During the Pandemic, Protecting My Family Meant Living Apart From My Husband

When the quarantine hit New York City, I quickly realized that my sons and I would be safer staying with family in the suburbs, rather than at home with my physician husband.

Julia Edelstein with her sons
Photo: Courtesy of Julia Edelstein

When the coronavirus first arrived in New York City, life changed just a little bit each day—an extra mask or two glimpsed on the subway, one child absent from kindergarten. And then all at once, the day-to-day existence of my family was unrecognizable.

I was the editor-in-chief of Parents magazine and our office closed. My two boys saw their schools close as well. I went from commuting two hours a day, sitting in crowded meetings, and grabbing lunch in the office cafeteria to barely leaving our apartment, fearful of what lay in store not just in the supermarkets and bustling parks, but in the hallways and elevators of our 40-story apartment building.

Like many working parents, I cared for my children—Joey, 5, and Gabriel, 3—all day, then logged onto my computer to edit Parents magazine and manage my team late into the night. Through all of this, their father (my husband) woke up, got dressed, and went to work at one of New York City's largest hospitals. He is a psychiatrist who treats medically ill patients who have mental health complications, and his daily rounds take him to many different floors. By mid-March 2020, anxiety in his hospital was high as a face mask shortage loomed.

In the evenings, my family cuddled on the couch and held each other close, grateful for connection in a surreal time. But soon we had to face the facts: This kind of close contact was not safe. If we continued to live in the same tight quarters, my husband would inevitably put our whole family at risk. We began to worry about how we would care for our small children if one or both of us developed COVID-19. I have inflammatory bowel disease, and when I catch a virus, I'm often hit hard. For instance, recently, I developed an upper respiratory infection that turned into a serious case of pneumonia and landed me in the hospital.

My father called daily asking me and the kids to join him in the suburbs, where he still lives in the big house where I grew up. He's in his 70s, and my only living parent—and the fragility of his health worried me to my core. But my husband was scheduled to work a shift in the emergency room the next night, where exposure to the virus was even more likely. Once he brought those germs home, my family's invitation to Grandpa's house—where my sister and her family were also staying during the crisis—would be revoked.

We must have gone back and forth on what to do 30 times in the hour before I tearfully packed our bags. I knew the boys would feel better with a backyard and that my stress level would improve in a true quarantine. But our kids had never gone more than a few days without their dad, and I feared for my own father's health. There were no good options, and so we chose what we considered to be the lesser evil. Sharing the plan with the boys was hard. They were excited to leave the city, but they didn't quite understand why Daddy couldn't come too.

The truth is, I didn't know what the next few months would bring. What I did know for certain is that when the world started moving again, I would reenter it as a different person with different priorities.

During our time apart, we were fortunate to all remain healthy. The boys missed their dad a lot, of course. I saw it manifest in different ways. My older son seemed to be growing up before my eyes. He displayed self-initiative in ways he never did before because I was stretched thin and couldn't be in five places at once. My little one sometimes walked around the house looking for his dad and asking where he was. He often woke up flustered in the middle of the night and was emotional when he "Zoomed" with his nursery school. But generally, they were happy kids, running in the backyard and dancing and singing in the kitchen. Both boys came to me for hugs and cuddles all day long, and I was happy to be their human pillow, even if I lost all sense of personal space in the process.

Managing full-time parenting and full-time work was undoubtedly stressful, chaotic, and tiring, but I felt lucky to have a job that I loved, healthy kids, family to help me, and a place to stay outside of New York. Without question, the situation was infinitely harder for my husband, and for all of the health care workers who made similar decisions, risking their lives and missing their families.

After I left New York City, my husband's hospital became almost entirely dedicated to COVID-19 patients. His department trained for deployment into urgent care, emergency room, and critical care setting, and during the time we awaited his assignment, we were proud and eager for him to make a difference, but our anxiety ran high.

Still, we tried to be positive. FaceTime was our lifeline: My husband joined us virtually for bedtime each night. He played virtual Uno with my son and even read him whole chapters of Harry Potter aloud. My biggest daily challenge was when my thoughts turned to the weeks and months ahead. In the midst of editing the June 2020 issue of Parents, I tried to envision a happy summer for families across the country—and a Father's Day where my own nuclear family could be together. But the truth is, I didn't know what the next few months would bring.

What I did know for certain is that when the world started moving again, I would reenter it as a different person with different priorities.

And now that it has, I know I have changed: I have slowed down and taken the time to truly appreciate the profound privilege of being with my family. I know that life will never be quite the same after this—and maybe that's not all bad. In many ways, the lessons of the pandemic have taught me that some days, the best I can do is to just be with my boys and my laptop, taking life hour by hour.

Editor's Note: As the pandemic has shifted and vaccinations have become more widely available, guidance for families with health care workers have shifted. For more information on when quarantining in a shared house is recommended, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles