Andria Hayes-Birchler had barely begun to comprehend her new reality as a single parent before the pandemic hit. In March 2020, she had an 8-month-old infant and a 4-year-old, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband had recently moved from their home in Washington, D.C., to California. What followed was a year and a half of unrelenting crisis as she struggled to balance her career as a research consultant with caring for her two young sons, alone.

So, in September, when her now-6-year-old son finally returned full-time to a first-grade classroom, and her 2-year-old was thriving at daycare, and Hayes-Birchler found herself inundated with new clients, it felt like maybe they had crossed a finish line. “Like now we were going to be OK,” she says, “and now I was able to actually establish my baseline as a single parent.”

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Then came omicron. In December, her older son’s school abruptly returned to virtual learning. Her younger son was already home – he’d come down with an ear infection, which required antibiotics, which he did not tolerate well, which meant he couldn’t attend daycare for 10 days. Then his older brother tested positive for covid, and the whole family had to begin a lengthy quarantine, and their holiday travel plans to visit family were canceled. (And of course, in the midst of all this, their refrigerator broke.) For 33 days in December and January, Hayes-Birchler found herself home alone with her boys, and unable to work. Again.

But this time there was no unemployment benefits, no stimulus check, no child tax credit,” she says. “I felt very much like I was in the middle of a PTSD episode.”

About 3 in 10 families with children are headed by single parents, according to the U.S. Census, and 75% of those parents are mothers. Single-parent families comprise more than ten million households in America – yet those who spoke to The Washington Post said they often feel like outliers, especially during the pandemic, and especially during this stage of the pandemic, as they cope with years of cumulative stress as well as the fresh chaos unleashed by the omicron variant. Many parents say they’ve felt painfully overlooked: by school systems who expect them to be able to accommodate virtual learning; by employers who aren’t flexible when a daycare closure upends a workweek; by lawmakers who have withdrawn financial safety nets; by health guidelines that are often impossible for a solo-parent household to follow.

There has been plenty of public acknowledgment of the cumulative, crushing toll these past years have taken on parents. Hayes-Birchler has read many news stories about the trials of parenting in the pandemic, she says, “and almost always there is one line somewhere that says, ‘and this is what it’s like for dual-parent households – for single parent households, it’s even worse!’ but then it rarely delves into what ‘even worse’ looks like.”

For Lauren Smith, a single mom in Washington, D.C., ‘even worse’ looked like a particular afternoon in May 2020 when she was attending a work meeting on Zoom while caring for her then-11-month-old twin boys. One of them had a diaper blowout during the meeting, and while Smith was in the middle of changing him, her other son dropped her laptop on his foot and started screaming. She was expected to deliver a presentation to her coworkers within minutes, she recalls, but instead she closed her laptop, lay down on the living room floor with her two babies, and sobbed along with them.

“I think I cried more over the whole first year of the pandemic than I had my entire life,” she says, “and almost always because I had to choose between my kids and work.”

The memory alone evokes a surge of visceral anxiety, she says, which is why it felt like a particularly destabilizing gut-punch when her sons’ daycare announced in early January that it would be closed for a week because several teachers and staff had contracted covid over the holiday break. Once again, she found herself trying to figure out how she would make an impossible situation somehow possible.

“That was a really, really rough way to start a new year,” Smith says. “I don’t know if I’m numb, but I just – I live in terror. It was just another sign that this year might not be anything different, that this situation is just ongoing.”

If you ask single parents how they’re doing lately, one answer is: They don’t even have time to tell you. They’d love to, but they simply have no spare minutes to schedule a call, between the relentless demands of caring for their kids, doing their jobs and keeping a household running.

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