Tagged Families and Family Life

When an Estranged Relative Dies, Some Face Grief, Regret and Relief

When the phone call came from my mother’s nursing home, I knew there could be only one reason. She had died at 85, sitting in her armchair watching television.

I was her only child, but we hadn’t spoken, or even tried to be in touch, in the previous decade. She was a Mensa member, a world traveler of independent means and a voracious reader. She was also bipolar and an alcoholic. Worn out by decades of dealing with both, which meant years of chaos and broken plans, I had finally, reluctantly, exhaustedly, just given up trying to have a relationship.

For every anguished iPad farewell made to a dying Covid patient, or during another Zoom funeral or someone dearly loved and mourned, there are many people like me, estranged from their parents, children or siblings when those family members pass away. And because of this, we may not grieve the same way people typically expect. For some, the end of an unhappy and complicated relationship just comes as a relief.

When the Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University who wrote “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them” surveyed 1,340 Americans in 2019, he found that 27 percent of them were estranged from a family member. “Shame, isolation and embarrassment pervade family estrangements,” he wrote.

Now working on a new study of how estrangement affects grief, Dr. Pillemer sees among those studied “unfinished business” and “bereavement-related regrets.” “They have more complicated grief,” he said in an interview. His advice, when possible, is to consider reconciliation, especially if death is expected or imminent, asking the question: “Will I feel better if I do this?” He said “anticipated regret” is very common. “People talked about it a lot. Will I miss the chance to reconnect?”

For Harriet Brown, author of “Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement,” her mother’s death at 76 was emotionally complicated. Ms. Brown had left home at 16 and never returned. But the day we spoke, the ninth anniversary of her mother’s death, Ms. Brown said she had cried. “She wasn’t a good mother to me. I never felt mothered, so it’s a different kind of grief about what is never going to happen. I miss what I longed for and that I never had,” Ms. Brown said.

She did try to visit her mother in the hospital, where she was sedated and on a ventilator, hoping to offer moral support to her father and sister. But when Ms. Brown saw her mother again she “felt such terror” instead, realizing anew why she was estranged, and glad of her decision to end the relationship.

Kaitlyn Luce, an artists’ manager in Nashville, lost her father, then 64, in October 2015, when she was 25. He had suffered a massive stroke and was in a Florida hospital. “A 15-hour drive is a long time to think about what you’re going into,” she said. Her father, bipolar and an alcoholic, had been physically and verbally abusive to her for years, Ms. Luce said. “I hadn’t been speaking to him for about a year and had told him I didn’t want a relationship with him. I really couldn’t put up with it anymore.”

She went to his hospital room, but didn’t see or speak to him. “I immediately broke down,” she recalled. “One of the things I tried to figure out was how I was going to say goodbye to my dad since the possibility of him coming through this was slim to none. I didn’t have a good answer.”

Ms. Luce and her brothers and a paternal aunt did hold a funeral for her father, a former D.J., gathering up photos and playing some of his favorite songs. “What I wanted to remember was when life was good, when times were fun,” she said. “What felt right to us was remembering the times that were really good and he was really, really fun. It did make it easier.”

She has done “a lot of therapy” since his death and still struggles with “a sense of confusion” about how to process his death and her feelings about him. “He couldn’t help himself because he was so sick,” she said. “He was doing the best with the tools he had.”

“You can forgive, but you don’t have to forget,” said Ms. Wright. “You don’t have to have that toxicity back in yourself.”
“You can forgive, but you don’t have to forget,” said Ms. Wright. “You don’t have to have that toxicity back in yourself.”Tori Ferenc for The New York Times

Yet, “overall,” she added, “a very large feeling I had was a sense of relief. I’d spent all 25 years of my life holding my breath, waiting for the next unpredictable thing he would do or say.”

Estrangement splinters families, sometimes even more so after death. For the British therapist Bernadette Wright, her father’s death came as a relief. She said he had long been “a tyrant, very abusive in every way.” She left home at 18 and moved to Germany, never returning. More than 30 years later, she was on vacation in Spain when her mother called to tell her that he had died. His funeral was announced on the radio in the small town in Ireland where he was born.

“It was difficult for my mother because she was there without her four children,” Ms. Wright said. “A friend of his gave his eulogy. People thought we were absolutely dreadful that we didn’t come. We begged my mom to keep it low-key as no one knew us anyway. We were all brought up in London.” Her mother was angry and embarrassed by their absence, she said, but their self-protection mattered more.

“People have this obsession with forgiveness,” Ms. Wright said. “You can forgive, but you don’t have to forget. You don’t have to have that toxicity back in yourself.” Those who have never been estranged often judge those who are, and very harshly, Ms. Wright added. “But you haven’t lived my life. It made me ill every time I saw my father.”

Ms. Wright has, though, mourned her father, feeling “huge grief,” but less for the man he was than the loving parent she never experienced. “That’s what you’re grieving for. The childhood you never had, the mother you never had, the father you never had.”

Funeral directors also face their own challenges when someone estranged dies, said Kari Northey, a funeral director in Wayland, Mich., with 18 years’ experience. She has seen unattended funerals and their aftermath. “Every funeral home has a shelf of unclaimed ashes. Unclaimed individuals are becoming a bigger situation. Even if they pay for the cremation, they never pick the ashes up.”

Ms. Northey urges those estranged at death from a loved one to “take a moment of looking at that person with fondness. That one good moment is what you grieve. Everyone is a gleam in someone’s eye at some point. At some point in their life, they were a good person.”

It’s helpful to see a body or coffin, she added. “Seeing is believing. If you don’t get that, it can hold back a lot you need to process through.” But if an angry relative who is the one who is paying for a funeral refuses to allow others access, “we end up as gatekeepers,” Ms. Northey said. “We sometimes have to be the person inflicting hurt. We’re constantly saying no when we want to say yes.”

Even as vaccinations are helping to curb the pandemic, there are still hundreds of patients dying of Covid every day, often alone. Dr. Pillemer suggested that hospice workers, chaplains, doctors and palliative care givers ask each one: “When did you last see your child or sibling or parent?”

He added, “There needs to be professional level training since no one wants to talk about estrangement, we need more professional awareness and education. There’s a great silence around the subject.”

Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in private practice and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families, suggested finding a way to “make sense of these conflicted feelings.” His new book, “Rules of Estrangement,” is a guide for parents whose adult children have cut them off, the most common pattern of estrangement, he said.

“There’s a temptation to feel really misunderstood and hurt and also judged by society,” he said. “People have to reckon with it and make sense of why they have chosen to become estranged when they were treated in a cruel, excluding or hostile way by their family. You need to develop your own strong narrative and have people in your life who support that. Nobody who hasn’t been estranged really knows what it’s like.”

I fled my mother’s care at 14, frightened of her mental illness and worn out from coping alone with her breakdowns. I went to live with my father and I never lived with her again. Experience had taught me I couldn’t feel safe with her. In later years, living by choice many thousands of miles apart in different countries, we did enjoy some calm and loving visits, for which I am grateful.

In many ways, I am still very much her daughter — bold, adventurous and curious. Those are the memories I am glad to carry.

Family Travel Gets Complicated Without a Covid Vaccine for Kids

Amid the chatter of travel’s long-awaited rebound one year into the pandemic, many families with children feel largely left out of the conversation.

Nearly every summer, Ada Ayala, a teacher, and her husband, Oscar Cesar Pleguezeulos, travel with their children to visit Mr. Cesar Pleguezeulos’s parents in Spain. But this year, even though they will both soon be fully vaccinated in their home state of Florida, they are changing their plans. The reason? There is still no pediatric Covid-19 vaccine available for their kids.

The travel industry, buoyed by news of vaccine rollouts, is anticipating a summer rush after a year of devastation. But amid the chatter of travel’s long-awaited rebound, many families with children — who comprise roughly 30 percent of the global travel market — say they are largely being left out of the conversation.

In a March survey on Bébé Voyage, an online community for traveling families, 90 percent of respondents said that amid unclear guidelines on Covid-19 testing, they were searching for flexible bookings. The topic also comes up often on Bébé Voyage’s Facebook page, particularly among parents in the United States. “It’s the Americans in the group that are the most nervous traveling with kids,” said the Bébé Voyage chief executive, Marianne Perez de Fransius.

Ms. Ayala, 44, is among those nervous parents. “If it wasn’t for the kids, we would definitely be flying this summer,” she said. Ms. Ayala already received her shot as a teacher. Her husband, also 44, will soon receive his shots, too, because Florida recently opened vaccinations to those age 40 and up. But their children, Charlise, 6, and Oscar, 2, will have to wait many more months to be inoculated.

“My 2-year-old isn’t going to wear a mask for 10 hours on a flight, and I don’t know if I want to expose him for a 16-hour trip with layovers,” Ms. Ayala said. “I’ll feel more confident when vaccination reaches more people worldwide, or at least in the destinations we want to go.”

Nearly one in three adults in the United States have now received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. But a full pediatric Covid-19 vaccine currently isn’t expected until the end of 2021 at the earliest, and while they wait, parents are struggling to figure out how they, too, can travel safely this summer, and even where their children are welcome as rules on quarantine and testing continue to shift.

“This is the elephant in the room right now,” said Cate Caruso, an adviser for Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel agencies, who also owns her own travel planning company, True Places Travel. The potential that a child could become infected with Covid-19 while abroad and not be allowed on a return flight, she said, is a major deterrent for parents. “Anywhere you go outside of the U.S. right now, you’ve got to think about how you’re going to get back in,” she said. “It’s leaving behind a whole bunch of people who are ready to go.”

In Ms. Ayala’s case, a compromise has been struck: If and when Spain — which is currently closed to American travelers — opens its borders, Mr. Cesar will travel to Spain with their daughter, Charlise, while Ms. Ayala will remain in Florida with Oscar. “She goes to school and is very good with wearing her mask, cleaning her hands and keeping distance,” Ms. Ayala said of her daughter. “So I think she can be safe. But it’s just not possible with a baby.”

But she doesn’t plan to stay home all summer. Whether or not her husband and daughter make it to Spain, Ms. Ayala is planning a family road trip at some point this summer, likely within Florida.

After a year of road trips, R.V.s and rental cottages, many Americans are now ready to fly again: Online searches for late-summer flights are up as much as 75 percent, and hotels on both coasts are reporting that they are sold out through October. But families, more than any other travel sector, continue to play it safe.

Family travel plans for this summer are more low-key than two years ago, with bookings to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, reported to be significantly up.
Family travel plans for this summer are more low-key than two years ago, with bookings to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, reported to be significantly up.Tannen Maury/EPA, via Shutterstock

Rovia, a membership-based global travel agency that works with both travelers and travel agents, reports that beach and camping destinations within driving distance are the most popular choices for families this summer. An exception? Disney World, which is seeing an uptick in reservations for summer from families looking to visit while capacity remains limited (and lines, as a result, remain shorter).

“The rate of couples traveling by air has increased faster, whereas families are still leaning toward travel by car and R.V. rentals,” said Jeff Gwynn, Rovia’s director of communications.

Montoya and Phil Hudson, who showcase their travels as a Black family on their popular blog, The Spring Break Family, are among them. “Most years we go pretty far — Spain, Italy, France, as far as we can go. This year it was about what’s reachable by car,” Ms. Hudson said. She and Mr. Hudson, who both work in the health care industry, are vaccinated, but admit they probably won’t be willing to fly with their two daughters, Leilah, 11, and Layla, 8, for several more months.

That’s because they want to wait for herd immunity to help keep their daughters safe. “The goal is to wait until the majority of the population is vaccinated, or has at least had the opportunity to become vaccinated,” Ms. Hudson said.

In addition to preferring driving over flying this summer, travel analysts say families with children will also continue to opt for rental homes over hotel rooms.

In fact, when it comes to the vacation cottage market, parents are booking faster than anyone else. “Families are the number one group expected to travel in 2021,” said Vered Schwarz, the president and chief operating officer of Guesty, a short-term property management platform which reports that its summer reservations are already 110 percent higher than 2020, with families comprising more than 30 percent of those booking. “For families with unvaccinated children, private rentals are appealing — they are comfortable and they avoid hotels chock-full of crowded common areas,” she said.

The question of how to treat unvaccinated children who may be traveling with their parents is also presenting a legal and ethical minefield for American travel operators.

The European Union is considering a vaccine passport that will allow free travel within the bloc for those who can show proof of inoculation. In Israel, a green pass has been established for those who have been vaccinated, granting holders not just the ability to cross a border but also check into a hotel or eat inside a restaurant, but children are not exempt — so parents with unvaccinated children must dine outside at restaurants and find babysitters before heading to the gym or a show.

But in the United States, such policies are unlikely to take hold, said Chuck Abbott, the general manager of the InterContinental San Diego. “Most hotels would not ask for that information, because it violates the privacy of the guest,” he said. “Even putting vaccinated guests on a different floor than other guests would likely present a legal issue.”

Compared with summer 2019, families’ plans for summer 2021 are more low-key: Travelocity reports that bookings to Mount Rushmore and Nashville are significantly up over two years ago; internationally, family bookings to London, Paris and Rome, destinations that were top family sites in 2019, but have still not reopened to U.S. travel, are way down, while Cancún, which is currently open to American travelers without quarantine requirements, is up nearly 50 percent.

Some European countries, like Iceland, have begun inching open their borders, but only to passengers who are vaccinated. That means individuals who can present proof of the Covid-19 jab can bypass quarantine when they arrive — unless they are parents traveling with children.

“Unvaccinated children would still need to quarantine for five days, and the parents, of course, must stay with the child,” said Eric Newman, who owns the travel blog Iceland With Kids. “Iceland’s brand-new travel regulations are not friendly to families hoping to visit with children.”

After a year of virtual schooling and working from home, parents have no desire to quarantine with their kids, said Anthony Berklich, the founder of the travel platform Inspired Citizen. “What these destinations are basically saying is you can come but your children can’t,” he said.

Instead, families are opting for warm-weather destinations closer to home.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in January that proof of a negative PCR test would be required of all air passengers arriving in the United States, many tropical resorts — including more than a dozen Hyatt properties — began offering not just free on-site testing, but a deeply discounted room in which to quarantine in case that test comes back positive. That move, said Rebecca Alesia, a travel consultant with SmartFlyer, has been a boon for family travel business.

“What happens if the morning you’re supposed to come home, you get up and Junior has a surprise positive test?” she said. “A lot of my clients have booked this summer because of this policy.”

For parents struggling to decide how and when to return to travel, there is good news on the horizon, said Dr. Shruti Gohil, the medical director of infection prevention at the University of California, Irvine.

“The chances of a good pediatric vaccine coming soon are high,” she said, noting that both Pfizer and Moderna are already running pediatric trials on their vaccines. “There is no reason to think that the vaccine will have any untoward effects on children that we haven’t already noted in adults.”

In the meantime, she said, parents with children need to continue to be cautious. That doesn’t mean families shouldn’t travel at all, but she recommends choosing to drive rather than fly; to not allow unvaccinated children to play unmasked with children from other households; and to remain vigilant about wearing masks and regularly washing hands while on the road.

“We can’t keep saying that you can’t go anywhere,” she said. “At some point we have to have some kind of nuance around this. But this is a game we are all still playing until the virus is gone.”

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Your Pandemic Baby’s Coming Out Party

Haven’t seen your family in a while? Have a grandchild you’ve never met? Visiting may be awkward at first but you can get through it.

No one in Deena Al Mahbuba’s family has met her daughter, Aara. She was born at the end of 2019, extremely premature. By the time Aara left the hospital for her home outside Boston in mid-June, the world was already months into Covid-19 lockdowns. Ms. Mahbuba’s close relatives, along with her husband’s, all live in Bangladesh. The couple moved from there in 2013.

Family members have done their best to stay connected, but Ms. Mahbuba, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wishes her relatives were nearby. Her older siblings have kids of their own and could help her soothe Aara when she’s sleepless.

Or they could show her how they introduced foods to their own babies; Aara, now 15 months old, struggles with new foods after having been tube-fed in her early life. Ms. Mahbuba also hopes Aara will learn to speak Bengali, but worries she needs exposure to the language from people besides her parents.

“Sometimes I feel really sad,” Ms. Mahbuba said. “I feel like there is a gap happening, and sometimes I worry this gap is going to be stretched out day by day.”

Even grandparents, aunts or uncles in the same country as babies born during Covid-19 have been kept away by travel restrictions and other precautions. Darby Saxbe, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, said her lab started following 760 expectant parents in the spring of 2020 to study their mental health, social connection and other factors. In open-ended survey responses, many participants reported that they hadn’t been able to see extended family.

The first pandemic babies are becoming toddlers this spring, which means entire infancies have passed while children and their parents were isolated from their loved ones. Even as families mourn the missed cuddles, though, experts say the gap isn’t likely to have any long-term effects. Kids and their relatives can make up for lost time when they reunite. In the meantime, families can take steps to keep those missing relatives present in a child’s mind.

Reaching Across the Gap

Infancy is an important window of time for bonding, said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, an Ohio State University child psychology professor, and not just because it’s your only chance to catch those squishy cheeks and sniffable heads. “Infancy is the period during which children are biologically predisposed to form close relationships with important caregivers,” Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan said.

This is an element of attachment theory, an area of psychology research that’s been around for several decades. (Not to be confused with attachment parenting, a philosophy from the 1980s that espouses a whole lot of baby-wearing.) Studies suggest that babies are primed to bond tightly with one or more caregivers. Once a child has a strong attachment to someone, that person becomes a “secure base,” the theory goes. The child looks to that person for reassurance in moments of distress. In calmer times, secure attachments give kids confidence to explore and learn from their environments.

But relatives who miss this window don’t need to worry, Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan said. The theory says that when infants form secure attachments, they’re also forming the capacity for relationships in the future. That means the bonds parents have built with their babies during coronavirus-induced isolation may help those babies connect with relatives who live far away — whenever they finally visit.

And today’s infants and toddlers won’t recall these absences. The older siblings of the pandemic babies may not remember a gap in visits from Nana, either. Because of what’s known as childhood amnesia, most people remember few events that occur before age 3 or so. Even though grandparents may be grieving for the milestones they missed this year, “The child will not remember who attended their first or second birthday party,” said Lorinda Kiyama, a psychologist and associate professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology.

As an American living in Japan, Dr. Kiyama often counsels couples who come from different countries or international couples who are adopting a Japanese child. She pointed out that separation from relatives isn’t always a bad thing. “The distance is often a relief when relationships are fraught,” she said. However, “it can be agonizing when you want to be close.”

She suggested building familiarity by talking about absent relatives while pointing to photos of them. Babies as young as nine months may be able to recognize an object they’ve seen in a picture. And even if children seem too young to grasp what you’re saying, Dr. Kiyama said, they usually understand more language than they can produce.

With a parent’s help, a distant family member can use video chat to play peekaboo, sing songs with a child, do pretend play, or show off their pets. (And don’t worry if you’re trying to limit screen time: The American Academy of Pediatrics says video chatting doesn’t count.)

Ms. Mahbuba uses FaceTime to keep Aara in touch with her family in Bangladesh, though the time difference is a challenge. When Aara is alert and playful after her nap, it’s 2 a.m. for her grandparents.

Ms. Mahbuba said the enforced separation of the pandemic has given some of her friends and co-workers a window into what her life is like as an immigrant living far from her family. “They kind of understand now how it feels to be stuck,” she said.

Jumping the Gap

When long-absent family members finally get to meet those babies — or toddlers — it will be important to take their time building a relationship, said Carola Suárez-Orozco, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who has studied the effects of family separation on immigrant children. “Help the adults slow it down when they first encounter the baby.”

First, prime relatives for some amount of rejection from the child, Dr. Suárez-Orozco said. From a child’s point of view, “They’re meeting strangers.” Although younger infants might happily go from one set of arms to another, stranger anxiety develops by eight months or so. This fear of new people usually lasts well into the child’s second year.

“If a child is reluctant to hug an extended family member they just met, that should be seen as a healthy sign,” Dr. Kiyama said.

She suggested preparing toddlers for meeting relatives by using toys or stuffed animals to act out scenes like picking them up from the airport. You could also keep an empty chair at your kitchen table, or leave out a bath towel or other object, and tell the child it’s going to be Grandma’s when she visits, Dr. Kiyama said.

Older toddlers, or preschool-aged siblings who will be seeing relatives after a long absence, might like practicing what they’re going to say. “Give the child a script to follow, with some variations for flexibility,” Dr. Kiyama said. Or share memories of that relative from your own childhood.

For grown-ups who are connecting or reconnecting with a toddler or preschooler, parents are an important source of information, Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan said. Parents can help relatives get on a kid’s good side by updating them on the child’s temperament, interests and weird obsessions of the moment.

“From the emotional point of view of the adults, they have connected to an abstraction. They haven’t been bonding in those moment-to-moment interactions,” Dr. Suárez-Orozco said. In her study of immigrant children who had been apart from their parents for months or years — a much more extreme form of separation than what most families face during the pandemic — she saw that family reunifications were usually “messy.”

Even so, Dr. Suárez-Orozco and her co-authors wrote, the psychological distress these children felt after reuniting gradually ebbed, showing the “extraordinary adaptability and resilience of youth.”

Now that Ms. Mahbuba’s family in Bangladesh is in the process of getting their vaccines, she’s looking forward to her own reunion. Her mother-in-law is planning to come to the United States to help out with the baby, and Ms. Mahbuba can’t wait. “The day will come. Hopefully,” she said.

The gladness that parents feel to finally see their absent relatives will be one of the most important factors in helping a child warm up, Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan said. “Do things that are fun and that make them laugh. I think that makes a big impression on kids.”

Dr. Kiyama agreed. Young children are highly sensitive to how their caregivers feel about other people, she said. The best way to help kids accept a new family member? “Genuine joy in each other’s presence.”

Elizabeth Preston is a Boston-area science journalist and mom to a preschooler and a pandemic baby.

In a Role Reversal, Asian-Americans Aim to Protect Their Parents From Hate

Earlier in the pandemic, Ellen Lee offered to bring her parents groceries, to protect them from catching the coronavirus while shopping. They refused. Now when she asks, it’s because she’s worried they might get assaulted when they’re out running errands.

“They want to be independent,” said Ms. Lee, 44, a Chinese-American journalist and mother of three. “The way they see it, they are the parent, and their job is to take care of me.”

Her parents, who are in their mid-70s, told her they’re taking precautions, going to satellite Chinatowns in San Francisco rather than the main one and popping in and out to fetch delicacies such as egg tarts and roast duck. “They’ll turn it around on me, and say, ‘You’re the one who should be scared,’” she said, after they pointed out that her neighborhood might be unsafe because an elderly Chinese-American man was robbed and killed a few miles away from her Oakland hills home.

In the wake of recent shootings in Atlanta by a white gunman that left eight dead — six of them of Korean or Chinese descent — and surging attacks against Asian-Americans across the country, families have grappled with how to talk to their elders about protecting themselves.

Of the more than 18 million Asian-Americans in the United States, roughly three-quarters of adults were born abroad, according to William H. Frey, a demographer who is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the University of Michigan who analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. That’s because of both historical immigration policy and recent immigration trends.

Generational and cultural gaps make conversations about race and violence difficult with their American-born and raised children and grandchildren, who may not fluently speak the native language of their elders.

Be candid and direct, said Anni Chung, chief executive of Self-Help for the Elderly, a service provider in San Francisco’s Chinatown. “You can say: ‘I worry about you. If you have to run to the bank, will you let me know? I’ll take time off. If you go to the grocery, let me accompany you,’” she said. “Offer to help. They might not accept it, but the care and attention will please them.”

Ms. Chi, of Fremont, Calif., talked with her relatives about the recent rise in attacks on Asian-Americans.Carolyn Fong for The New York Times
Ms. Yi and the others imagined a victim’s final worry: “‘What about my babies? Who will take care of them?’”Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

Asian-American adults may be looking out for their elders while struggling with the recent attacks themselves. Emily Chi, a 31-year-old Korean-American in Fremont, Calif., noted how quickly Asian-Americans came together after the Atlanta shootings, with online fund-raising, critical historical analysis and other efforts. But she’s also grieving. She planned to attend a vigil in Oakland focused on the victims. “Let’s make sure they aren’t erased,” Ms. Chi said. “Let’s not forget them, before we skip to action.”

In her conversations with her grandmother, aunt and mother, they all imagined a victim’s final worry: “‘What about my babies? Who will take care of them?’” Ms. Chi said. “We see their names, we see their faces, and you feel like it could be you,” she said of the Asian-Americans killed. “It could be your grandmother.”

Small-business owners may have already suffered vandalism and other crimes firsthand. “Honor the first generation’s experience with violence — if you ignore it, the conversation will end,” said June Lee, executive director of the Korean Community Center of the East Bay.

But at the same time, give them context for understanding hate crimes, especially if they’ve come from racially homogeneous countries, she said. Explain the systemic issues behind what might seem like a random killing. “They also need to know their rights,” she said. “Asians are known for their silences, but silence isn’t a virtue in this situation. We have to speak up.”

Such conversations are a fraught yet tender rite of passage that reverses the traditional parent-child dynamic; parents who want to remain independent may brush off their children’s concerns for their safety.

If the elders are hierarchical in their thinking, and prefer advice from someone they consider their equal or in a position of higher standing, adult children could consider enlisting their doctor, pastor, or someone else in the community they trust, said Lia Huynh, a San Jose therapist who specializes in Asian-American issues.

“Asian-Americans have always been told, ‘Don’t make waves; don’t speak up,’” she explained. “Now things are coming to the surface, the feelings we had to stuff down for many years. People can feel alone, wondering, ‘Am I the only one dealing with this?’”

But they are not alone. About 42 percent of Asian-Americans say that Asian people in this country face “a lot” of discrimination, according to a recent Pew survey conducted before the killings in Atlanta.

The organization Stop AAPI Hate — which began tracking violence and harassment against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States in 2020 — received reports of 3,292 cases that year; in 2021, until the Atlanta shootings, 503 cases had been reported.

“We see their names, we see their faces, and you feel like it could be you,” Ms. Chi said of the Asian-Americans killed. “It could be your grandmother.”
“We see their names, we see their faces, and you feel like it could be you,” Ms. Chi said of the Asian-Americans killed. “It could be your grandmother.”Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

In November, while out walking her dog early one morning in Oakland, Calif., Deanne Chen, a 31-year-old Taiwanese-American, was mugged at gunpoint. Her assailant, who was Black, bear-hugged her from behind, shoved her to the ground, and flashed his gun at her. After she handed over her phone, he and his accomplice drove off. In the weeks that followed, the Oakland Police Department noted an uptick in violent robberies, with suspects targeting Asian and Latino communities.

When she told her parents what happened, she emphasized that she did not want Black people to be racially profiled. “I had to explain that one bad individual doesn’t represent an entire community. I asked them, ‘Holistically, what do you think creates crime?’” Ms. Chen said.

With the latest — and continuing — attacks against Asian-Americans, she added, “I don’t want this to be an opportunity for Blacks and Asians to get pitted against each other.”

She’s shared practical safety tips with her parents, telling them to remain vigilant when getting in and out of their car or unloading groceries. They’ll mention how their friends say they should watch out for each other and how their friends say they’re scared to go shopping. Her parents “don’t talk about their feelings, but will talk about everyone else’s. Which is a very Asian thing,” Ms. Chen said. “I know the fear is there.”

And yet, her mother also surprised her, calling the police in Atlanta “incompetent” and stating that their “racial bias” made everything worse for the victims. “I didn’t realize my mom was so woke!” Ms. Chen said with a laugh.

However, her parents would never admit that she might have influenced their opinion. “The trick is making them think it was their idea,” she said. “If you have the conversation in small, different ways, over time they start to read the news through the lens you provide them, and they come to their own conclusion.”

Ask a lot of questions, suggests Ener Chiu, of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation. “Ask them how they feel, and what we can do to help them feel safe.”

As more seniors get vaccinated, he encourages them to gather in groups again, whether in parks, recreation centers, or elsewhere, and in time, become “actively engaged” in their community. “People won’t feel so isolated, carrying their pepper spray, ‘you against the world,’” Mr. Chiu said.

Recent events have galvanized some older Asian-Americans such as Ms. Lee’s parents, the ones who insisted on going grocery shopping.

Usually, her father texts her photos of wild turkeys and deer wandering the streets of their retirement community in the suburbs east of San Francisco. The other day, though, he sent a picture from a neighborhood protest, with her mother holding up a cardboard sign, “Stop Asian Hate.”

“Up until now, my parents have not felt heard except in ethnic media,” Ms. Lee said. “They complain, but they wonder who is listening. Now there’s a groundswell of energy, not only from other Asian-Americans, but allies, too.”

Vanessa Hua is the author of “Deceit and Other Possibilities,” “A River of Stars” and the forthcoming novel “Forbidden City.”

Talking to Children About Anti-Asian Bias

“I’m not sure Asian-American families can avoid ‘the talk’ any longer,” one expert said.

My daughter was the only kid who didn’t have a separate Korean name when we signed her up for Korean classes three years ago. The blank space on the registration form looked at me, as if to say we’d forgotten something as parents.

When she was born in the United States in 2012, my spouse and I, who are both Asian-American, never thought to give her a name like Seohyun or Haeun. Though Korean was the language I spoke growing up in New York with my immigrant parents, I’ve forgotten many of the words I used to know. Yet hearing it spoken still conjures the sense of home.

I had no ambition to teach my daughter Korean, but when she turned 5, she insisted she wanted to learn so she could talk to her halmoni — her grandmother. So I conceded.

On Seollal, the Korean New Year, she and the other girls in her class sported traditional silk outfits. The floor-length skirts flapped to show their patterned leggings underneath, in a church basement that smelled of steamed rice and sesame oil.

It was familiar and reassuring.

Still, I kept asking my daughter when she would try soccer, which seemed to me the “American thing” to do on a Saturday morning. It was held at the same time as Korean School. I kept thinking about the parents on the sidelines and wondered what we were missing.

In March 2020, my daughter was in first grade, eager to talk about a school assignment that asked her to write about a problem and how to be a part of solving it. Her response was that women should be paid the same as men. I felt proud.

But then she continued. A classmate had written that coronavirus was a problem and that keeping Chinese people out of the country was the solution.

Later the other kids asked: “Are you Chinese?”

In the summer of 2020, the Stop A.A.P.I. Hate Youth Campaign interviewed 990 Asian-American young adults across the United States about their experiences during the pandemic, and found that one in four had reported experiencing racism in some way.

Kids said that they had been bullied, physically harassed and had racial slurs shouted at them. Dr. Juliana Chen, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Mass General Brigham, said that kids who experience this kind of racism may stop going to school or speaking up in class. They might start acting out, feel unwell, have trouble sleeping or struggle with depression.

Tiffany Yip, a developmental psychologist at Fordham University, said that a child who hears a racist remark hears this: “You don’t belong. You’re other. You’re different.”

We are one of only a handful of Asian-American families in our school, which prides itself on teaching about inclusion. Earlier in the year, our daughter came home talking about Malala Yousafzai and Ruby Bridges, asking where we would have been sitting on the bus in times of segregation. Now I questioned what racial biases our progressive community might have held.

When schools closed and our country locked down, my family took daily walks, chalked the sidewalks, looked for teddy bears in windows, and tried to smile from behind our masks. But when a girl in our neighborhood pointed to my daughter and said they could not play together because of the “China virus,” I wept.

During lockdown, we devoured books with Asian-American heroines by authors like Grace Lin and Min Jin Lee. I marveled: “That’s my family’s story.” While my 7-year-old jumped from the couch, she said of one of the characters: “She likes to eat dduk guk” — Korean rice cake soup — “like me!”

Next we read about Li Keng Wong, a 7-year-old who was detained at the Angel Island immigration station in San Francisco in 1933. We admired the poems carved into the barracks there, wrote poems of our own, and taped them to our bedroom walls. But I struggled to find the words to explain to my daughter why Chinese-Americans were forced to live in these barracks; why they were separated from their families.

She doesn’t yet know about the 84-year old man who died two days after being shoved to the sidewalk in Chinatown in San Francisco last month, or about the six Asian-American women killed by a shooter in Atlanta this week. While attacks on Asian people aren’t always charged as hate crimes, many Asians feel an increasing sense of vulnerability.

And I found the answer to my daughter’s question about where we would sit on the bus. Asian-Americans have our own, less well-known place in the civil rights story. Asians also lived in the South in the 1950s, and we, too, would have been told to move to the back of the bus. In the 1860s, there were segregated schools for Chinese-American children, for families that looked like ours.

I am finding the language to share this with my daughter. I will tell her about these injustices and I will remind her of Fred Korematsu, an American civil rights activist who objected to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and others who in their bravery spoke their minds when they disagreed with what our systems condoned.

Kids begin to develop a sense of racial identity by age 3 or 4, Dr. Yip said. Once they enter grade school, they hear about race and racism from peers and the media they consume.

“By not talking about race” and what they’re hearing, Dr. Yip said, “you run the risk of intensifying stereotypes” which can then lead to racism.

As parents we fear these hard conversations, but Dr. Chen said that it’s important to ask certain questions: What have you heard? What do you worry about? What’s school like for you and your friends? Has anything like this ever happened to you or someone you know?

