I’ve been thinking a lot about Halloween, children, parents, and the intense loneliness of this season of our lives. And this quote came to me — something my Dad has said to me a hundred times, each time as if it were the first, in classic dadstyle:
A cardiologist looks at a patient and sees a heart with heart-adjacent systems. A nephrologist looks at a patient and sees kidneys with kidney-adjacent systems. A podiatrist looks at a patient and sees feet with foot-adjacent systems.
(RIP my spam emails now that I’ve used the words “foot” and “feet” in this post, btw.)
He’s saying that experts are trained to see problems in the context of their expertise, something they’ve made their life’s work because they genuinely believe in its importance.
As Halloween approaches, the parents in my life are distressed about how to handle a holiday that is both a source of deep joy and a social-distancing nightmare, and is also the kickoff to three months of deeply joyful social-distancing nightmares.
We need both joy and social distance. It feels like a trick. What to do with this pandemic paradox?
Right now, the best way to love your community is to isolate yourself from your community.
“I love you so much I won’t see you.” This is not how we do support. “I’m so overjoyed at the birth of your child that you couldn’t pay me to sit in your living room, hold the baby, and feed you a home-baked lasagna while I tell you you’re doing fine, just fine.” This is not how we do celebration. “My heart breaks with you, my friend; I will keep you at arm’s length.” This is not how we do grief.
My brain gets why isolation is the new love language, but my heart isn’t buying it. Make it make sense, Fauci. MAKE IT MAKE SENSE.
Parents, particularly, are watching their children flip out in a hellish smorgasbord of cries for help and connection. You’ve got your kids who are slowly wilting like neglected houseplants in front of the blue light of their computers. You’ve got your kids who burst into tears at the drop of a Cheerio. You’ve got your kids whose eyes dance with black flame every time they get to engage in a power struggle over literally anything. You’ve (I’ve) got a 6-year-old who’s suddenly baby-talking and asking for his binky again. You’ve (I’ve) got an 8-year-old whose train goes off the tracks the moment anything happens that is out of the routine.
You’ve got nightmares, sleep regressions, increased food pickiness, depression, separation anxiety, emotional volatility, fragility, sneakiness, lying, hitting, tears, wet beds, despondency, rage. Every day a new flabbergasting distress signal emanates from our little humans and parents are empathetic and exhausted in equal measure. But honestly, exhaustion is taking the lead.
An epidemiologist looks at a child and sees a vector with vector-adjacent systems. A teacher looks at a child and sees a learner with learning-adjacent systems. A psychiatrist looks at a child and sees emotions and a mind with emotion-and-mind-adjacent systems.
If parents listen to the epidemiologists who are prioritizing containment, we will completely isolate ourselves. Then, we’ll be sidestepping the mandates of the child psychiatrists who are prioritizing emotional stability, who are sidestepping the mandates of teachers who are prioritizing education, who are sidestepping the mandates of public health officials who are prioritizing community reinforcement of safety norms, who are sidestepping the mandates of politicians who are prioritizing prosperity…
I look at my child and see ALL OF IT. I see all his needs.
Parents are the only ones who see that kaleidoscope of need that tumbles into a new configuration with every turn. We are alone. We are completely alone.
We are the only ones who get to make the decisions that impact not just our family’s health, but our community’s, our nation’s, our world’s health. Because we take that responsibility seriously, we listen to all the experts. And because we take that responsibility seriously, every day we ignore some of them.
I apologize to Dr. Fauci when the neighbor kid knocks on the fence with his big lonely eyes and I say, “Sure.” I sit on the deck and watch the kids play “Photo Pokemon Tag,” a contactless tag game they invented. My boys have been desperate to find someone else who speaks Pokemon because I have long since passed my breaking point and I black out as soon as I hear the words “Electivire” or “Pikipek.” My kids laugh, shriek. They’re in heaven. They’re also in danger. I saved them. I failed them.
I apologize to the teachers every time I think, “F--- math today,” because Buster is jumping from couch to couch and this kid needs a run in the woods, not geometry. My kids are relaxed. They’re also not learning. I saved them. I failed them.
I apologize to the child psychiatrists every time I FLIP THE F--- OUT and DIE ON THE HILL OF MATH because I PLANNED MATH AT 9:30 and SOMETHING HAS TO GO ACCORDING TO PLAN and my kids do crying furious math and then I review their loathed worksheets and shame spiral. Was it worth it? Feel good about yourself, Anthony? Feelin’ strong? It doesn’t matter how many sparkly star stickers I put on that s---. My kids are learning. They’re also miserable. I saved them. I failed them.
And yet, play is essential. Traditions are important. Our children need joy. We need it, too. So we’re doing a glow-in-the-dark egg hunt in the yard with a couple of other kids. Then we’ll make s’mores at the fire pit. I feel like I saved them. I feel like I failed them. They love trick-or-treating.
It was one more expensive compromise that the adults in the room had to make on behalf of the kids, the neighbors, the country, and the world. I’m sad but I have no regrets. Remember that in a pandemic, your personal risk tolerance is not personal anymore. Think of it like skydiving. Normally, you can choose to skydive, sign the waivers, suit yourself up, board the plane, fly into the sky, and leap out of that puppy, and if s--- goes sideways, well, that was your choice. That risk was yours to take. Right now, if you choose to skydive, you’re pushing 30 people out of that plane with you. They didn’t make that choice. You’re forcing them to take your risk. It’s not cool.
There are safe ways to evolve traditions when the world needs us to. We considered a pinata. A scavenger hunt. A family movie night or minute-to-win-it party.
But before you take those ideas as “simple solutions! Easy alternatives! You lazy bastards are so selfish because you can’t think of something that’s as fun as trick-or-treating without the public health risk!” you should remember that REINVENTING HALLOWEEN IS WORK, PEOPLE. It takes time, creativity, money, and energy, and find me a parent who’s got any of that s--- going begging right now. You can’t.
We are alone. Parents are alone.
Every day we reacquaint ourselves with our family’s ever-shifting needs. Every day we find ourselves at a place where we have to decide who we’re going to ignore, which way we’re going to triumph and which way we’re going to fail, what risks we’re willing to take for ourselves, for our kids, for grandparents who want to visit, for strangers who sell us yogurt, knowing that the best way to love our community is to isolate ourselves from it, and the best way to love our children is to let them connect, and the best way to get through this is badly and at great cost, making a f---ing mess of it every day as we spin the wheel toward a harbor on the horizon between two untethered buoys that keep lurching in the swell.
Ironically, if there’s a bright spot in any of this, it’s that we are alone. WE are alone. You and me, and Ryan, and your neighbors, and your parents. Your friends and my friends and Chrissy Tiegen and John Legend and Kristen and Dax and Megan the Duchess of Sussex and Harry the Duke, too. We are alone together, dammit, and nobody’s “got this,” and everybody’s failing.
It’s the pandemic paradox. The treat is a trick. I love you, stay home. And the only way to get through is together, alone.
Chin up. Take care. Love you.