The Spiritual Life of Children During Pandemics

What follows is about Catholic evangelization, motherhood, the trauma of worldwide pandemics, and the lessons about each that Louisa May Alcott’s beloved nineteenth-century children’s novel Little Women (1868-69) can offer us today. But it starts inside my house, January 2022, in small-town Texas, when my six-year-old daughter stands before me with tears streaming down her face. She has come in from outside, and I am yelling at her. I am no patient Marmee from Little Women in this moment. My heart is racing. I scold. I enunciate in my best instinctive, scared mother voice. There is pointing.

“You. Must. Listen. Do you understand? Have your dad and I ever said you can’t go near that neighbor? Or his son?! I know it might not make sense to you! But you have to obey what we say and trust us!” She nods. I stare at her small, crumpled, now red face—the social, imaginative little girl who only wanted to tell our next-door neighbor about her day and to play with his son. I feel the impossibility of it all as we stand inside the doorway. I sigh and lean, exhausted, against the door.

“The neighbor had the virus, don’t you remember? We don’t know if they’re better yet. A few more days. We need to wait a few more days to see.” While I understand social distancing, time frames, and masking, my little girl, no matter how many times I speak with her, will always be lured in by playing and socializing—often by helping. It has become commonplace that she draws pictures to give to others when they’re sick, often with COVID-19. In these pictures, there are no masks; everyone holds hands.

I tell my daughter, finally, that she’s brave, that her dad and I are proud of her. I never had to go through a pandemic as a child, nor did her grandparents. She is doing well. I wonder, in this moment, if I have been—at any of this. My situation echoes that of many other parents recently. Since March 2020, I have been juggling a full-time job as an English professor, in which I have been working remotely or in person at various times, with two children (now ages 6 and 7) who have been schooling remotely or in person at various times.

Here are the questions that have defined these past almost two years:

How do I keep my children safe, ensure they have food on the table, protect them from a virus that is constantly changing, perform my job at the same level as before, research vaccines for adults and children, change modalities for schooling and work at a moment’s notice, quarantine myself and my children as needed, care for my family, friends, and colleagues when they inevitably get sick—in sum, adapt to whatever is happening in the ever-changing outside while still maintaining a sense of normalcy for my children growing up in this particular moment? How do I as a parent during the pandemic even remember to make time to spiritually form my children when my husband and I are struggling simply to keep our boy and girl, and ourselves, alive on this planet?

How are our children bearing these conditions? They are growing up amid the abnormal that has become normal for them. Facing fear, illness, quarantines, death, and spelling tests. In the everyday before times, the spiritual formation question could seem almost a luxury—the addon to a busy life, taking children to religious formation classes and getting them to Mass once a week could be likened to taking them to gymnastics, dance, or scouts. Today, though, death is ever present on my daughter’s mind. “Are my friends dead?” she used to ask me, over and over, at four years old, after having been picked up from daycare one day in 2020 and never going back. I told her no, but how was even I to know for sure? In early January of this year, 2022, the first year she’s attended regular school in person, kindergarten, her uncle died from complications from COVID-19.

A few weeks ago, she made a will, declaring how her things should be distributed in case she might die. Her favorite doll she willed to her brother. Spiritual formation is no luxury, no add on to a busy Catholic parenting life now. Questions of the soul, the afterlife, are ever present for today’s children. It is with this backdrop that I tell you that this semester I am teaching Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I noticed while rereading the novel during this pandemic that Catholicism is brought up in a place I had never noticed before—during a plot point featuring the nineteenth-century’s scarlet fever pandemic. Thus, as I assured you earlier, I will center this piece on what Alcott can teach us about Catholic evangelization, motherhood, and the trauma of worldwide pandemics.

Chapter 28 of Little Women is titled “Dark Days.” In this chapter, the four March Sisters, on whom the novel centers (Meg, Joy, Beth, and Amy), discover that Beth has scarlet fever, contracted because she went to help the Hummels, a poor immigrant family in their neighborhood. Beth went to help the Hummels knowing well they might have scarlet fever. She also knew no one else would likely help them, even her sisters. Her mother, Marmee, was away in Washington, D.C., tending to her father who had become ill during the Civil War, where he was acting as chaplain. Until Marmee’s return, the March sisters are being checked on by neighbors and their servant Hannah. A nation disrupted, children to raise, and Marmee not there when her daughter contracts the virus.  