“We think we’re protecting our kids, by not talking about racist incidents” Dr. Chen added. “But actually not talking about it is not helping.” Building their racial identity is what helps them feel safe.

When a racist incident happens to your child, Dr. Chen said, don’t jump into solving the problem. First ask how they feel and listen. Tell them you don’t know all the answers, but you can find solutions together.

Dr. Yip also suggested telling teachers and school leaders about the incident. Parents can help start a conversation with all the kids involved. Ask: “Can you help me understand why you did this? How do you think it makes others feel?”

Make sure that the children who were targeted know it wasn’t their fault, Dr. Chen added. Role play what you will do if it happens again and tell them, Mom or Dad or your caregivers will keep you safe.

“Black families always have the racial talk,” Dr. Yip said. But many Asian-American families in past generations did not. They emphasized assimilating to what they thought was a post-racial state. Now with the surge in harassment and hate incidents, she said: “I’m not sure Asian-American families can avoid ‘the talk’ any longer.” It’s a talk that must include listening to, and coming to understand, all groups who face racial bias.

In hindsight, I now see that Korean School has done more for my family than soccer ever could. It’s a place where my daughter sees she isn’t alone. There are families who look like ours and wrestle with the same questions, about what we will forget, and what we will keep from our immigrant families’ pasts. Being in a community equips us to be resilient in the face of the racism that we will inevitably encounter. I resolved to teach my daughter about the parts of myself that I, for too long, believed were meant to be forgotten. This will anchor her in who she is becoming, as an American.

It’s been a year since the pandemic began. Ideas around race and identity have shifted in a seismic way. My daughter has gone from sewing masks for her bears, to carrying Black Lives Matter posters and voting with me in a presidential election. Her memories of these historic events will take shape over time.

But for now, she is 8. She is learning to do cartwheels and is making dioramas and writing short stories. When she grows up, she says she wants to be a writer. She’s decided already on a character for her first book. Her name will be Minjee.

Here’s what parents can do to help:

  • Read books, watch movies and consume media with racially diverse characters. Read with your children or talk with them about what they’re reading.

  • Be proactive in bringing up conversations about race with your kids. Ask them what they are hearing and experiencing.

  • Kids will hear what’s happening in the news. Discuss it with them in an age-appropriate way.

  • Role play what to do when you see a racist incident. Talk to your kids if a racist incident happens to your child or to someone in your community.

  • Read this parenting guide for parents of Asian-American teens: How are you and your children talking about racism?

  • Share these resources from the M.G.H. Center for Cross-Cultural Student Emotional Wellness with your kids.

  • Explore additional resources for talking about race with younger children such as Embrace Race and PBS Kids for Parents.

Sources: Juliana Chen, child and adolescent psychiatrist, Mass General Brigham; Josephine Kim, faculty, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Tiffany Yip, developmental psychologist, Fordham University


Heidi Shin is a journalist and a public radio and podcast producer. Follow her on Twitter @byheidishin and Instagram @shinherrie3

In an Immigrant Family, the Tension Between Freedom and Duty

I lived without the societal pressures that would have existed for me in India. But when my father died, my sense of duty was profound.

First I saw his head, his white hair combed up. He was peaceful and still, in his coffin at the funeral home. It was the first time I had seen him in almost a year, since we had spent a joyful Christmas together in 2019.

We were all very careful during this pandemic. I thought I could save my parents by not visiting. But in the end, it was not Covid that took him. It was sudden cardiac arrest.

The priest arrived at the covered patio of the funeral home in Charlotte, N.C., a Hindu priest who may have spoken English but never did with me. He ordered us to buy bags of food and sweets, ghee, sandalwood powder. At first, I couldn’t bear to look at my father’s body: handsome face, cool to touch, unbearably still. A peaceful expression, no tension in his face, no sign of any fear. Unblemished, except for a purple bruise on his forehead; after losing consciousness, he fell with a “terrible thump,” as my mother said, and hit his head on the way down. Dressed in his favorite red blazer, socked feet falling to the sides, because in our grief we forgot to bring shoes.

The priest — gesturing to communicate across our language barrier — insisted that I look at my father’s body, touch him and care for him. He walked me down the path, instructing me to put apples in his hands, sweets beside him, and surround his body with rice and barley. To pour a few spoonfuls of water in his mouth, and lay a tiny mint leaf on his lips.

Would that help keep him cool in the fire of cremation? Or was it just for his soul’s final journey, to wet his throat as his soul walked to unknown places? I performed the duties not quite knowing what meaning I was bringing to him, or to myself.

In my final task of the ceremony, I was instructed to light a candle and place it on his chest. If we had been in India, I imagine we might have had a more visible pyre, the ability to see his body reduced. Here, the funeral director pushed him into an oven, closed a door and asked me to push a button. I immediately heard a powerful whoosh, maybe many whooshes, and imagined flames engulfing him on all sides. “He always was so afraid of fire,” said my mother, as we held each other.

As an immigrant, my father came to this country seeking a new kind of life. The typical narrative of an immigrant is that they live a life of self-sacrifice, that they come to build a better life for their children, and that their every action is steeped in duty. Stories of immigrants working 12-hour days to send their kids to a good school, or living in tiny apartments as they send money back to their struggling parents — those are the popular immigrant tales. They live for another generation.

But my father didn’t exactly fit the stereotype. He was a doctor’s son who had every privilege in India, and none of his siblings chose to emigrate. He first landed in Britain for grad school and then lived a bachelor life in Scotland. His photos don’t reflect a life of sacrifice. There he is, drinking whiskey in a pub, wearing a kilt and dancing on a table. He told stories of going to see Elton John in concert, of winning tennis tournaments, of traveling through Europe. Was his journey really about duty? Or was it about freedom? I never asked him, but it seemed to me that immigrating was actually an act of self-definition.

Eventually a business trip to the United States in 1982 brought him a job offer and his H1 visa. Within the next decade, we would all become U.S. citizens.

While my parents missed their parents and siblings, they were also free — from expectations, from society’s eyes.

Free to wear whatever they wanted, to worship however they wanted, to raise their kids however they wanted. Like the original pilgrims, they were drawn to America by that promise, of freedom.

In our small town in upstate New York, there was no temple, so our religious education happened at home, or in others’ homes. My parents read the texts and picked the parts that they liked. They found friends who shared their language and gathered with them often, but they also sent me to a Christian camp, encouraged my friendships with a wide variety of people.

And I was free. I made so many decisions without any regard to the societal pressures that would have existed for me in India. Instead of marrying within my caste or even culture, I fell in love with a kind Polish engineer who understood feeling like an outsider, as I do — a marriage my parents supported. Instead of pursuing the sciences, I found my way as a reporter.

As a member of the second generation, I wasn’t raised with the traditional standards of responsibility to my parents.

But now that my father was gone, my sense of duty toward him was profound.

At least for the week after my father’s death, my path was clear, and that was a comfort. I performed rites and rituals for his body and soul, accepting the reality of his final stage of life. I sat with another Hindu priest a few days after the cremation and performed a puja — a ceremonial ritual — for his soul. We called out to all his ancestors to take him with them, and we asked for forgiveness for him and for us, so that his soul could be at peace, with all the tensions and worries of his life put to rest. I could feel their presence in my family room. The candle in front of my father’s picture burned for hours.

If I had been in India, I likely would have been pushed to the side, as those rites are traditionally performed by a son or a nephew — a male descendant. But here, I did them without facing a fight from anyone.

Some Americans know the word “dharma” from the show “Dharma and Greg.” It is a Sanskrit word not exactly translatable into English, though it does encompass the word duty — to your parents, your children, your society. It also encompasses the idea of following certain rules while living through each stage of life — as a student, a parent, or in your work — and the idea that if you do, you will be rewarded in your next life, or as you enter “the beyond.”

My father may have come to the Western world to enjoy the freedom, but he certainly lived his dharma. He cared for his children and grandchildren with constant joy, anticipating our needs and wants and providing them, while cutting grapefruits for me every morning during my grapefruit-obsessed teenage years or laying down a blanket for his baby grandson, always with a delighted and gentle smile. He worked for the same tool company for 50 years, up until his death, performing his responsibilities with constancy and integrity, saving money to ensure that his widow could live without stress.

As I performed all his last rites, I thought about his dharma-laden life, and hoped that he was receiving the rewards.

A few days later, I carried my father’s ashes to a nearby river.

After a mile or so, I saw a tree that curved, bending over the river. I left the path and walked down the slope, stepping on the strong tree roots to keep from sliding into the water, clutching the box of ashes, desperate not to drop them. I got to the tree, climbed up a few feet until I could see that the water was rushing directly below me. I tore open the box and the plastic bag that held the ashes and poured them in, watching my father wash away toward the ocean. Now, he was truly free.

Shilpi Malinowski is a writer living in Washington, D.C. Her first book, a chronicle of gentrification in D.C., is coming out in late 2021.

The Year Grandparents Lost

Generation Grandparent

The Year Grandparents Lost

The enforced separations of the pandemic have brought a particular kind of mourning to many grandparents.

Kathy Koehler of Ann Arbor, Mich., relies on Skype calls to connect with her infant grandson, Elya, who lives in London. He was born at the start of the pandemic and they have not yet been able to meet in person.
Kathy Koehler of Ann Arbor, Mich., relies on Skype calls to connect with her infant grandson, Elya, who lives in London. He was born at the start of the pandemic and they have not yet been able to meet in person.Credit…Cydni Elledge for The New York Times

  • March 11, 2021, 4:03 p.m. ET

Kathy Koehler had made elaborate plans to meet her first grandchild. Her daughter, who was expecting a baby last March, lived in London, and Ms. Koehler intended to fly there from her home in Ann Arbor, Mich.

She had collected a small stash of blankets, toys and clothes to tuck into her suitcase, and reserved a bed-and-breakfast near her daughter’s flat for the month of April.

“I’d be there every day and help out and get to know this little guy,” said Ms. Koehler, who’s 63. “I could not wait.”

That trip never took place, of course. Nor did her daughter make a planned visit home in October to introduce her new son, Elya, to the rest of the family. Covid-19 intervened.

Crushed, Ms. Koehler hoped she could at least celebrate her grandson’s first birthday in person. Friends scoffed at her pessimism, assuring her that surely international travel would safely resume before then. But Elya turns 1 on March 13, and his maternal grandmother has yet to hold or kiss him.

“It feels like a double loss,” she said. “I’m losing time with this newborn that I’ll never get back. And I didn’t get to see my daughter and son-in-law fall in love with him and become parents. I felt so cheated.”

The enforced separations of the pandemic have caused widespread sorrow for grandparents. Whether they live an ocean apart or around the corner, many have had to cancel visits, forgo holiday gatherings and give up the ordinary pleasures of reading stories and playing games. Even though distancing protects grandparents’ physical health and safety, because elders are at higher risk, it has been a painful time.

And it’s not entirely behind us. The vaccine rollout may prompt a spate of joyful reunions in coming weeks; new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that fully vaccinated grandparents can now safely visit with grandchildren.

But, in many states, older people are still scrambling for appointments and the C.D.C. has maintained its warnings against travel. Ms. Koehler, who doesn’t yet qualify for vaccination in Michigan, watched Elya’s birthday party via Zoom.

Long before the pandemic, researchers knew that social isolation afflicted many older adults. In widely cited studies, about a quarter reported feeling isolated and more than 40 percent felt lonely, states that can affect both psychological and physical health. For many people, the pandemic intensified that sense of disconnection.

The inability to spend time with grandchildren brings a particular kind of loss, however. Children change more quickly than our other relatives. As Ms. Koehler pointed out, missing time with babies means they have passed through phases and stages we will never witness, except on video screens. Grandparents were unable to attend many older kids’ milestones, too, over the last year — dance recitals, soccer games, graduations. Some special occasions did not take place at all.

Nor could they help their beleaguered children the way many wished to, as they faced uncommon economic and other pressures, often without child care or in-person school.

Ms. Koehler waves to her grandson on their daily call.Credit…Cydni Elledge for The New York Times
“He absolutely knows my face,” she said.Credit…Cydni Elledge for The New York Times

Kerry Byrne, founder of The Long Distance Grandparent, a business that helps build intergenerational connections, heard from distressed grandparents all year. After extended apartness, “they worry that the grandchildren won’t know you or you won’t know them,” she said. “They worry they won’t be able to maintain these bonds.”

Risa Nye, 69, a writer in Oakland, was able to see her four grandchildren in the Bay Area, though in some cases only outdoors. But what about the two in Syracuse, N.Y.?

Prepandemic, Ms. Nye and her husband would fly east or her daughter and family would come west several times a year. Sometimes they’d vacation together at the Jersey Shore or in Southern California near Disneyland.

Now, she wonders if Madeleine, 13, and Ezra, 7, will remember eating blue pancakes at the Rise N Shine Diner or seeing “Wonder Woman” together. “It’s been a year-plus,” Ms. Nye said. “The older one’s a teenager. I’m missing out.”

“This has been devastating,” agreed her daughter, Caitlin Nye, 43. Her parents hinted about visiting, and “it’s very hard to tell your mom, ‘There’s no logistical way to do this safely and without huge anxiety.’” But as a nurse educator hyper-aware of viral risks, that is what she told her mother.

Grandparent grief — a term used by Emma Payne, founder of a company called Grief Coach — involves another dimension: older people recognize that time with their families is growing limited. The average age for becoming a grandparent in the United States is 50, but many grandparents are older, or face health problems.

A year apart can feel more wrenching to a 75-year-old, for whom it represents a greater proportion of her remaining life span, than to her 35-year-old son or daughter.

In April, Marilee Reinertson Torres of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, met her  youngest grandchild through a hospital window.
In April, Marilee Reinertson Torres of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, met her  youngest grandchild through a hospital window. Credit…Marilee Torres

Marilee Reinertson Torres, 61, has five grandchildren within a half-hour drive of her home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Last April, she greeted the youngest, Salma Elaine, from outside the window of the hospital where she’d just been born. Though Ms. Torres could see her grandchildren outdoors over the summer, and hold the newcomer, those visits stopped in the November cold.

Because she undergoes chemotherapy infusions and scans every three weeks for a recurrence of cervical cancer, Ms. Torres said she is more aware of mortality than other people. “I saw Salma when she was born. Can I see her go to school? I want to see what my 10-year-old is like as an adult.” She questions whether she will.

Experts in child development are reassuring on one score: Family bonds can weather this interruption.

“Grandparents shouldn’t worry that they won’t have important roles in their grandchildren’s lives going forward,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, who directs the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

“Children are resilient and they’re highly adaptable,” he said. “If a child is being reintroduced to grandparents after a year apart, they will still have a very important place in that child’s life.”

Maintaining those connections, especially with children who didn’t know their grandparents well before Covid-19, does take effort, however.

Ms. Koehler has Skyped with Elya and his mother every day. “He absolutely knows my face,” she said. She and her husband show him their dog and cats and play where’s-your-nose together. “It feels like a real relationship is being formed,” said Ms. Koehler, who also Skypes with a second grandchild in Maine.

Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University, Zooms nightly with her own young grandchildren. “If there are ways that allow you to see a face or hear a voice, that can be very powerful in maintaining relationships,” she said.

“A willingness to be silly and playful is important,” Ms. Byrne added. Oh, I know.

I haven’t been separated from my granddaughter, now 4; she and her parents and I have formed a pandemic pod. We mask and distance from everyone else, but not from one another.

Since I’m lucky enough to remain her child care provider one day a week, we don’t need to FaceTime often. But when we do, I pull out the hand puppets and have been known to get cheap laughs by bonking a pesky horse puppet on the head with a banana.

Vaccination is finally allowing some grandparents to resume spending time in person with their grandchildren.

But no matter how hard all parties have worked at staying in touch, many grandparents have suffered deeply this year. Resumed visits — the real kind, in person — cannot come too soon.

“Grief” isn’t too strong a word for those grandparents who have yearned all year for a small hand in theirs, for a hug without fear.

Modern Love: My Parents' Divorce and That Two-House, Duffel-Bag Life

Modern Love

My Two-House, Duffel-Bag Life

When my parents divorced, I lost the link that held our family together. And then I found it.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • March 5, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

I am 15 years old and an only child. People who meet me don’t usually think I’m an only child because I talk with the speed of someone who always had to compete for space in a conversation, as if I have 10 siblings. But no, it’s just me.

I have grown up in California in a nice neighborhood, with good friends and two loving parents, playing outside with my father on the weekends and reading books with my mother on the weekdays. I have been alone a lot but not lonely. I never needed anything I haven’t gotten, and whatever I wish for often comes true. And all of this, I think, is why my parents’ divorce took such a toll on me.

It was seven years ago that my parents came into the living room one evening and turned off the TV. I was watching my favorite show, “The Biggest Loser.” I was annoyed at first, and then confused, as they began to explain how their marriage wasn’t working out, and how they were splitting up but remaining friends.

