As the number of coronavirus cases in New York increased at the end of March, so too did the number of calls I got from my parents in suburban Chicago, begging me to come home. It was a nice offer, but not one I was all that interested in. For starters, I was very much at home in the Brooklyn apartment I rented with roommates, where I planned on riding out the pandemic. There were also so many risks and unknowns at the time about travel, transmission and the appropriate precautions to take that the only thing that kept me from being paralyzed with panic was knowing I wasn’t potentially exposing the virus to the vulnerable Boomers I cared about most — i.e., my parents. Plus, as an employed adult, I had no reason to move into their guest room, other than to alleviate their anxieties by exacerbating my own.
When they continued to press the issue — at one point, even offering to drive halfway across the country to pick me up — I got pissed. “When you say things like this, it makes me feel like you don’t take this virus seriously and that makes me scared for your safety,” I snapped. I promised to answer their calls, respond to texts and Zoom and FaceTime whenever I could, but told them they needed to accept that I wouldn’t be visiting for the foreseeable future. At the same time, I didn’t want them to worry that I’d be without a support system entirely. In fact, it wasn’t until I took seeing my parents off of the table, that I felt comfortable enough to start having an appropriately distanced and masked social life, with a close circle of pod friends who were in similar situations.
None of this, though, alleviated my guilt. If anything, the more it felt like I had replaced my family and the more understanding and supportive they were about it, the more guilty I felt.
Indiana-based psychotherapist Jennifer Branstetter has been similarly conflicted about seeing her family since the pandemic started, even though her 75-year-old mother-in-law lives next door, and Branstetter could very much use help with childcare as she balances parenting a toddler with running a full-time therapy practice. Her own parents are only a short road trip away in Cleveland as well, but she has the same reservations about their safety, and has opted to lean on her spouse for support instead. As much as this has strengthened the bonds in her immediate household, she never imagined being so isolated from her extended family. “My mom hasn’t seen her granddaughter now for six months, but I decided I’d feel worse if I got my parents or my mother-in-law sick,” Branstetter tells me.
She has observed related feelings from her clients who have chosen to distance themselves from their parents and grandparents, many of whom live out-of-state and have pre-existing conditions.
Making matters more complicated, numerous codependent families have doubled-down, pushing loved ones to go against public-health guidelines and their own comfort levels in order to be together. As the pandemic rages on, more people are responding to these demands, and relocating to be closer to family for material and emotional support, giving rise to a new type of COVID-era multi-generational family that’s closer than ever.
“For some people, being isolated from family is worse than the idea of getting or transmitting COVID, and I can’t say it’s right or wrong,” Branstetter says. One thing she’s sure of is that this is “really distressing to the adult children, because they’re wanting to protect their parents, but the parents don’t seem to be afraid of the virus.” (To be fair, more and more families are commingling without getting anyone seemingly sick, making the rest of us look like overly cautious assholes who were just looking for an excuse to skip Thanksgiving.)
No matter what camp you end up falling into, though, both sides share a common thread. “There’s a lot of fear of losing the parents,” Branstetter tells me. The difference is that some people are using this fear as a motivation to distance themselves from extended families in an effort to feel some sense of control of their safety, whereas others don’t want to waste any time apart, especially if there’s even a small chance an older relative could get sick and die.
Given that, compared to previous generations, millennials are significantly less likely to get married, buy houses and have children of their own, the definition of family, which has been traditionally tied to biology and marriage, was already trending toward a more broadly defined group of people who love and support each other. And the coronavirus appears to have accelerated this transition for some, as families become increasingly fractured by politics, masks and physical space — not that this is necessarily a bad thing. “If the relationship was unhealthy to begin with, this may be a safe way to establish healthier distance,” explains marriage and family therapist Carrie Krawiec.
Along those lines, being cooped up in quarantine with your parents as an adult ”may serve to solidify or exaggerate unhealthy family roles,” Krawiec warns. In family psychology, there are key roles that people play that evolve over time and help to determine how healthy the dynamic is. Healthy roles include being a provider, nurturer, teacher and disciplinarian, whereas unhealthy roles include being the enabler and scapegoat. During a crisis, some family members will want to play too many parts, while “otherwise capable adults may regress, as they’re getting their needs met in their family of origin rather than achieving individuation of ‘real life.’”
Social support in the form of friendship, on the other hand, appears to present comparatively fewer risks overall. While family and friends are both linked with improved well-being, one study of more than 270,000 people found that friendship proved to be a stronger and more consistent predictor of health and happiness. Conversely, familial relationships brought more negativity, seriousness and obligation. And while toxic friendships were correlated with similar health problems as toxic family relationships, the option to choose your friends over your family is what researchers believe makes the difference.
Other research indicates that friends and family are crucial, but function in distinctly different ways: Friends are meant to provide qualitative support, and family quantitative support (i.e., strength in numbers).
However, the data doesn’t hold up the same way in a time of crisis. After a steady decline in multi-generational households since 1940, the number of these close-knit families started to increase for the first time following the 2008 recession — by about 33 percent. Much of this obviously had to do with rising unemployment, foreclosures and financial concerns, but multigenerational family bonds have also been found to foster resilience during times of adversity. Case in point: Children who grow up in poverty or in dysfunctional, potentially abusive homes are more likely to overcome adversity when they have close ties with grandparents or other extended family members like aunts and uncles. Meanwhile, Holocaust survivors who were able to pass down stories of their strength to extended family members displayed more resilience, whereas the “ones that trended toward secrecy and shame were less resilient,” Krawiec explains.
