This story was first published online at UNC Media Hub. All photos by Eleanor Burcham.

Throughout the pandemic, families have tried to stay safe while keeping their lives moving forward. Parents have struggled – and many stories have highlighted their perseverance working from home and taking care of children while maintaining their households. You probably haven’t heard much about the experiences of parents in non-traditional households. Here’s how three families are coping.  

Tara and Austin

During the past year, Tara and Austin Gold have been new parents to four children. 

As a queer couple, Tara, a cisgender woman, and Austin, a transgender man, knew they would have to take a non-traditional route to have children. They started by trying to conceive a child through artificial insemination because it was the quickest and least expensive option. After undergoing fertility treatment without success, they applied to be foster parents. 

“We didn’t want to go to more aggressive measures when there are kids who really need a place to live,” Tara said. 

Their foster license was approved in February, and they received their first placement the next week. With less than 24-hours notice, Tara and Austin became first-time parents to 11- and 12-year-old sisters. And then COVID-19 hit. 

“We had two weeks of normalcy before we were spending every waking second together, with two kids who desperately missed their parents, couldn’t have visitations, and court dates were postponed indefinitely,” Tara said. 

The girls had just switched schools and didn’t know any of their classmates. They never got to because classes were online. They weren’t used to the structure of household rules and didn’t understand why they had to attend Zoom classes when some of their friends from pre-foster days stopped going. 

“My friends are hanging out with each other,” one of the girls said. 

“My parents are seeing my other family.”

“Why aren’t you letting me do that.”

The enforced social distancing and new structure combined with the legal challenges of foster care built up some resentment. 

“They got really tired of us,” Tara said. “You’re living with strangers, and not only are you living with strangers, but they’re the only people you see all day, every day. So it’s kind of this constant reminder that they weren’t with their parents.” 

Despite the challenges, the family had a lot of time to build connections with each other. They created traditions, such as date nights every Monday. The girls set up a restaurant, complete with a tablecloth and dramatic storyline, and cooked dinner for Tara and Austin. Saturday night was movie night, and Thursdays the girls got to choose a takeout location. 

Just when routine was established, the girls were gone. In September, a social worker picked them up with about a half hours notice. After an unexpected court ruling, the girls were taken to live with one of their family members. Tara was shocked. Austin was gutted. The family spent their last 30 minutes with each other calling and saying goodbye to people the girls would no longer be able to contact. They didn’t have time to eat dinner. 

“It felt so unfair,” Austin said. “I just felt so heartbroken.” 

“Heartbroken because the girls felt lied to, too,” Tara added.

“I felt like they would never trust an adult again,” Austin said. 

They knew the time with the girls would end, but they expected it to end differently. 

When the girls moved out, it felt like a breakup, Tara said. 

After five months without kids, 1½- and 4-year-old brothers moved into the couple’s North Durham home. Tara and Austin imagined keeping the boys busy playing with other kids, going to Kindermusik sessions, soccer practices and dance classes but the pandemic halted those plans. The boys can go to daycare and play by themselves, but Tara and Austin provide most of their social structure. The boys don’t understand why they have to wear masks. 

Each week, the boys get to see their biological parents. Sometimes the visits are virtual, but some are in person, increasing the family’s risk of catching COVID-19. 

“When you’re in foster care, you can’t keep your kids in the bubble because they’re not technically yours,” Tara said. “It’s really hard to get a 1½-year-old to sit through an hour long Zoom meeting with his mom, where that’s the only hour she gets to see him every week.” 

The uncertainty of when Tara and Austin will or won’t be parents paired with the unpredictable reality of a global pandemic is stressful, but coupled with the joy of having kids around. Their approach to parenting is straightforward. 

“If you know that they’re leaving, you’re focused more on the now,” Tara said. “‘Are my kids happy today?’” 

Cara and Hannah

“Leaves, branches, trunk and roots, trunk and roots,” Cara Valenti sang, as she led her class to the tune of head, shoulders, knees and toes. 

Cara, a music teacher at Central Park School for Children in Durham, was teaching first-graders about trees. She could see her 6-year-old daughter, Willa, sobbing in her respective Zoom square. 

The mom and daughter were in the same house and same class, in different rooms on different devices, but on the same screen. When Willa, in her bedroom, saw Cara, on the back porch, show up on Zoom, she lost it. Cara needed to be as far away from Willa as possible to avoid sound interference, but Willa thought she and Cara would be singing together for her class. Cara could see Willa crying, but she couldn’t stop teaching the 16 other kids in the class. 

