Last week, my wife was ten minutes into a phone call with her mother when I distinctly heard the tenor of the conversation change. Small talk about what the kids were up to (nothing) and how remote school was going (terribly) turned into, at least on my wife’s side of the conversation, a series of hesitant, staccato reassurances.
“No, it totally makes sense, we’ve been talking about that too!”
“I totally understand!”
“We’ve been nervous too but we didn’t want you to feel like—”
“Of course we’d be so sad if you couldn’t come but—”
“No, no, we just want everyone to feel safe!”
Her mom, Alia later told me, was basically saying the same stuff but in reverse. At one point, her mom told her: “You understand that if I stay here I’m not saying I love your brother more than I love you!”
What had happened, of course, was that the dam had finally broken on the question of whether our Thanksgiving plan—which seemed so modest and safe two months ago—was now a very bad idea. We’d all been thinking about it for weeks, but no one wanted to be the first to say anything. Finally, Alia’s mom did, and the ten minutes of heartfelt unloading that followed suggested it happened not a moment too soon.
Not everyone is chewing over this decision, of course: Plenty of people decided long ago that Thanksgiving would be off this year. Plenty of others—assholes, mostly—have decided that for political reasons they’re going blithely forward with the annual 36-person Thanksgiving Dinner and Face-Breathing Extravaganza.
But I’m finding, at least in conversations with friends and family, that many people are like us. We’ve been conscientious and careful these past nine months, and we’ve learned a lot about the kinds of risks we’re willing to embrace. Some of us might have taken small trips during the summer, driving and peeing by the side of the road to avoid gas stations. Some of us have visited family, cutting ourself off from our local bubbles for a week or two beforehand and afterward.
And for many of us, the experiences of the summer and fall informed our holiday planning. We regretfully told those relatives who would have to fly that this wasn’t the year for reunion; we placed our grocery delivery orders and scheduled our self-isolation; we planned small, careful get-togethers with a single grandparent or a lone brother for Thanksgiving.
But the case numbers keep going up, and the message from the media, from our peers, even from—belatedly but forcefully—the CDC is clear: Don’t travel. Just don’t do it. Why increase your risk at a time of rising case numbers and hospitals straining at the seams?
This weekend, the New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo grappled with this decision, methodically exploring how big his local bubble truly was as a way of thinking through the risks of a Thanksgiving get-together with his parents. Then he decided—counter to all the evidence he’d assembled, it seemed—to just go ahead and do Thanksgiving anyway.
If you’re wondering if Manjoo is getting ripped apart on Twitter, well, don’t worry. I definitely wish (and Manjoo, a friend and former colleague, may wish as well) that the Times column had been less flip about its conclusions. But Manjoo was doing what we’re all doing right now, weighing risks and emotions at the same time and struggling with how they interact, trying to cope with the inability of our institutions to keep us safe while still attempting to live a life that seems non-terrible. Illuminating that struggle seems valuable to me. I’m inclined to think that there ought to be a clear ceiling on being mad at individual non-evil people in an age of rampant systemic failures—even New York Times columnists, and even crowds of travelers packed into the Sky Harbor airport in hair-raising images that spread across social media this weekend.
All across America, in harried, guilt-ridden conversations, parents and children like us are negotiating their safety, their feelings, their desperation, their exhaustion. And plenty of others are not having these conversations. Maybe they, like many Americans, only travel once a year, and their airline tickets are nonrefundable, and the CDC issued its recommendation way too late, so they’re heading to the airport because they just don’t see any other option. Maybe they’re simply not having them because they’re afraid to broach the subject—afraid of offending a mother, afraid of hurting a father, afraid of adding conflict to an already complicated relationship during this, the most tense season of the most tense year in memory. A lot of people might wind up, because of circumstance or fear, backed into situations that make them uncomfortable and risk their health.
I still don’t know what we, and my mother-in-law, will decide to do. I’ve been thinking a lot about what the real difference is between being 95 percent safe and being 100 percent safe, and how much emotional energy I’ve expended over the past nine months obsessing about that gap. I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about how often people overestimate their own good behavior. I’ve been thinking about what we owe to the elders in our lives—what deference, and what protection. It’s a hard decision, no matter how many people try to tell you it’s easy, and the conversations we have to initiate in order to make it are hard, too.
This holiday season—and the next—I urge you to do your best to have those difficult conversations as honestly as you can. Make your impossible decisions in concert with the people you love. Try your best not to yell at other people for their impossible decisions, do whatever you do as carefully as you can, and don’t look back on what you could’ve done instead. Happy Thanksgiving.
This article is adapted from Slate’s Parenting newsletter. Get it in your inbox each week by subscribing here.