IHI logo - stories of the COVID Crisis

"Seeing my kids suffer makes me question my own choices."

Toddler looking out window
By Rebecca Pelton

Portland, OR
United States

I am a nurse at an acute care psychiatric hospital. Quarantine or not, patients and staff are at work every day and, because of my job, my family is socially distancing like we’re trying to win a prize for it. It’s painful.  

Our two kids are so outgoing that the people they regularly engage — at parks, in grocery store lines, innocently walking by our house — frequently remark on their extroversion. Now, isolated, they appear to be wilting. 

This Mother’s Day, our kids leaped from breakfast, excited to see an unexpected event: cars pulling up, people disembarking with pans of quiche, croissants.  

Hello! Hello! Hello! My seven-year-old flung open the front door, the three-year-old just behind her, both shouting in wild greeting. People waved and walked to our neighbor’s house. The quarantine quiet of our backyard was broken by music and voices rising, laughing, the sounds of children playing on the other side of the fence.  

Of course, COVID is impacting relationships as people disagree over individual interpretations of how to flatten the curve. But the pain I’m feeling as I listen to my neighbor’s party is more complicated than the grinding discomfort of other people’s disregard for social distancing. 

This pain is tricky to sort out. I know I feel it at work, and now I feel it at home.  

It’s not just the work-place stressors COVID has brought: masks filled to bursting with coffee breath; “non-essential” employees absent; the emptiness of leaders’ gestures towards safety when no substantial measures have been taken to date. (They are still not testing new admits). 

It’s not even the creeping, erosive uncertainties: What about the “second wave”? What, if anything, will keep our patients — many who live on the streets or in group homes, and have comorbid conditions in addition to mental illness — safe? What will keep our families safe, when we are spending our workdays within a sea of people during a pandemic?  

It’s a different discomfort from the anger/disbelief of watching people in red hats protesting. Or upon glancing over Instagram posts of play-dates other family’s children continue to enjoy — people who may not vaccinate. 

I have been angry when I see people making unsafe choices because they themselves “aren’t worried about getting sick.” I am scared of our medical system in Oregon getting overwhelmed as it has in other states. But that’s not the pain I’m feeling.  

Hearing our neighbors, I am simultaneously the child uninvited to the birthday party, and a mother watching my children go hungry — not for food, but for companionship. In the past 60 days, my first grader has regressed into epic tantrums, which I completely relate to and even envy. What else is there when one has no words for these alien circumstances, which no aspect of our socially dependent evolution could have possibly prepared us for?  

Seeing my kids suffer (and I know how privileged we are that their only scarcity is companionship) makes me question my own choices. As I listen to the voices next door, I worry. Are we overreacting? Will this time be looked back on as a time that we hurt our children needlessly? 

Or, is the cost of overreacting far cheaper than potential recklessness? And what lessons are we teaching our children when we disregard our social duty to protect the vulnerable out of dislike for inconvenience and discomfort?  

Yet again, as a psych nurse I work with vulnerable people every day and, from what I can see, our society is already not protecting them. The sticky storm of mental health is shot through with addiction, poverty, homelessness, poor access to education and health care, clotted with racism and sexism. 

We are caring for people imprisoned in a multigenerational dumpster fire of social systems that have failed them, and their parents before them, ad infinitum. We are caring for people disfigured by violence imposed not just by individuals but by a country that accepts misery as a necessary evil in the service of making money. This is the bitter hook of pain caught in me. 

Our federal government is failing in its response to COVID, but it was already failing. There is real grief in this, disappointment present long before I watched political leaders decline masks, deny science, lie openly, or admit publicly that protecting the economy is more important to them than our nation’s health.  

How does one work in the service of restoring health within the distortions of this sick system? What does it mean to be a nurse whose patients leave only to return sicker because there are no community supports? What does it mean to teach your children to follow a social contract, when one is no longer recognized? It feels far lonelier than COVID quarantine. It is the loneliness of a fractured country, of failed leadership.

The pain I feel listening to my neighbor’s party, on a beautiful May morning, is of an almost existential isolation, of feeling far from the fires of other hominid cave dwellers, cold in the dark without the commingled breathing of my pack.

When we ring our bells and shout “thank you” at 7pm, my voice always breaks. Instead of bells and banging pots I wish we were all howling, broken-hearted, huge, and together. 

Share your story from the COVID-19 Crisis.