Pandemic fatigue has become so ubiquitous that it even has its own Wikipedia page. We’re in our 3rd year of this pandemic and, whether we like it or not (I’m pretty sure most of us are in the ‘not’ camp at this point!), things aren’t really easing up.
In 2021 the Australian National Health Commission formally acknowledged ‘pandemic fatigue’ as a mental health condition. It’s characterised by, ‘tiredness, frustration, low energy, restlessness, irritability, hopelessness, dread, not wanting to be with others, increased use of alcohol or other substances and lack of enthusiasm for things you would otherwise enjoy’. I say ‘Aye’ to all of the above…!
Pandemic fatigue, along with the weighty list of stresses that this pandemic has afflicted on our population (financial, health, relationships), was what motivated the Australian government to extend the existing Mental Health Treatment Plan – previously known as the Mental Healthcare Plan – from 10 sessions to 20, per person, per year.
Last week, a few days before my 5-year-old was to attend her first day of primary school, having missed the Zoom session that was hosted by the principal (I wasn’t doing anything important, I just had pandemic fatigue), I eagerly opened the PDF that was emailed to all parents as a follow-up to the Zoom.
Starting school has been a big occasion in our home because our 5-year-old is our firstborn; it feels like we’re ALL starting school.
While I thought I would be reading about where drink bottles are kept and how to return borrowed books to the library, instead, the entire document – and I realised the purpose of the Zoom session – was about NSW’s Term-1 Covid-safe school plan.
I should be clear. I am a fully vaccinated, mask-wearing Australian who has (for the most part) played by the rules during copious lockdowns in the name of reducing Covid-19 case numbers, unburdening our healthcare system, healthcare workers and other frontline workers and protecting the more vulnerable members of our community. In short, I see myself as a team player.
But I’m going to be honest. Reading the NSW’s Department of Education’s guidelines was triggering. Not only must all teachers, I learnt, wear a surgical mask at all times, children are ‘strongly encouraged’ to also wear a mask; 2 RAT tests per week are recommended; physical contact will be reduced/minimised; parents are not permitted to enter the school grounds.
Of course, I understand the reasoning behind these measures and am fully aware of the science that underpins them. But as a parent, as a person, reading about the conditions under which my daughter would begin her school journey made me feel really sad.
I guess no parent ever imagined their child starting school wearing a surgical mask – being taught by an adult also wearing a surgical mask. And I’m also sure that during the last 2 years, no parent has felt truly good inside about handing their baby, toddler or small child over at the daycare, preschool or school gate, forbidden to set foot inside the premises.
Similarly, parents of ‘Covid babies’ probably never imagined their baby being born into a world so tightly stitched up that they’ve barely had the chance to learn to socialise, let alone travel or experience new people and places. And when said Covid babies have been taken out of the house, they’re mostly been met by seas of masked adults. We’re yet to see the extent of the repercussions of such isolation on our youngest generation…
It’s just not how we imagined it.
While Covid-19 has acutely impacted numerous sectors in Australia, including healthcare, tourism, the arts, hospitality, retail, education and small businesses, being a parent during the pandemic has brought with it a specific set of challenges – and emotional exhaustion to boot.
Early in the pandemic during lockdowns, social media feeds became lively with (non-parent) people posting about the novelty dishes they’d baked, the online classes they’d taken or any other new hobby they were proud to be having a crack at. After all, they had time!
Parents to babies, toddlers and small children, on the other hand, were living a vastly different reality. Being in lockdown for us meant being with our little ones all the time with very little to break up the day. No playdates. No classes. No library/reading hour. No in-person mum’s groups. No visits from family and friends. No childcare. No preschool. No school. No restaurants or cafes. And in some states, no playgrounds.
The pressure for a parent, who themselves was carrying the weight of the collective trauma of ‘our generation’s war’, as some people have referred to it, to provide their children with ongoing nurture and stimulation inside their home, for some, became untenable.
Then throw work into the mix. Throughout 2020 and 2021 Melbourne was in lockdown for a total of 262 days, while in 2021 Sydney was in lockdown for 107 days straight. Throughout much of these lockdowns, schools, preschools and childcare centres closed – remaining open only for the children of permitted or essential workers.
Yet parents were expected – and in most cases needed – to work. Working from home with toddlers running wild around your house is about as impossible as escaping this pandemic on a rainbow unicorn. In my case, it meant working most nights, late into the evening. It also meant an unhealthy amount of pressure placed on my marriage as my husband and I would juggle childcare and work like amateur (and exhausted) clowns.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1 out of 4 Australian women return to work by the time their baby is 10 months old, and approximately 45% of those working mums rely on formal daycare or preschool, 80% of which rely on long daycare. This data doesn’t take into account the number of working mums with kids at school and working dads across the board.
That means that during the many lockdowns in Australia over the last 2 years, a meaningful percentage of our at-home workforce were also expected to care for their baby, toddler and/or child. Some working parents had several children to care for at once.
Of course, the saying that ‘you don’t know how tough you are until you’re tested’ is also true. In the developed world, our generation has been mostly a privileged one, with an average full-time annual wage sitting at $85K in Australia and 67% of Australian adults owning their own home. As many of us have quarantined and isolated more times than we care to remember – often while working and parenting simultaneously, and are still here to tell our stories (fatigued-an’-all), there’s no doubt that while we’re worn down, we’re damn tough.
If there was once a glimmer of novelty to this pandemic for parents – and I can admit that in 2020, I found a strange sense of respite in the abandonment of social obligations and the indulgence of wireless bras and loungewear… by February 2022 it sure has worn off.
January 2022 ticked over with social media feeds bursting with lists of hopeful resolutions. We all wanted to put the wrath of Covid behind us, start a clean slate.
But within just days of 2022 in Australia, Omicron was everywhere; the newest wave of this pandemic that seemed to creep up on us like that dreaded snake in the grass. Quickly, knowing someone in your family or close inner circle contracting Covid became the norm. Then it crept in even closer – into our homes. At this stage, most of us have either had Covid, are suffering from it right now or have supported someone we love through it.
Now, 2 full years into this pandemic, most of us are running on empty. It’s hard to know what actual Covid-fatigue must feel like when fatigue has simply become a way of existing. I wish there was a satin bow I could employ to tie this article up with and offer that much needed happy ending.
For many of us parents, I suppose that bow comes in the form of community. While mother’s groups and social and family gatherings have been interrupted for much of the last 2 years in Australia, the determination of parents, everywhere, to connect, help each other out and share our stories, has in some ways encouraged us to lean into ‘the village’ way of living and child-rearing. Perhaps it’s also encouraged us to be honest. Honest about not coping, about being tired, about finding life hard, about asking for help when we need it. Perhaps what this pandemic has taught us above all is that we need one another to survive it.