Processing a parents’ divorce for any child, but especially for an only child, is a lot like going through the stages of grief. And not to sound overly dramatic or to diminish the heartbreak of losing a loved one, but when you don’t have a brother or sister who reminds you of what life was once like, who can serve as a link from past to present, keeping at least part of the family whole in some way, there is only the harsh reality of now. The divorce, to me, felt as if some imaginary family member had died, someone I didn’t even realize existed yet held the singular role of binding our family together.

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In the first stage, denial, I refused to accept that my parents’ divorce was happening. I would drag my feet along with my mother or father to open houses and real estate agents’ offices. With a book or granola bar in hand, I would drift from reality and truly believe that I was going to return home that evening to them making dinner together in the kitchen, smiling and saying, “Sorry we worried you sweetie, but everything’s fine now.”

It wasn’t until they each had closed on separate houses and sold half of our furniture that I realized this fantasy was never going to turn into reality. And as soon as this two-house life became permanent, my hope quickly turned into envy, especially at the end of the school day when I would see friends greeted by both parents. Or during the sixth-grade science fair, when I would have to transport my unfinished volcano between houses while others could leave theirs untouched and permanently installed in their basement or garage, waiting to be worked on again.

Then came the depression, except I’m not sure it was really depression. I was going through the first stages of puberty, and who’s to say it was my parents’ divorce, and not hormones, that triggered my feelings of hopelessness? During this period, I spent a lot of time alone feeling indifferent. Every answer was “Sure” or “OK.” I had no opinions on anything, because even if I did, would it really change anything? No. The divorce would still be final, and my English homework would still be due in the morning.

I often spent my evenings imagining the different life I could have had if my parents hadn’t divorced. And because no one was around to ground me during these episodes, my imaginings became quite creative, one where we were all still living in the same house and I could smell the faint odor of my mother’s perfume and father’s deodorant mixing together in the mornings as they whisked by each other, rushing to start their workdays. Or another where I spent my 10th birthday at a party surrounded by all my friends and family without any tension or awkwardness.

It took a lot for me to escape this fantasy phase, and even today I’m not sure I’m fully out. Grief is not linear. You don’t get a punch card with a new hole every time you pass through another stage. But with the help of my friends and the movies and music of many great artists, I can undoubtedly say that I am not depressed.

During the summer between fifth and sixth grade, I changed schools, going from the warm bubble of my tiny private elementary school to the gaping reality of a large public middle school. As the first day of middle school grew closer, I couldn’t help but get excited about the opportunity to reinvent myself. In going from a place where everyone knew every detail of my life to a school where nobody knew anything about me, I could become whoever I wanted.

This new me started with the magical development of my parents getting remarried. Or, actually, having never gotten divorced. It wasn’t that I made up stories; I just excluded from my stories any mention of my parents splitting up. My sharp memory served me well as I recounted family vacations we took, places we lived and traditions we had, as if it all still happened. I made this bargain with myself thinking that what was once true could become true again.

My bargaining continued through middle school, even as other kids began to discover the truth. The 15-pound duffel bags I would bring to school, filled with clothes and toiletries, definitely raised questions. But I continued to shade the truth as a way to cope. I found that if I could fabricate enough to create the life I wanted, I could convince myself that it was true. But that never really worked.

As my parents drifted farther apart and settled into their own lives, my life grew ever more complicated. Without the consistency of having parents to talk to in the same house, I became more distant from them and started to rely more on myself to cope with my emotions. And if I couldn’t deal with my emotions on my own, then a show or movie would have to take the place of a deep conversation.

This experience isn’t unique; many children don’t feel like they have a place within their families. In my case, I didn’t know if there was even an opportunity for me to have a place, because I didn’t understand how I fit in when it came to the shifting ground of my divorced family. There’s something about hearing your parents argue over who gets to take you on spring break that makes you feel like there’s no room in the conversation for your own anxieties.

Now, as a high school sophomore, I still struggle with the reality of my parents’ divorce. It’s not something that will ever completely dissipate, but it has become more familiar and grounded in its own way. I even have started to find comfort and feel pride in the routines I have mastered: the duffel bags I haul around and the rushed laundry cycles I’m always pushing through to make sure I have the right clothes to wear in the house where I’ll be. And I’m grateful that I can write about my life with my parents’ support.

I still envy my friends whose parents remained married. Loneliness and resentment can creep in during the holidays, but I have learned how to find joy in them too, grasping onto the new traditions my parents and I are creating, even if those traditions take place at separate times in separate places. I choose to appreciate the constants in my life: the way my mother pops her gum (which used to bother me), and my father’s obsession with Christmas lights — all the quirky things they do that make them who they are.

Losing something also allows you to make room for new people and traditions. I have learned to love my life even as I have accepted that this one major aspect of it will never change. And the new memories I’m able to make outweigh my desire to hold onto what was then.

I used to mourn that imaginary family member who went missing seven years ago, the presence that held our family together, the invisible person who linked us all. And I’ve since come to realize something — that person is me. I’m the link. I’m the biggest constant in our lives. I have been all along, and I’m glad I always will be.

Natalie Muñoz is a high school sophomore in California.

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Cómo hablar con tu familia sobre las enfermedades

Doctores

Tenemos que hablar. Ahora

Durante la pandemia de COVID-19, es fundamental conversar sobre los planes para el final de la vida antes de enfermar.

Credit…Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

  • 2 de marzo de 2021 a las 06:00 ET

Como médica de cuidados paliativos en la era de la COVID-19, conozco a muchas familias que enfrentan dificultades al tomar decisiones para sus seres queridos que se ponen demasiado enfermos, demasiado rápido, como para tomar sus propias decisiones de atención médica.

En una ocasión, el hijo de un paciente en estado crítico nos pidió que pospusiéramos las decisiones importantes sobre el cuidado de su padre hasta que hubiera mejorado lo suficiente como para poder participar en las conversaciones.

“No estoy seguro de lo que él querría”, dijo el hijo. “Nunca hemos hablado de ello”.

Es, sin duda, lo más común que escucho de las familias.

Ver al paciente día tras día, conectado a un respirador y a un sinfín de tubos y líneas, era como ver a un pasajero en un tren desbocado. Murió tras 17 días en cuidados intensivos, sin mejorar lo suficiente como para decirnos si el soporte vital prolongado que recibía era realmente aceptable para él, y mucho menos para despedirse de su familia.

Un estudio de la Kaiser Family Foundation informaba que solo el 56 por ciento de los estadounidenses adultos han tenido una conversación seria sobre sus preferencias en materia de atención de la salud, el 27 por ciento ha escrito sus preferencias y solo uno de cada diez las ha discutido con un proveedor de atención médica.

Muchas familias se sorprenden al descubrir que un testamento en vida estándar no proporciona orientación específica sobre las numerosas decisiones que deben tomarse cuando una persona está gravemente enferma y puede requerir soporte vital.

Lo más efectivo que los pacientes y las familias pueden hacer para tomar el control de su atención médica es el simple acto de pensar en lo que es más importante si se enferman gravemente e identificar a una persona en la que confían para que hable por ellos si no pueden hablar por sí mismos.

Ahora que estamos viviendo una pandemia, tener esta conversación se ha convertido en algo especialmente urgente, cuando los síntomas leves parecidos a una gripe pueden convertirse en una insuficiencia respiratoria potencialmente mortal en cuestión de horas.

Antes de la COVID-19, a menudo nos dábamos el lujo de tener tiempo para hablar sobre los valores y las prioridades de un paciente. La familia, las mascotas, estar en casa, la independencia y la fe encabezaban la lista de casi todos.

Algunos dicen que lo más importante es vivir el mayor tiempo posible. Otros opinan que lo más importante es la calidad de vida. Les preocupa sufrir sin motivo, convertirse en una carga o sobrevivir en un estado inaceptable.

Con la COVID-19, la ventana para mantener estas conversaciones suele cerrarse antes de que alguien se dé cuenta de que estaba abierta. Los pacientes hospitalizados no pueden recibir visitas y suelen estar demasiado enfermos como para comunicarse por teléfono. Una vez conectados a un respirador, la mayoría no puede comunicarse para nada.

Muchas familias que se ven abocadas a la toma de decisiones de emergencia suelen optar por los cuidados intensivos como la vía “más segura”, sin darse cuenta de los riesgos y las cargas que conlleva esta elección.

Veo que muchas familias ponen sus esperanzas en que un ventilador mantenga vivo a su ser querido. Los respiradores pueden salvar la vida. Pero también conllevan riesgos. Debido a que los datos son limitados y cambian rápidamente, el riesgo de morir por la COVID-19 una vez conectado a un respirador es un blanco en movimiento. Hasta ahora, los datos publicados en Estados Unidos sugieren que aproximadamente la mitad de los pacientes con respiradores no sobreviven a la enfermedad, y que las probabilidades de supervivencia disminuyen con la edad y las enfermedades crónicas existentes. La mayoría de los que sobreviven necesitan semanas o meses en un centro de enfermería especializado. Los pacientes que se recuperan pueden tener dificultades con la pérdida de memoria, el trastorno de estrés postraumático y actividades rutinarias como caminar y comer. Muchos nunca recuperarán su calidad de vida anterior.

Sabiendo lo imprevisible que es el comportamiento de la covid, te insto a que designes a alguien como responsable de la toma de decisiones. Habla ahora con esa persona sobre lo que más importa si enfermas gravemente y lo que consideras esencial para una calidad de vida aceptable.

Llámalo “la conversación”. La conversación puede resultar incómoda al principio. No hay una respuesta única para todos. Pero debes saber que tener “la conversación” significa que si hay que tomar decisiones difíciles en tu nombre, estas reflejarán tus deseos.

El objetivo de “la conversación” es concretar lo que más importa, porque la “calidad de vida” significa algo diferente para cada persona.

Un hombre de 87 años con una enfermedad pulmonar dijo que el único resultado razonable para él era poder seguir viviendo de forma independiente en su terreno de una hectárea y cortar su propia leña.

Una madre de 36 años con cáncer dijo que mientras pudiera sentir los cuerpecitos de sus hijos contra ella, esa vida valía la pena.

Después de nuestro primer grupo de casos de covid, a principios de marzo, llamé a mi madre, una trabajadora social jubilada de California. Siempre había tenido claros sus deseos, pero comprobarlo me pareció una buena idea.

Platicamos sobre dónde compraba la comida, cómo le iba a sus amigos y qué programas de televisión veía.

“Bueno”, le dije finalmente, “¿qué piensas de la COVID-19?”.

“He estado preocupada”, dijo. “Nunca he querido un respirador, pero tal vez me ayudaría si me da COVID-19”.

“Esto es difícil”, dije. “¿Qué es lo más importante para ti si te pones muy enferma?”.

Habló de la familia, de la independencia, de vivir en casa y no en un asilo, y de evitar el dolor. Lo que más le preocupaba era cómo sería su vida si sobrevivía tras un soporte vital prolongado.

Hablamos con sinceridad sobre los respiradores y la COVID-19. Decidió que sus deseos anteriores no cambiaban.

“Ahora me siento mejor”, dijo.

Y yo también me sentí así.

Consejos para tener ‘la conversación’

“La conversación” puede ser incómoda. Estos son algunos consejos que te ayudarán o ayudarán a tus familiares a pensar en lo que tú o ellos desean:

  • ¿Quién es tu sustituto en la toma de decisiones? Si no has asignado un “poder notarial duradero para la atención a la salud”, este recae en tu pariente más cercano. En el estado de Washington, por ejemplo, tu pariente más cercano legal es tu cónyuge o pareja de hecho registrada en el estado, luego los hijos mayores de 18 años, luego los padres y luego los hermanos. En la mayoría de los estados, los poderes sobre los cuidados médicos deben ser notariados o atestiguados por dos personas que no tengan relación contigo.

  • ¿Has redactado un testamento en vida? ¿Refleja tus deseos? ¿Quién tiene una copia?

  • Habla con la persona que tomará en tu lugar las decisiones sobre tus deseos. Comparte con ella lo que es más importante para ti, por ejemplo: estar en casa, estar con la familia, vivir el mayor tiempo posible, poder despedirte.
    Honoring Choices Pacific Northwest y el Conversation Project ofrecen guías útiles para iniciar estas conversaciones y documentarlas.

Laura Schellenberg Johnson es médica de cuidados paliativos y de medicina interna y ejerce en EvergreenHealth en Kirkland, Washington.


Diagnosing Autism in the Pandemic

The Checkup

Diagnosing Autism in the Pandemic

Autism spectrum disorder is often suspected when young children stand out as being different from their peers. That can be much harder in this isolated time.

Credit…Yifan Wu

  • March 1, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

We talk often in pediatrics about the importance of early identification and early treatment of autism spectrum disorder, with its hallmark issues of social communication problems and restricted repetitive behavior patterns. “Early” means paying particularly close attention to the behavior and development of children between ages 1 and 3, and checking in with their parents about any concerns.

But what does that mean for young children who have now spent half their lives — or more — in the special circumstances of the pandemic?

Dr. Heidi Feldman, a professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, “We don’t know what the impact of one year of very restricted social interaction is going to be on children.” Some of the behavior patterns that children are showing now may be the result of these strange living conditions, or they may reflect stress, trauma and the social isolation that many families have experienced, she said.

Dr. Feldman said that first-time parents who have been operating in the increased isolation of the pandemic may have very limited context for appreciating where their child’s behavior falls. They’re missing the input they might usually get from teachers and child care providers.

Dr. Eileen Costello, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, said, “Especially for the really little ones, the only eyes that are on them are their parents’. They’re not seeing uncles and aunts and cousins, not in preschool.”

Dr. Costello and I are co-authors of the book “Quirky Kids: Understanding and Supporting Your Child With Developmental Differences.” We use the word “quirky” to encompass children whose development does not follow standard patterns, whether or not they fit the criteria for a specific diagnosis. Some of these children will accumulate several different diagnoses as they grow and change — and as different demands are made on them in terms of academic performance and social life — and others will never fit the criteria for any specific formal diagnosis.

Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital and an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, said that because parents right now are at home more, sometimes they are more likely to notice unusual or concerning patterns — repetitive behaviors, or communications problems like echolalia, in which a child repeats words. This can be completely normal, and is in fact part of how children learn to talk, but it can be concerning if it’s the major part of a child’s language as the child grows. By the age of 2, children should be saying lots of their own words.

When parents — or teachers or doctors — do have concerns, getting a developmental assessment done has its own complexity in the pandemic.

Catherine Lord, a professor of psychiatry and education at the University of California, Los Angeles, said, “I’m doing diagnoses right now in my back yard, which is insane.” But with the protective gear that would have to be worn at the hospital, she said, “we look like we’re from outer space,” and could be too intimidating to small children.

Dr. Lord said. “We do remote interviews with parents, we try to see videos of the kid, then have them come — we have a big back yard.” And they continue to use the Zoom technology, even across the yard.

The standardized assessment for autism spectrum disorder can’t be done masked, because it depends on interpreting the child’s expressions and observing reactions to the examiner’s facial expressions. Dr. Lord said there is a shorter version that children can do with their parents — everyone unmasked — while the clinicians watch without being in the room. This may not be as accurate — researchers are still analyzing the data — but they are hopeful that it will be helpful in many cases.

“When we see kids in clinic, we have to be masked, and if they’re over 2, they have to be masked,” Dr. Feldman said. Earlier in the pandemic, a family that was convinced that their child had autism came to the clinic. “This kid had not seen anybody other than his parents and had not been anyplace other than his home — he was so terrified — the in-person visit was very, very hard.” They used a room with a one-way mirror, so the parents could be alone with the child, and could take their masks off, but “even with that, he had such a hard time settling down.”

Dr. Lord was the lead author on a review paper on autism spectrum disorder published in Nature Reviews in 2020. She emphasized the importance of early diagnosis so that children can get early help with communication: “Kids who are going to become fluent speakers, their language starts to change between 2 and 3, and 3 and 4, and 4 and 5,” Dr. Lord said. “We want to be sure we optimize what happens in those years and that’s very hard to do if people are stuck at home.”

She recommended that parents request the free assessments that can be done through early intervention, in many cases now being done remotely.

Developmental assessments can include remote visits. “We have gotten quite good at doing telehealth evaluations,” Dr. Feldman said. “We get the kids in their own environments and their own toys, we get to see what they do at home.”

“Sometimes making the diagnosis of autism over telehealth in a very young child is incredibly challenging,” Dr. Spinks-Franklin said. “Families that don’t have access to consistent reliable high-speed internet are also impacted — a video visit may not be possible or may be interrupted.”

