Care and Feeding

My Mom Wants Me to Break Social Isolation and Visit Her for Mother’s Day

She insists we could do it safely, but I’m an anxious wreck. What’s the real risk here?

Collage of an elderly woman looking wistful and a yardstick protruding toward her face
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Eyematrix/iStock/Getty Images Plus and bbh singapore/Unsplash.

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,

This is a question about parents and adult children, but I’m hoping you can help. I’m a mid-30s woman, single, no kids. My parents are just over 70, and they live a few hours away. They are thankfully in good health. I haven’t seen them for about two months because of the pandemic. My siblings are both married with a couple kids, and everyone in their families is generally staying home, including the kids. My siblings, who live close to my parents, have been getting them groceries, and my parents have been taking socially distanced walks outside with them. Twice, they have gotten together for a meal at someone’s house where they promise that everyone is 6 feet away and washing their hands religiously. I had objections to these gatherings, but I let it go. So far, everyone is thankfully healthy.

My mother wants to see me for Mother’s Day. I normally see her once or twice a month, so this has been hard for her. I think she doesn’t see much risk in it since she’s been seeing my siblings regularly. She insists we would keep the proper distance apart and would stay outside, but of course people would have to go inside to use the restroom, the kids are running around, etc. I’m still going into work once or twice a week, albeit in a low-risk setting. I live in an area with a much higher infection rate than where they live. I also deal with anxiety. It was mostly under control before all this happened, but now it’s … not. I spiral into what-ifs and worst-case scenarios at least once a day. I’m working on that with a therapist, but I think this is just how it’s going to be for a while.

So I guess my question is, how do I rationally assess the risk of a Mother’s Day visit with appropriate safeguards when my brain is incapable of rationally assessing risk right now? How dangerous is this proposal, really? Relatedly, even if restrictions ease, I can’t see an end to social distancing requirements until there’s a vaccine or at least an effective treatment. How can I tell my mother I’m not coming for Mother’s Day when I have no idea when it will be safe to see her again?

—Muddled About Mother’s Day

Dear MAMD,

Let me assess the risk for you, because you’re both emotionally compromised (of course!) and already someone grappling with anxiety.

Don’t go.

There is nothing magical about Mother’s Day, which is about selling greeting cards and also making people with horrible mothers or deceased mothers feel awful. You love your mother every day, which is why you have been trying to protect her from the possibility of inadvertent transmission of something that could end her life. Your siblings have made different choices, but those choices are their own.

You live in an area of higher viral concentration, so it is not unreasonable or paranoid to love your mother enough to cause her temporary pain in order to risk bringing the potential of great, great harm to an area that so far has been lucky enough to avoid a major cluster.

I want to see my mother on Mother’s Day too. One of my dearest friends has a mother who may already not be with us next Mother’s Day, and every day she loves her mother by not getting on a series of planes to go see her, however much she is desperate to. This is the crummy way you get to love your mother this year.

I’m so sorry. As to how to explain it to her, you have two basic options: lying and the truth. You can pretend you’re coming and then announce you are flat on your back with the flu and cannot possibly come. This will open you up to “Well, we can pretend next Sunday is Mother’s Day.” Not a great solution. A better lie, which, like all successful lies, is tied to the truth, is to say you asked your doctor their opinion, and they begged you not to go. A doctor would certainly tell you not to go; we’re just skipping the middleman.

Or just tell the truth: that you don’t want to risk making her sick, or any of your other relatives sick, that you are following the recommendations of expert virologists, that you desperately wish you were there, and that you would love to have a Skype or speakerphone dinner with your extended family that night. If they think you are cruel or heartless or paranoid or anxious, let them.

You’re doing the right thing. You’re a good daughter.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 12-year-old son is into grunge, punk, alternative, prog rock … you get the idea. He dresses to show his passions: ripped skinny pants, ripped Converse (red or black) sneakers, band T-shirts. I mostly encourage it (he has learned to do some serious research in American history and politics due to Rage Against the Machine and Dead Kennedys), and we have great conversations, go to concerts, etc. I also dole out concert tickets according to behavior: If he wants good seats for the Who, he has to behave well for Hello, Dolly! (which he said was “pretty funny”).