When the pandemic hit, Cara’s career, hobby and passion were put on pause. 

“Everything I do revolves around singing, which was one of the least safe things to do,” she said. 

When school transitioned online, Cara began teaching again. But it is often to silent, black boxes. All of the children have to mute themselves – they can’t sing together because of the lag. A lot of kids don’t turn their cameras on. 

“It’s turned into this very isolating experience, which used to be a very community experience,” Cara said. “I feel like I’m learning to teach all over again.”

While Cara is home all day teaching and taking care of Willa, her wife, Hannah Barrett, is working at the Durham VA hospital. Both identify as lesbian. Hannah, an occupational therapist, works with COVID-19 patients and leaves every day with the horrible fear she might bring the virus into her house. 

She comes home and immediately showers. Willa says the shower takes up too much time. 

“Willa will complain that she spends less time with me,” Hannah said. “It’s hard because she’s home all the time, so it feels like I’m gone more than I usually am.” 

Even though Hannah is away most of the day, Cara feels supported. “I don’t feel alone in the parenting thing. When she comes home, she’s fully here and she’s fully part of being another mom to Willa,” Cara said.  

Willa’s not able to connect with other kids and families the way Cara and Hannah want. Last year in kindergarten, another child didn’t believe Willa when she said that she had two moms. She still brings it up. 

“Because she’s so young, I feel like she thinks we’re the only two-mom family that she knows,” Hannah said. “Even though we’ve been very intentional about the communities we’ve chosen to be a part of, we can’t visually be a part of those communities (now).”

When Willa sees and hears messaging from the media and straight culture that have mom and dad as the model, she’s faced with translating it to her own two-mom experience. Her parents make a point to remind her that just because their family looks different, it’s not something to be embarrassed or feel left out about.  

“We’ll give her strategies on how to talk about it,” Hannah said. “But (right now) I feel like she can’t hang out with the other kids from two-mom families and hear how an actual kid would react to it. We’re giving her words that adults would say.” 

“I want Willa to know that there are all kinds of families and not one kind of family structure is normal,” Hannah added. 

Rachel and Shoshana

Raina Funk, 1, rolled over for the first time in August – she was overjoyed to see a new place with new people after spending most of her life in quarantine. After four months, Raina’s parents, Rachel Gelfand and Shoshana Funk, drove 12 hours to Massachusetts to see her grandmas. 

Rachel, a women and gender studies adjunct professor at N.C. State University and Duke University, and Shoshana, a clinical social worker at Jewish For Good, who identify as lesbian, feel lucky they were able to have Raina before COVID-19 began. A friend flew to North Carolina from New York to be a sperm donor, and Shoshana gave birth to Raina in late February, a week before the world began to shut down. 

“We were planning on being on maternity leave for three months and then it felt like the world was joining us on maternity leave for some time,” Shoshana said.  

The couple felt blind to what was going on in the world because of the intense and busy period after a baby is born. Slowly, they became more and more aware of COVID-19 in the area. 

Rachel’s flexible teaching schedule allows her to be the main childcare provider. It was always the plan for Rachel to do a lot of the childcare – but not necessarily for this long. 

It’s been challenging to expose Raina to new things, Shoshana said. She feels restricted because of the effort required to keep her family safe. 

“We’ve talked a lot about feeling sad about her lack of social contact because she’s such a social baby and loves seeing other kids,” Shoshana said. 

Sometimes Rachel and Shoshana will take Raina on long walks or to the playground to watch other kids. They have to stop people from taking their masks off to smile at the baby. 

Rachel and Shoshana don’t know what it’s like to be parents outside of a pandemic. They can only imagine what it’s like to have a child during normal times. 

“Because we’re first-time parents, it’s like we have no baseline for either thing. It coincided – the baby and the pandemic happened at the same time. It’s hard to untangle the experiences,” Shoshana said. “But I do think it has created a lot more underlying anxiety in the household and also added stress because of not being able to hire a babysitter or not easily being able to have friends and family over to help.”

Through it all, the couple sees the silver lining of the situation. They’ve been able to be home and build strong connections with their newborn. 

“I feel like she’s going to be so securely attached because she’s gotten all this time with her parents in her first year of life,” Shoshana said. “I’ve had the reaction of ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe people go to work all day and only see their baby for like two hours a day.’ It’s hard to imagine. I feel like we’ve been gifted this time with her.”