What women, and mothers, are doing—and not doing—during the current COVID-19 pandemic has been much discussed in the media, with Pew Research data highlighting the unique challenges that have been born out for women. Not only have women been more likely to bear the responsibility of childcare duties, but according to a fall 2020 survey, “Working mothers with children younger than 12 at home were also more likely than fathers (57% vs. 47%) to say it had been at least somewhat difficult for them to handle child care responsibilities during the coronavirus outbreak.” The career and relationship strains for mothers will likely have long-ranging consequences—not only on their careers, though (oft discussed)—but also on their family lives, their emotional and spiritual lives—and by extension, the emotional and spiritual lives of their children. Marmee returns to Beth as soon as she hears about her daughter’s illness, a choice in caregiving that feels like it must have had an impossible weight to it: “Who requires my care more in this moment?” This moral quandary is one that caregivers, oftentimes women with families, will find resonates in our pandemic moment.

In Alcott’s novel, the choices Marmee makes are never pondered or questioned by the narrator, though, or anyone else in the family. Marmee serves as the novel’s moral center. Often, Marmee places herself in some type of danger for others, whether it is an arduous trek to see her husband with pneumonia or a journey back to Beth. Louisa May Alcott’s own mother, Abba May Alcott, was a missionary and one of America’s first paid social workers in Boston. In a letter to her brother, Abba once wrote, “My life is one of daily protest against the oppression and abuses of Society.”[1] Like Abba, Marmee teaches her daughters to make decisions in difficult times that are aimed toward the common good. “Hope and keep busy,” she is known to have frequently said to her daughters and husband.[2] It is in her role as social worker that Abba meets Irish immigrants and learns about the Catholic faith. Although we cannot know about her discussion of these interactions with her daughter, Louisa, Little Women’s quiet, respectful introduction of Catholicism during one of the novel’s pivotal spiritual plot points suggests it is possible that Louisa learned more than political activism from her mother’s work with Irish immigrants.

Upon Beth contracting scarlet fever, the youngest March sister, Amy (12), is sent to quarantine at her Aunt March’s because her youth makes her the most likely to catch the disease. Her conversation with Beth’s doctor is as follows:

“I don’t wish to be sent off as if I was in the way,” began Amy in an injured voice.
“Bless your heart, child! it’s to you keep you well. You don’t want to be sick, do you?”
“No, I’m sure I don’t: but I say I shall be, for I’ve been with Beth all this time.
“That’s the very reason you ought to go away at once, so that you might escape it.
Change of air and care will help you well, I dare say, or if it don’t entirely you will have
the fever more lightly, for scarlet fever is no joke, miss.”
“But it’s dull at Aunt March’s, and she is so cross,” said Amy, looking rather frightened.

Even seeing her sister sick, Amy is more afraid of life being dull, of being away from her friends and family, than she is of scarlet fever. She also views quarantining away from her family not as a protection but as a punishment. In Little Women, we are reminded that pandemics are difficult to explain to adults and heartbreaking to explain to children. Quarantine, one might argue, can be interpreted as a “time out,” if you will, without a justified cause. When imposing quarantine, we ask children to understand why they must be alone, even while we, as adults, often struggle to make sense of it. Amy’s reaction of not wanting to be away from her family reminds me of the many conversations I had with my daughter over the past two years when she, too, has wanted to socialize with friends or family, but this pandemic has taken that away—has taken part of her childhood away.[3]

Between 1820 and 1880, when the scarlet fever pandemic was at its height in North America and Europe, new information was constantly pouring in, and changing, about how to protect oneself from the illness. The constant evolution of knowledge and adapting to that knowledge is likewise reminiscent of the past two years of our current experiences with COVID-19. During the mid-1800s, scarlet fever was thought perhaps to be caused by air transmission, as the doctor in the passage above relates to Amy when he tells her to quarantine. While the pandemic came and went in waves throughout the first part of the nineteenth century, by 1840 scarlet fever “was the number one childhood killer in America.”[4]

After the chapter “Dark Days,” which focuses on Beth, Alcott decides to pen a chapter devoted to Amy, titling it “Amy’s Will.” This chapter speaks to the struggle of children in a pandemic, often healthy, trying to keep a sense of normalcy, yet knowing, either from memory or being told, that they live in a state of pandemic abnormal. We begin the chapter in “exile,” in Amy’s quarantine at Aunt March’s, which Amy feels “deeply.” Alcott pens the struggle of a child living through a pandemic seriously. Aunt March rarely leaves the house and has many “tiresome labors” for her niece to accomplish each day with the hopes of improving Amy’s supposedly liberal upbringing by reestablishing “rule and order” for her.

Alcott’s title of “Will” for this chapter is no accident. Here, at her Aunt March’s, Amy learns important spiritual lessons wrought by the pandemic. St. Augustine, in Book 1 of The Confessions, characterizes a “good will” as a will by which humans desire to live upright and honorable lives and attain the highest wisdom. Amy, throughout Little Women, has struggled with selfishness and vanity; or as St. Augustine might describe, she struggles with the love of material things, ever present obstacles to the formation of a good will. That is, Amy is presented with humanity’s perpetual choice of God or self-absorption. This choice—importantly for Catholic readers of this Protestant novel—is presented by Alcott through the introduction and explanation of a rosary via Amy’s immigrant friend.