Even before the pandemic, many families faced long waits to get those developmental assessments. “Those who are vulnerable already are always going to be more severely affected — families who already had more limited access to primary care providers or are underinsured or uninsured already had a harder time,” Dr. Spinks-Franklin said.

Now, she said, the pandemic is placing those families even more at risk, because of the likelihood of economic hardship from jobs loss, underemployment or lost health care benefits. The disparities are exacerbated, and the chance of getting to the right clinic and the right health care professional go down.

Right now, because families are isolated or may not have good access to medical care, neurodevelopmental problems may be being missed in these critical early years, when getting diagnosed would help children get therapy. On the other hand, some children who don’t have these underlying problems and are just reacting to the strange and often anxiety-provoking circumstances of pandemic life may mistakenly be thought to be showing signs of autism.

Parents and even doctors may worry about autism spectrum disorder in children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or anxiety, and who are being seen in unusual situations — in a parking lot, for example. “I’ve been undoing diagnoses,” Dr. Lord said. “It’s not surprising that a kid is looking a bit less relaxed.”

Dr. Spinks-Franklin said that the pressures of the pandemic may act on children as other stresses do, and show up as more extreme behavior, such as more frequent tantrums or increased irritability.

“All that bounces is not A.D.H.D.; all that flaps is not autism,” Dr. Spinks-Franklin said.

What Parents Can Do

To understand whether a child’s extreme behavior represents chronic stress and increased frustration related to the hardships that families are living through, or is a sign of a neurodevelopmental disorder, it’s important to figure out whether these behaviors were present before the pandemic, Dr. Spinks-Franklin said.

If parents have concerns about a child’s development or behavior, a good place to start is to talk the question through with the child’s primary care provider, who can also review the record with the parents and talk about the child’s early developmental course.

If parents still have concerns, it’s reasonable to request a referral for a full developmental assessment. Early intervention, a federally mandated program, offers help and therapy if a child seems to be significantly delayed in any developmental domain, but does not make diagnoses.

Some developmental markers reflect a child’s early progress with speech and language, and with social interactions. The following are adapted from “Quirky Kids.

  • A baby babbles by 6 months, and the babble increases in complexity

  • By 9 months, a baby responds to his or her name

  • By 15 to 18 months, a child can say some words and follow simple directions

  • By 18 months, a child can put two words together

  • By 2 ½ to 3, a child can speak in simple sentences with some fluency and inflection — a question sounds like a question

  • By 4 months, babies make eye contact and respond with social smiles

  • By 1 year, they can point to show interest, and wave goodbye

  • From about 2, they respond to other children and can interact in games with some back-and-forth

How Pandemic Isolation Affected an Alzheimer's Patient in a Nursing Home

Ties

The Loneliest Room, for My Sister in a Nursing Home

The pandemic has stolen away the chance to surround the sister we are losing to dementia with our love, so that she does not have to face death alone.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Feb. 26, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

When I saw my sister Peggy in her nursing home last June, she was sitting up in bed, leaning forward slightly and staring into the corner of her room. She was 67, and did not know who I was. It had been five months since my last trip to see her. That time, she was in a hospital psychiatric unit being re-evaluated for treatment for both bipolar disorder and Alzheimer’s disease. It had taken her a moment to recognize me then, but once she did she hugged me and kept up a stream of chatter as we walked laps around the floor.

But by our June visit, the only evidence that there was anything going on in her mind was the constant motion of her hands, drifting up from her lap to touch her face and then fluttering down again, like fledglings not quite able to fly.

I had been given special permission to see her because she had just suffered a pulmonary embolism and her hospice workers believed she was weeks, if not days, away from death. I flew from Milwaukee to Austin, and my other sister picked me up and drove me straight to the nursing home, where Peggy was recovering, having fought her way back to life, such as it was.

I rolled her wheelchair next to her bed and sat in it, quiet and still, hoping that she could feel my presence and that it was familiar and comforting to her. I held her hand. Taking deep breaths, I summoned all of my love for her. I tried to bring into the room every moment of the life we have shared as sisters. I felt my lungs expand and release what felt like a greedy abundance of good health, and I gave it to Peggy. Here is my health, here is my love, I prayed. Take it. I have too much.

While the nursing assistants came to change Peggy’s bedding, I talked to her treatment nurse in the hallway. When Peggy had arrived at this facility about two weeks earlier, she had bedsores on her heels and on her lower back. In Peggy’s room, her nurse changed her bandages, pointing out the wounds on her heels, which did not look too bad, but on her back, just above her tailbone, was a dinner-plate-size sore, yellowish and raw. “That has gotten so much better,” the nurse said, her finger air-tracing a circle that was about a third larger than the one I could see.

Both bedsores and pulmonary embolisms can be caused by lying in the same position for too long. No one accused her previous nursing home of neglect, but they made it clear that when she arrived, the sores were already there. They had developed over the first four months of the Covid shutdown when my sister, her primary advocate, was not allowed to visit.

Her bandages changed and her sheets fresh, Peggy was turned on her side. Her eyes were calm and as she drifted off to sleep, I could see that she knew who I was.

While she slept, I explored her room to see what remnants of her curious and acquisitive life had persisted into that institutional space. Her photo album was sticky, its pages crackling with age. I knew many of those photos. There she was as a bridesmaid, tall and deeply tanned, her blue eyes bright, holding the hand of our father, who did not live very long after that picture was taken. There were photos of us as the five sisters we once were, and one of Peggy, 10 years older than me, standing in as surrogate mother at my high school graduation. There was a photo of the boyfriend who followed her to the ends of the earth but to whom she was not able to commit. There are photos from our house in New Jersey, of nieces and nephews, leafy patios and swimming pools, and Peggy on her skis.

They were from a life that none of us live anymore and they ended around 2005, when my mother sold her house and moved into assisted living, leaving Peggy, for the first time in her life, without a place to land. Her bipolar disease, which she struggled to manage, began to eat away at the life she’d built for herself before Alzheimer’s came to finish the job.

In the last hour of my visit on that June day, Peggy woke from her nap and wanted to talk. I held her hand and she stared at it as if it was not attached to her body, as if I had brought some strange little animal to her bed and was showing it to her. She mumbled phrases, the beginnings of sentences, and I offered endings. She watched me fish for meaning and then sighed, resigned but not unhappy, and we tried again. In this way we chatted like sisters until it was time for me to go.

This touch, the connection to family members, is crucial to the health of Alzheimer’s patients. Before my visit, it had been four months since anyone was able to visit Peggy. After this visit, it would be another four months before the nursing home eased its Covid-related restrictions and my sister was allowed to visit again. During that time, we called her, but she was losing her ability to speak. I sent pop-up greeting cards in the hopes that they would interest her.

Without anyone there to bring her back to this moment in time, Peggy has begun to fade. We were once five sisters. We are already down to four, and when Peggy goes, if she is next, we will be just three. With the loss of each sister go her special memories of us and ours of her. Our life together as sisters, as children of our parents, is known by fewer people and when they are gone, we are no longer completely knowable. When I lose the person who can help me burnish the memories of our lives together, I begin to lose those memories myself. The mirror of my past grows dark.

When the Covid restrictions were lifted, Peggy got a roommate — a former Head Start teacher who has been teaching Peggy to say thank you to her caregivers instead of yelling at them and calling them names.

And then recently, just days after Peggy got the first of her Covid vaccines, she, like many people with dementia, tested positive for the virus. She did not have symptoms, but she was moved to isolation, again alone without the familiar voice of her roommate or the touch of my sister that were both vital to keeping her connected to this world.

We were lucky that Peggy got the vaccine before she got infected. Her life may have been saved. But what the pandemic has taken from me and my sisters is our precious time together, time in which we could still share our lives, time in which we could continue as sisters, time to surround the sister we are losing with our love so that she does not have to face death alone.

Without us to remind Peggy of who she is, she has slipped away from us. The millions of moments that connected us to each other recede into a fog of time, their edges blurring together and disappearing like shadows in a darkening room. Without us there to say her name, to touch her hand, she is in that room alone.

Susan Nusser is an author and freelance writer who lives in Milwaukee where she teaches writing at a technical college.

What My Father’s Covid Survival Taught Me About Security

Ties

What My Father’s Covid Survival Taught Me About Security

He’s a security guard. I work in nuclear security. The pandemic swept away my sense that we can really protect the ones we love from anything.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Feb. 19, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

My father protects for a living, but he is invisible by design. For more than two decades, he watched the halls of a shopping plaza in Koreatown in Los Angeles as a security guard. Three stories of salmon-colored walls with a signature glass skylight, the plaza is a community landmark for Korean immigrants who weathered financial uncertainty, language barriers and other trials that come with forging new ground in a foreign place. In 1997, my father went there looking for a job. Our family had just arrived from the Philippines, and he needed to anchor our landing with steady income. An electrician with no history of security work, he was hired on the spot. Over time, he found meaning in keeping his new life, his family and his shopping plaza secure.

As a child, I enjoyed walks around the plaza to look at foreign goods that gave me a sense of home: copper bowls that can hold an ocean of stew, K-pop tunes on imported speakers, red bean pastries plump as clouds. Most of all, I loved watching my father during his patrols. It was a rare glimpse into his full expression of self, temporarily untethered from fatherhood. He chased shoplifters a few times a year. Once, he rescued a store owner who suffered a concussion after a faulty metal grate dropped on him while closing his stall. My father played peacemaker, moderating business rivalries he barely understood. But as he grew into his job, it made him small. He hardly made minimum wage. Shoppers walked past him, unaffected by his presence. As I grew older, it pained me to see him treated as a silhouette of himself, faceless.

Like him, I took on a profession preoccupied with security, but a vast gulf divided his work and mine. I researched one of the most violent forms of destruction invented by human hands: nuclear weapons. I armed myself with the power of speech and text — books, policy memos, and conferences to persuade governments to secure nuclear facilities and pursue arms control. I imagined my work helping prevent a hypothetical terrorist from building a dirty bomb or an erratic politician threatening nuclear war. Security became an intricate patchwork of policies and diplomatic agreements that, theoretically, would save everybody from nuclear annihilation. “Everybody” is vaguely defined, but it sounds impressive.

I sensed my father’s pride in my career, but we lacked the language to express the depth of our working lives. Through the years we stayed silent, convinced that if we spoke, we would talk past each other. It did not occur to me to connect what I do with my father’s work, or him to mine.

Then, the pandemic wiped away how to protect anyone from anything. The map of Covid cases in Koreatown bloomed like spilled ink on paper. The virus attacked households with family members working in the service industry, the lifeblood of the neighborhood. My father and his fellow guards, cleaners and shopkeepers tasked to keep essential services open in the plaza were given reduced hours as the city settled into quarantine. He counted himself lucky for receiving full-time pay even with a shortened shift. But in April 2020 — just a few days into this new schedule and four months shy of his 70th birthday — he was lying on his stomach with wires crisscrossed over his body that plugged into a ventilator.

In my head, I traced the different paths this illness would drag my family through, all leading to dead-ends that have played out in hospitals all over the world. I jumped to the worst-case scenario because this is what thinking about nuclear war trained me to do. But as much as I know about catastrophes, I was ill-prepared for this. With Covid, death didn’t barrel through like a radioactive fireball, but crept stealthily under the folds of daily life.

This virus threw social roles into disarray. Now, the new battlefront runs along the supply chain; its footsoldiers take the form of farmers in agricultural zones or grocery store owners unprepared to confront an ill-tempered customer who refuses to wear a mask. Workers like my father became celebrated heroes and called “essential,” while citizens grew wary of “intellectual elites” like me and governing bodies that could not protect them from a real, immediate threat. In this new world, my father and I swapped places. Yet this version of living does not feel any more just or secure.

Security can take the form of fortress, bunker, asylum — spaces that separate the vulnerable from harm’s way. Nuclear weapons offer a different kind of security by doubling down on the danger, a willingness to destroy and be destroyed, to prevent an enemy attack. The military calls this “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD for short. Under MAD, there is no shelter; everyone is vulnerable, protected only by an assumption that no one will dare launch their missiles first. As my father’s health declined, I thought about how MAD the world is now; behind all the well-meaning gestures to honor frontline workers like him, there is the willingness to endanger their lives to keep commerce flowing. A willingness to destroy and be destroyed for a sense of normalcy.

My father survived. He returned home with sagging shoulders and a withered face but functioning lungs, every heave of his breath an act of defiance. He now awaits his second vaccine dose and talks openly about resuming work once the virus is “controlled,” although no one knows what control looks like. The virus seems to recede in Koreatown, but it stalks the trail of inequity that encircles the city, finding more low-income communities to destroy. Time folds and begins again.

For now, my father patrols the family garden and tends a makeshift pumpkin patch, its yellow blossoms draping over the backyard fence. He cooks Filipino dishes, pulling recipes from childhood memories, relying on taste and intuition to get it right. He takes my mother for morning walks around the neighborhood block, on guard after seeing reports of strangers attacking Asian-American elders. He shares these vignettes during our daily video call, always careful to say that life goes on, and he is doing fine. But I can tell he is not the same. I sometimes catch grief on his face, an unfocused gaze to a place I cannot see. He is a foreigner in his new life at home.

I am also not the same. As I try to re-establish the rhythm of work in this new year under a new administration, I hold my father’s survival close to heart. To be in the business of protecting the world demands appreciation of every single life. The word “everybody” is empty unless it is filled with human value, like the work-hardened faces of Black and brown people who remind me of my father. Or the essential workers performing the gloss of normal routine to survive this perilous time.

But as more people regain confidence and dare cross the line of security to venture outdoors, I worry that the glory of essential work will fade until the people carrying the heaviest burdens become what they were before: invisible.

In a strange way, Covid brought my family closer together. For most of my life I did not spend time with my father, but now I see him everyday making funny faces at me through our video calls. He declares his daily oximeter readings as normal, although a dull tiredness still sits inside him. Then, we daydream about all the Korean foods our family have come to love because of the shopping plaza my father guarded for decades: glass noodles, fish cakes, yuja tea. My mother’s face appears on the screen as she leans against my father’s shoulder. They ask me how work is going, and try to talk about the latest nuclear-related headline they saw in the news.

As I listen, I also daydream about a different world, where the invisible survive everything. A world worthy of building and protecting.

Lovely Umayam is a writer, creative producer and nuclear nonproliferation expert based in Los Angeles.

This Valentine’s Day, Take Love Lessons From the Astronauts

This Valentine’s Day, Take Love Lessons From the Astronauts

Accept your ‘full reality,’ keep little rituals alive and remember you’re still — yes, still — in it together.

Credit…Nicolás Ortega
Jancee Dunn

  • Feb. 12, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Normally I like Valentine’s Day. Some people knock it, but what’s not to like about a heart-shaped declaration of love — or flowers and candy, for that matter? But as my husband and I near the 12th monotonous month in lockdown with our remote-schooling daughter, we’re just not feeling amorous.

With the pandemic’s end at least potentially on the horizon, we’re finding the homestretch difficult. Tempers are frayed. Skirmishes erupt over who took the last brownie, or who gets the cat as a lap-warmer while we watch TV. The bathroom has become prime real estate in which to hide from the rest of our little family. We’re grateful to be healthy, but the tedium is causing our marriage to crack.

So it occurred to me — who better to offer advice on how to keep relationships intact than those forced to live with a few others under extreme and isolating conditions?

“If we were only in lockdown for a couple of months, we’d all be fine,” said Jane Poynter, who spent two years as one of eight crew members in Biosphere 2, the enclosed ecological system in Oracle, Ariz. “But it turns out that when you hit between four and six months, you get into what’s called ‘long duration isolation,’ when people start acting out.”

Chris Hadfield, a retired astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency and author of the upcoming suspense novel “The Apollo Murders,” lived in space for half a year. One of the best coping mechanisms he developed was to accept the “full reality” of his circumstances. “Recognize that this isn’t a timeout in your life, and this isn’t an interruption or an imposition on your life. This is your life,” he said.

But even under such radically changed conditions, rituals from before the pandemic have their place. L. David Marquet, a retired commander of the submarine U.S.S. Santa Fe, once spent 87 days underwater. “It’s a weird combination of isolation and close proximity of individuals in your space, and you never see the sun,” he said. “It’s depressing, like Norway in winter.”

He said that rituals like Valentine’s Day were crucial for buoying morale in close quarters. “On the submarine, we did the best we could to replicate holidays,” he said. “It kept us grounded in the rhythms of the year and the rhythms of life, and this idea that it’s not as abrupt a break from the past as it might seem. We put decorations up.”

If the crew went out from January to June, families would prepare Valentine’s Day cards in December, which were kept in a sealed box and opened on the day. “The sense of ritual is important for human beings, and that applies to the pandemic, too,” he said.

