Sick African American boy blowing nose while sitting wrapped in a blanket on mother's lap at home.
(iStock)

As we are in year three of the pandemic, many are still doing the delicate dance of figuring out how to remain safe while balancing the demands of life and living. The pandemic impacted the mental and emotional well-being of all of us in some way, shape, or form, and to many, the pervasive push to “return to normal” feels dismissive and insensitive to all that we have lost at this time.  

Isolation has been one of the hardest realities of the pandemic, from our diminished ability to experience human touch to needing to take extra precautions when doing activities we enjoy. For some of us, particularly immunocompromised individuals, that sense of isolation has not gone away. In fact, due to the loosening of mask mandates, some of us have needed to become more vigilant in protecting ourselves and loved ones who cannot afford to contract COVID. This means that while the world pushes forward to some form of “normal,” those still having to isolate are left wondering if they’ll be forgotten and left behind.  

It’s telling that this rhetoric and the current loosening of government health mandates reflect an inability to understand that the way life functioned pre-pandemic was not sustainable for many. This is especially striking for marginalized communities hit hardest by COVID, as media is dominated by narratives centering primarily economically secure, able-bodied, white perspectives. 

Meanwhile, Black women and femmes have been carrying multiple burdens with far less fanfare throughout this pandemic, caring for themselves, their families, communities—both on and offline—juggling financial responsibilities, and being expected to do so perfectly and all on their own. In short, the isolation experienced by Black women and femmes who are doing their best to survive and keep their loved ones safe without breaking from the pressures of the pandemic and intersecting systemic oppressions continues to be largely ignored.

AJC and Shannon Miller—two Black moms from the South who have chronic illnesses—were willing to speak with me about what this kind of isolation has meant to them over the last two years of COVID-19. Their stories are not uncommon; they represent many in American society whose lives have been forever altered and who are still figuring out how to keep themselves safe in the ongoing pandemic despite being largely dismissed by government policies and officials.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vilissa Thompson: At the start of the pandemic, how did the isolation from shelter-in-place mandates and other precautions impact you? What about your family and your work?

AJC: It hit hard. I had just been diagnosed with a serious illness and was already somewhat isolated from friends and family. But then having to isolate myself from my family for fear of getting sick was difficult.

It was also tough on my children who were thrust into virtual school, but the lack of socialization and fear of what getting sick could do to my house compounded the stress and pressure. I thankfully work from home, but I think there was an expectation that people just work [regardless of needing to also care for my children]. It was exhausting, and there was no grace given despite [my employer’s] alleged values. I was put on a performance plan as the world was falling apart.

Shannon Miller: I was pretty reclusive prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic has made me dependent on that isolation in a way that I’ve never experienced. The thought of leaving the home even for necessities felt extremely dangerous. I could see myself developing more intense social anxiety.

I work exclusively from home and my husband goes into an office, so that difference in isolation levels was the source of a lot of tension between us. Also, it’s been hard to get my child (who is on the spectrum) to connect with others outside of the family, and we were really excited to get her into a school where she could learn to be around other children. This pandemic totally derailed that, and I fear it’s impacted her social development in irreparable ways. 

Thompson: Throughout this pandemic, women/femmes of color, especially Black women/femmes, have had to juggle teaching and supporting children at home, taking care of their loved ones and spouses, performing “normally” at work, etc. How are you shouldering these loads after two years?

AJC:  My house is a disaster. I’ve managed the emotional health of three people, including two young adults struggling to find their own way with making it out of depression and anxiety.

Miller:  I just have to keep trucking with work, homeschooling, and everything else. It’s tough, but I feel like I have no other choice. It definitely impacts my ability to rest.

Thompson: Who is being left out in this “push to return to normal” despite the ongoing pandemic? Whose “normal” is being valued, and whose “normal” is being ignored?

AJC: What is normal? A lot of stuff hasn’t been right for a long time. And it’s still not right. I have a compromised immune system and uncertainty about my health—it’s challenging. 

Parents who struggle economically can’t afford child care and need support catching their breath. Same for folks with compromised immune systems and disabilities not commonly understood or recognized. The normal of capitalism is going to destroy us. The normal of folks who are working to support their families is not respected. Or young people blocked out of existing job markets.

