#1362: “Family being opposite but equal butts about COVID – How do I maintain sanity?”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I need some advice on how to be Switzerland, if that’s even possible. Honestly, I’m mostly just horribly heartstick at how broken my family is because of COVID, and I know that whatever your response may be to this, you’ll be sympathetic to how much Everything Sucks right now.

Here’s the scoop, as succinctly as I can make it. Which isn’t very succinct, ugh, and there’s some nuance and details I’ve had to leave out for the sake of brevity.

So, we’ve got my parents (M&D, she/her, he/him). They’re team COVID Isn’t a Huge Threat for Me, so Therefore it’s Not at All. Not Covid doesn’t exist! microchips in the vaccines!, but they definitely watch too much Fox News. Got the initial vaccine, thank heavens, but are refusing boosters because…I think it’s mostly “we don’t know the long-term effects of the vaccine” and “CDC guidance keeps changing, how can I trust their opinion?” Luckily, they live in a rural area where COVID cases have always been low, and since they abide by basic health-and-safety standards, they’ve stayed healthy and haven’t even had any exposure.

As for me, I like to think I’m Team Unsexy Facts, namely that COVID isn’t the Black Death or the common cold, and people hyping it up/downplaying it to one or the other is extremely damaging. COVID can be serious for some, mild for others. The best way to ensure you’ll be one of the latter and not overwhelm the hospital system is to get vaccinated/boosted. I personally don’t have any additional health risks, so I’ve maintained a social circle and even do things like eat out occasionally, etc., although I wear my mask in public and stay away from crowded bars, etc. I recognize I’m in a privileged position here, and I try to be respectful of people’s respective risk tolerances….which brings me to…

My brother and sister-in-law (SNL, she/her) have two children, a toddler and a baby. They live in a city several hours away from M&D. SNL is on the opposite end of the spectrum from M&D when it comes to politics and thus COVID. To her, if you pass someone in the street and you aren’t wearing a mask, you’ve been exposed to COVID. It is always a terrible, scary disease, and the fact that we don’t have long-term data about it makes it even scarier.

SNL has consistently drawn very hard lines around seeing the children, such as requiring two week, you-can’t-leave-your house quarantines, although she relaxed a little a couple of months ago to “limit social interactions and wear a mask when you go out.” M&D have had a Bad Attitude about it, but complied: They’re butts, but honest ones. But now, since M&D haven’t gotten boosters, SNL refuses to let them visit, even if they agree to quarantine beforehand.

There’s a lot I’m not going into here, but believe me when I say that over the last two years, there’s been some relationship-damaging communication and behavior on both sides, such as SNL deciding that Mom could visit, but not hold the grandchildren, and not telling Mom until she’d arrived and went to hug one of them…and I’m sure my parent’s general Bad Attitude is what’s led to SNL’s trust issues about whether they’re really masking/quarantining.

To my SNL, if the children go outside the bubble, they will probably be exposed to COVID, they will probably catch it, it will probably be severe and will probably have long-term effects. Any risk is too much risk!!!

To M&D, there is no risk, so why is SNL being so paranoid??!!? 

My perspective is: If the children go outside the bubble, there’s a chance they’ll be exposed to COVID, there’s a chance they’ll catch it, there’s a chance it may be severe, and there’s a chance it will have long-term effects. There’s no denying there’s risk. However, both children are perfectly “normal and healthy,” and for such children, two years of data indicates that COVID is no better or worse than the Flu or RSV – which can be dangerous, but most often isn’t. Therefore, the risk is outweighed by the benefits of getting grandchildren socialized and having a relationship with family. Risk vs. Reward.

M&D see only reward and no risk, and my SNL sees nothing but Red-Alert-Risk. Obviously, the twain do not meet. And here I am, stuck in the middle.

A lot of my pissed-off-ness it is at my SNL, but I’m also increasingly pissed at my parents. As unreasonable as my SNL may be, M&D’s Bad Attitude makes every.single.thing harder than it needs to be. For example, they could solve a lot of problems instantly by just getting the damn booster. But, ironically, they’re using the same logic my SNL is using: “There are some questions about long-term outcomes. And any risk is too much risk!”

I don’t talk with my SNL much, but, when I do, it’s becoming harder and harder to just nod and smile when she starts talking about COVID precautions. With my parents, I’m in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with them that SNL is being a butt, but having to also try to point out that they’re being butts too. And it’s been this way for two.bleeping.years., and I am tired.

How do I deal?

