Care and Feeding

I Want to Keep My Newborn Healthy

How do I determine who can visit?

A woman holding a newborn baby.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/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.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I know you’ve covered setting boundaries with family/friends in reference to the virus before, but I need some additional assistance. I’m overdue to have my first baby any minute now, and am having a hard time coping with all the requests to meet him. Everyone seems to think they are doing an excellent job quarantining, but I’ve noticed some unintentional dishonesty from loved ones. For example, a friend said, “You should come by. We work from home and get groceries delivered so we haven’t seen anyone in two months.” But when I did “come by,” I heard this: “Oh yeah, my sister made this amazing chili when we went over last weekend!” Situations like these (I haven’t actually gone near other people since this experience, but this sort of discrepancy comes up in conversation with others if I listen long enough) have rattled me. Now I am simultaneously mournful about the possibility of my baby not seeing anyone but his parents, uncle, and grandma until some mythical future time, and paralyzed by the thought that I can’t trust my people (and desperate to know how to express this without being cruel).

Complicating matters is that my two closest friends are eager to meet him and it feels wrong to hurt them via exclusion. One has a husband who works in NYC, so I feel strongly that this represents too big a risk—but I’m having a hard time dealing with the pain I know this is causing her, especially because she feels just as strongly that there isn’t a big risk (though she’s being graciously respectful of my wishes, and not pushing). My other closest friend is in the medical field! I know that allowing her to hold my baby is not the safest thing to do, but it’s unthinkable to imagine her NOT. She is more aware of the risks and more careful than anyone I know (but still, she works in a hospital—though she hasn’t seen COVID-19 patients in months, as she specializes in surgery). I am uncomfortable having a different standard for different people, but it seems ridiculous to not let her be with my baby! Sigh. This is so hard. My partner, by the way, is on board with whatever I decide.

—Blinded by Love?

Dear BbL,

Yes, we’ve been over this territory (a lot), but there’s no end to the permutations of our worries and decision-making about exposure to the virus. And there is apparently no end to the variations in our beliefs about what’s safe and what isn’t for us—not just variation from one person to another, but within ourselves. We are all making such calculations, all the time.

You’re blinded by love for sure, but what seems to be making you (extra) anxious is that you’re realizing that either you love some of your people more than others (and thus twist yourself into contortions about how safe that extra-loved person must be)—and you feel guilty about it—or that logic has very little to do with decision-making as this pandemic stretches on and you try to figure out how to limit exposure, particularly for your baby’s sake. (Probably both are true.)

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: We are all just doing the best we can (you know, except for the contemptible assholes who refuse to wear masks or keep their distance in public places). Unless one is prepared to be completely isolated for the foreseeable future, exceptions are made. We twist ourselves into contortions to make them. Everyone makes different ones.

I have a friend who won’t consider going to a restaurant even with outdoor seating (just like me), but she felt comfortable getting a haircut (unlike me). I have a friend who sends her 3-year-old to occasional day care in a household in which the parent not running the day care is a nurse, and many of the children being cared for are the children of other health care workers—but she’s not comfortable with social-distanced outdoor gatherings … unless they take place on her own block. Me, I don’t go anywhere anymore, with cases going up where I live (and I will be doing all my teaching and advising virtually come fall, although my university is offering face-to-face classes), but I am still comfortable having people I love over to my backyard for a drink, or stopping to chat with neighbors when I’m out walking my dog. I don’t allow anyone in my house—except for that one time I did, and that other time I did, because I needed help I couldn’t get otherwise. None of this really makes sense.

But it “explains” your friends who don’t go anywhere except when they do. And your reluctance to let your (I guess) second-best friend meet your baby because her husband works in NYC (where cases have dropped) … and your sense that it would be ridiculous not to let your very best friend, who works in medicine, do so.

