Two years into this pandemic, by taking every precaution, doing all our shopping online, cutting our own hair, shooting up every vaccine as soon as we could, and enrolling our daughter in the Moderna Vaccine Trials, we’ve successfully kept her and my wife’s grandparents safe from COVID. (They have lots of health complications.)
I’ve been a devoted Dear Wendy follower since The Frisky days and we’ve occasionally messaged on Instagram and email over the years. We share the same beliefs about COVID and take it deadly serious, but my wife (they/them) takes it to the next level and has become agoraphobic. They are so black and white with all things COVID. And it’s getting harder and harder for me as COVID is becoming endemic, and I imagine what it would be like to open up our lives to a more sustainable normal. My wife is very slow to let their guard down even a teeny bit.
Two years into this I feel like a prisoner in my own home. I do work outside the home, so I get out and have some social fixes with my coworkers. But I feel like if I do anything less than what we did at the height of cases, I am somehow being unfaithful to my family. Like, is it okay to participate with in-person meetings now that I’m the only one wearing a mask at my plant?? Am I allowed to have lunch with my closest coworkers??
I’m not itching to go to restaurants or parties or weddings, but I would like to go shopping (masked!) without feeling like I have to hurry in and out, take my child to the library, go back to my community orchestra or an outdoor running group, and see my family without drama.
My parents are not so shut down as we are. My folks and the vast majority of people they interact with are vaccinated/boosted. My parents both have careers, 90+ -year-old parents to care for, and my mentally-ill brother living with them, which all weighs on them. They will occasionally go out for dinner parties, they are active in their church, snd my mom has a group of friends she sees a couple times a year—-stuff that, frankly, they need to do. My wife doesn’t see it that way. To them, anything less than hyper vigilance is nearly a moral failing.
Often these events seem to coincide with when we make plans to see them. My parents, specifically my mom, can’t button up their social lives for 10 days leading up to a visit with us. We’ve canceled or altered all our plans to see them in 2022 so far because of their social calendar. During this lull in cases, it’s probably safe enough, but if I notice anything on social media that suggests my parents are out being social leading up to a visit with us, I spend days fighting with my wife, arguing about what’s safe and not safe, and I’m so tired of fighting to see my family. For the record, we see my wife’s family at least once a month, but her grandparents rarely leave the house and my little niece and nephew just had COVID during Omicron. I never say no to my wife about visiting her family, but it doesn’t go the same way for me.
I hope I don’t come across like someone who wants the world to get over COVID, because I’m not. We don’t know what’s next and we need to be mindful. But for our own social-emotional health, my wife and I need to find some way of actually living in this new world. Idk how to navigate this when I don’t even know what I want. All I know for sure is I want my family (our little family of three) to feel happiness and joy again. I want to experience normal stuff without anxiety clouding every experience. I want to see my parents and extended family again without fighting for days leading up to potential visits. Any advice, Wendy? — Frustrated Mama and Daughter
Ugh, this is so hard, and I really feel for you and for everyone whose personal relationships have been strained under the stress of trying to safely navigate Covid precautions, with varying levels of risk and risk tolerance, and the politicizing of precautions to keep things interesting. You are not alone. This has been a very trying time for so many, and I know that some relationships have been affected beyond repair. I think you and your wife can get past this, but you may need some outside help.
First, does your wife know how you feel? Have you expressed to them how much you miss seeing your family, spending time with friends, and doing some normal things (that can be done relatively safely, even during a pandemic)? That’s step one. They need to know the great toll your isolation is taking on you. If you have concern for your daughter – like her social-emotional development, which is as important as her physical safety and health, you need to share that, too.
Second, you need a clear understanding of your wife’s boundaries so that you can begin strategizing about how to expand them. What would it take for your wife to feel comfortable with your enjoying an outdoor lunch with a friend? This is such a reasonable request, and it’s completely UNreasonable that they have you feeling like it’s against the rules. These are not rules you agreed to. It might be helpful for you to make a list of 5-10 things you want to start doing, individually and as a family, right now – not when the pandemic ends, not when cases in your area are zero, not when your daughter’s vaccination status is confirmed, but right now, and ask your wife to circle the three they would be most ok with. If they aren’t ok with anything, ask what would need to happen for them to feel comfortable. If the answer is unreasonable, tell them you’ve waited over two years, and you’re ready to take some very small risks for the sake of your mental health, which is just as important as your and your family’s physical health.
They may not like this answer, and that’s ok. That’s where I think the guidance of a therapist would be really helpful. Your wife’s anxiety is at a level that isn’t sustainable without risking the quality of your relationship and your family’s well-being. They need to know this. You need to be really clear about this risk, and then ask them to start therapy (either independently or with you, as a couple). As someone who’s also experienced a much higher-than-average level of anxiety around Covid and the pressure to keep my family members safe, I truly empathize with your wife and can speak from personal experience about how helpful therapy has been. My therapist has helped me see the benefit of taking some risks, reminded me that life even before a pandemic included everyday risks, and that I am not a bad mother for allowing myself or my kids to live a little more normally even as some Covid risks for us remain.
Finally, all of this WILL end at some point. The level of infection will drop significantly and the waves of cases will become shorter, smaller, and fewer and further between. At the same time, your daughter will eventually be vaccinated (and may already be, since she’s part of a trial, and you will be made aware of her vaccination status), and treatments will be more readily available, making the threat for more vulnerable people less than it is now. Hopefully that time is coming soon. And then your family will need to re-adjust to a post-pandemic life, which may introduce new challenges to your relationship if there’s any anxiety around re-entering society. Again, a good therapist can really help with these adjustments AND guide you through in the meantime as your family’s risk level, and our country’s transmission rates, remain high enough to continue taking precautions.
There’s a way to balance your family’s needs – the need to protect your daughter and your elderly in-laws as well as the need for you to open your social life a bit after two years of near-isolation. But it’s going to take some flexibility on your wife’s part, and you must let them know how important fostering that flexibility is right now – for the sake of your health and for the sake of your marriage.