Long-Haulers: Parents With Post-COVID Syndrome

Long-haulers, or those with post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, have a host of often debilitating symptoms after recovery from coronavirus. Long-haul COVID is twice as common in women, with a midpoint age range of 45. That means that at least some long-haulers are bound to be parents. Parenting is already difficult, but parenting with long-haul symptoms such as brain fog can seem impossible. For long-haul parents, getting practical help and support from friends and family is every bit as crucial as seeking medical treatment.

Parents with post-COVID have special challenges. Not a lot is known about post-acute COVID-19 syndrome. We do know that the symptoms of long-COVID are many and varied, and can last for as many as five months or more. Dealing with the challenges of long-COVID is known to be stressful. But then, so is parenting. Having to cope with both is nothing short of a nightmare.

stressed out exhausted mom holds sleeping child
Long-haulers may struggle to carry out basic mothering duties, for instance, finding the strength to hold a sleeping child.

Long-Hauler Symptoms

Long-hauler symptoms come on at some point after the coronavirus infection has passed. The symptoms of long-haul COVID may be different from those of an active COVID-19 infection. Symptoms of long-COVID vary from person to person. The most common symptoms experienced by COVID long-haulers include:

  • Cough
  • Persistent, possibly debilitating fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Joint pain
  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Headache
  • Stomach distress
  • Brain fog

Brain fog may be an unfamiliar term for some. Long-haulers experiencing brain fog may report forgetfulness, confusion, and an inability to concentrate. Parents with brain fog may forget to administer antibiotics for a child’s ear infection. The confusion that comes with brain fog may even make it difficult to understand the label on a can of formula. Long-hauler parents may also find that their minds wander as a child is telling a story or explaining a homework assignment. Parents with long-COVID brain fog may walk into a room to get a clean diaper, and forget why they are there. A parent may not be able to quite understand what a child is desperately trying to express and explain.

Then, too, there is the chronic fatigue that many long-haulers experience. Parenting means staying awake when your child is awake, and always keeping a watch on small children. How do you stay vigilant as a parent, when you can barely get out of bed to go to the bathroom?

Sudden Relapse

Aside from the never-ending exhaustion and symptoms like brain fog, there is the way long-COVID symptoms come on. Many long-haulers feel better for days or weeks after recovering from coronavirus. Parents may think they’re out of the woods after being so sick. They think they are home free, able to resume their normal lives and parenting duties once more. Then BOOM: on comes a sudden relapse, making it nearly impossible for parents to care for their children.

For some long-haulers, the onset of symptoms is not quite so dramatic. A number of long-COVID sufferers just never feel quite like themselves. It’s not easy to parent when you feel lousy all the time for long weeks or months. There may no longer be fever or infection but quality of life is affected for up to 44 percent of those experiencing long-COVID. If you happen to be a parent with post-acute COVID syndrome, you may find your children suffer, too.

Children may, for instance, shy away from confiding issues and feelings as they watch a parent struggle with symptoms. That can affect the parent-child relationship, says Mo Mulla of Parental Questions. “Children may feel they need to take care of you, rather than burden you with their problems and lives, placing a distance between you. Small children may become more independent than they should be at their young age, while infants might feel a sense of detachment from their parents and crave their love more than ever. If you can’t communicate with your children as effectively as usual, you may lose a sense of awareness of your children’s lives,” says Mulla.

little girl wrings out cloth to place on sick moms forehead
Children shouldn’t have to be caregivers. But it’s hard to watch parents struggling with symptoms as long-haulers

Long-Hauler Parenting Challenges

But for parents with long-haul COVID it is already a challenge to provide elemental childcare. Long-haulers lack the energy to parent children. That makes it a struggle to carry a toddler, bounce a colicky baby, or climb stairs to see why your little one is crying. How do you care for a wakeful child in the middle of the night, when you are so fatigued you cannot get out of bed? At a certain point, the emotional impact on children of a parent’s symptoms, may have to take a backseat to more basic physical needs.

Long-haul COVID has taken a toll on both parents and children, says Dr. Brian Wind, chief clinical officer at JourneyPure, noting that in addition to a parent’s physical symptoms, there is the emotional strain, as well. “Parents are facing a high amount of stress coping with the symptoms and medical conditions that come with long-haul COVID, when many of them had thought that they would fully recover from COVID. They are grappling with the mental health struggle of trying to be there for their kids and support them, while coping with their own struggles, difficulty, and pain, along with the fear of losing family members to the pandemic.”

little girl takes empty glass from sick dad
Children can feel burdened by a parent’s illness, but try not to show what they are feeling.

Elizabeth Hicks, co-founder of Parenting Nerd knows firsthand what it feels like to parent with long-haul COVID. “After I at last tested negative for the virus, I was up for my duties again. But my body wouldn’t allow me to keep up with the expectations of my kids. Sometimes I had to crawl to my kids’ room to make sure they were okay and sleeping well as I could barely walk because of what the virus had done to my body. I was exhausted, but didn’t want my kids to suffer and worked day and night to manage home and work, and to be a responsible parent.”

Long-Haulers Two Months On

If you are a parent experiencing the symptoms of long-haul COVID, it may be cold comfort to learn that you are not alone. A recent study did a follow-up on 150 adults in recovery from mild to moderate COVID. The researchers found that two-thirds of the study participants were still symptomatic, two months later.

little girl feels daddy's forehead
Children may feel they have to care for a sick parent and hide their own problems for now.

We don’t know a lot about long-COVID. It will take time to watch how the phenomenon unfolds. In the meantime, get help. Ask friends and family to step in as you do the hard work of getting better while caring for your children. Let the neighbors buy the groceries or watch your kids for a few hours so you can rest.

As for the emotional impact, don’t keep it in. Check out the many long-haul support groups springing up on Facebook and Twitter. Sharing your experience with others may be the most powerful medicine at all.

Most of all, when you don’t have the ability to do much else, hug and kiss your children and tell them you love them. Let them know you are there and you feel their pain. Then let go and accept that this will have to be enough for now.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.