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In late February, I listened to New York Times science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. warn about the threat posed by the coronavirus on the podcast The Daily. Hearing McNeil’s warnings shook me. I started buying more food and supplies than usual at the grocery store. I started stressing out and strategizing on my group chats. I started imagining how canceled preschool would isolate my only child, who’s 3.
But one thing I didn’t consider when I became aware of the threat of Covid-19: How will my family, stretched across several households, handle this? Here in Cincinnati, we’re headed into our fourth week of self-imposed quarantine. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced a mandatory stay-at-home order on March 22. As we’ve settled into our new routine, it’s become clear to me that public-health messaging around the pandemic assumes that everyone, but particularly parents, can simply retreat into a home, be self-sufficient, and survive the weeks or months that this intervention will last. But many of us, myself included, are unpartnered parents who live alone and receive necessary support from our children’s grandparents, noncustodial parents, and others who provide essential care. Fewer than one in five households in the United States contain married parents and their children living together, Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist and author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century told me via e-mail.
The point of quarantine, of course, is to starve the virus of opportunities to jump from host to host, and I know that pathogens don’t care about our politics, preferences, or custodial agreements. I also know that there are many of us who have the virus but are asymptomatic, and I have agonized over the possibility that my toddler or I could unknowingly infect her grandparents, all of whom are over 60 and so vulnerable. But I also need help. As someone who wants desperately for as many people as possible to survive this pandemic, I need more guidance on how to create a protective bubble around a family that doesn’t live in the same home. I need to know how to make the agreements and take the precautions necessary given the reality of my life.
Trina Greene Brown, who lives in southern California, is asking herself the same questions. She and her husband have two children at home. A total of six co-parents are connected in what she calls a “constellation.” Her 11-year-old son is on an every-other-day schedule: one day with her, the other days with either his paternal grandparents or father. He made the decision to forgo those visits and will stay put for the duration of the quarantine. But after a week and a half in with Greene Brown, her teenage daughter (Greene Brown doesn’t refer to her as a stepdaughter) left to go to her mother’s home to help her celebrate her birthday and then quarantine there. The girl’s biological mother works at a hospital and must continue to go to work. Now Greene Brown wrestles with the question: If her daughter at some point wants to return to their home, will that be OK? None of it is easy. Greene Brown’s husband risks exposure to the virus as well. His work keeping grocery stores stocked is considered essential. “I’m the privileged one out of all the co-parents,” she said. Her work has always been flexible. “I stay at home.”
Greene Brown directs Parenting for Liberation, a national community of black parents that hosts workshops, a podcast, and other outreach efforts. She started the organization in 2016 in response to a flood of news about police and vigilante violence targeting black people. At the time, she realized that she had been making decisions about parenting her young son that were rooted in anxiety—particularly the fear that as a black boy he was not safe. She worried that he would be punished harshly for the innocent mistakes that all children make. “Shelter, limit, hunker down,” she said, describing her instincts in the days before she started organizing with other black parents. “That’s been the goal, to move beyond that.” Now the threat of Covid-19 has brought back that defensive mindset she’d been working to shed.
For now, Greene Brown is trying to observe public health guidance as strictly as possible, but she’s thinking about how to welcome her daughter back with open arms if need be. “If she wanted to come home, what do we need to do to ensure her return as safely as possible? What would the process of her return be? How can we have honest conversations about, ‘Who all was over there?’”
That would be a good question to start with, said Whitney R. Robinson, an epidemiologist based at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, when I told her about Greene Brown’s predicament. Robinson suggested urging the teenager to start tightening her circle to include fewer and fewer people with a goal of returning home within an agreed-upon number of days that takes the virus’s incubation period into account. There’s no silver bullet, just a willingness to have hard conversations. “Talk about what your rules are going to be,” Robinson said. “Ideally, people would form closed networks. That takes a lot of communication.”
It also takes a willingness to make adjustments as circumstances change. Maybe one core caregiver had been engaging in riskier behavior but is now taking precautions that inspire more trust. “This is going to be a long haul,” Robinson said. “It’s okay to initiate really strict rules even if you worry it’s not going to be sustainable. You can make decisions on a day-to-day basis.”
Several states’ stay-at-home orders do acknowledge the realities faced by families like Greene Brown’s and mine. In Ohio, as of Monday there were just over 1,200 hospitalizations and 142 deaths due to the virus. The state’s stay-home order includes in its list of essential activities for which a person is allowed to leave her home “to care for a family member, friend, or pet in another household.” The country’s first shelter-in-place order, which went into effect March 17 in six Bay Area counties, had similar language. Some might strictly interpret these words to mean that if a loved one in another household were ill, we can leave home to care for them. I’m choosing to understand them more broadly. My mother cares for my daughter in her home, and I continue to take her there. To mitigate the risk, my mother (who lives alone) and I have agreed that we will not be in physical contact with anyone else during this time. We’re vigilant about following the tips for staying safe: washing hands and disinfecting surfaces, staying six feet away from people outside and in the grocery store. There’s trust between us, and it feels like a closed circuit for now. My daughter sees her father regularly, too, so we’re making similar agreements.
