How Parents Find Support During a Pandemic and National Reckoning with Racism

Calvin Williams and Leila McCabe Williams have had to be resourceful in developing support structures while physically distanced from their communities during the pandemic and uprising against racism.  (Courtesy of Calvin Williams)

Calvin Williams and Leila McCabe Williams hoped to welcome their baby, Malik, into a village of supportive friends and family members, but safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic required the family to change their plans.

In a Zoom call from their art-filled living room, 8-month-old Malik crawls on the carpet (a skill he’s recently mastered) as the Oakland couple tells me about sleepless nights and emergency diaper changes during important work calls, including one with former President Barack Obama. Handing a squirming Malik to Calvin, Leila rushes off to another Zoom meeting for her job at the nonprofit consulting firm where she and Calvin both work.

Navigating work and caring for a baby would be hard enough as it is. Add the global pandemic, a national uprising against racism and the recent death of Calvin’s father, and you have two people stretched to their limits. Calvin’s father lived in Alabama, and because of the threat of COVID-19, he was never able to travel to Oakland to meet Malik for the first time. For the same reason, Calvin couldn’t go back for the funeral.

“The last exchange I had with him was saying that that’s my main duty—to love and protect Malik,” he says. “The next morning I found out that he had a major heart attack and unfortunately didn’t recover.”

Grieving, sleep-deprived and physically isolated from friends and family who could ordinarily offer comforting hugs or help with the baby, Calvin and Leila, like many parents raising young children in 2020, have had to get creative with how they maintain and build their support structures.

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“I feel pretty strong in my spiritual and health practices, and I’m struggling,” says Calvin, adding that he recently asked friends from his Healing Generations support group to host a virtual healing circle for him. “I need to be held, I need a space because the reservoir is not being replenished.”

The Williamses are intentional about the ways they seek emotional support from their loved ones, and each partner has a wide network of close confidants rather than expecting the other to fill every emotional need. In addition to regular check-ins with their therapist, Calvin is part of an intergenerational group for Black men, the Brotherhood of Elders, who come together biweekly to offer each other support on a variety of topics, including fatherhood. He’s also in group chats with other first-time dads. Leila is part of a women’s support group that connects over the phone, and a member of several allyship groups for non-Black people looking to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It’s nice to have that space to turn to and say I’m having a hard time so I don’t have to put that on [Calvin],” she says, adding that she’s doing her best to be there for him while he mourns his father.

And while the couple hasn’t gone out to protests in person out of caution around the pandemic, Calvin has been writing the Oakland City Council and the school board, and remotely working with the Black Organizing Project. The birth of Malik has been a major motivating factor for his activism—he doesn’t want to have to give his son the infamous “talk” that many Black boys get from parents about interacting with police. That desire is giving him a sense of urgency.

“Nothing in that talk actually saves you, it’s just a hope that it shields you from triggering the white rage of an armed officer who can use their power with impunity to take your freedom and take your life, if not both,” he says.

A therapist, friendly neighbors, extended family and a healthy co-parenting relationship with his ex have been key supports for Leon Sykes, father of a four-year-old also named Leon. Sykes, a media teacher at Fremont High School in Oakland, says that reframing how he gets politically active during the pandemic has been crucial to maintaining his mental health.

“I’m active online as far as spreading information, but I’m not as active as I used to be,” he says. “And that has to do with the fears of something happening and I’m not there for my son. A lot of it was fears during COVID. It’s these huge groups.”

A father and son pose in front of Lake Merritt and the Oakland skyline.
Leon Sykes and his son, little Leon. (Courtesy of Leon Sykes)

Having open communication with little Leon’s mom about harm reduction and family agreements around partaking in various activities has helped him cope with the uncertainty of the pandemic and California’s reopening. An extrovert, Sykes has been missing teaching in the classroom and going to community events. But after strategizing about how the family would go about social distancing and hygiene protocols, he got a bike and began cycling around Lake Merritt and working out with some of his cousins at a six-foot-distance.

In addition to this physical outlet, conversations with friends who are also fathers have been crucial, as well as monthly video checkins with his therapist. “Me and my boys have conversations about everything from finances to mental health, and how therapy is the way to go,” Sykes says.

It was important for him to find a Black therapist, and he connected with her through Psychology Today, which offers a customizable search for specific cultural competencies.

“I think people have the idea that, I don’t have any issues, my mental health is great,” he adds. “Therapy is not a bad thing, and therapy is not just because things are going wrong in life. Therapy is just being able to talk things out—whatever it is.”

For Liz Bernstein, an artist and educator, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have brought up other questions—how to raise a conscientious white child who can be part of the movement to end white supremacy. Her family dynamic is unique: her five-year-old son, Langston, is white, and his adoptive father, Bernstein’s ex, is Black.

“For [Langston] to even hear how the world views Black men it’s particularly like, what the the fuck. Like, ‘That’s my daddy,’” she says.

A mother and son pose in grey sweaters.
Liz Bernstein and her son, Langston. (Courtesy of Liz Bernstein)

As Langston’s primary caretaker, she’s been looking for age-appropriate ways to educate him on inequality, homelessness, racism and why the world is the way it is. “I feel it has just put a spotlight on white families to talk to their white children about what the world is really like,” she says, adding that she’s been using Sesame Street’s recent episodes about racism as an educational tool.

“We talked about how things are not fair—not everyone has been given same opportunities,” she says.

Bernstein lives in a duplex with her best friend, her wife and their four- and six-year-old boys, who are like an extended family. And in addition to this support system, she has weekly calls with her therapist.

“It’s been some really dark days, truthfully,” she says, describing how her mood has fluctuated between rage at the federal government’s slow, disorganized pandemic response and “self-flagellation” at being too exhausted to come up with a constant schedule of hands-on crafting projects for Langston.

“It’s a lot of pressure because the village that was helping you before—namely their teachers—isn’t there anymore, and they did a lot,” she says, adding that she is nonetheless considering home-school as an option because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases in California.

The pandemic has been tough, but Bernstein is heartened by the help available—including online support groups and affordable online therapy. The key, she says, is to ask for help, even if it’s in ways we’re not used to.

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“Whatever issue you’re having, so is somebody else,” she says. “And no matter how specific and intense your particular psychological issue is, there are other people out there who are sharing it, and when you find those other people, you will feel better.”

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