Sincerely,

Probably-Being-A-Butt-Too

Hello, Probable Butt,

I’ve preserved your email subject line as the headline, “Family being opposite but equal butts about COVID – How do I maintain sanity?” It’s part of a through-line of treating both sides as if they are equally wrong/annoying/unreasonable in your letter, and I’m sure it feels to you like everyone is being equally unreasonable/annoying, but I would argue that the two sides are not the same, and treating them as equal value propositions is very much part of the problem.

From your letter: “My perspective is: If the children go outside the bubble, there’s a chance they’ll be exposed to COVID, there’s a chance they’ll catch it, there’s a chance it may be severe, and there’s a chance it will have long-term effects. There’s no denying there’s risk. However, both children are perfectly “normal and healthy,” and for such children, two years of data indicates that COVID is no better or worse than the Flu or RSV* – which can be dangerous, but most often isn’t. Therefore, the risk is outweighed by the benefits of getting grandchildren socialized and having a relationship with family. Risk vs. Reward.” 

*Note: Flu and RSV in babies can still be pretty bad, families should try to interrupt transmission of those things, too. Also, this comparison doesn’t factor in Long COVID, a picture of which is still very much emerging, but not looking great!

I’m very glad that you have found a way to have a social life and manage your own risks in a way that feels sustainable for you. That is not an easy thing to do, especially as the variants keep changing the risk landscape. But you’re not going to be able to apply your own decision-making to what your brother and your sister-in-law should be doing or how they should feel about it. Statistics about sick and dying kids include plenty of real, actual kids; “but it was statistically unlikelyyyyyyyyyy!” doesn’t mean shit if your kid is one of them.

Your brother and sister-in-law are caring for children who are too young to be vaccinated yet. Plus, even if it were theoretically possible to ensure robust compliance, masks are not recommended for kids under two years old. That’s two lines of defense that are available to you –gone. This means that your niblings’ lives depend a whole lot on other people making safe choices, and that means your brother and his wife have a completely different risk calculus than you do. Look around. Do you see large groups of people making good choices that prioritize protecting society’s most vulnerable people? Do you see institutions trumpeting the importance of protecting vulnerable people and doing all they can to make protecting them as easy/seamless/safe/automatic as possible? Because this expendable walking sack of co-morbidities is…not…seeing that.

The pandemic is a shitshow and people’s tolerance and endurance is deteroriating, so yes, you all have my sympathies. I believe you that some of your sister-in-law’s fears *may* come across as paranoia, and I believe you that that you find her generally draining or have reached the end of your patience. But again, her children are too young to be vaccinated, they can’t wear masks, and their lives depend on the adults around them making safe choices. Your parents are individuals, true, but they are also part of a giant, screaming pattern of people and institutions dismissing and minimizing caution when it gets in the way of what they want. (While we’re here, remember when all those smug assholes in the spring wrote think-pieces about how we were “addicted to the pandemic” if high-risk people kept wearing masks and being generally cautious about indoor socializing even though vaccines were available? I’m not an epidemiologist but I suspectlol at your pointless caution in defense of your own life” isn’t the ‘gotcha’ they were going for.)

Right now, especially with Omicron surging, everywhere your sister-in-law takes those kids, every time someone outside the bubble crosses the threshold of her home, she’s got to run a calculus around who is reliable about vaccination and masking, who will test, will there even be tests, who would be honest and actually stay home if they felt sick, is this a worthwhile risk given other risks from going to work/buying groceries/having home repairs done/going about the non-optional parts of daily life. All of the pre-pandemic things she could safely and enjoyably do to handle life stuff and get the kids more social interaction, like having Gam-Gam and Pee-Paw come over, putting the kids in daycare, having playdates,  having grownup friends over to hang with the kids and have some adult conversation after bedtime, or hiring babysitters so she and your brother can get a break, all of that is GONE unless she’s willing to say “fuck it, might as well get COVID!” or unless she’s very, very careful about who she trusts.

Nothing is without risk, true, so then it becomes about controlling what you can control. One thing she can control is who comes to see the kids and what her rules are about that. And any cost-benefit analysis about having the grandparents over has to account for:

  • Can your sister-in-law trust these specific people to do whatever is in their power to minimize the risk that they’ll expose her, your brother, and the kids to COVID-19?  Until they get the booster, at very least, that’s a flat no.
  • Re: “bad attitudes,” can your sister-in-law trust your parents to actually follow protocols without being giant assholes about it and making her have to monitor and remind them, justify, and fight for every single inch, and submit to being treated like she’s a bigger problem than a deadly infectious disease? That also sounds like…no.
  • Does being around your parents add a major stressor to your sister-in-law’s life right now? I’m betting on yes. [By the way, where is your brother in all of this? Are he and his wife making these decisions together or is he hanging her out to dry with your folks as the Covid-authoritarian while everyone gangs up on the outsider?]

