Bri with her daughters, after they were reunited.
Bri with her daughters, after they were reunited.
Photo: Bri
Imbalancing ActImbalancing ActMothering during the covid-19 pandemic

Bri, 40, is a single mother of two living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was recently separated from her kids after coming down with covid-19 symptoms.

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I actually took my girls out of school early on March 5th, a week before the official order came down for California schools to close. I work very closely with the children’s hospitals in the Bay Area, that’s part of my job at Ronald McDonald House Charities. We provide programming inside the hospitals, so infection control is something we’re really concerned about, especially because our mission is to offer safe housing and community support and access to health care for the sickest of the sick children, and most of them are immunosuppressed. Because of that, I probably have a little more access to information and understanding about epidemiology, and I could see the writing on the wall.

At that point, our organization had already made the decision to have all nonessential employees work from home. We wanted to get as few people on-site having contact with immunosuppressed kids as possible. But, that weekend, mandatory precautions were issued for hospitals to close down anything considered non-clinical, and that included our Ronald McDonald House and the programs that we were providing. They also would no longer let more than one caregiver into the hospital at a time, so there were all kinds of family members that needed to get home—siblings, or one of the parents, that were staying locally and needed to go home. It was sweeping and it was immediate. I got a phone call Sunday afternoon and it was like: It’s go time, we have to have all of this done by Monday at noon.

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I got in the shower and I went into work. My little one was with her dad—we’re separated, and it was his visitation day—so I called my mom to take care of her from that night onward. The next few days, I worked 12 to 14 hour days inside the hospital trying to redirect donations, getting families what they needed before we had to stop our meal program, and dealing with a lot of really emotional parents who were super terrified and not able to be at their child’s bedside anymore. It was incredibly soul-crushing, emotional work. My staff was in tears.

When I got home late Tuesday night, it sort of hit me that, although there hadn’t been any positive tests yet, it was very likely there were carriers in the hospitals that just hadn’t been detected. I had been on patient floors and in clinical space. I told my 19-year-old step-daughter—who I have raised since she was 7, and when her dad and I split, she chose to stay here instead of going with him or her biological mom—that she needed to go to her mom’s house for two weeks, because I was concerned that I had been exposed and didn’t want her to get it. Same with the little one, I just left her with my mom, packed up a bunch of her stuff, and left it outside my mom’s house. It was totally heartbreaking, because I hadn’t intended to not see them for two weeks, but I felt that it was absolutely necessary to make sure that they were safe.

I felt like a terrible mom. Here is this disruptive moment in our life and I’ve pawned my kids off on other people. Then, 30 seconds later, I would have the complete opposite thought: No, I am being the best mom I can be right now by protecting them. It was this internal struggle, as I think moms have all the time, regardless of a global pandemic, about am I doing the right thing for my kid. But there was something so acute about those feelings in this moment of heightened vigilance. It really felt like a life-and-death decision. Lo and behold, ten days later, I got a fever and a headache.

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The day before I got the fever, I could tell that my body was fighting something off. You get those sensations of being hot and cold, being a little off. The next day, fever hit at 9 o’clock at night. I was very flushed, I had a headache, I was wandering around the house in a tank top and underwear. I took a cold shower. I took my temperature and it was 100.9. I took Tylenol and went to bed. I felt exhausted and drained, even beyond my normal mom exhaustion. Your body cannot move. It feels exhausting to even keep your eyes open. I slept for 18 hours a day for four days straight. I had to set alarms so I would get up, hydrate, take Tylenol. It was the fever and the exhaustion and the headache. I didn’t get the coughing, but I definitely felt pressure in my chest. I also lost my sense of taste, which was really bizarre. It was a pretty mild or moderate case, clearly.

I was sick for six days alone at home. I did not end up getting tested for covid-19, although the test was offered, because knowing enough about epidemiology, the last place I wanted to go was a hospital. I didn’t want to take a test or the lab processing time from somebody who maybe needed a test more urgently. And, frankly, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was like, “I’ve got some Gatorade, I’m chilling.” I don’t mean to sound flip about it, but I was a Peace Corps volunteer and I was so sick throughout my service in a mud hut in a developing country kilometers and kilometers away from medical help. So, maybe my perspective is a little bit skewed. I had certainly been sicker, in worse conditions, with less access to emergency care. For that reason, I know how to take care of myself—for example, I know how to make rehydration salt.