My feeling about all of this is that you do get to have different “standards” for different people. You get to choose, whether your choices are logical or not (and bear in mind that the fewer contacts overall, the safer, so you are lowering your—and your infant’s—risk by keeping contact down to as few people as you can). Decide who you feel OK about based on whatever metric feels right to you. And when it comes to telling the people you love that they can’t visit, use this age-old trick—blaming yourself: “I know I may be being irrational/I know I am probably being overprotective, and I feel terrible about this, but it’s what I have to right now. I’m so sorry.” Don’t tell people you love that you don’t trust them. Don’t call them out on their own illogic. Just Say No.

Tell them all that as soon as you’re sure it’s safe, you’ll be thrilled to have them meet the baby in person (and until then, rely on video calls). Oh, and for those people you decide are the exceptions, like your friend who works in a hospital? Make a no-social-media-posts (no photos on Instagram, no “I’m so happy I got to meet my dear friend’s baby!” tweet) rule. It’s the least they can do in gratitude for your letting yourself be blinded by love.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 17-year-old son is set to start his senior year of high school next month. His school is offering in-person and online options. Some of the advanced math and AP classes he wants to take are not being offered via the online option, so he’s opting to attend in-person classes. My husband is very concerned about this. He fears our son will contract COVID and bring it home to us. Neither of us is in a high-risk category; we’re just average middle-aged people, but of course it’s true, you never know how we might be impacted if one of us got sick. My husband supports our son attending in-person classes, but doesn’t want him in the house once school starts. He would like to rent an apartment for him, ideally one he could share with a few school friends. I get where he’s coming from, but I think this is a bit extreme, and frankly unrealistic (and I can’t imagine we could find any other parents who would be willing to let their kids participate in this type of living arrangement). Besides, I don’t want our son moving out of the house, even temporarily. He’ll be going off to college somewhere a year from now, and I have no desire to empty the nest any earlier than necessary.

We have the option to sort of sequester him in our basement. There is a guest room down there with a full bathroom, kitchenette, and TV room. He could live down there for as long as in-person classes take place, wearing a mask when in the main part of the house and having meals with us outside when the weather allows. My son and I both feel this is a reasonable compromise, but my husband won’t let go of the apartment idea. Please tell him this is not the brilliant solution he thinks it is.

—Husband Won’t Let Go of Nutty Idea

Dear HWLGoNI,

You know that thing I said in response to Blinded by Love? About how we all use our own metrics, make our not entirely logical decisions, and are just doing our best to cope? All of that is true. But there has got to be a limit when it comes to how we treat our own kids. While I sympathize with your husband’s anxiety (I sympathize with all anxiety, about all things, always), this really is a nutty idea. And setting your teenager up in an apartment with other teenagers (as you say, assuming any other parents were on board, which I too doubt)? They are the least likely people in the world to carefully observe social distancing because they can’t help it. They don’t have a lot of impulse control at that age—their brains aren’t fully developed yet—and the possibility that they’ll let their guard down is very, very high. This all puts your son at greater risk than his going to school does. If you hadn’t already thought of an excellent solution to this problem—if there were no solution to the problem—I would be less emphatic than I am about to be: You absolutely should overrule your husband.

But rather than just putting your foot down, I’m hoping you can get him to talk this all through with you (and if not with you, than with someone else). We are all traumatized by what’s happening, I think—but some of us are managing the trauma more easily than others. I’m concerned about your husband’s rejecting your reasonable proposal: It suggests that his anxiety may be a bigger problem than he recognizes. Making (what he is convinced are) his needs the most important—the only important—consideration seems to me a worrisome sign. My guess is that he could use some help dealing with this. So make it clear that his idea is unworkable, yes—but make sure you show him some compassion too.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 17-year-old is in the process of choosing a major and college. She is a gifted student, and since childhood she has wanted to be a pediatrician. There are multiple direct-degree programs in our state. Recently she told me she has decided to pursue physical therapy instead, after hearing about the long and arduous path of a career in medicine. She is very adamant about it.

I believe that part of her still wants to be a physician, that she is scared to apply to a direct-degree program in medicine because of a fear of failure, and I believe that she should pursue her original plan. If she pursues physical therapy instead of medicine, I believe she will come to regret her decision. How do I convince her that a direct B.A./M.D. program is worth looking into?

