Loneliness. Isolation. Cheeks that hurt from laughing so hard. Stress. Uncertainty. Newfound appreciation for inner strength. Connection with a higher power and with one other. Gratitude.
These are just a few of the words that capture what Champaign-Urbana parents and guardians have experienced since COVID-19 arrived in our community in March 2020. What so many of us expected to be an extended spring break continues to be a painful and powerful marathon of caring not only for ourselves, but the little people who look to us for love, comfort, and reassurance that everything is going to be okay.
This month, I spoke with two women whose parenting experiences may differ but whose sources of strength are aligned.
Tracy Williams, who describes herself as a follower of Christ, wife, and mother of two spirited humans, lives in Champaign with her family. She’s also the newly appointed assistant director of Unit 4’s Kids Plus Program: caring for children is a major part of her daily life. “My oldest child is Austin. He is a six-year-old entertainer that will steal your heart with his bright eyes, wild smile, and louder-than-life personality...He is a leader and knows exactly what he wants,” Williams describes. "Skylar is my two-year-old. She is almost a carbon copy of her brother. She just wants to be called Princess....She is the full definition of ‘tiny but mighty’."
Meghan Gentry is both a social worker in the community and a foster parent. She has cared for school age girls and teen girls. Gentry currently cares for two sisters: Michelle, an elementary school student, and Ana, a middle school student. (The girls’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.) “They are absolutely amazing and have such fun personalities. Michelle has some learning disabilities but works very, very hard in school. She is very social and enjoys learning, making slime, and being around her family,” Gentry details. “Ana is a typical teenager; she does well in school and likes being on her phone, talking to friends, and watching TikTok.”
Parents and guardians of younger children struggle to find childcare in the best of times in Champaign-Urbana. When the pandemic first landed in our community, many childcare options became suddenly unavailable. Emergency declarations forced many providers to temporarily close their doors. College students finished their Spring 2020 semester from home, limiting the pool of babysitters that so many parents rely on for childcare. Even when childcare was available, many parents were hesitant to bring caregivers into their homes or send their kids into a social space when we didn’t yet have fast, reliable methods of tracing COVID infections. This forced many families to be creative with caring for children when the old, normal options were no longer possible.
The Williams family has been successful in finding care for their two kids, despite how challenging it was to make it all work. “We had to navigate where Austin would go during the hour of online learning. I was fortunate to have previous employers that so graciously let me bring him to work. My parents helped a ton as well.” Meanwhile, relying on care for their one year old proved even more challenging. “Care for Skylar was as consistent as it could be. There were a few times she had to leave school for anything that resembled COVID symptoms. This meant my husband and I had to decide who had the least work to accomplish during those days in order to care for her. All in all we were able to make it work.”
Meeting the care needs of older children comes with its own challenges. “[Michelle and Ana] moved in with me during the spring of 2021 and they were just getting back into in-person learning four days per week. We had to adjust to each other and to being back in school and work together, which actually went well. We all missed being around people and doing a typical routine.”
Though in-person school was a welcomed change in late Winter 2021, the many pressures placed on an underfunded public schooling system were passed onto parents, who had to scramble for alternative arrangements when their child came down with cold- or flu-like symptoms or when possible COVID exposures required kids to quarantine at home. The massive shifts in employment across the nation haven’t spared our local school districts and childcare centers either. "My heart goes out to the staff picking up the extra load, doing everything possible to fill the void in staffing.” Williams acknowledges that as time has passed and better information about preventing COVID among kids has become available, childcare has gotten easier. “With time, we have more understanding of how alternative childcare is a must.”
Gentry and her girls faced a different set of COVID concerns as they returned to fully in-person school. “This fall has been tricky because a few relatives of my kids have tested positive for COVID, and the girls were exposed. Because Ana is vaccinated, she has not had to quarantine, but Michelle did have to quarantine. That has been worrisome because of her need for direct instruction at school....She has now been in quarantine almost a month because of the exposure to multiple COVID infections, so she is really missing out on the direct instruction and supports that she typically receives.” Gentry is worried about Michelle’s progress, but she also has confidence in Michelle’s teachers. “I have hope that they will help her to feel encouraged and find some success in her day, even if she is feeling lost with the content."
Williams says exactly what’s on the minds of so many parents. “Mentally for me, there have been some highs and lows. At times, I felt like I lost myself and honestly had times where I needed to scream to let out my frustrations! While I had these moments, I also had numerous times where I had so much joy caring for my children that my cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing so hard.”
Gentry’s parenting responsibilities changed throughout the pandemic. “I think my experience is pretty unique because I was caring for a fifteen-year-old when the pandemic began. The pandemic actually wrecked the path she was on and threw me into a really unexpected series of events with her. So when I think about the pandemic, I think about that period when it was really just her and me navigating this whole weird time; then I think about the next few months when I lived alone and really struggled with working remotely; and finally I think about the most recent few months that the sisters have lived with me, which has been pretty smooth. Very much a roller coaster for my mental health. I am an introvert, so I feel like my whole life prepared me for the stay-at-home order and the work from home months, but I really began to struggle with the isolation. I missed my students and worried immensely about their safety and whether or not they were being truly seen by the people in their lives.”
While many people have experienced intense loneliness during the pandemic, Gentry points out the special loneliness that goes with being a foster parent. “The pandemic was a nightmare for loneliness in parenting because the supports that we had — caseworker visits in my house, family therapy in my house, individual therapy at an agency, equine therapy out at the farm, visits with mom — all went away. The virtual supports were really delayed in the DCFS world. For about 3 months, we only had phone calls with all of those support people. They were committed to helping us but phone calls just aren’t the same as in-person or even video support. That was super difficult and a big part of why my child struggled so immensely."
Williams reflects on this past year with gratitude, and she offers a caution to parents to not discount all the ways they’ve grown and become stronger. “Often people misunderstand how much we have evolved this year. I’ve learned how to love myself and family during this time of uncertainty. I feel the focus has been placed way too heavily on the disconnect and displacement of our ‘norm’ instead of the time for growth we have been presented with.”