Respecting each other’s space was similarly critical. “On the submarine, bunks were about six feet long, two feet wide,” Cmdr. Marquet said. “And they had a curtain, so when you pulled that curtain, that signaled it was your private space, and we were very respectful of that space and time. Only in the most dire emergencies would you pull the curtain back.” He suggested establishing a firm household rule that if someone is pulling back their figurative curtain for a little private time, even in a small apartment where others can see you, refrain from interrupting.

Humor and perspective were similarly useful below the water. “We’d say things like, ‘Life sucks, but at least the ocean’s not coming into the submarine,’ and we’d laugh,” he said. “Sailors have dark humor, but it helped.”

One informal rule to maintain comity on the sub was to “assume good intent,” Cmdr. Marquet said. “If we bumped into each other on the submarine, we’d just say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry.’” If someone is sharp with you, he suggested not jumping to conclusions. Start by assuming they respect you. Consider that their behavior might be the result of environmental stressors, “which now could be day after day being at home on Zoom calls.”

Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut who went on two space shuttle missions, said routine was vital to boost spirits. “Having a regular schedule was very important to us in space,” he said. “When there’s nothing on the schedule, your mind starts wandering.”

To maintain harmony, Mr. Massimino added, clean up after yourself. “In space, if someone’s untidy it could go south quickly.” (Plus, everything floats.)

While routine was important for a sense of normalcy, Ms. Poynter, the “Biospherian,” added: “Every now and then, we found we needed to go a little wild in a positive way, and create an event that pops up out of the background noise of everyday living.” In the Biosphere — remember, this was back in the early ’90s — it was really different and exciting for us to get on the phone and jam music with people around the world.”

Creating different environments within Biosphere 2’s living space was also helpful, she said, pointing out that during the pandemic, we effectively have one setting. In your home, you need to create different types of experiences “so it’s not all this gigantic mush.” Getting on a video call with co-workers, Ms. Poynter said, counts as a different experience, or going for a walk outside with people who aren’t on lockdown with you, even if it’s cold.

Jeffrey Donenfeld, an investment manager who spent three months in Antarctica working as a cook at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, told me what made his time in the remote location bearable. “What got us through was that we all had a mission, that we were all in it together,” he said. “And that’s something I’ve tried to reiterate with my wife and family now, like, ‘We’re having tough times, let’s just stick together and stay safe, and we will get through this.’”

Inspired by this message of maintaining the semblance of normality during abnormal times — and haunted by the vision of lonely submarine sailors opening valentines — my husband, Tom, and I, ensconced in our remote location at home, have decided that since we have celebrated Valentine’s Day in the past, we are going to maintain our little celebratory rituals — chocolates and handwritten notes. After all, even astronaut Chris Hadfield made it a point to have flowers sent to his wife, Helene, on Valentine’s Day — while he was on a months-long mission on the International Space Station.

I asked him if he had arranged the delivery before he left.

“No,” he said. “I called the shop from space.”


Jancee Dunn is the author of “How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids.”

At a Heavy Metal Concert, Balancing Independence With Boundaries

Ties

At a Heavy Metal Concert, Balancing Independence With Boundaries

My mother, a freewheeling feminist, gave me freedom, while her mother gave me a nest of safety. Both shaped how I’m raising my own daughter.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Feb. 5, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

A cloud of marijuana smoke drifted by as my 13-year-old daughter asked, “Mom, can I walk around and meet people?” We were standing in an outdoor line for Warped Tour, a music festival with acts typically described as “pop punk” or “metalcore.” That is, hardcore heavy metal. Men in ghoulish masks playing electric guitars and growling lyrics about the devil.

It was 2018, long before the pandemic brought us the concept of social distance. Festivals like this one involved spending hours in extremely close range of other people’s breath and sweat as they screamed along with the bands. My daughter loved this music. I did not. I have no idea where she picked up a taste for it. All I knew was that she wouldn’t hold my hand anymore — she was too old for that, she said. She still had her blonde hair, but in a few months, she would dye it deep red and start adorning the corners of her eyes with eyeliner “wings.” She’s a smart kid — and even though she’s her own person, she’s also at the point in her development where it’s normal for her to “follow the crowd,” which scares me a little.

She asked me again if she could go explore. I said no. She asked me why, just as a car drove by with a shirtless woman hanging out of the sunroof screaming, “Unleash the beast!”

“I need to get inside and get my bearings before I feel safe enough for you to walk around on your own,” I told her.

“I know, but still!” she pleaded.

How many parents parent the way they were parented? Probably a fair number. Many of us also deliberately push back against what our parents did. I do both, perhaps because I was raised by two women — my mother and grandmother — who had very different parenting styles.

My mother, elated with the freedom of her fresh divorce, wanted to make me strong and independent, an adult before my time. Her mother, the martyr, shielded me from the world by giving me a nest of comfort and safety. Which parenting philosophy would inform how I raised my newly teenage daughter?

My own preteen years were intense. On my 10th birthday, my mother, whom I called “Mama,” gave me a private birthday celebration. She’d started her period at 10, so she expected mine any day. She told me that as soon as I started bleeding, I’d go on the pill. She’d had the traumatic experience of getting pregnant as a teenager, and then being whisked away by her mother to a town where no one knew them, giving birth and putting the baby up for adoption with Catholic charities. She’d insisted that the pill would give me freedom.

Not only was Mama my mother, she was also my best friend. I felt fortunate to be positioned as her confidante, even though that meant, according to her, that I was “too old” to hold her hand in public. In the months leading up to my 10th birthday, I heard all about her newfound dating life. This included a one-night stand with a 19-year-old bartender. Since she was 36 and he 19, she said, “we were both at our sexual primes.”

On my birthday, Mama served pink champagne and she-crabs — the egg-bearing females — and dared me to eat the roe. She played Helen Reddy’s “You and Me Against the World,” and when Helen sang “when one of us is gone / and one of us is left to carry on,” we cried in each other’s arms. I felt aching nausea at the fear of losing my mother; it started in my stomach and spread up across my chest.

When my period finally came, I was 13, but by then Mama no longer needed my friendship and confidences; she’d met the man who would become my stepfather. I became part of the wallpaper. Mama moved miles away to their new house. And I moved in with my grandmother and started drinking.

When Mama was 13, Grandma had left her with her mother for nearly a year so that she could try to find her husband who had run off with another woman.

By the time Grandma was 80, she was ready to make up for how she’d abandoned my mother, by providing the safest, warmest, most loving home possible for me. I hid my drinking as best I could, so I wouldn’t disappoint her. That limitation most likely saved my life, because I was, shall we say, wild.

Grandma doted on me. As soon as I got out of my bed, she’d make it. She woke up at 3 every morning to do my laundry, press my clothes for school, and make my meals. Living through the Depression made her a workhorse for ensuring everyone was properly clothed and fed. She was the opposite of my mother, who’d insisted that I cook for the family and do the dishes, but didn’t care if I made my bed or not. In return for everything she did for me, however, Grandma made sure I knew it: She’d show me the bones visible through the soles of her feet after she’d stood on them all day. I hated when she did that, almost as much as she hated it when I unmade my bed right after she made it, just to spite her.

By the time my daughter and I squeezed into the festival, pulsating with bass and throngs of leather- and spike-clad metal fans, my wild days were long gone. This was her heaven and my hell, but I was happy she had found something she felt passionate about. My wife and I have tried to bring our daughter up in such a way that she knows she is loved, and that we are happy when she is happy.

As we made our way toward our eventual meeting spot, I surveyed the landscape of the three stages and thought about what kind of parent I wanted to be. Should I nurture her independence to ensure she can survive this often-cruel world, or should I protect her for as long as I can to show her that I am always there? The truth is that although my mother was selfish and irresponsible, she cared that I would grow up to take care of myself, and I have. And although my grandmother martyred herself with her overabundance of attention and selflessness, she cared that I would be safe in the world, and I am. My parenting can be informed by both of my “mothers.” I can nurture my daughter’s independence and give her boundaries to make sure she is safe.

“Can I go now?” she asked impatiently.

I looked into her eyes. “Yes,” I replied. I’ll be right here.

I found the “parent tent,” also known as “reverse day care” — a cool, comfortable lounge perched atop a hill with a vantage point that allowed me to see all three of the stages, with the audience pumping heads and tattooed fists to the various screaming guitars. I was afraid. I wanted her to hold my hand. I wanted her to need me. But I reveled in her sense of freedom. The joy of her budding independence rippled through my heart and cracked it wide open. At one point, I caught a glimpse of her running through the crowd to make it to the next show. She was smiling and laughing. “There’s my daughter,” I told the mom next to me.

“They grow up so fast,” she said.

“I know,” I said. But still.

Susannah Bell is a teacher and writer who lives with her wife and teenage daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Am I Too Old to Keep the Bargain With My Kids?

Ties

Am I Too Old to Keep the Bargain With My Kids?

As an older parent of young children, I feel that I am holding a big secret — my own mortality.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Jan. 29, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

“I’m rea—dy!” At 2:45 a.m., our 3-year-old, Nathaniel, yells out like an excited rooster heralding the day. My wife, Lisa, and I take turns attending to these middle-of-the-night greetings. Tonight, it’s my turn.

As my 56-year-old body oozes out of bed and stumbles to the kids’ bedroom, I step on a Lego brick that has been lying in wait like a spiny crustacean. A searing pain rips through my right foot.

Cheerful Nathaniel again yells, “I’m rea—dy!” By this time, Nathaniel’s 6-year-old brother, Theo, is awake. As I finally arrive, limping and in pain, both boys welcome me through the darkness with, “Oh, hi Dad!”

It’s a perfect storm. Both kids are awake, it’s the middle of the night, and my dented Lego foot is throbbing. All I can think at this moment is, “Am I too old for this?”

I get them back into their beds, and collapse onto a lumpy red bean bag to “stay for a few minutes,” as Nathaniel requests. At this point, I will do anything to get them back to sleep.

All of this is a labor of love, of course. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here, making sure that these kids feel safe — even at 2:45 a.m. Most of all, I want them to be reassured that I will be there when they need me.

But as I stare at the ceiling, the anxiety starts to build. Sure, I’m here now, but what about 15 years from now when one calls me at 2:45 a.m. despondent after a bad breakup, or 25 years from now after getting laid off from a dream job?

This night, like dozens before it, I feel the tug of haunting questions: Will I be there for them when they need me? Can I keep my side of the bargain even as I head into the carnival fun house of aging?

Lisa and I met a few years after my first marriage ended. At the time, I was in the midst of raising my two young children, Hana and Noah, in shared custody with their mom. I grew to love being a dad because of these two beautiful kids. And with Lisa 14 years younger than me, I was excited that we would have the chance for more kids together. We decided to wait a few years as Hana and Noah grew up and we established our blended family.

Less than a month after my 50th birthday, my second wave of parenthood began. Theo was born. And three years after that, Nathaniel arrived. In no time, we were a family of six. The brain-numbing, body-punishing months of middle-of-the-night infant wake-up calls arrived too. I quickly realized that I no longer felt like the 35-year-old energetic dad I once was. This was different.

I have run the numbers in my mind over and over again. I will be 71 when Nathaniel graduates from high school, and approaching my 80s when he starts to settle into his adult life. And then?

When I was growing up, my mom would tell us about older friends in their 50s (and beyond) who had passed away, saying that they had “dropped dead.” In my kid mind, the visual of someone suddenly falling to the floor dead, or shockingly sprawled over some potted plant in an office lobby, was horrifying. It stuck with me.

And now in my mid-50s, I am surely knee-deep in the “drop dead” zone.

Believe me, I am preparing for the long haul. I exercise regularly and eat a heathful diet. I have even run three marathons. I also continue the self-work of clearing my head of the triggers and boogeymen that have tied me up in knots over the years.

But this night, as the lumpy red bean bag starts to swallow me up like quicksand, and the clock approaches 3:30 a.m., I’m tired. Nathaniel and Theo have finally fallen back to sleep. I can go.

I get on my hands and knees to begin the stealth crawl out of their room, a technique that has taken me 25 years and four children to perfect. Nathaniel stirs and says, groggily, “Dad! Stay for a few minutes.” I’ve been caught.

I stroke his soft, post-toddler hair and whisper, “What does Daddy say to you?” He answers, “I love you.”

It’s a well-rehearsed routine we practiced when I dropped him at preschool. I created similar rituals with Hana, Noah and Theo. Wherever they were, I wanted them to know I was right there with them.

I tell Nathaniel that I have to go back to bed. He sleepily and slowly explains, “Dad, you love me. You love me, Dad.” He drifts back to sleep.

As I make it out into the dark hallway, Nathaniel’s words glow like dancing fireflies in my heart.

The ritual carries an echo of my mom’s last day of life, now almost a decade ago. In her 80s and succumbing to cancer, she had fallen into a deep coma and was near death.

Mom had always been there for me. While my dad often set conditions on our relationship (Did I go to the right college? Did I pursue the right career? Was I making enough money?), my mom never did. She stuck with me through all of my choices — some OK, some great, some disastrous. She had the intuition to know that providing the safety of her love and support would allow me to find my own way and grow.

As she struggled to breathe, I stroked her soft, gray hair. She seemed to be laboring to hang on. I leaned in to speak to her directly for what would be the last time, whispering, “It’s OK, Mom. We will all be OK. You have done so much. You can let go. Your love will always be right here with me. I love you.”

Now, climbing back into my bed, I imagine the strong, brightly colored thread of her love woven through my exchange with Nathaniel. It feels like a sacred filament, one that travels from her heart, through mine and to all of my kids, connecting us in a radiant circle that sits above space and time.

Yes, I will try my best to keep going, supporting these kids through the many challenges and joys of their lives. But my most important job will be to strengthen and reinforce this thread, weaving it deeply into their souls on a daily basis so that they can grab onto it like a lifeline at any moment, even when I am not here.

I wake up a few hours later, stressing about a Zoom work call just an hour away. Nathaniel and Theo suddenly burst into my room and jump on the bed. “Hi, Dad!” Of course, one of them lands on my still-dented Lego foot. Another shot of pain.

But it’s also a beautiful reminder: I am still alive.

Matthew Stodder is a writer, business and personal coach, and father of four. He lives in the Los Angeles area.

There’s No Easy Fix for Children’s Weight Gain

The Checkup

There’s No Easy Fix for Children’s Weight Gain

Experts advise families to avoid blaming themselves and to look for opportunities to congratulate children for healthy behaviors and good decisions.

Credit…Simone Noronha

  • Jan. 25, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Even when we’re not in the middle of a terrible pandemic, there are a great many tensions around what to say and do at pediatric visits when a child’s weight is increasing too quickly.

There’s the issue of self-image and fat stigma; some people remember forever the moment when a doctor first called their weight a problem, ripping the child out of the happy innocence of feeling comfortable in his or her body.

The pandemic has raised worries about children’s weight gain, perhaps exacerbated by the absence of school, not to mention sports and other activities that used to give structure to the day and mark off some no-eating zones. Economic hardships and curtailed grocery shopping may be limiting some families’ ability to make healthy food choices.

“Parents should allow themselves some grace,” said Dr. Eliana Perrin, professor of pediatrics and director of the Duke Center for Childhood Obesity Research. “Families are having a tough time, kids are having a tough time, there’s increased food insecurity, people have lost their jobs, kids may have lost school meals.”

Dr. Sandy Hassink, a pediatrician who devoted her career to taking care of children with obesity and now works with the American Academy of Pediatrics at the Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight, and who worked on the academy’s interim guidance on obesity, said, “Even in pre-Covid times, I noticed as a clinician that nutrition and activity tend to go out the window in a time of stress.”

[Click here for the recent A.A.P. statement on healthy nutrition and physical activity during the pandemic, and here for its statement on obesity management during the pandemic.]

There are so many factors that have made it more difficult for families to maintain a healthy lifestyle during the pandemic, Dr. Hassink said, from increased sedentary time and screen time to the increased snacking and dysregulated sleep which sometimes come with being at home. Families may have less access to fresh food, she said, and then, of course, there’s stress eating.

Pediatricians often find themselves struggling to find the right balance in what to say to a family in these situations. Somehow, in those fraught moments in the exam room, real or virtual, you have to find words to acknowledge the complexity of the problem but also, most pediatricians feel, to recognize that parents do have some power and some agency, and to offer them hope and encouragement for making at least small adjustments to help the family establish healthier patterns.

Dr. Perrin and her colleagues at Duke pediatrics collected a set of suggestions for families, but before they got to the specifics of dietary change, increased activity, screen time and sleep, they started with a category they called “Survival,” advising families to pay attention to “mind, heart, body, spirit,” to avoid blaming themselves, to look for opportunities to congratulate their children for healthy behaviors and good decisions.

“Forget what ‘needs’ to get done for physical activity goals and ‘perfect’ meal goals,” Dr. Perrin wrote. “Do their best to eat at home and just ‘show up’ every day in terms of physical activity.” Specific suggestions around food include involving children in the cooking, and using the government MyPlate site to plan healthy meals on a budget. For physical activity, find some way to get moving, even a little, every day.