Miller: It’s awful. And so, so dangerous. The idea that we can just go back to the normal that we once knew pre-pandemic is so ill-advised and entirely false when new variants and surges and the lack of evolving vaccines are prolonging everything. It’s such a slap in the face to those of us who are immunocompromised. I fear catching COVID-19 because I don’t know if I can survive it. And the idea that I’m just supposed to ignore that and return to normal is so wild and hurtful.

Honestly, the normal that so many disabled people knew before all of this was so exclusionary in every way. The pandemic forced employers, entertainers, commerce, etc. to adapt to our needs. Now this push to return to normal, which strips a lot of the progress toward accessible living, means leaving us behind again.

Thompson: Some of us are watching those we love “move on” (e.g., loosening their comforts with mask wearing, being in crowded areas) while we’re still moving with the same level of caution as before and carrying more responsibilities. As Black women/femmes with chronic illnesses, how are you navigating this within your personal sphere? 

AJC: Despite the clear evidence put on display about the need for various social supports, and the existing burdens carried by Black women/femmes and their families, returning to normal without addressing the gaping holes [in social services and supports] only frustrates us further. 

I am really clear with boundaries, but it’s hard because I don’t socialize often or see my siblings as much. I’ve gone out sparingly but always feel weird afterward, like praying I didn’t risk my life for a bit of enjoyment. But I stay masked up and try to practice social distancing from people. I’m thankful that people understand why I’m hesitant and haven’t completely ignored me. I do wish the remaining unvaccinated people in my life would get vaccinated, but at least they mask and test regularly.

Miller: I think I just feel more ignored than ever now. There is the narrative that I hate where I was called a “superhero” for doing literally what I’ve been doing for years out of necessity, not strength. But truthfully, I need help! I needed more resources, more money, more everything. Everyone’s kind of forgotten that and assumes I can just do it all again. 

But I’m tired. I feel extremely left behind. And I never really have to explain my stance on [mask wearing or socializing in crowds] because nobody asks. That’s the most hurtful part of all of this.

Thompson: One of the issues with the “push/return to normal” narrative is the fact that nothing will ever be normal again due to the pandemic’s impact on our mental health and the amount of grief and loss we’ve experienced. How are you handling the cognitive dissonance you read and hear about from those you know, as well as strangers, about “returning to normal”?

AJC: I’m not handling it well. I need to find a way to pull it together, but I’ve put so much into helping my kids navigate and learn to thrive because they are at critical points in their development. And with work and my physical health, I’m just trying to stay afloat. But it’s absolutely frustrating to see people acting like their need to be maskless is worth more than my health and well-being.

Miller: I get so caught up in my work that it offers a distraction from it all really. I have no reaction to it because I know that at the end of the day, I’m going to do what’s best for my family. The only reaction I care about right now is the CDC’s because I need to know what they’re doing to protect me and my family.

Thompson: As Black mothers, what supports do you believe Black parents, and Black moms specifically, could use or need right now? What supports have helped you, or what do you wish you’d had access to?

AJC: I wish I had more financial support, not more work or leads but another person with income to share the burden. It’s just all overwhelming. Becoming a homeowner [can help], but then unexpected repairs and expenses on top of everything else happening are stressful. I think also having more support for teens and college students as they are navigating the anxiety in this moment and uncertainty of their futures would be helpful.

Miller: I have a blessed community of Black women who I can turn to for knowledge and support, and I think everyone deserves that kind of backing.

Thompson: Any words of encouragement for women/femmes of color, and Black women/femmes specifically, who are navigating isolation and doing their best in these times?

AJC: Find your people, and don’t let others make you feel wrong for trying to make a way to be safe and secure in these times. Also find little moments of joy and escape. TV shows have become a lifeline and give me a moment to breathe. And it’s OK if you didn’t discover some new hidden talent; managing to stay afloat and trying to thrive are accomplishments in themselves.

Miller: Speak your truth! Don’t shrink how you’re feeling down to a comfortable sound bite. If you’re lonely, voice that. Because I think others need to know that they aren’t alone in this feeling. That’s how community-building starts.

Vilissa Thompson

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a contributing writer covering gender justice at Prism. A macro social worker from South Carolina, she is an expert in discussing the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled...