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Milwaukee father shares how COVID-19 has shaped his kids' lives

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Dusty Weis
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Dusty Weis with his two kids.

As the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus surges — reaching record caseload numbers almost every day in Wisconsin — many parents are beginning to feel like they’re at their wits’ end. Disruptions to in-person school and child care are commonplace for many families right now. It’s particularly difficult for the parents of children under the age of five for whom no vaccine dose has been approved yet. Lake Effect contributor Dusty Weis shares his experience.

In spite of our best efforts to keep COVID out of our house, I heard something out of my three-and-a-half-year-old’s mouth the other week that made me laugh and broke my heart a little bit.

Stuffed rabbit in hand, he ran up to me and informed me that, “Bunny got sick and she had COVID.”

Our son Henry wasn’t even two when we first heard about COVID on the news. Early on, when anxiety was high and we naively hoped that a few months of social distancing would be all it took to protect us from the virus, I even managed to convince myself that the global pandemic was something that he’d be too young to remember. It might stress us out as parents, but it wouldn’t leave a mark on him.

Instead, two years and many variants later, he’s diagnosing his stuffed animals with a deadly super virus, and it’s pretty apparent that this pandemic will be a formative experience for our kids.

“I mean, that’s the whole pandemic,” my wife, Cecilia, says. “It’s making plans and having them fall to pieces.” 

I should just point out right now that we love our children. In fact, we added one. We have a daughter now. She’s almost two. These kids, they’re our whole world. It’s just that now, they are our "whole" world.

This is the point where I need to note: we’ve been incredibly lucky during the pandemic. We know people who have gotten very sick, even died. But our close friends and family have done OK, and I hope that continues.

But we made up our minds that we would take reasonable steps to protect our kids from the immediate dangers of COVID and its murkier long-lasting mysterious side effects. That has meant cutting out or cutting back on many of the things we love to do to stay grounded.

When Cecilia and I got vaccinated last spring, it felt like we were almost there. A fully-vaccinated family was our finish line, the “new normal.” Case numbers dropped, and we even got a taste of freedom.

But when the announcement came in the fall that vaccines for children under five would be delayed for months, it was a gut punch. And then the omicron surge, with its ability to cause mild infections in vaccinated people, ran through our plans with a truck.

Swim lessons? We’ll wait. Travel plans? On hold. And the Grinch may not have been able to steal Christmas, but COVID could. My mom caught a breakthrough case, and we spent Christmas cooped up at home —same as always.

Henry and Josie were sad, but we, as parents, were devastated. It was the one thing we had to look forward to outside the house.

If you’ve had a conversation with a parent lately, you might have noticed they’ve developed a new verbal tic. “It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.” I heard it the other night from our friend Amy Gahl-Sweeney. “I mean, what else are we supposed to do about it? It’s fine,” she said. 

Amy is the mother of a particularly rambunctious three-year-old, Tessa, who happens to be our son’s best buddy. And while most of us can find respite in our work, where people ostensibly behave like adults, Amy is a school counselor.

“Kids are sick constantly. Kids are being sent home,” she says. “There’s no consistency. And so you constantly have to rethink what your job looks like every day. It’s exhausting. And then you come home, and your toddler has all that energy, and also you can’t see your friends and family. So, that stinks.” 

That’s a good day for working parents in January 2022. But, even that haphazard routine is a best-case scenario. Because in order to prevent daycares and schools from becoming hotbeds of COVID transmission, many have strict rules for quarantining symptomatic children or any child who’s been exposed to a COVID carrier.

Our family gets an email any time there’s a COVID exposure in any of the five classrooms at our kids’ daycare. We’ve gotten at least seven of those emails over the last month.

“Honestly, I think everybody’s frustration and stress levels are just to-the-max right now, so it’s been chaos, I will say that,” says Lindsay Lippert, the child care center administrator at the Lutheran Home. “I have a really great team. That’s what I’m lucky to have.”

Lindsay sends those emails to us. It’s one more new duty in a job that has come to entail filling in for sick teachers and hours of contact tracing every week.

“Whenever we know that there’s a COVID exposure, we’re basically pulling those child attendance sheets and looking back to see when they were signed in and signed out,” Lindsay says.  It’s a tedious process, identifying every child that spent 15 minutes or more in close proximity to a COVID positive classmate or teacher.