Stewart is a good test case in this regard. He was living with his in-laws in the U.K. at the start of lockdown, when his wife, a nurse working with coronavirus patients, was faced with a difficult decision: Accept the hospital’s offer to house her in a hotel to keep her family safe, as Stewart raised their two-year-old daughter with the help of his in-laws, or take their chances. “Her parents convinced her not to take the hotel room, and I didn’t question her on what was safe,” he tells me. “Our stance was that if we were going to get it, we were going to get it. We may as well deal with it as a family.”
Months later, everyone is in good health, and things have turned out even better than expected. “The pandemic has actually been really good for our family,” he tells me. “I’ve been able to work from home and watch my daughter grow, and lost weight from exercising every day and not eating out. We do a lot more as a family after work like going to the park because we’re not too tired anymore.”
Better yet, he and his wife were recently able to purchase their first home and move out — something they wouldn’t have been able to do without saving money by living with family.
It’s possible, too, to safely bridge health concerns with deciding to post up with family during the pandemic. Lori, a tech entrepreneur, was ahead of the curve when she chose to abandon New York City in the first week of March. “I’d been using Airbnb to help fund the rent in my two-bedroom apartment for nearly four years,” she explains. “When fears of the virus started to lurk, my reservations from all over the world started canceling like wildfire.” And so, on March 6th, she packed two bags, rented a car and drove 12 hours to Louisville, where her 75-year-old parents live.
But on the drive, Lori became ill, and because testing was so limited at the time, she couldn’t take any chances with her Boomer parents. She quarantined for a month at her younger cousins’ place, staying in a completely separate part of the house until she finally received a negative test in mid-May. “I didn’t go near my parents,” Lori says. “My mom slid my meals through a door for almost a month.”
Soon after Lori tested negative for the coronavirus, she came to terms with the fact that she was home to stay and hired movers to bring all of her stuff from NYC. To her surprise, she’s happy with the decision. “I never in my life dreamt I’d end up in my childhood room at age 47, but I feel as safe as I could be,” she tells me. Though she recently signed a lease for her own apartment, she continues to catch up on quality time with her parents after two decades away, having picnics in parks she played in as a child and roasting s’mores in her family’s backyard fire pit.
“My roots are in Kentucky, and I always felt such sadness seeing them all together without me the past 25 years,” Lori says. “Being back with my family has brought me full circle, and it’s been such magic for me.”
I learned what life was like on both ends of the COVID family continuum on Thursday, July 23rd, when my dad called me at 8 a.m. on a weekday morning, not to complain about me not visiting this summer, but to tell me my mom was sick. It wasn’t the coronavirus, but she had an advanced, potentially treatment-resistant form of leukemia and would be in the hospital for at least a month. When my roommate tried to ask what had happened, all I could only say was, “I’m going home.” Two days later, I was on a flight to Chicago.
When I landed, we weren’t sure if my mom would be able to have any visitors at the hospital other than my dad, but I got a rapid COVID test just in case. After my test came back negative — with the caveat that it didn’t account for my exposure at the airport because rapid tests require a longer incubation period for the virus — my dad told me I could visit the next day. I informed him about the risk of a false negative, but he said my mom didn’t care. She wanted to see me even if it literally killed her. The heartbreaking reality was that the risk of my mom dying before I could get another test was far greater than the risk of me giving her coronavirus, so I spent the day with her fully masked. After months of telling her to stop asking me to come home, here we were sitting six-feet apart as I apologized for being so harsh and she began chemo.
Over the next five weeks, I kept my dad company in the condo he shares with my mom and attempted to chip in cooking, cleaning and watering her plants. Along the way, I got to see my old man in a softer light. The same guy who could never remember his anniversary was now freaking out about how he sent my mom “a sexy text about spooning” that she didn’t respond to. (I assured him that she was most likely asleep and made him promise to never say “sexy text” ever again).
Since the hospital’s COVID policy only allowed for one visitor a day, which was almost always my dad, I started writing my mom letters everyday. My dad read them aloud to her, and our private exchanges quickly became a new family where I could comfort my mom and passively tell my dad to try meditation, talking to a therapist or CBD. Today, her condition has improved enough that she’s returned home, and I’ve moved into my own studio apartment about 40 minutes away from their condo.
As for my friends in New York, I love and miss them dearly, and they fit perfectly in the space I had carved out for my family prior to my mom’s diagnosis. But when it came down to the possibility of losing my mom — who will be in and out of treatment for the better part of a year — living a plane ride away for friendships and a few takeout restaurants felt immature, selfish and cruel.
Despite my naive attempt to protect my parents from coronavirus by never seeing them, I am now a proud resident of Illinois and a family person — so much so that I might be the best match to donate my stem cells to my mom’s recovery. In the ultimate twist then, my physical presence may be able to help my parents far more than my absence ever could.
And in the age of the coronavirus, it doesn’t get much more relative than that.