Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My Stepdaughter Will Expose My Family to COVID-19

What should I do?

A mom clasping her hands to her mouth, looking worried
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

During this pandemic, my husband, 5-year-old daughter, and I are fortunate enough to be able to mostly transition our lives into our house and yard for the foreseeable future. We can both continue to work from home, and our pantry is well stocked. I’m committed to staying healthy and safe and take the self-quarantine seriously. My question is with regard to my 13-year-old stepdaughter. She splits time between us and her mom’s house, where she also lives with her grandmother. Over the years, we’ve had numerous challenges related to stark values-related differences between the two households (including her mother allowing her to have an inappropriate online relationship with someone who was obviously not another kid, and forcing us to obtain a court order before allowing her to see a therapist—so as you can see, coming to a rational compromise with this family isn’t always possible).

As it stands now, we have suggested minimizing trips between households from up to three times a week to just once. Even if this arrangement is accepted, I’m still very nervous. My husband’s ex continues to go to work every day in a valuable but nonessential local government office. I’m worried that my stepdaughter could expose our family. Obviously I don’t want to get sick myself, but more to the point, I’m terrified of finding myself in a position where I’m unable to care for my daughter, my parents, or my husband, who has diabetes and is thus at higher risk. I don’t want to leave my stepdaughter feeling abandoned, but I’m really worried about the to-and-fro. (Also, practically speaking, wouldn’t each household need to start over a 14-day quarantine period every time she changes houses? Any insight would be so appreciated!)

—Coronavirus Co-parent

Dear CC,

I wish I could say there is a good solution to this problem—or to so many of the other problems we’re plagued by right now as a result of this horrific pandemic. I must also stipulate that while I understand how anxious and stressed you are, it isn’t the least bit helpful to characterize your stepdaughter’s mother’s work as “nonessential” in a not-that-subtle way of making that a part of your case against her. You yourself acknowledge that you and your husband are fortunate enough to be able to work from home. Lots of people have no choice about this, as you know.

But I mention this only because I think it’s important that you separate out the strands of your dislike of your stepdaughter’s mother from the actual problem at hand right now. Moving back and forth between households is a terrible idea, even if her visits were reduced such that a new 14 days of quarantine were imposed each time she switched houses. Custody arrangements that have children switching homes can only work right now if everyone in both homes, as well as the child, is able to avoid all contact with anyone else. There is no “reasonable compromise” to be reached at a time like this. Your stepdaughter needs to stay at one home or the other until the need to stay at home (in one place) has passed.

The kind thing to do would be to let the child make the choice herself. If this is impossible (I can think of many reasons it would be), then it should go without saying that the second-best choice would be for the adults to come to a sensitive and generous understanding of what’s best for her at this uncertain, dangerous, and stressful time. I would give this a try, even if it seems to you that it will fail. And if it does fail, if the two families cannot calmly and kindly put this child’s needs at the forefront of this choice, then someone is going to have to take the lead and simply claim her. My every instinct tells me this will be the child’s mother. If so, you and your husband together need to have a conversation with your stepdaughter in which you reassure her that this extraordinary moment in all of your lives has no bearing on how much you love her or want her around. And you need to keep having that conversation, every single day, by phone and video chat, in letters, and with gifts shopped for online and sent with loving notes. (And if she does end up coming to live with you full time for now, you and your husband should encourage his ex-wife and ex-mother-in-law to do the same.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am in a mostly amicable co-parenting relationship with my son’s father. So far we have not needed a legal custody agreement. But recently we have had a serious disagreement on what is best for our son. We normally have a week-to-week child-sharing agreement. But because my son’s father is a nurse in an emergency room in a region with growing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases, I want to forgo the current agreement and keep my son for an additional week or two, as we are under a state and local stay-at-home order. He flatly refuses to make changes to our schedule, insists that he will not be exposed because of his use of personal protective equipment, and has demanded that I drop off my son to his house. I am a public health nurse and feel this is reckless and puts our son and our family at risk. Our conversations devolve immediately into yelling and name-calling, with him calling my suggestion to increase my time now and make up for it by increasing his time in the summer “completely ridiculous” and “paranoid overreaction.” How can we navigate co-parenting in the time of pandemic when one parent refuses to see this as a national emergency?

—Concerned in California

Dear Concerned,

Once again, a no-compromise situation. Welcome to the spring of the pandemic, when custody arrangements, legal or otherwise, go out the window.

I think your son’s father is wrong and you are right. But it doesn’t matter what I think. I doubt very much that if you tell him a parenting advice columnist sides with you, it would change his mind. I would make one more attempt to have a calm conversation with him. It’s possible that you can get him to see that this is an untenable arrangement—but it’s just as possible that he will dig in his heels. I have seen for myself over the past couple of weeks how differently people are coping with their own fear and dread, and I have been astonished by how many otherwise very sensible, smart people are employing various levels of denial.

