We're Not Ready to Get Too Close to Friends and Family Yet, and It's Causing Tension
Two years ago (pre-COVID-19, pre-social distancing, and pre-quarantine), my husband and I made the monumental, life-changing decision to uproot our lives and move our growing family across the country. I had lived thousands of miles away from my family in a fairly liberal community with a strong sense of social responsibility for a decade, only seeing my parents and brothers once or twice a year for holidays and weddings. I wanted so badly to live closer to my parents, to be able to spend time with them each week, and to watch my children get to know their grandparents as I had known my own. I felt guilty for living far away from them and missing out on so much. I know that the decision to move was a difficult one for my husband because it meant moving farther away from his family to be closer to mine.
After the move, we started having weekly dinners with my parents and one of my brothers. These Sunday dinners became a family ritual that my children, especially my eldest son, and I looked forward to with great anticipation, although I don’t think I fully realized that until later. We could time our weekly lives by the regularity of these dinners. And at each one, my parents could measure how quickly my children were growing, with every Sunday marked by new changes – steps taken, colors and shapes learned, new songs to be sung, and new games to be played. My eldest son and my father have a particularly special relationship. They both love planes, trains, and automobiles, and my son wants to emulate my father as much as possible. My youngest son is still less than a year old. He is in the midst of those months when the days are long, yet they fly by in a flash and a flurry of transformations. Each change is momentous and acutely disappointing to miss.
The pandemic has temporarily curbed these dinners, as it has similarly done for countless families around the world. We celebrated Easter through a window – my family isn’t much for Zoom or video calls, in general. Many people aren’t, and that should be no cause for guilt. Now that restrictions are being lifted, we have attempted to ease back into getting together at least once a week, but only outdoors, only for an hour or so, and only while practicing social distancing. Our first two attempts were outdoor breakfasts. My parents brought doughnuts for my oldest son and watched him climb and swing on his new playset. Every time he approached my parents, though, I could feel my pulse quicken, my ears redden, and my calm dissolve.
My husband and I decided it is best for our sons to continue strict social distancing after numerous tense-yet-informed (my husband and I are both avid readers) conversations about the high transmissibility of the coronavirus and risks it poses for our family . . . which means no hugs from grandparents. And yet, our decision is causing tension with my parents, even though they know that we are protecting them and our children. I had explained to my parents before they came over that we were still practicing strict social distancing not only for our own protection, but for theirs, as well. They attempted to allay my fears and diffuse any tension with repeated reassurances of “We totally get it! It doesn’t bother us one bit!” But their discomfort was palpable.
Then I received a text message from my father explaining that he thinks family time is great, but what is most important to him is being able to give everyone hugs. He further explained that my brothers and their wives were giving everyone hugs and not practicing social distancing. This felt like a punch to the gut. I felt like I was being painted as some sort of bad guy or as an overprotective parent putting too much stock into the existence and severity of the pandemic. I needed them to know that even though we decided it is safest to keep our distance physically, I don’t love it. Heck, I don’t like it at all. I miss the hugs just as much as they do. I miss watching movies and silly TV shows together. I miss cooking with my mom. I miss seeing my children laugh and play with my parents – something I have always wanted to see, even before I had children. My parents have since struck a more understanding tone, acknowledging that we all have to do what is right for us and what makes us most comfortable. For my family, that means wearing masks if we go out (which we rarely do), practicing social distancing, washing our hands and using hand sanitizer regularly, staying home when possible, and only seeing family and friends outdoors.
With COVID-19 cases spiking around the country, and definitely in our city where wearing a mask is seen as a symbol of your political leanings, things have changed yet again. Having outdoor dinners in the oppressive Southern heat while adhering to strict preventive guidelines with small children who don’t entirely grasp what is going on, why they can’t sit in Grandma’s lap, or why they can’t watch airplane videos right next to Grandpa has proved to be too challenging and heartbreaking for us to manage for the time being. My parents are now in agreement that keeping our distance and staying home are the surest measures to protect against COVID-19 at a time when many are going about their business as usual and not implementing social distancing and mask-wearing. We text and call each other often, and I feel that as long as we continue to act responsibly, we will be able to have dinner again soon.