, and Levi, 7
Parents Taflyn Wilschinsky and Andy Gersh with sons Lucas, 4, and Levi, 7.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With a healthy, energetic 4-year-old at home, her work canceled and Wilschinsky not feeling well, the kids had “way more screen time than they normally do,” she says. With brain fog and exhaustion, putting on movies was the way to get some sleep. “I luckily tested negative by Friday of that week and went back to work,” Wilschinsky says. “Then our younger son, who we’d been testing every day, tested positive.” She had a negative test, but they all had to continue staying home.

Their vaccinated 7-year-old tested positive third. Their father, Gersh, was the last domino to fall. “One of the hardest parts was the different sets of protocols,” he says. “My son who tested negative couldn’t go back to school because he’d been exposed, but I was exposed, vaccinated and testing negative, so was still allowed to work. Once I caught it, symptoms were mild — I was sick for a few days, then symptoms went away. I felt better, yet I was still in the quarantine period.”

As a teacher in the middle of the school year, Gersh couldn’t simply step away from work. While caring for his kids and quarantining, he had to put together video lessons for a substitute teacher to give to his students. The fallout for his classroom routine made it a disruptive time not just for the family, but for his class, having to make adjustments, and for other teachers, whose workloads increased as they were stretched with colleagues sick.

“Andy and his colleagues had to use their planning periods to sub for other teachers because everyone was getting COVID, and there weren’t enough subs,” Wilschinsky says.

In the end, Omicron swallowed up almost their entire month of May. “I’ve been a little more prone to fatigue,” Wilschinsky adds. “I have an autoimmune condition that makes me tired, but this added fuel to the fire. It was something that we had to survive. I was grateful that none of us were terribly sick. It was very anxiety-provoking.”

Gersh plans to “treat the mask like a raincoat,” putting it on when cases spike. But being vaccinated and boosted, and now having experienced Omicron and knowing what he’s up against, “I’m not going to spend the entire summer with a mask on and getting my groceries delivered,” he says.

A mom’s isolation

And finally, one mother of three, Kristina Hawkins of the Upper Westside, offers a different story. She was able to isolate from the moment she got a positive test, after waking up at night with symptoms. Hawkins is a registered nurse at Dominican Hospital, and witnessed the spike in cases firsthand. She called in sick to work — and closed herself up in her 6-year-old’s room. She wore an N95 mask and did not emerge into any other part of the two-story house she shares with her husband, two high schoolers, and young daughter.

“The symptoms changed constantly,” she says, from chills to body aches, but all at different times over the span of the weeklong active infection period. Hawkins was especially anxious about keeping Omicron away from the rest of her family members because her older daughter was about to graduate from high school: “There was this huge milestone coming up, and we would have had to miss it.” There was no online or remote graduation alternative available for positive COVID cases. Hawkins was determined to do everything in her power to not let it circulate through the family. She was worried every day, in addition to being sick, that another family member would test positive next.

Hawkins’ strict, 10-day self-isolation was successful, but not easy. “My husband was acting as a single parent,” she says. “That was really hard on him.”

After Hawkins recovered, her 6-year-old daughter began having coldlike symptoms and missed most of the last week of first grade, but never tested positive for COVID. Still, because of the upcoming graduation, they weren’t taking any chances, so Hawkins quarantined again with her youngest.

“It was really hard to be in isolation again with her, to have to isolate her,” Hawkins says. Having a 6-year-old myself, I understood firsthand what she was talking about.

It also echoed something Wilschinsky said: “The kids couldn’t go out, be physical, or have playdates. They were bonkers by the end of the day. Bedtime was more challenging than usual.”

With the Omicron experience, parents of young children have found themselves in the same boat, navigation uncertain.

I’ve been less cautious lately now that we’ve come through the other side, though I feel far from blasé about the idea of going through that ordeal again. Dropping Olivia off at one of her summer programs recently, a teacher managing the check-in process told us that masks were strongly recommended indoors. “It’s optional, but cases are way up right now,” she said. I pointed to the boxes of masks on the table.

“Please choose a mask to wear in the room,” I said to Olivia, retrieving one from my bag for myself. She reached for a pink one and put it on. Maybe she’d reflected on what happened. A prime instance of experiential learning? I hoped we wouldn’t ever get COVID again, though I fear it’s becoming a recurring thing we just have to learn how to live with. Olivia and I held hands and went inside.