How I Survived COVID-19 While Caring For A Three-Year-Old

by Joanna Lagstein
Originally Published: 
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As the second wave (or tsunami, as I like to call it) hits, and positive COVID numbers skyrocket, I’m hearing more and more people I know complaining of “COVID fatigue,” or saying “I just want life to go back to normal.” I get it – I’m sick of this too! I got laid off this year. My husband and I are on top of each other 24/7, and not in a sexy way. My kid has had four teachers over the last nine months, and I can’t see many of my loved ones. Lockdown sucks, school closures suck, not seeing family sucks, working from home while watching/schooling your kids sucks…this SUCKS.

But you know what sucks more? Actually getting COVID.

My husband and I have been vigilant about social distancing since this all began in March. We’ve stayed home, wiped groceries, Zoomed our faces off, and tried to come up with activities to keep our precocious three-year-old at bay. Most people who know us would call us hyper-vigilant, and truly, we were. With high-risk family members who were regulars in our lives, we dedicated ourselves to being as safe as possible – no indoor play dates, no public parks, and essentially, no social lives for the foreseeable future. Needless to say, it’s been a blast (right). But at least we were protected from COVID.

And then the unexpected happened: one evening, my husband said he felt run down. Sure, he had been working like a dog around the clock – who wouldn’t feel run down? We shrugged it off. The next day, he woke up at 5am shaking, blanket wrapped around him. We immediately knew what it was – but HOW?! We had been so careful. We tried to backtrack, to determine how this could have happened – and truthfully – we still don’t know how we got COVID. All we know is that we likely contracted COVID-19 Halloween weekend, and the rest was a nightmare.

For three days, I solo parented while waiting hand and foot on my three-year-old daughter and my very sick, very quarantined husband. (Note: we are extremely lucky to have a master bedroom with a bathroom en suite, but our apartment is a mere 1200 square feet.) If he poked his head out for even a second, I would hiss “GET BACK IN THERE.” I toweled his door as if we were smoking pot in our college dorm room – I have no idea if that did anything but it made sense at the time. I counted the hours until it was my daughter’s bedtime and I could let down my veneer of “having it together.” I would end my days curled in a ball feeling sorry for myself. I had no idea how much worse it could get. (Side note: single parents are warriors. I only got a three-day taste of single parenting and it brought me to my knees.)

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On day three, my COVID test came back: positive as well. The symptoms awoke the moment I got the test back, as if waiting for confirmation that they were indeed real. I granted my husband parole – no sense in both of us being locked up. We put on our masks to be around our daughter, cracked the windows, and tried to make the best of it.

We were both lucky to have mild cases. Our lungs remained unaffected and we didn’t need the hospital – but there was nothing about this that felt mild.

For two weeks, my husband had more of a tried and true flu with fever, while my symptoms were more like a CDC Russian Roulette: every day the chamber spun, landing on a delightful cross-section of maladies. I encountered every single symptom except the trouble breathing. I’ll spare you the gory details. The biggest challenge of it all was co-parenting our daughter while feeling that sick. Quarantining ourselves wasn’t an option, and neither was passing her off to a friend or relative (God forbid she pass the virus along). Every day, we looked at one another and said: how the hell are we going to do this?!

At first we whined (him) and cried (me), lamenting that we both had to be parents while we felt this crappy (whose decision was THAT?!). We tried to operate as we usually did – my husband worked from home (yes, with COVID!) and I entertained our daughter best I could without screens or sweets. That lasted one day exactly before I broke down. It wasn’t working and we were running ourselves even more ragged than we already felt. We had a “family meeting.” It was time to throw out our parenting rulebook and turn to our survival skills.

It’s these decisions I want to share, not because it’s sound parenting but because it got us through. We bent our rules in order to rest and retain what sanity we had left. Below are the key changes we made that made a huge difference in our ability to recover from COVID-19 while keeping our daughter happy and entertained.

Note: I am NOT a doctor and I do not play one on TV (as much as I’d like to – yes, I’m available if you’re holding auditions for Grey’s Anatomy, and no, I don’t care that the show has been on for 200 years). These are not medical recommendations but a mix of what we’ve learned from working with our PCP, pediatrician, and actually going through the experience of parenting with COVID. I’m sharing my survival guide because let’s face it, when you’re sick, you’re not thinking straight.

