While we are all weathering the same storm cast by COVID-19, we are not in the same boat. Lives ended, lives upended, and lives on hold: each of us has been affected by the pandemic to some capacity. Those bearing the brunt of essential labor risk exposure, while most of us only face the toils of uncertainty and restriction. But for many children of essential employees, they face both.
Among those thrust into this “new normal” are Esmerelda, Aylin, Kaylee, and JonCarlo: first-year high school students from Central Washington. Esme’s dad works in construction while JonCarlo’s dad works as a mechanic. Kaylee’s dad serves as a police officer. Aylin’s mom works in her school’s financial office and her dad works in construction. Together they share their nuanced perspectives, coping strategies, and steadfast resiliency while facing the global pandemic.
“I feel somehow okay,” JonCarlo responded when asked how he’s feeling about his father’s service as an essential worker. “Since my dad works at our family mechanic shop, he was able to make sure that the customers had gloves and masks and all that…” What comforts him the most, though, is knowing that business is slow. “During this entire quarantine, he hasn’t gotten as many customers, so that’s been a huge relief for me because that means that he’s barely contacting people.”
“I don’t like it,” Esme remarked, “I don’t like it because I don’t really get to see my dad. Before, he would never leave for work for this long, but now he does…” While Esme’s father builds apartments in eastern Washington, and her mother and sisters work in a local warehouse, she and her brother keep each other company at home, which proves tiring and lonesome at times.
Alternatively, both Aylin and Kaylee considered their shifted realities as somewhat comparable to summer vacation.“Everything’s pretty normal, other than a lot of cleaning and sanitary precautions,” shared Kaylee, whose dad works as a police officer while her mother stays home with Kaylee and her siblings. “I’m actually feeling fine with my parents working,” Aylin offered, “it kinda feels like summer besides the school part! My dad still has to go out of town every week to work, which is just like how life is in the summer.”
What doesn’t feel like summer, however, is the increased amount of responsibility many adolescents handle with one, or both, of their parents working in essential roles. “When my parents come home really late, I have to be the one to cook. And it feels like I’m always cleaning and having to do my schoolwork too. Plus, I have to make my brother food throughout the day ‘cause he can’t cook for himself!” Esme’s situation is not unique: many students who are expected to virtually participate in school, and come up with a domestic and caretaking chore list find themselves negotiating time like never before.
Some families have been fortunate enough to benefit from the help of a grandparent. “I think for me, I actually had to help out around the house more so before my grandma came to stay with us. Still, I help my mom cook when she comes home now.”
When asked if their families have grown closer despite everything, they all agreed. “I would definitely say the pandemic has brought us closer together.” With both of Esme’s parents and sisters working full-time, their family time has been reduced drastically. While Esme busies herself with cooking, cleaning, schoolwork, and babysitting, her younger brother struggles with her father’s absence. “Well, my brother misses my dad because,like, that’s who he’d always be with all the time, and he’s just stuck in his room now, like he doesn’t want to come out. And my two older sisters are working too, which makes it harder for him.”
Kaylee too noted that the pandemic and her father’s service for the local police department similarly has affected her younger siblings. “My sister always wants my dad to be home, but he just can’t be right now.” Like Esme, Kaylee also babysits her siblings during the day, which compromises time she’d usually spend on schoolwork. And while this new reality presents its challenges, both agreed that the pandemic has improved their family relations: “We definitely try to hang out more when we can and plan family things around the time dad gets home.”
When Esme’s father returns from work on the weekends, their family takes advantage of the occasion too. “When we see my dad, we try to spend more time with him, so we all hang out with the animals, make carne asada, and have a bonfire!”
“Yeah, we really try to sit down for meals together, go outside and play together, watch T.V.– all that stuff,” Kaylee echoed.
“Actually, it’s funny because my little sister is the one who’s wanted to do more things as a family, you know, and be like the families on T.V. and [have] family meals all the time…but I’m always the annoying one I guess you could say… the lazy one maybe because I just want to stay inside. But I do help out a lot for our family, even though it doesn’t sound like it, I really do, and my mom, she sees that I have been helping, so she’s okay with it.” While Aylin and her brother are concentrating on their schoolwork in their rooms, Aylin’s little sister often feels lonely. “Since last year, she still doesn’t understand that my dad has to be away, and she always misses him. Of course, she misses both of our parents whenever they’re gone, I guess. But I think she’s more bored than she is alone!”
Being the son or daughter of an essential employee poses its challenges, however, each of these adolescents have found ways to balance their responsibilities, serve their families, and make the best of the situation they’ve been thrust into. These adolescent experiences truly embody Scottish author M.J. Croan’s perspective on maturity: “Maturity is when your world opens up and you realize that you are not the center of it.”
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com, ghostwriter at WriteItGreat.com, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.