I’m the Family Pandemic Cop, and I’m Ready to Hand in My Badge
On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, I headed into Medium’s NYC office and presented a deck called “Pandemics n’ Packages,” about Elemental’s coverage plans for this novel coronavirus. It was my husband’s birthday, so that night we went out to dinner with my 83-year-old father-in-law. Some of my FIL’s friends happened to be at the next table, celebrating an 80th birthday. So many elderly people at that restaurant, elbow bumping their greetings and then sitting down to talk and laugh and cough with unmasked mouths. I remember going to the restroom and washing my hands for the full 30 seconds. It was a little like dining on the deck of the Titanic, yet it still felt… okay?
It felt decidedly not okay on Thursday, March 12. In an instant, I realized things were Serious and shut it down. Grabbed the Clorox, ordered the groceries, corralled the kids, and commenced my new role as pandemic cop.
I think many (most?) families have a resident pandemic cop. It seems to be the person with the most propensity to doomscroll and the least capacity for risk. In my case, as the editor of Elemental, I was suddenly immersed in this mysterious new virus. I did not claim to be an expert, but I was expert-adjacent, thanks to everyone our team of health journalists were interviewing. Team Elemental and I spent all day, every day, discussing what our readers need to know and how to keep them safe, based on the scant-but-incoming science. I brought this all home — lol, I kept this all home — to share with my family.
The members of my family — my kids and husband, my parents, my in-laws — are smart, reasonable, and well-meaning. But everyone accepts and endures the ordeal we’re living through in different ways, which results in lots of different interpretations of what is “safe.” My interpretation of “safe” has meant spending less time with friends than my husband and teenagers would like. It’s meant writing sternly worded emails to my parents to ask them to cancel trips and renegotiating visits with the grandkids, even to this day, because my parents are chomping at the bit but only half-vaccinated. It’s meant SO MUCH time outside. It’s made a lot of people grumpy, and cold.
My family has either followed my guidance or ignored it, depending on the day and mood. Did you ask Sarah? What does Sarah think? Does Sarah know? Don’t tell Sarah. I don’t blame them.
We’ve been incredibly lucky — so far, no one in my family has gotten Covid-19. My discomfort pales in comparison to the experience of the millions of people who have been sick or suffered through the sickness or death of others. But the chronic anxiety of trying to avoid getting Covid is debilitating in its own way, especially when you’re shouldering the outsized weight of every small decision you make for yourself and others. There’s the agony of saying yes — the deep rabbit hole you go down every time you imagine what could go wrong, who you could inconvenience or infect, how it would change the course of so many people’s lives.
And then there’s the lead-heavy guilt of saying no. I’ve done everything I can to allow my parents to see my three-year-old daughter, who gives them life and light beyond anything else. But the time is rushed and distant and outdoors. It’s not nearly enough. My mom, especially, has deteriorated over this past year. The sadness and isolation has been corrosive, and I worry she won’t ever come back from it. It’s unbearable to think about.
If you are your family’s pandemic cop, I’m sorry. I empathize with the pushback and eye rolls you receive, and with the reverberating stress over whether the positions you’ve taken are too much or not enough.
If you’re not the cop but you live with one, I’m sorry too. The PC is not a fun person to be around. Please remember the policing comes from a place of love, even when it feels wrong or misinformed (inevitably, sometimes it is).
I’ve been on duty for 363 days. I have begun to lose my vigilance and sharpness. Last night I heard someone saying something about making plans to see a movie ~in a theater~ and I just kind of fuzzed out, focused on boiling the orzo for dinner. Retirement can’t come soon enough.