In all, it’s a positive thing for us as a family and for him as an individual. But he’s becoming a bit snobbish. For example, his best friend likes to dress as a Tillys mannequin; he told my son he bought the whole outfit off of the display, and my son lectured him on originality. I talked to him about letting people be, letting them dress how they want, and I said that at his age people tend to want to fit in, not stand out. He doesn’t, but he still has plenty of friends. He doesn’t talk to his peers a lot because they don’t share his tastes (they watch teenage dramas—what a waste!). So he talks to me instead. I try to talk to him about empathy, and he gets it, he is just hard on his close friends. Am I raising an annoying hipster bro, and how do I encourage him not to be the guy who says, “I liked that before you thought it was cool”?

—I’m the Mom of the Hipster Kid

Dear Hipster Mom,

Oh, this is adorable. I love this. Your son is probably going to be a weird adult, like many of my favorite people. You say that he doesn’t love talking to his peers, but also that he has plenty of friends, so I really don’t see a major reason for concern here. Is he an aggravating little Holden Caulfield at the moment? Perhaps. But he’s 12. That’s a very normal age to decide all of you are phonies, this is all bullshit, I alone see through the illusion of society.

It usually passes. Sometimes it doesn’t. You seem to have a good connection, you can reel him back in when he gets too insufferable, and if he persists in annoying his friends, he will experience the logical consequences of that. Are his grades decent? Is he respectful to you? Is he respectful to his teachers? If any of those things change, then you can reassess. Right now, he just seems like a kid who thrives on being “different,” and those people often have a lot to offer the world.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister is about to give birth to her first child. I have summers off and no kids of my own, so she originally asked me to drive to stay with them for birth support, cooking, cleaning, and errand running. Recently, though, she asked that I hold off for eight weeks after he is born in light of COVID-19. I agreed to do whatever she thought was best and play it by ear.

However, she recently said that her husband now thinks that there is no reasonable time frame for visitors and that, even after eight weeks, I won’t be permitted to see him unless I come to town and fully quarantine somewhere else for two weeks. If my sister were of the same mind, I would support their decision, but she seems to really be concerned that she will lack the necessary help after the baby is born, especially if there are complications.

I advised that she wait, see how things go, and together they could consult their doctor after the baby was born about the best plan of action for allowing visitors. Perhaps my brother-in-law will feel differently after several weeks of sleep deprivation. Perhaps I am wrong and it will be a smooth birth, and he’ll be an easy baby. But I am scared that my sister won’t feel like she can ask for help if she needs it.

—Anxious Auntie

Dear AA,

Bringing a new person into your house to live is a big decision. There are 80 possible reasons your brother-in-law might be hesitant, only some of which may involve the chance of infection. Most parents muddle along just fine (or mostly fine) on their own with a new baby, especially a first baby when they are not also trying to deal with an older child who wants to play now.

Tell your sister she can always reach out if they change their minds (that’s “minds,” plural) and then try to let it go. Hopefully we’ll all get to see some delicious new babies before too long, but there’s no earthly reason to push it under these circumstances.

Learn From a Lego Master How to Level Up Your Family Builds

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4.5-year-old son has his finger up his nose constantly. This has been going on for months. I keep asking him if something is bothering him, but he says no, and it doesn’t even seem like he realizes he is doing it. It almost seems like some sort of comfort habit, like thumb-sucking.

It drives my husband and me crazy, but we are at a complete loss as to how to correct it. Any ideas? Or do we need to learn to deal with it and just let this habit ride its course?

—Pick Me a Good One

Dear PMaGO,

You tell him to take his finger out of his nose! Every single time you see him doing it! We live in a society. He cannot be launched back into the school system with his finger permanently up his nose.

As a side note, if you live in a dry climate, see if a humidifier makes a difference. But seriously, just tell him to take his finger out of his nose, even if it’s a hundred times a day. He probably does not, in fact, realize he is doing it, which is why it is your job to constantly point it out until he recognizes he’s doing it and it becomes a conscious action.

—Nicole

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Two years ago when my son was 10 he became very verbal about hating church and resisted going. My older son loves the teen group at Sunday school and assured his brother that when he made it out of the baby area, he, too, would love it. Well, he does not. Each Sunday morning he yells, pouts, and eventually succumbs to my threats. Then he takes his snarky and unhelpful attitude to Sunday school. He doesn’t believe in God, and his very cool Sunday teacher works with that. I hated my boring church as a kid, and looking back I wonder, had I not gone to church would I have been a worse person? My husband was forced to attend his church when he was little. Now, he sleeps late Sunday morning, then hikes and does other activities. He is supportive of the fact that both our sons’ spiritual development is important to me. Do I force my son to go or give up?