As a parent, the best you can hope for is to dance through those raindrops and not get wet. Because when you do, everything screeches to a halt.

In our house, I’m a small business owner. My wife Cecilia is a physician. Neither of those is a job title that comes with a whole lot of flexibility.

“It means one of us has to stay home and miss work,” Cecilia says. “It usually means more than one day out of daycare and a COVID test for one of these two kids, or both of them.”

And if you haven’t had the experience of COVID testing a two or three-year-old yet, let me just tell you that it’s an especially soul-crushing ordeal that makes you feel like a complete monster. I’ve tried explaining this to my three-year-old, Henry.

“I don’t think they’re much fun,” Henry says. “I just cry and wiggle around because I don’t like it.”

Every time we have to do another one of these things to get him back into daycare, he fights me with everything he’s got. And I have to pin my kid’s arms and legs down and ram a cue-tip up his nose.

Ben Sweeney — Amy’s husband, Tessa’s Dad — feels just as guilty as I do.

“I mean it’s traumatic for me to see how much she’s crying and thrashing while taking the test,” Ben says. “You know, I needed like five minutes to just decompress here.” 

But then, the other week, Tessa’s COVID test results came back positive. And for a week, their lives were thrown into limbo again — work put off, plans canceled, those same four walls, and a sick kid. Thankfully Tessa didn’t get too ill, and the adults in the family are vaccinated. So Amy says now, they can look back and kinda take a deep breath.

“As long as everything’s fine with her in the long term, it’s kind of like, well, she had it. And it was okay,” Amy says. “It’s almost like a sense of relief.”

And if I’m being honest? I’m a tiny bit jealous that Ben and Amy have that.

“There is a small, small part of me that feels like it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to get it,” says another Dad-friend, Ken Leiviska. “But at the same time, I still don’t want to get COVID. I don’t want Mason getting COVID. That would absolutely bother me.” 

Ken and Liz Leiviska are some other friends of ours, and their son Mason is 14 months old. Like many parents right now, they’re essentially having regular risk assessment meetings as a couple where they evaluate the current caseload, any potential plans, and the chances that they could bring home COVID.

“I just don’t think it’s worth the danger to put my son in,” Liz says. “My mom also watches Mason one day a week, and they do a lot of work for my grandma, and so I don’t want to put her at risk.” 

But even as a pair of self-styled introverts, Ken and Liz say they’ve reached the end of their rope.“It is easy to feel like we’re left behind, and the whole world is just moving along,” Liz says. 

Ken adds, “Being in the house, in winter, with a one-year-old who just learned how to walk, is driving us a little bonkers.” 

And, from where we’re sitting, I can safely say the feeling is mutual. A few weeks ago, our daughter Josie spiked a fever and developed croup, and we thought, “Ope, this is it. Here’s COVID.”

But it wasn’t. After multiple tests and all the trauma that entailed, she came back negative. We still had to pull her from daycare, and her fever got bad enough that Cecilia had to take her to the Urgent Care.

When she arrived, she was told there would be a four-hour wait, and the waiting room was packed with COVID patients. They walked back out just as quickly, and we chanced to treat the 105-degree fever ourselves at home. Just another adventure as we enter Year Three of COVID parenting. The worry, the uncertainty, the isolation. It’s purgatory.

“There is no end,” Cecilia says. “It’s just us getting our kids vaccinated so we can go back to something reasonably normal.” The fact of the matter is we don’t hold it against anyone who’s vaccinated and able to go on with their lives in a reasonably responsible manner right now.

There have certainly been worse times in history to be a parent. And we have to constantly remind ourselves that we don’t have it so bad. We have means, a support network. Folks are getting by from single-parent or low-income households. I don’t know how they do it.

But the truth is, no one who has kids is OK right now. If I may paraphrase the "Offspring," who originally paraphrased the "Who," "The Parents aren't all right." And that's all right.

Build that pillow fort. Be generous with the screen time. Pour a skosh after the kids go to bed. Help your neighbors if you can and do what you can to cherish this time with your kids, even if there’s a lot of it. Spring time is just two or four months away.

Dusty Weis is a podcast producer and consultant in Milwaukee. You can follow him on Twitter at @dustyweis. 

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