But “grandparents”! But “family connections!” But also, increased risk of BOTH serious illness AND of having an extremely unpleasant time AND possibly a big marital and family argument to boot! Sounds fun! That time your mom visited and the rule was “You can come over but surprise! No hugs!”  clearly backfired, and it would have been better to spell out the rules beforehand. Having one thing backfire doesn’t erase the ongoing need for caution or make your sister-in-law “just as wrong” as your parents. Your sister-in-law has actually shown that she will reconsider rules like the 2-week total quarantine and work to find more achievable accommodations especially now that the baby is no longer a newborn, but the “Let’s be clear that we think all of your rules are stupid and unnecessary” attitude from your parents isn’t rewarding her for any of that. Why should she make exceptions for them?

So where does this leave you, trying to be Switzerland?

First, I would suggest getting out/staying out of the role of mediator/messenger as much as possible. “That sounds like a question for sister-in-law and brother.” “Have you told the parents what you’re telling me?”  “I hope you work out a safe way to get together soon!” “Hmmm, their house, their rules, sounds like.” It’s okay to cut conversations much shorter for your own sanity and stop being the clearinghouse where everyone comes to vent. The more everybody vents about it, and the more everybody gets the message that both sides are just as bad, the more entrenched everyone will get, and the less peace you’ll have.

Speaking of, second recommendation is drop the “both sides are equally bad” nonsense.

If your parents want to see their grandkids, they have choices. They could get the damn jab already. They could collaborate with their son and daughter-in-law about visits and ask what precautions would make everybody most comfortable in advance, so there are no more “no hugs” surprises. They could stop treating their daughter-in-law like an unreasonable B-word and be real and empathetic about how fucking terrifying it must be to be a parent right now. When she says something is too risky, instead of dismissing it automatically, they could say, “Well, we want to see you and the kids, so what can we do to make it possible?” “What can we do to support you and keep everyone safe?” “Is there anything we can do to ease your mind or make this all easier for you?” “What’s something we could take off your plate?” “If visits are on hold for now, what are other ways to stay connected?” Video chats, video story time, and mailed toddler artwork all still exist, even if everybody’s sick of them.

If you want to talk to your parents about it, tell them that it’s possible to think somebody is being overly cautious and still adhere to their house rules, so do they want to visit or not? “Sibling and sister-in-law are in charge of who sees the kids and when, so what’s the worst that happens if you do as they ask?” “She’s been pretty clear that nothing’s happening until the two of you get the booster, so probably start there! :shrug: I gotta go, love you, talk soon.” 

If you’re exhausted with hearing your sister-in-law’s pronouncements of doom, it’s okay to disengage a bit, but I would stop treating her like she’s “just as bad” as your parents and err more on the side of validating her feelings and emphasizing her agency in the face of the anxiety and trauma. “That must feel really scary, I know you’re working hard to keep the kids safe. What do you want to do?” “What does a ‘safe’ visit look like for you?” 

“There’s too much information and not enough at the same time, it must be maddening as a parent to try to process all of it.” “If I want to hang out with the niblings, what do you need from me to make that happen?” “Is there something I could do to make this a little easier for you?” “What are the other parents of kids the same age you know doing about this?” You don’t have to fully agree with her about everything to do this, you can say “That hasn’t been my experience/that’s not my understanding of how that works, but what do you think you’ll do about it?”  as a way to redirect her when you think she’s spiraling. You also don’t have to try to play it cool or be smooth when you really don’t want to talk about it, either. “SNLname, I hear you, but I’ve already used up all my Pandemic Worry this week. But I am glad to hear from you, so tell me,  what are you and Brother making for dinner? Are you reading or watching anything good?” 

I hope your family can all get on Team “Let’s Try Our Goddamn Absolute Best To Not Give The Grandkids A Preventable Illness” sooner rather than later. Comments are even more off than usual, but I do want to share two resources that I’ve found helpful/reassuring:

I’m wishing everyone maximum safety and minimum arguing with people who are being butts out there. Remember, the mask goes OVER the nose.