Rule # 1 : Keep your children home with you.

I know – this seems counterintuitive. We wanted to unload our little one the moment we both knew we had COVID – to protect her from getting it and to give ourselves time and space to rest. But, as explained by our pediatrician, our children breathe the same air we do, they’re all over us and vice versa – the likelihood that they are asymptomatic carriers is high. You might feel tempted (as we did) to pass them off to another caretaker while you rest up, but your children could potentially infect that caretaker (read: Grandma who is already high risk). It sucks, but keep the little ones close and make them quarantine with you for the recommended 14 days. If your spouse isn’t sick or another family member who lives with you can care for them – great! Quarantine as much as you can. If you can’t – just do your best to practice good hygiene. Open your windows as much as you can tolerate, wash your hands, wipe down high touch surfaces and wear a mask at all times around your child. I’m sure this sounds insane, but it’s the best way to isolate the virus to your household and keep others around you safe.

Rule # 2: “Sleep wherever you can, whenever you can”

Remember the old adage sleep when the baby sleeps? Same principle applies here, except our daughter doesn’t nap anymore (rude). The fatigue that comes with COVID is VERY real and VERY debilitating. Rotate shifts with your partner every 1-2 hours or as much as possible. Decide who gets up with the little ones based on who is feeling better at that time – it will change as you go through the symptoms. No partner? No problem. Plunk the little in front of the TV – let them watch a movie.

We normally don’t do screens or let our daughter play video games. That all went out the window when we both got sick. Our “new normal” became three hours of screen a day, copious fruit snacks, and letting our daughter watch us play Super Mario. Did we feel guilty? Of course. But COVID is a family emergency – get through it by bending your rules and accepting that you cannot be your best right now. Let Paw Patrol do the work for you.

No one will get hurt from a little extra screen time for a couple of weeks. Judge away, I don’t care. We did what we had to in order to rest and not make our symptoms worse.

Rule #3: Let it go.

No, I’m not talking about Frozen. I’m talking about your neuroses and your responsibilities that aren’t emergent. In the beginning of our bout with COVID, I was cleaning every single surface maniacally, picking up toys, going through my normal mommy routines, and at the end of the day, I was more exhausted than I could imagine. I even tried to complete a freelance writing assignment and fell asleep while doing it. I knew it was time to cry “uncle.” My husband took a leave from work; I told my editor I needed time to take care of my family – it was truly a family emergency. If this happens to you, try to slow things down. Take off from work if you have the days off – it’s not time to be a hero. Leave the mess – or at least the parts that aren’t going to drive you insane. Laundry can wait, with exception of undergarments (but definitely consider going braless to decrease laundry). Before our illness began, I did 6 loads of laundry hoping to fold them all in an evening. The fortress sat for days; I folded exactly 4-5 items of laundry a day and a lot of it is still sitting there. The pile became like an old friend that I greeted in the morning. Laundry can wait. Self care and time spent with your child cannot. The work, laundry, and mess will still be there when you recover, and no one is giving out gold stars for masochism.

Rule #4: Keep it simple.

This applies to meals, entertainment, and anything else you’re trying to do to keep your kiddo happy. You are too sick to be Mary Poppins right now. Order takeout. Instacart chicken nuggets – boil eight cups of noodles at once and reheat them all week if you have to. Order new toys on Amazon or borrow some from a friend or neighbor. New stuff (borrowed or brand new) goes a long way towards distracting the littles. My personal favorites have been I Spy books, educational video games, legos, and stickers. One friend gave me a cardboard castle that her girls had used and it was a huge hit when I told my daughter her friends gave it to her. She’s STILL playing with it daily. Borrowing toys is a great way to keep the kids busy – ask your friends if they have anything sitting around they’re not using. No one is going to say no.

Rule #5: Accept help.

This is a tough one – I hated the idea of letting my family and community know about my positive status, but once I did, there was an outpouring of help in the form of seamless gift cards, toys for our daughter, food, books, and offers to run errands. I was mortified at first, and then realized people LIKE to help. I gave up and even started asking for favors from friends and family. Not a single person said no. They went to CVS for me, got me soup, brought me probiotics, you name it, they did it. COVID brought me closer to friends and family members because the veneer of “togetherness” I previously had was gone – what was left was a human being, like anyone else, who needed help and needed her village.