Of course, I’m also worried that if she takes my advice and fails, she will blame me. But while I love her and will support whatever choice she makes, it seems to me that since her father and I are paying fully for her education, we should have a say in what she studies. I don’t want to give her an ultimatum but I don’t know what else to do.

—Concerned Parent

Dear CP,

I have no way of knowing, of course, whether you’re right and deep down your daughter still wants to be a doctor but fears she can’t cut it (I have no way of knowing why you believe this, either). But I can tell you this much, as a college professor who has spent an inordinate amount of time over the past 30+ years talking to distraught students whose parents have insisted they major in what their parents believe is the right major for them and prepare for careers their parents have chosen for them—and declare that because they’re paying, they have the right to “have a say” in this: It is a very, very bad idea to insist that she pursue medicine. She’s young, yes, but her college education is hers, not yours. As is her life and the path through it she ultimately chooses to pursue.

Colleges and universities that ask students to choose a major before they’ve even started their education (and my own is one) do so because it’s easier for the institution on an administrative, bureaucratic level—not because it’s pedagogically (or psychologically!) sound. (I’m not unsympathetic to the administrative burden of the 6,000 entering freshmen my university has to contend with each year, but I don’t kid myself that dividing them into manageable categories in this way is for the kids’ sake.) If she has to declare a major before she’s taken a single course, she can pick something, obviously—but she (and you) need to be prepared for that to change. More than once, even. There’s a reason that many excellent colleges won’t let students declare a major until after their sophomore year.

In any case, a B.A./M.D. program is one that is only for students who are utterly certain about their career goal. And I have news for you: Most kids your daughter’s age (yes, even those who have talked about a particular dream job since childhood) are not that certain. And while she may change her mind and decide she is interested in medicine after all once she’s been through a year or two of college, it’s not your job to make that decision for her now. I understand that you are prepared in advance to be frustrated by this if it happens, but you cannot protect yourself against future frustration by taking control of decisions that aren’t yours to make. I’m willing to go out on a limb here and venture that she’s talking about physical therapy at least in part as a way to placate you (and perhaps she doesn’t even realize this; perhaps she’s internalized the message you’ve been giving her that she has to decide now about the rest of her life). Let her go to school and figure out what she’s interested in, what she’s good at, what she wants to devote most of her time and attention to. Stay out of it.

And I would take this one step further. I would tell her that you don’t want her to rush into any decisions about her future, and that you plan to stay out of her decision-making process altogether; that you’re there for her if she wants a sounding board, but that you’d like her to get a good education and figure things out from there. That would be really good parenting of a college-bound young person.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I work for a large international company, in a job that takes me all over the world. I don’t live in any one place for longer than two years; I am set up in very comfortable living situations wherever I am. My partner’s job allows him to work anywhere as long as he has his laptop. Thus we don’t plan on settling down in one particular place until we retire.

We’re in Japan right now. As soon as it’s safe to travel, I will be sent elsewhere (although probably not back in the USA for several years). Being stuck inside these last months, we’ve started thinking about the future. I’m 30, and my mother and aunts all experienced fertility issues and early menopause, so if we’re going to have kids—which we both want—we should probably start trying soon. But we don’t know if it would be fair to raise them the way we live. On the one hand, they’d get to learn multiple languages and ways of life; on the other hand, they’d have to always be “the new kid” and might have a hard time keeping in touch with friends. What do you think: Is constantly moving around the world any way to raise kids?

—International Family?

Dear IF,

There are a lot of ways to raise kids. This is one of them.

And honestly, no matter how you raise your children, there’s always an upside and downside. Or many upsides, many downsides. (Just like pretty much everything we do in our lives.) Your children won’t know any other way to live than the one they were born into, which will have many advantages they won’t even recognize as having been advantages until they are grown up, looking back. (The disadvantages will be facts of their lives like any other.) Love them and be open-hearted, open-minded, generous, respectful, and engaged with them. Teach them kindness and respect for others and good judgment and everything else they’ll need to thrive wherever they are in the world. Encourage their curiosity. That’s what’s really fair.

—Michelle

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