“As always, try to focus on behaviors, not weight,” Dr. Perrin wrote. “What’s important is making sure families are eating as well as they can — whole grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables, drinking water — rather than a ton of fast foods or sugar-sweetened beverages, and making sure they are staying active.”

Among the harshest lessons of this terrible pandemic year has been how health disparities play out across the life course, as we’ve watched higher death and disease rates in Black and brown communities. There are many issues to tackle here in terms of health equity, but for children growing up in at-risk populations, childhood obesity is yet another serious health disparity, linked to some of the underlying conditions that put people at higher risk for severe Covid-19 disease.

These disparities require complex systemic fixes — from access to healthy food, to safe places for outdoor activity, to improved mental health services, to other supports that can reduce stress on families. Instead, parents and children often encounter blame and stigma.

“Obesity itself as a disease presents a risk for more severe Covid infection,” Dr. Hassink said. “If I substituted the word asthma for obesity, people would not be blaming people for having asthma, they would be saying, let’s make sure your environment doesn’t have allergens, let’s make sure you get the right meds, the right medical care, but not blaming the child.”

Dr. Michelle White, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke, is a health services researcher who studies what might be protective for families at high risk of obesity, looking at environmental and family factors, including the ways that neighborhoods can contribute to obesity risks — or solutions. “Some families reporting significant impact by Covid-19 are still able to demonstrate resilience to stress and behaviors such as physical activity and healthy diet,” she said. “I think we have a lot to learn from these families.”

Dr. White said it was important not to view pandemic weight gain as a product only of diet and exercise behaviors. “The social context and the physical context of our families is so incredibly important in terms of their risk of weight gain,” she said.

My colleague Dr. Mary Jo Messito, who directs the pediatric weight management program at N.Y.U. School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital, said, “My patients are suffering terribly.” They face many barriers to exercise because of fears of being exposed to Covid, she said, and also food insecurity and a very high level of stress. “So many people don’t meet their goals because they have unaddressed mental health needs,” Dr. Messito said, pointing to the need for more mental health resources for low-income communities.

“I work to try to give people resources where they are,” she said, offering handouts and information about healthy food for people on limited budgets, but acknowledging, “it’s not going to compete with fast food for calories for dollar.” She recommends in-home exercise programs or talks about how to mask up and go outside safely, and she talks about avoiding sugary drinks.

Dr. Elsie Taveras, a professor of nutrition in the department of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the chief of general pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that the challenge ahead will be to find ways to “go beyond surface counseling,” to help families find ways to turn this around, perhaps looking for help from experts in mental and behavioral health. Doctors will need to think about the dual burden of weight gain combined with the social risks brought on by the pandemic.

“If a patient with obesity comes in for a visit and I also know the family is living in a motel or they’re food insecure,” she said, “I need to adapt my plan to circumstances rather than say, ‘increase fruits and vegetables.’”

Pandemic weight gain is a problem for adults as well as children, Dr. Taveras said. “We’re home more, have more access to our beds, our refrigerators, our screens, we are experiencing extreme stress and uncertainty, and food and rest are things people turn to for comfort.”

“It’s important for people to have self-compassion here,” Dr. Hassink said. And it’s overwhelming to tackle all of this at once. “Maybe we should be helping people pick one thing they think they could change to make it healthier, strategize about how they might make progress on one thing.”

A parent might try to keep healthier food in the house, thereby eliminating all the individual decisions that have to be made “when your child starts to grab for that unhealthy snack.”

Maybe start by setting a time for a particular meal, she said. Maybe make a deal with a child to stand up and walk around the house for five minutes for every so much screen time.

“Take it one thing at a time that you might want to change, get help from your pediatrician about what resources might be available in your community for food and physical activity, and don’t beat yourself up,” Dr. Hassink said. “Take one small step and then be encouraged to take the next step.”

When Grandparents Want a Say in Naming Their Grandchildren

Generation Grandparent

When Grandparents Want a Say in Naming Their Grandchildren

The expectant parents spend weeks deciding on their new baby’s name. Then the grandparents weigh in.

Credit…Luke Wohlgemuth

  • Jan. 19, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Rachel Templeton felt honored when her father-in-law invited her out to dinner on Long Island, just six weeks after the birth of her first child. Expecting a celebratory event, she dressed with care for what would be her first real postpartum outing.

The restaurant was lovely, but “the light banter quickly turned serious,” Ms. Templeton recalled. Her father-in-law announced that she and her husband should change the name they had carefully chosen for their son, Isaiah.

Growing up in Philadelphia, he explained, he had encountered anti-Semitic sneers and discrimination; now he feared that a biblical name would make his new grandson a target. To protect the child, the family should use his middle name instead.

Startled and hurt, Ms. Templeton coolly replied, “If I ever feel he’s being harmed by his name, I’ll consider it. But in exchange, I never want to hear about this again.” Isaiah is 9 now, and she and her father-in-law had not discussed the matter in all those years, until they told me the story.

But Ms. Templeton, 45, a radio reporter in San Juan, P.R., clearly hadn’t forgotten the conversation. And her father-in-law, who asked to remain anonymous, insisted, “I still agree with my original premise,” reasoning that “there was a lot of anti-Semitism when I grew up and there’s a lot now.”

Other parents remember tangling with grandparents over baby names, too. An accountant in suburban Phoenix, a newlywed when she met her husband’s maternal grandmother, warmed to her instantly and vowed to name her first daughter in the grandmother’s honor: Colleen. “We didn’t think there would be any drama,” she said.

Wrong. Her in-laws had divorced years before her marriage, and her father-in-law was upset that they wanted to name the baby after his ex-wife’s side of the family.

The new parents felt whipsawed, wanting to keep everyone happy while also defending their independence. “Telling someone what you can or can’t name your child is so controlling,” the accountant said. She told her husband, “I didn’t marry your dad.” After considerable back and forth, they went with Colleen.

What’s in a name? Maybe more than we think or anticipate when our expectant children are kicking around the possibilities.

“Names are all about identity,” said Pamela Redmond, chief executive of the giant Nameberry baby-naming site and co-author of 10 books on baby names. “The name the parents choose is central to who the child is and will be, and grandparents feel very invested in that.”

Maybe we grandparents want a family name carried on, or one that reflects our religious or ethnic identity. If our children have other ideas — these days, they often do — “the link to their ancestry is broken,” Ms. Redmond pointed out.

Plus, we have our own notions of appropriateness and a probably misguided sense that our grandchildren’s names reflect on us. So when our children creatively come up with Nevaeh (it’s “heaven,” backward) or use the city where the baby was conceived (like Nashua), we bridle.

“If you’re the conservative who named your kids Tom and Emily, and they’re naming their daughter Miles and their son Freedom, it’s like showing up at the country club with blue hair and tattoos,” Ms. Redmond said.

Being different is often the point, though. Young parents face a vastly wider assortment of choices than older generations ever considered. New parents may gravitate toward gender-neutral names, for instance. Older generations’ notions about playground taunts have become outdated when kids have such diverse names that a plain vanilla Linda or a mundane Mike may yearn for something more distinctive.

But that doesn’t prevent some grandparents from wading into the fray. Sometimes, since more spouses now keep their own names when they marry, differences arise not over the newcomer’s first name but the surname.

A personal example: My then-husband and I gave our daughter my last name, with his as a middle name. It caused no discernible problems.

My feminist hopes for a matrilineal naming tradition lasted one generation; my daughter’s daughter has her father’s last name, with her mother’s in the middle. I felt mildly disappointed, but not argumentative.

On the other hand, Mary Lou Ciolfi got an earful from her mother about her children’s last names. Ms. Ciolfi kept her name when she married in 1984, and she and her husband reflexively gave their son his father’s last name. Four years later, pregnant with a daughter, Ms. Ciolfi thought, “Why should he get all the names?” Her whole family is Italian and “very ethnic in our traditions.”

When she told her mother that her daughter would have her last name, “she was annoyed and angry with me and tried to talk me out of it,” said Ms. Ciolfi, 60, who teaches public health at the University of New England. “She said silly things like, my children wouldn’t know they were siblings. I was just rolling my eyes.”

As it happens, Ms. Ciolfi’s two sons (surnamed Vorhees) and her daughter (named Ciolfi) know perfectly well that they’re siblings. As for her late mother, “she was totally in love with all her grandchildren and moved past it.”

That tends to happen, said Sally Tannen, who has directed parenting workshops at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan for nearly 20 years, and grandparenting workshops for four.

The discussions can get intense, said Ms. Tannen, whose youngest grandchildren are twins named Cedar and Shepard. “This is the first stage in grandparents’ realizing that this is not their kid and they don’t have control,” she continued. “They have to step back, and some are good at that and some are terrible.”

Sometimes, parents find face-saving solutions, like giving children middle names they will never use to placate one grandparent or another.

But clashes over names can backfire, Ms. Tannen pointed out, if they make new parents angry enough to withdraw. Parents serve as the gatekeepers to their children and, as I learned from my conversations, they remember feeling pummeled, even decades later.

Fortunately, as Ms. Ciolfi discovered, these conflicts tend to fade after the grandchildren actually arrive. “As soon as you’re pregnant, everyone has an opinion” about names, Ms. Tannen has observed. “Once there’s a baby, it would be pretty silly to hold onto that.”

Even Ellen Robin, a math teacher in Sebastopol, Calif., and her late father-in-law got past their antagonism.

She still keeps a file of enraged letters he sent after she and her husband somewhat impulsively decided to call their new son Ivan. “He completely flipped out over naming our child after ‘the worst anti-Semite ever,’” she recalled 36 years later, referring to the terrorizing Russian czar, Ivan the Terrible. “He said, ‘You have cursed this baby.’ He went completely berserk.” Her mother-in-law helpfully sent a list of names they deemed acceptable.

“I had never been bullied like that,” said Ms. Robin, 69. As a compromise, she and her husband renamed their son Jesse Ivan. But they always called him Ivan and, to her surprise, her in-laws soon did, too. “After a few months, it was as if nothing had happened,” she said. She and her three sons all developed warm relationships with her father-in-law.

Rachel Templeton’s two boys are also close to their paternal grandfather.

But she has noticed this: She and her husband initially nicknamed her elder son Zay, until he said that he preferred his proper name. Then, everyone knew him as Isaiah — except his grandfather who, in nine years, never used his grandson’s full name.

He will now, though. It’s taken a while but, he told me, “I’m happy to call him whatever he wants to be called.”

The Grizzly in the Purple Pants

Ties

The Grizzly in the Purple Pants

My mom and stepdad wanted me to be more manly. In Cub Scouts, I just wanted to make the troop cupcakes.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Jan. 15, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Russell Lee spat a wad of snuff into a Planters peanuts can. We sat at a picnic table in his backyard, next to the railroad tracks. He jackhammered the ground with his right leg.

“Your mom’s having an affair,” said Russ, my mother’s husband.

“What’re you talking about?” I stared at his face — grayed muttonchops against skin bronzed from working under the Texas sun. Hummingbirds buzzed past us, sucking sugar water from the cherry-red feeder. I wanted to crush them.

Russ struggled against tears. “And she has AIDS. I have proof.”

His accusation rang false, but adults held secrets. Then 21, I had mine.

I had met Russell Lee even before my mom did. When I was 5, my uncle took me to visit one of his ailing relatives. In walked a brawny guy carrying a motorcycle helmet and wearing purple pants. His thinning black hair was long and curly.

I wondered if he was a hippie. I’d seen ones on TV but never in real life.

When I was 6, my father, a suit-and-tie-wearing principal, descended into psychosis from abusing alcohol and speed. My mother, Nelda, a petite blonde schoolteacher, escaped with me when the death threats became body blows and a brandished .38.

Mom filed for divorce. The court forbade my father from future contact. We never saw him again.

Three months later, my mom’s sister arranged a blind date with one of her in-laws. He turned out to be Russell Lee, the man in the purple pants.

Mom loved that Russ had overcome life obstacles. One-quarter Cherokee, he was the last of 12 kids in an evangelical family of sharecroppers in the Ozarks. His mother died when he was 7. At 14, Russ quit middle school. He married four years later, had two kids, and by 45 had been divorced for a decade.

Within six weeks, he and my mom married. We moved from a middle-class life in conservative San Antonio to a duplex covered in psychedelic posters in liberal Austin.

My mother told me that Russ was my father now, so I should call him Dad.

I was a first grader and did as told but felt like a liar. Russell and I had met only four times.

He was an avid outdoorsman. I loved books and music. Scrawny, blond and asthmatic, I embodied my stepfather’s opposite, an albino salamander next to a grizzly bear.

Mom wanted me to be more like normal boys. She and her husband decided to remold me.

Cub Scouts was first. I kept offering to make the troop cupcakes.

They redoubled their efforts.

Every boy should know how to hunt and fish, Russ said. I wanted to play Scrabble, but he took me fishing. I threw the pole into the water. He had me shoot a rifle at a coffee can. I missed. “The only ones who’ll be safe are the deer,” he said, shaking his head.

Over time, the relationship with my stepdad became more contentious. Russ grew irate when I was elected student council president my junior year, saying the position interfered with my J.C. Penney janitor job.

He wanted me to quit, but I argued that the position might help me with college scholarships. Nelda and Russ had no money. I negotiated a compromise. “I won’t run again next year.”

But my plan was to run for senior class officer.

The next fall, we went to dinner at a relative’s house. Our hostess hugged me. “The ladies at church say you were elected class president. Congratulations!”

My stepdad smacked his fist against his thigh. “You promised me!” He didn’t look at me during the meal.

“You lied! Now you gotta quit,” he yelled, later in the car.

I startled myself when I said “no.”

He wanted me to move out, but my mother begged for me to be able to stay. I avoided him, going into their home just to sleep.

Each semester of high school, Russ insisted I take an auto repair class. I always stalled, promising “later.”

Every man should know how to work on his car, he said.

Before my last semester, Russell brought up the mechanics’ course again.

The only way I could fit it into my schedule was by dropping calculus, physics and AP English, so I refused.

“Don’t you disrespect—”

“I’m not meant for manual labor, like you!” I shouted. “I have a brain!”

“Get out.”

I stuffed my backpack.

“School ends soon. Let him stay until then,” mom pleaded.

Russ acquiesced, but skipped my graduation.

I moved out. When Russell and I saw each other at family events, we’d shake hands for show but keep our distance.

In my junior year of college, Russ was diagnosed with lung cancer. After he’d recovered from surgery, Nelda moved into a motel. My stepfather stayed at the house by the railroad tracks.

When my mom asked me to go see him, I agreed — as a favor to her.

It was during that visit he announced that my mother had AIDS, and that she had been cheating on him with the train engineers.

“When the horn blows, it’s a signal.” He believed my mother was meeting the railroad staff for trysts in a nearby abandoned shack.

“The tracks bend there,” I said, pointing. “The horns are warnings.”

He didn’t believe me. “There’s proof she has AIDS in the shack,” he said.

I crossed the tracks and went inside. “Nelda has AIDS” was spray-painted on a wall. But I recognized Russ’s handwriting. His capital “I” looked like a tadpole swallowing its tail.

When I called my mom, she cried. “He kept accusing me of grotesque sexual infidelity. I couldn’t take it.”

Because of our history of emotional distance, I wasn’t wounded by Russ’s break with reality. He’d been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was in my teens. But mom hid the depth of his mental illness from me.

After his lung surgery, he’d stopped taking his meds. Mental illness made his greatest fear appear true: Nelda didn’t love him.

Witnessing the extent of his disorder made me kinder. I started visiting my stepdad on weekends. We convinced him to visit his psychiatrist, who recalibrated his medications. Nelda and Russ reconciled.

Though I’d come to understand him, it took me the better part of a decade to allow myself to trust him — and my mother — with my secret. At 30, I told them I was gay.

“Never made any difference to me,” Russ said.

My jaw hit the floor.

“He’s known since you were 16,” Nelda said. “A boy telephoned. Russ went to get you. You fainted.” I remembered the phone call, but hadn’t realized they did, too. A guy from Nebraska I had a crush on had called long-distance. We’d met at student council camp and I’d been desperate for him to like me.

She paused. “It was hard for me, but he says you were born this way.”

So, Russell Lee had been my secret ally all along.

When I was 45, he fractured a hip, had a heart attack and went into a coma. That night, the nurses told Nelda she had to leave. She hugged Russ. Though he was unconscious, his arm pulled her closer.

I flew back to Texas from New York. “There’s little chance for recovery,” a doctor said. We signed the papers to unplug the respirator.

The morning of his funeral, I walked outside. A hummingbird hovered near my face.