Rule #6: Phone a friend.

This is the best thing I did for myself. My husband didn’t need to hear how sick I felt or how annoying my child was being – he was going through it with me! I appointed 1-3 friends as my vent session pals, where I could feel sorry for myself, bitch and moan without consequence. I’m not here to tell you who to pick as your person. Call your best friend, your parents, whoever your confidant is and ask if you can vent to them no holds barred. It helps a LOT to have a mental support system for all of this – COVID is depressing as hell and you don’t want to go through it more alone than you already feel. There will be lows and lowers, and you’ll want to be able to metaphorically cry on someone’s shoulder.

It’s also great to have people your children can FaceTime to give yourself a break. One of my cousins was an absolute hero: she would stay on with my daughter for two hours a day reading to her, singing songs, drawing and doing all sorts of activities. I didn’t even know it was possible to keep a child entertained on FaceTime that long. I would lay on the couch nearby the whole time, grateful for the opportunity to take a mental break and relax my body.

Rule #7: Keep a COVID journal.

Document your temp checks, pulse ox and symptoms all day every day. You’re going to forget what happened after you’ve been quarantining and parenting more than a week. Talk about mommy brain. As you look towards the end of quarantine and not being contagious practitioners are going to ask you for nitty gritty details to make sure you’re in the clear. Friends and family will also be curious about your symptoms and it will be helpful for you to have an accurate picture for you and for them. Trust me, you’ll want to have these details in hand. I chose morning and night to log mine. Whatever works best for you! Just make sure you do it.

Rule #8: Pack a “go” bag – just in case.

This is a scary rec but hear me out: it’s a good idea to be prepared for a hospital trip just in case you have to go. You don’t want to be scrambling at the last minute for your iPhone charger, insurance card or extra fuzzy socks. It’s tedious and stressful, but just do it, you’ll be glad you did. Pack one for your kids as well in case someone else needs to care for them. I grumbled about this when my husband first suggested it, and we never needed it, but if we had, I would have been so relieved that I had everything I needed for days in the hospital.

Rule #9: Be kind to yourself and those around you.

You may be thinking, “Shut up already, lady! On top of all this other crap, you want me to be NICE?” Yes, I do. During COVID, you’re essentially at war as a family. Beating yourself up for not working out or getting something done can wait. Bitching at your partner for leaving the toilet seat up does not matter right now. And your child (if young enough) probably doesn’t even understand what’s happening right now or how scary it is for mom and/or dad. Be kind to them: they’ve been locked up too without their friends or school. Same for your partner – you’re a team, and there’s not enough time or energy to argue. If you feel like you’re going to snap, take a break. If you do snap, apologize (even if you don’t mean it) and try to be as gentle and kind as you can. You’ll need that energy to recover.

This applies to the nurses, doctors, and office staff as well – they are doing the best they can with limited resources. It’s frustrating as hell to experience testing delays, mishaps and more, but remember: no one has gone through a pandemic like this before. We’re all doing our best. And who knows – maybe that one person you’re kind to will squeeze you in for a hard-to-get telehealth appointment!

It’s 16 days after my first day of symptoms and I’m still home, quarantining, just in case. And while I’m dying to set foot outside, I am okay waiting a little longer for my symptoms to be completely gone – our survival plan is still in place and still working, mostly. For now, I’m simply grateful. I’m grateful to mostly be on the other side of this horrible virus. Grateful to be alive when so many aren’t. Grateful that my husband and I found a way to bond over this horrific experience. And most grateful that we worked together as a family to get through it, especially after months of wanting to kill one another.

We recently had a talk with my daughter and told her things wouldn’t be how they’ve been these past few weeks anymore – that the junk food, TV, and video games would likely disappear. She wasn’t happy about that, but I’m sure she’ll be happy to have her parents operating at full capacity in the near future.

Please be safe out there. I can assure you that there’s no gathering, event or party worth feeling the way my husband and I felt with COVID. There’s certainly nothing worth putting our community and our children at risk. We missed Thanksgiving this year, but that’s okay. We got what we needed this year for Thanksgiving: surviving COVID-19 with our lives, and our sanity, intact.

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