Those of us who are trying to make such agreements have been left to figure them out on our own. The social distancing how-to guides, in which public health experts tell us that quarantine isn’t a time for playdates or in-person dinner parties, haven’t listed the questions co-parenting family members should be asking each other before connecting in person. There’s no template for coronavirus-era vows between households or a checklist of what to do when we move our children from home to home.
Instead, members of non-nuclear families are looking to each other for advice. Sometimes we find compassionate models that are relevant to our situations. Other times we’re met with judgment. Posting a question to social media can be risky. Even some of us in the most socially progressive circles, who would never in pre-coronavirus times have considered shaming someone who co-parents or depends on a grandparent, can be quick with the “that’s not doing it right!” finger-waving now. In these tense exchanges, at least one person inevitably urges the strictest possible interpretation of the public health orders, and those whose children depend on outside support argue that a family member’s being cut out of the mix is simply not an option.
People who can withdraw into their homes should remember the impact of the role they’re playing. “The public health message is not just to protect yourself but also to isolate for the people who can’t isolate,” Robinson, the UNC epidemiologist, said. “You are trying to break a chain” and, in doing so, reduce risk for essential workers and others who still need to have contact with the outside world.
Those who are low-income, black, or Latinx are most likely to need to find a way to adapt self-quarantine guidelines to their own situations. A recent Washington Post report makes clear whose labor is considered nonessential now: Twenty percent of black and 16 percent of Latinx employees have the ability to work from home, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. That’s compared to 37 percent of Asian American and 30 percent of white workers. Only 4 percent of people who didn’t graduate from high school can work remotely, compared to nearly 52 percent of those with a college degree or higher.
Many of those who continue to leave home to work in food service, sanitation, health care, child care and other jobs currently deemed essential are women of color, said Dr. Jamila Taylor, director of health care reform and senior fellow with the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “These shelter-in-place orders are impacting single, head of household, primary breadwinners who have to show up to work right now,” Taylor said. “They’re definitely going to need that support from their family members” and child care providers.
I work from home even when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic, so, like Greene Brown, I’m in a privileged position. My work life hasn’t changed much. But I do feel stigmatized in a way I’m not used to. I’ve always balked at the phrase “single mother.” I don’t identify as such, because I haven’t felt “single” as a parent, even if my relationship status suggests otherwise. I’m raising my child as part of a community of family and friends. In recent weeks, I’ve had to wrestle with these critically important public health messages and decide whether I’ll let them chase my daughter and me into our home and lock the door behind us. I’ve had to resist becoming a literal single mother, cut off from my supports and destined for near-immediate overwork and exhaustion. Without more tailored messaging from the public health community, physical distancing as a method of containing the virus can begin to feel like a socially conservative scold, privileging those adults engaged in functional cohabitation.
Parents, who in these times are called upon to keep their kids meaningfully engaged while also working, simply can’t do this on their own for weeks or months with no relief. Representative Katie Porter (D-CA) recently shared that she was unable to follow a doctor’s orders when she began showing worrying symptoms, because those orders depended on having another adult in the house to care for her three school-aged children. “They told me to isolate in my room,” she told an interviewer. “And I said, ‘Well, I can’t do that. I’m a single mom. There’s no one to get the food [for me]. There’s no one.’ And the nurse was great. She’s like, ‘OK, then what we’re going to do is we’re going to pretend your children all have symptoms too,’ and so the whole household is self-quarantined.” Like Porter, we need to push back when the advice offered doesn’t work for us. And like that nurse, experts should be quick to offer workarounds.
In March, Professor Yolonda Wilson, a philosopher who focuses on bioethics and race, posted a series of tweets about how Albany, Georgia, her hometown, became a hot spot, and the challenge of convincing people to stop attending church in person. One tweet reads, “For those of us who think seriously about #publichealth and #bioethics, it is often difficult to balance respect for cultural practices that form the fabric of who people are with impressing upon them the reality that those cultural practices are killing them.”
When I asked whether she could suggest advice that might better speak to those of us who are struggling to give up more communal aspects of our lives—whether church or daily connection to extended family—she said an ideal message would confirm the seriousness of the virus “without being dismissive and without making people look crazy for being stubborn about it. We all make choices, and our choices reflect our values.”