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HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: How to parent while having long-haul COVID-19

opinion

Long-haul COVID-19 is slowly progressing from becoming an absolute shock to the human condition to just one of the effects of the pandemic and more and more common. Researchers are busy conducting studies to find out what the long-term effects of the virus are and whether neurological symptoms may result in chronic conditions.

With little belief in the existence of long-haulers and a stigmatism from communities of those who still complain of symptoms which have not yet been formally categorised by the CDC or WHO, many sufferers, myself included, have started to join online communities to discuss their long-term issues. Cluster-headaches or migraines that last for days, as well as breathlessness, even though oxygen intake is normal, plus delirium, fatigue, confusion and forgetfulness are among the most common complaints.

Then there are more severe ones, people developing actual disabilities and needing walking canes, or loss of eyesight (all reported on the forums).

I myself had a headache, or migraine, who can say what it was, that lasted 7 days. No over-the-counter medication helped and out of sheer desperation I massaged my entire scalp with CBD oil. I also have extremely sensitive eyes. Exposure to light results in an eyeball pain at the top of my lids.

The data on people suffering from long-haul COVID is now being collected from Slack groups by researchers from MIT in the US who have themselves suffered long-term symptoms and are taking on the mighty task of using the data to further study the “phenomenon”.

Other than keeping up with new developments in research and scientific evidence, chats on forums help me feel less crazy and lonely because they post useful information and short videos by epidemiologists. I also, of course, fact-check everything, when I have the energy and concentration to do so.

But, I also have to parent during this time. On Friday, it will be an 8-week haul for me, and 10 weeks since we had our baby. Of that time, my wife has been, for all intents and purposes, mostly a single parent. I think I can be referred to as an information stalker on these forums, as I never comment, but it was the guilt of not being able to parent properly that drove me to actually post something.

“How do parents with coronavirus manage their parenting while living with the symptoms of long-haul COVID?” I asked.

The comments were empathetic, but not very helpful. I still have no answer, so if the title of this piece is misleading, I apologise. But really, how does one do it?

Of course, I am lucky enough to have a partner who is close to perfect, but who is truly exhausted because she has taken on this new task and change in our lives mostly by herself and it's taken a mental and emotional toll. And then what about all the actual single parents out there who are suffering from this?

My post didn’t go viral by any means. Maybe no one knows the answer. Both my wife and child have already had the virus – it manifested in a mild flu, so it’s safe for them to be around me – in fact, after the 14 days it was safe already, but it’s not safe for me to be around them. Here’s why…

I have trouble trusting myself with my child and caring for him alone while giving my wife a break because the fatigue and delirium are unpredictable. They hit whenever they want and all I want to do is pass out. This frightens me. What if I drop him while carrying him? What if I lose my attention while he is on the bed or the floor and something happens? More than that, because he is 9 months old and at his absolute cutest and most inquisitive, I feel like I am missing out on some very important moments of his life, and ours, as a family.

In the past ten weeks I have managed about three outings with my family: one picnic, one park visit and one stroll outside which left me breathless, but I pushed through and really enjoyed it. We’re planning another family outing for the weekend, but the thought fills me with guilt and anxiety. What if I don’t perform? As a parent, a partner and a team member?

We have figured out some sort of system, but the scales are still unbalanced.

I tend to wake up at 5 or 6 am because I can’t sleep that long and my sleep is completely disturbed by sleep-talking and strange dreams, so I am happy to have the night time over with. I spend the next one or two hours getting some work done – I was in the process of submitting another book which I have now managed to do, and I have had to continue to submit freelance work because obviously we need to earn money. I also produce a podcast, which takes a lot of work and planning – but I digress.

The format of our day therefore looks a bit like this: 7 – 11 is my shift. I wash Miles, change him, feed him his breakfast, play with him and then at 9:30 put him down for his nap. I usually wait for him to wake, give him a change and hand him over to my wife, who covers the 11 to 2pm shift until he goes down for a nap again.

I think it’s a taboo to mention this, but I can’t be sure since I am a new parent – but from 3-5 is the witching hour. No more naps left and two hours, which pass by very slowly to entertain and play with a 9-month-old. Ideas run out very quickly and it’s the perfect time to take him out for a walk or a little play on the beach. If I’m well enough, we run errands with him during that time – he loves the car. But I can hardly manage any of these things and this time of day for me is the most dreadful and guilt-ridden because it’s joint family time that inevitably turns out to be a single-parent responsibility that is wearing on my wife.

At 5pm we’re both on duty. Consider that most days, she has been on duty technically all day. We feed him, bath him and I get him down and ready for bed – in whatever state I am in, I push myself through it and take care of this responsibility because I feel as though it’s the least I can offer – even if I feel like a corpse afterwards.

So, there is a plan. It’s just not a very fair or stable one. And because the symptoms I have keep changing, the plan keeps changing as well.

My latest insufferable symptom is spinal and hipbone pains. I feel like an 80-year-old with arthritis or osteoporosis. It’s hard to medicate for this condition during the day because most anti-inflammatory medications make me sleepy, which in turn makes me less helpful. I allow myself one tablet during my break (11am-2pm), or just before and the rest of that time is spent catching up on admin, editing the book and then eventually trying to pass out for a quick nap, which runs overtime a lot of the time.

I am starting to find that the guilt of not being a good parent and a good partner are starting to weigh on me more than this long-haul condition itself, and perhaps the anxieties are feeding into one another and making me feel worse physically?

I spend a lot of time agonising that in these early days of parenthood my wife is constantly questioning my dedication and whether she/we made the right choice? Does she regret marrying me? Is there resentment just bottling up? Is her love for me lessening? And the answer to all of these questions is mostly self-castigation.

I have read so many articles that say when you’re ill, just do what you can. Forget the dishes if you must. Forget the dusting. Create a space in your room where you can be in bed and still watch your child play. Take your medication. Get a lot of rest so that you heal quicker. But how?

How do you parent while having long-haul COVID-19? And more than that, how do you partner when your partner is perfect and you are paranoid and pandemicked (I know that’s not a word, but you know what I mean).

If you have any answers, tweet me. I know there are others out there who need your help and advice too.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.