Had it not been for “Esther, the maid,” at her Aunt March’s house, Amy “felt that she never could have got through that dreadful time . . . Esther was a French woman . . . Her real name was Estelle: but Aunt March ordered her to change it, and she obeyed on the condition that she never be asked to change her religion.” Anti-Catholic sentiment is a common feature in nineteenth-century children’s fiction, but in Alcott’s novel, the care in which Esther and her religiosity is introduced remains admirable. At one point, Amy is attracted to her Aunt March’s jewelry cabinet, and perhaps there could be no easier reification of St. Augustine’s discussion of “good will” than what proceeds next. Esther asks, as Amy stares and plays with the jewelry in the cabinet, which piece Amy most desires: “Which would Mademoiselle choose if she had her will?” Amy, “with great admiration,” chooses “a string of gold and ebony beads, from which hung a heavy cross of the same.” Amy has no idea what a rosary is, but she chooses it, attracted, it seems, by its material charms.

Esther says this would be her choice, too, but clarifies that she “covets” that piece like “a good Catholic.” She explains that “it would be pleasing to the saints, if one used so fine a rosary as this, instead of using it as a vain bijou.” As a “good Catholic,” Esther wants the rosary to be used for its proper purpose, prayer. Amy, who has been characterized as struggling with worldliness more so than any of the other March sisters, for the first time experiences a solemnity of the spirit. She reflects that Esther’s plain, wooden rosary beads lead her to worship joyfully and that she has never experienced such a feeling.

Esther evangelizes Amy, “If Mademoiselle was a Catholic, she would find true comfort, but as that is not to be, it would be well if you went apart each day to mediate, to pray.” Esther, here, is careful. She is not heavy-handed, as Catholics are often depicted as being in other nineteenth-century tales, some even going so far as to kidnap young women as part of a scheme to convert them. First, she finds common ground between them, noticing that Amy is interested in prayer and focusing her evangelization efforts there. Next, she offers and performs a service for her friend. She creates a prayer space—an altar. In that space, Amy can “think good thoughts and ask the dear God to preserve [her] sister.” Esther listens and notices what is on her dear young friend’s heart that is immaterial—her sister’s wellbeing—attending to and offering comfort to that need.

At this point in the chapter, Amy still dreams about the other jewelry in the cabinet, and Esther tells her young friend that if she tries to be good, she suspects Aunt March might give her one of her nicest turquoise rings. However, Esther’s evangelization has made the first inroad into creating a spiritually-minded child in the midst of a pandemic, a child turned inward toward the spiritual rather than outward to the material.

The home altar Esther creates is in a closet. In this space, Amy brings her Bible, some flowers, and a prayer book. Esther gives her a rosary to use, but Amy hangs it up—unsure of its “fitness” for Protestant prayers. That Amy hangs the rosary instead of hiding it suggests she realizes it is a sacred object and desires to keep it visible in the space. What she finds most inspiring in the room is a painting of “the divine mother” that Esther has placed there. While staring at the painting, Amy thinks of her own mother, who she knows is worried about Beth and is caretaking at home, but whom she misses nevertheless. While children may understand the sacrifices being asked of them during a pandemic, they are still very real sacrifices. In this prayer space, for the first time, we see Amy seeking God: “she felt the need of some kind hand to hold her by so sorely, that she instinctively turned to the strong and tender Friend.” Because of Esther’s evangelization, Amy begins to find peace in prayer.

After praying at her altar, Amy decides to make a will, giving away small items she loves, including her “artistic works,” (of which she writes, “Noter [sic] Dame is the best”). Upon rereading this book this semester for my class, I was struck remembering that my daughter recently had also made a will during this pandemic over 150 years later, giving away that favorite doll to her brother, but also her art set and drawings to various friends and family. Everything else she owns, my daughter finally told me, should go to other children, who needed them. She said this, as she walked around the room, hugging her doll to her and running her fingertips alongside her other items, contemplating all she ought to give at the end of her “will making.” I cataloged her will and these final wishes.

Amy has a similar moment of charitable recognition and giving in Little Women after being told that her sister Beth had made a will upon fearing she was close to death. In her will, Beth gives away locks of her hair, and Amy decides that she will do the same—even though her hair is her most treasured vanity. Alcott describes this addition to Amy’s will as her “greatest sacrifice.”