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I didn’t feel scared. I felt like I had done everything I needed to protect the people I love. I was actually grateful that I didn’t have to worry about getting anyone else sick. That “mom guilt” disappeared for me, because I was absolutely doing the right thing. This is what I was afraid would happen—and it did. I had done the right thing. Even though I had a temperature and, for all we know had the virus, I was totally at peace. If I could think of one word that has described this moment in time for me as a mom, it’s been about protection. Maybe not in the ways most people think about it—it’s not about gloves and masks and social distancing, because of course, we’re doing that. It’s about protecting them from a virus when I knew I was exposed to and making that difficult decision.

It’s also about protecting them even now that the courts are closed. My husband and I are separated, we’re not officially divorced yet, because all the courts are closed right now, so we have to prolong this even more. The reason we split was because of a domestic violence issue, and I had to get a restraining order. Although that is in place, a lot of the details haven’t been fully ironed out. I’ve lost access to all the instruments of the law that I had been relying on to keep us safe and protected all along. We’re in limbo about really important things like visitation and custody and support orders. That has been challenging, especially because my ex lost his job right before this hit, the same week that I pulled the girls out of school. One of the court-ordered elements was for him to continue to provide healthcare to our youngest and, obviously, he just lost those benefits.

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Then there were issues with trying to get my youngest on my insurance, because I didn’t have the paperwork to submit to my own insurance, and we basically had a knock-down, drag-out fight for three weeks because I’m like, “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, you’re going to leave me and the girls without health insurance or the ability to get health insurance?” I was freaking out. Obviously, if I have to get a restraining order on the man, and we’re getting a divorce, he’s not somebody that I can rely on. I felt at the mercy of his will. Luckily, the state came in and said anybody whose policy is expiring is good through the end of April.

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Last week, once I was fever-free for 48 hours, I checked with my doctor, and I was able to see my kids again. I spent a couple days disinfecting the entire house and then I went to pick up the little one at my mom’s house—I’m totally going to cry talking about this. I made her a “welcome home” sign. When I picked her up, she was so excited to see me but was jumping around and so I’m like, “Come here, let me hug you and look at you!” I burst into tears, because it had been 17 days. I’ve never been apart from her that long. It was a very emotional moment.

My oldest came home, but just recently she left, because her mom has needed her to provide care for her younger brother. It’s best for her to stay there until “shelter in place” is lifted. I’m still calling her, like, “I saw you got a new AP Econ assignment, have you done the readings?” I’m still parenting from afar. I miss her so terribly. She’s making her college decision this week. Her prom dress is at the tailor’s right now because it was getting hemmed. What will we do with the prom dress now? We already paid for the cap and gown for graduation—maybe we’ll do something silly in the backyard and film it. It feels totally anticlimactic, especially for her, she’s worked so hard for four years.

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Now, I’m not able to start my workday and focus until after 11 a.m. because my youngest has a morning Zoom class with her teacher and I have to sit next to her for most of her work. I save the things she can do independently for the afternoon, which is when I play defense, trying to keep her occupied while I do my Zoom meetings. I am 100 percent okay with the reckless use of screen-time. That’s just our reality, I don’t beat myself up about it. You can’t really think with all the chaos—we have an open floor plan, it’s a ranch-style house, and there’s nowhere to hide. So, last night I was working after her bedtime, from 8:30 to midnight, just to catch up. My workday has become a highly interrupted 12-hour workday, every day.

But now we’re having meals together, which we never did before, because I would get home so late, so she would eat with the sitter or her sister. We’re eating together, she’s helping me cook, those moments are such the silver-lining to all of this. There have been some trying times, but I think I will look back at this as such a gift of time, because I’m not commuting all day long and spreading myself so thin. I can really focus on the things that matter to me.

Senior Staff Writer, Jezebel

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