I would do my very best to persuade him to alter the current informal custody arrangement—even if you do it by telling him (a lie) that you realize you may be overreacting, but you would be ever so grateful if he would go along with this, just temporarily, for the sake of your well-being—an indulgence, as it were—but if he refuses, I would call a lawyer now. It’s time to put a legal arrangement in place, even if it’s also a temporary one. And although I’ve heard from those involved in custody law that they are flying by the seat of their pants as the usual concerns take a backseat to the spread of this virus (not to mention that many courts are closed, which would mean a ruling would be long deferred), a call from a lawyer to the father of your son might be sufficient to get him to see things your way. At the very least it might buy you some time while he has the chance to think through this more and perhaps come to his senses.

Dear Care and Feeding,

For various reasons my almost-4-year-old daughter spends a lot of time interacting with a handful of adults in her life, but essentially no time with other children. She has had about five play dates ever and gets to play with other children at an indoor playground maybe once every two months. She needs to be a little more proficient with toileting needs before we can enroll her in preschool, but in the meantime is it possible her social development is being irreversibly stunted by lack of interaction with peers?

—The Kid’s All Right, Right?

Dear TKARR,

Taking a break for a few minutes from the subject on everybody’s mind all day long every day, and granting that there won’t be any indoor playgrounding for a while now anyway—or any enrolling in preschool, potty-trained or not—I want to assure you that your not-even-4-year-old has plenty of time for social development. Yes, lots of children this age have already been in day care for years. But I promise you that when your daughter starts preschool—or kindergarten!—she’ll have plenty of time to socialize. The whole rest of her life, in fact. Kids catch up quickly at that age. (And, for the record, you might pause right now to consider your great good luck in having a child who is accustomed to adult company because for the next good while, that’s all she is going to get. She can’t miss what she’s never known.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My girls are 12 and 13 and are off school indefinitely because of COVID-19. Last week was their spring break, so … fine, stare at your phone, eat cookies, sure. We hadn’t planned a trip or anything, so nobody was feeling particularly disappointed to be self-isolating. But tomorrow is Monday, and my husband and I will be home because we are out of work temporarily. It’s scary. We have given them so many lovingly worded, empathetically delicious heads-ups and invitations to collaborate about the light and reasonable home schooling that will begin tomorrow, and the rage is honestly surprising and hurting my feelings. Are all kids in this much of a rage about COVID home schooling? Are my kids just anxious and disappointed and it’s manifesting as rage? I mean, I’m not being draconian about this. They can sleep in, but they need to read and do a few math sheets. Maybe watch that Romeo and Juliet with Claire Danes. I’ve told them this. Why are they so sobbingly furious with me, and how is it to be borne?

—Sensitive Flower

Dear SF,

They are sobbingly furious because they are 12 and 13 years old—the epicenter of sobbingly furious years. If they’ve never responded to anything hard or disappointing this way before, well, congratulations, Mama, and welcome to puberty—all that’s happened is that this genuinely difficult situation has jump-started the era of drama. And the answer to your question about whether their anxiety etc. is manifesting as rage is yes, of course it is. That doesn’t mean they aren’t enraged, though, too (I’m pretty furious myself—aren’t you? I am just better than a 13-year-old about keeping it in check). But keep in mind that it’s not you they’re really angry at; they’re just taking it out on you.

That doesn’t make it any easier to bear, I know (I’ve been there). And it doesn’t mean you should let them sleep till 2 p.m. and then spend every waking hour on their phones. It’s not clear from your message whether their school is yet back in session—online. If it is, that’s a whole different question: If they have school, they have got to go to school, whether they like it or not, whether it’s in their school building or from home. But if their school has not shifted to online teaching, as many schools have by now, you certainly can make them do a little schoolwork—even if you don’t necessarily always (or even ever) call it schoolwork. Claire Danes, sure. Maybe Jeff Daniels in The Crossing (a really good movie that’ll teach them some American history) or the musical 1776. You could all read Emma together and then watch Clueless (or vice versa, which might get more traction) and maybe the new Emma that’s just been released. And you should definitely encourage them to read. Once they calm down a little (they will, at least a little), you might try a family book club, all of you reading the same book and then talking about it over dinner. At their age, this might be To Kill a Mockingbird or Wuthering Heights, or if they’re ambitious readers, you could take a look at this great list of books. But you should also let them read whatever appeals to them. And if you can find ways to do math without math sheets, I would wholeheartedly advise it. Life is full of math, and science too.

Also, make sure to get them out of the house for walks or for outdoor games you play as a family. I cannot emphasize enough how much it helps to get outdoors, however briefly and cautiously. Just don’t call it recess.

And don’t expect that any of this will make them any less sobbingly furious, or stop them from directing that sobbing fury at you. Remind yourself again and again that their rage has nothing to do with you; you are only the repository of all their feelings. It’s part of your job as a parent to absorb those blows and keep on keeping on. So do make sure to spend some time every day looking after yourself. Find someone (not them!) to talk to about how you feel. Make sure you get some time to yourself every day, doing something that soothes you or gives you pleasure.

I wish you—and all of us—fortitude. Remember: This won’t last forever.

—Michelle

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