Too often we dismiss the burdens and sacrifices of children altogether. They may seem small, trivial, unimportant, as we are dealing with issues that supposedly matter more—politics, public life. In the midst of a global pandemic, reading Alcott helps us to remember that children are struggling, too, often with parents who are pulled in many directions. We ask them to understand as Amy does that Marmee is with Beth (who is obviously sicker) and as my daughter does that I am working or looking after her brother instead of her at different times for various reasons. It is up to all of us as a human community, as a Church community, to recognize the sacrifices our children are being called upon to make during this pandemic and to rise to the level of their heightened spiritual needs.

After Amy finishes her will, and decides on giving up her hair, she returns to her makeshift “little chapel, and sitting in the twilight, pray[s] for Beth with streaming tears and an aching heart.” Amy has learned to turn to God for peace when dealing with the unknown. When she gets out of the chapel, Amy “never thinks of the turquoise ring”; her will has turned toward worship.

There is one more vignette that matters to close out this reading: it is the short reunion of Marmee and Amy. Marmee visits Aunt March’s to check on Amy and the chapel before attending to Beth again, and her youngest daughter is worried that she might find the Catholic inspired prayer space displeasing. On the contrary, Marmee, the text’s moral center, approves. Esther’s friendship, her mothering of Amy while Marmee cannot be there, is deemed acceptable. Mother and daughter sit in the chapel together, Amy in Marmee’s lap, mirroring the Madonna and child in a “copy of one of the famous pictures of the world,” which they stare at together while they talk. Marmee assures Amy about the home altar:

“I like it very much dear,” . . . looking from the dusty rosary to the well-worn little book, and the lovely picture with its garland of evergreen. “It is an excellent plan to have some place where we can go be quiet, when things vex or grieve us. There are a good many hard times in this life of ours, but we can always bear them if we ask help in the right way. I think my little girl is learning this?”  

Amy affirms that she is learning the “right way” to “ask for help,” and she points to the “Christ-child on his mother’s knee” in the Madonna painting from her friend, stating that it’s comforting to know “He was a little child once, for then I don’t seem so far away.” 

For both casual and stalwart readers of Little Women today, when we think of Amy’s character, it is likely her art, her vanity, her travels, her marriage, her audacity, and, yes, her selfishness that we might remember. What I am suggesting, though, is that Amy is the character whose spiritual journey perhaps most resonates for today’s pandemic generation of children—the youngest March sister, lost in the shuffle, part of a busy family, all trying to look after her but not having the time to explain the weight of the world—just yet. Amy’s struggles as a twelve-year-old seem trivial in comparison to what could be happening, and is happening, on the pages elsewhere. Her normal child flaws are rampant: she is worried about a turquoise ring, while her sister could be dying. Indeed, who is she to write a will when it is Beth who has scarlet fever?

Marmee never asks this question of Amy, though, and neither does Alcott, the narrator, as she lovingly includes this chapter about “Amy’s Will.” The four March sisters each have their stories, as all children do during pandemic times. Amy March, child in exile, finds God through the unexpected discovery of a bejeweled rosary. This character never claims perfection, though. Rather, she points to the Christ-child in the picture in her altar room created by her immigrant Catholic friend, as she sits with her mother, reminding herself that Jesus was a child, too, like her, and that he had to grow up.

A global pandemic is hard. On mothers. On children. On everyone. Marmee tells Amy that “the sincere wish to be good is half the battle,” a quote I often reference in our home, including in the prayer space that my daughter has created in her room—a place her dolls and I now often frequent. While Amy March does not become Catholic, she retains the Catholic practices learned from Esther and is inspired throughout the rest of Little Women to form herself into a less materialistic girl, into someone who gives to others. It is Esther’s quiet, kind evangelization that once helped her through one of her hardest periods—a period of pandemic and exile. And it is Alcott, as friend, who can still help us as readers and re-readers today, to remember to be attentive to children’s spiritual needs and to help bring them out of whatever exile they might be experiencing during this pandemic, focusing them toward lives of good will rather than confusion and despair.


[1] Eve Laplante, Marmee and Louisa:The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother (New York, Simon&Schuster, 2013), 153.

[2] Ibid., 200.

[3] For additional thoughts on teaching Little Women during the pandemic, see Sarah Wadsworth’s “Nineteenth-Century Disease,Twenty First Century Dis-Ease: Reflections on Teaching Nineteenth-Century Texts” in ESQ, vol 67, no. 21, 2021.

[4] Regina Radikas and Cindy Connolly, “Young Patients in a Young Nation: Scarlet Fever in Early Nineteenth-Century Rural New England,” Pediatric Nursing 33 (2007): 54.

Feature Photo: by Thérèse Westby on Unsplash.

Author

LuElla D’Amico

LuElla D’Amico is an Associate Professor of English and the Women’s and Gender Studies Coordinator at the University of the Incarnate Word. She is the editor of Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Reading Transatlantic Girlhood in the Long Nineteenth Century.

Read more by LuElla D’Amico