“If I could choose anyone in the world as my dad, I’d choose you,” I whispered. The tiny creature floated a moment longer. Then, it darted away.


Court Stroud lives in New York City, where he’s working on a book.

Zoom Funeral Tips

How to Hold a Virtual Memorial Service

A virtual memorial offers several advantages: It’s easy for distant guests to attend, and you can record it.

Credit…Derek Abella

  • Jan. 14, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

When my 80-year-old father recently died, coronavirus restrictions meant that our family, like many others, could not safely gather for a funeral. My mother, brother and sister-in-law in New York, along with me in Berkeley, Calif., hastily organized a memorial service on Zoom.

What could have been a disaster or fodder for an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” ended up being incredibly moving. Rather than diminishing the experience or getting in the way, videoconferencing facilitated an event filled with emotion, humor and love. During a difficult time for our family — in a devastating year for the entire world — that was an unexpected blessing.

Despite our fatigue with remote work meetings, we all were struck by how well-suited it turned out to be for a memorial.

Families who are opting for video memorials are probably doing so because of pandemic restrictions limiting the number of people who can attend an indoor gathering. Since you can join a virtual event from anywhere — and with minimal planning — more people are likely to attend than if they needed to travel to an in-person event.

In our case, the immediate family was on both coasts, one grandchild was in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the rabbi, Jeff Salkin of Temple Israel West Palm Beach, a longtime friend and former student of my dad, was in Florida.

With a videoconferencing service, you can style your memorial as you like. While we did not include photos, videos or music, nothing prevents you from doing so. In addition, a virtual memorial costs much less than an in-person event, where you’d have to pay for the brick-and-mortar venue and perhaps catered food. And you can easily record the event to share and save for posterity.

A virtual memorial also might accommodate more speakers than an in-person event. Ours began with moving eulogies by Rabbi Salkin, followed by my brother and me, then morphed into an impromptu shiva, as numerous guests offered wonderful remembrances and reflections about my dad. The event lasted two and a half hours; many people remained the entire time.

My father’s was not Rabbi Salkin’s first Zoom memorial service. He was skeptical before he led a Zoom gathering after his stepmother died of Covid-19 in April.

“I feared that such funerals would be alienating,” he said. “I was wrong. Wi-Fi carries the love quite effectively. In person, you can hold people’s hands and embrace them. On Zoom, it’s more about holding people’s eyes and simply being with them, in every way that matters.”

At the beginning of lockdown, Zoom ran into security issues. As the technology writer Brian X. Chen detailed in a column in April, weak privacy protections resulted in uninvited “Zoombombers” crashing meetings in embarrassing fashion.

That happened when my kids’ school district started distance learning: A nude man entered a virtual class and used racial slurs. It was a lesson for our family to be sure our event was password protected.

Even Jonathan Leitschuh, a software engineer and security researcher who identified flaws in Zoom’s security protocols that allowed hackers to take over Mac users’ webcams in 2019, turned to Zoom to plan a funeral for his mother who died in April.

“I went in terrified about a Zoombombing,” Mr. Leitschuh said. “I’d seen the same media coverage everyone else did.” But he said: “For this use case, I wasn’t aware of a better platform.”

There are several alternatives to Zoom, including Google Meet, Skype and GoTo Meeting, which may offer enhanced security protections and come with their own inherent trade-offs.

Funeral homes are also offering livestreamed services, in conjunction with limited in-person memorials. Chris Robinson, a fourth-generation funeral director in Easley, S.C., and spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said his funeral home has been livestreaming services via its website, allowing anyone to attend without the need to download software or register for a videoconferencing platform.

“It’s important to go ahead and put together a virtual service,” he said, “rather than wait until the pandemic is over, because it could be a long time, and delaying indefinitely can be an ongoing trauma.”

In my family’s case, we were truly impressed by how videoconferencing, which can be so enervating in our daily work lives, enabled us to celebrate my dad’s full life in a beautiful and moving way.

If you have to arrange a memorial service on a video platform, here are some tips.

Go Pro

We purchased a one-month subscription to Zoom Pro (right now it’s $14.99 a month and you can cancel at any time). It allows for up to 100 participants (other plans allow for more, at additional cost), with unlimited meeting time, and stores a recording in the cloud. We’re glad we did. If we had had to limit the time of the event, we would have missed many moving contributions from participants.

Identify Someone to Handle Logistics

Because I created the account, I was the de facto meeting host. In hindsight I wish I had handed the role to my 17-year-old daughter, a digital native. Responsibilities include admitting people from the waiting room; muting all mics as appropriate; unmuting the officiant or other speakers; troubleshooting technical issues; providing assistance to guests; and passing messages along to family members in the chat box. Introduce the tech host at the beginning of the service, so people know whom to contact for help.

Familiarize Yourself With Platform Settings

The back end of video platforms have settings that can be tricky if you are new to them, especially if it is an emotional event. The host can go through the “toggle” switches in advance to figure out how to mute people upon entry or enable the waiting room, a security feature that keeps guests in a queue until the host admits them.

Who Will Lead?

Our virtual memorial succeeded, in part, because the rabbi wasn’t thrown off by the difficulties inexperienced Zoomers had muting themselves at the start. When the service segued into the shiva, my mother moderated — greeting people and making sure everyone who wanted to offer a remembrance had the chance to do so.

Plan a Dry Run to Anticipate Issues

Schedule one or more short practice sessions to work out kinks and make sure you’re on the same page about various roles. Some participants at our event were complete Zoom novices, fearful of missing the eulogy, and self-conscious about holding up the program as they attempted to mute as requested. We recommend offering tips to guests about logging on and off; muting and unmuting; switching screen views; and using the chat function — either along with the invitation, or on request ahead of the event. Don’t assume that everyone will be joining with up-to-date devices.

Invitations

We sent an email to notify friends and relatives of my dad’s death and of the Zoom event, including a link and password. Each of our family members compiled and distributed our own lists. You can also use Zoom to send email invitations.

You’re on TV (Sort of)

Without being obsessive, think about your on-screen appearance, makeup, lighting, camera height and angle and backdrop.

Beware of Tech Gremlins

While we were spared technical disruptions, the specter lurked in our minds. Many parts of the country experienced power outages this summer, and we’ve all had our internet connections go down or struggled with microphones and screens that freeze at just the wrong time. Although impossible to predict, be mindful of what could go wrong and how you’d handle it.

Ultimately, you want to make sure the virtual event accomplishes the same things an in-person funeral or memorial service would, honoring the life of the deceased and comforting the survivors. As it turned out, many more of my parents’ circle — friends and family in their 70s and 80s — were able to attend the funeral than would have been able to, even without Covid restrictions. Likewise, more people spoke than would have stepped to the lectern at an in-person funeral service. And the video we have is a blessing, which will enable my family to keep my father’s memory alive and hold on to vivid memories of those who so loved him.

Steven Birenbaum is senior communications officer at the California Health Care Foundation in Oakland, Calif.


When I Was Labeled a ‘Troubled’ Teen, I Obliged

The author in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York in 2007, during his second stay in a wilderness therapy program. 
The author in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York in 2007, during his second stay in a wilderness therapy program. Credit…via Kenneth R. Rosen

Voices

When I Was Labeled a ‘Troubled’ Teen, I Obliged

I was sent to three “tough love” programs meant to redirect me. Trying to run away from one made me feel that I had no choice but to become what I had been told I was.

The author in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York in 2007, during his second stay in a wilderness therapy program. Credit…via Kenneth R. Rosen

Kenneth R. Rosen

  • Jan. 12, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

All I heard was rain, my thumping heart harmonizing with the tempo of the tempest outside. I waited for the night watchman’s light to sweep over my bunk. He disappeared into the hallway, into the next room of clients who he noted to himself were present and asleep and so moved to the next room.

When he entered another room, I hurried behind him, crouching, to the central alcove, from where I made my escape. My plan included a list — backpack, peanut butter, headlight, rain gear, stolen MapQuest printouts, knife — and a destination, Boston. I’d run to an unfamiliar city, across a state to which I’d been taken against my will, to meet a future I could not be certain was any better. The rain seemed less like a portent, more an encouragement, as if each wind gust carried with its rivulets the words, It’s your time. They’ll never find you. Go now.

They were the escorts. Transporters. Redirection specialists. They, usually two men who take unsuspecting teenagers in the middle of the night to therapeutic programs across the country, went by different names. I was certain they were coming for me. They had come for me several months before the night of my escape, in late winter 2007, at the request of my parents who saw no other way to set me straight. My mom and dad hired the men, after consulting with school officials, psychologists and an education consultant, to take me from my bed and to deliver me like a wasted soul to an experiential therapy program in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. They believed they were practicing “tough love,” making the difficult choice to send their child away to forge a better future away from home.

Some of the gear the group carried through remote stretches of New York State. 
Some of the gear the group carried through remote stretches of New York State. Credit…Kenneth R. Rosen

From New York I’d go on to a program in Massachusetts. I did not know it then, but I’d become one of the tens of thousands of “troubled” or “at-risk” teenagers carted off to these unregulated, private industries each year.

The years leading up to my being taken and the eventual break out is now a blur of misanthropy. I was reckless, taking my mom’s car out for joy rides without permission, skipping class, distrusting authority figures like the high school principal and local municipal authorities sent to curb my behavior, to put me back on a path more, how should we say, normal.

In the nearly 12 months I’d spend between the experiential wilderness therapy program (twice), a therapeutic boarding school in Massachusetts and a residential treatment center on a ranch in Utah, I lived up to the designation of a troubled teen. The programs were what the media called part of a tough love movement, which flourished in the early aughts but still exists today.

The Academy at Swift River, a former therapeutic boarding school for troubled children, in Cummington, Mass., in spring 2007. The author spent months here before trying to escape, after which he was sent to a remote ranch in Southern Utah.Credit…Kenneth R. Rosen

I’d return that type of love to my parents, ignoring their written letters, our only form of communication, vetted and censored by my “therapists.” I felt betrayed and discarded. They pleaded with me to accept the programs and to do my best to succeed in them. It felt like they wanted me gone. Really, I was being groomed for institutionalization. The juvenile and criminal justice systems the programs ventured to save me from instead prepared me for adult incarceration. By the end of my time away I recognized a bliss associated with handcuffs. Lockup and lockdown meant the familiarity of strip searches, drug tests, isolation cells and men who handled me like I was worthless: hallmarks of the programs that became synonymous with the word homebound.

But losing any self-actualization and inner-direction came later. On the night of my escape, I still believed I held some agency over my future, shrouded in uncertainty though it was. What would I do in Boston? I didn’t care. How would I earn money? Where would I stay? I would figure it out once I was far away from this place.

My parents were no longer trustworthy. They were part of the growing number of my adversaries working to keep me from personal liberties. At the program I was restricted access to food. I was allowed only communication with my parents, not my friends back home. If I chose not to respond to my parents, I would also be cut off from my peers in the programs. Either way, I’d lose.

The night the author tried to run away from the Academy at Swift River, he started from this alcove.Credit…Kenneth R. Rosen

I was given prescription medication to ease my anxiety and depression, which left me hollow and numb. I was made to answer questions about my life and emotions until, I was told, I got them right, framing things in a way the program and therapists felt more accurately told a story about my deviance that I then internalized. My journals were confiscated, their private contents used against me in “therapy sessions.”

I wasn’t troubled or bad. I was alone, all the angst and hormonal shifts of adolescence compounded and weaponized against me. I was backed into a corner and told to change, made to think I’d become reproachable and unwanted. What they wanted from me — to be happy, well-adjusted, open to therapy and the mind-numbing boredom I associated with schooling — seemed a betrayal of the very thing they wanted me to be: myself.

Meanwhile, I had broken a number of rules at the school — “cheeking” medication, drinking hand sanitizer, fraternizing with girls. I was certain then, by the fourth month at the program, that I was doomed for another “transport.” Then one night they came.

I’d been waiting, staring deep into the white ceiling overhead, my inability to sleep soundly forever cemented. Before I could jump down from the top bunk bed, the escorts announced that they were there for a different boy, my roommate. He stood from his bed, his head hanging. He pulled a pre-packed suitcase from underneath his bed (we all had our own type of go-bag), gave a weak smile, shrugged, told me he’d see me again, however unlikely, and left with the men flanking him out the door, choosing to go, as they called it, the “easy way.” He had already gone the “hard way.”

Picked off. Kidnapped. Taken. Call it what you wish, but trying to sleep each night with the notion that a pair of strangers could come to lift you from your bed, whether your actions were deserving of this treatment or not, haunts me, haunts thousands. Having watched my roommate get taken was surreal. It made real for the first time what had happened to me, brought into context that it was happening to others, and eventually sold me on my own desire to flee. I would not wait to be taken. I had to get out. No one would take me. I would lead myself away.

Now, standing outside the central alcove with my back to the doorways of the program, I stared into the fields of the Berkshire mountains, another expanse of seclusion and remove, the rain washing over me in blinding sheets. I bent into the storm, leaning into the wind that soon turned, pushed at my back, leading me away from this place into the deep, heaving thicket at the far end of the program’s property.

The author’s room at the academy in spring 2007. Sometimes the boys played Monopoly at night in the bathroom, seeking a rare opportunity for unsupervised recreation. Credit…Kenneth R. Rosen

I vaulted a fence and tore my rain pants. Water and a cold breeze swept into the tear. I began to shiver. Boston seemed farther than ever, the return to my previous life an impossibility. My mother once told me “to strive, to seek, to find, and never to yield,” cribbed from the Tennyson poem. But yield I would, turning around and greeting my future and any hope I had for making it my own. I was told I was troubled and believed it and ran because that’s what bad kids did.

I unceremoniously turned myself in to the night watchman because I had lost all strength to continue being bad. I wanted to be good, loved. It was as much a desire to get away that drove me from the program as it was a display of disapprobation and the final displacement of my waning emotional strength. I would fold into the programs, accepting that if I were to change it would be by a force better accepted than rejected, one that had overpowered and broken me into a shell of my former self.

Those programs are now a distant memory, but the contours of those inescapable feelings of rejection and dismissal, of living up to the expectations held by others and not myself, follow me. When I find the energy to keep those memories from chaining me to a different person, a different time, I do my best never to yield.

Kenneth R. Rosen is the author, most recently, of “Troubled: The Failed Promise of America’s Behavioral Treatment Programs.”

Juggling My Children, Their Alcoholic Sitter and My Own Sobriety

Ties

Juggling My Children, Their Alcoholic Sitter and My Own Sobriety

The babysitter says she has nine days sober, but we all lie, every addict, every alcoholic.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Jan. 8, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Tonight I left my children with our longtime babysitter, who claims she is nine days sober, but is possibly drunk or high.

At the very least, she is exhausted — the kind of exhausted that seeps into your bones and calcifies. I am leaving my children with her because I trust her. Four years, she has cared for my children. She has made them paper crowns and cardboard castles, bathed them and sung them to sleep. She and I have lunched and sipped tea. Together, we have summited mountains of paperwork to secure her health insurance, a new car, a new apartment.

I know her, I trust her. This is the mantra I repeat to myself from my office upstairs, where I am listening to every thump and bump and giggle below.

I am in the house. I didn’t leave. It’s the middle of a pandemic; no one leaves anymore. That’s how I know my children will be alive when I finish working. But as the night goes on, I start checking the baby monitor, because my children are not in bed and it is after 8 o’clock, after bedtime, late and getting later. When they finally appear — my 5-year-old daughter doing a cartwheel, my 3-year-old son dragging his blankies, the babysitter, alert and smiling — I release a breath I had not realized I was holding.

How many days of sobriety do you need to babysit? To be trustworthy? Seven days? Thirty days? Ninety days? Conventional wisdom holds that the physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal — the nausea and sweating, the shaking and disorientation — usually subside in three to five days.

The babysitter says she has nine days sober, but we all lie, every addict, every alcoholic. I detoxed in the hospital’s drunk tank. On day two of sobriety, I had a seizure. On day six, I had a panic attack. On day nine, I could put on my own pants, barely.

But the struggle doesn’t end with the physical. It’s mental. The misery of protracted withdrawal — dysphoria, depression, irritability — can drag on for weeks. Twelve-step programs refer to this as “the monkey on your back,” because the cravings weigh on you, pick at you, natter in your ear about how much more bearable this conference call, this meal, this round of hide-and-seek might be with a drink. My first sponsor insisted I find a job and keep busy, which I did, and I stayed sober.

Tonight, I’m paying it forward. I am giving the babysitter a job. I am keeping her busy. I am hoping she stays sober.

But what if I weren’t an alcoholic? Would I have asked her to leave? Would I have said I’m not comfortable, and sent her away? This babysitter has become something more akin to family. She has told me stories of being dragged through her childhood like a fiberglass boat through the shallows: a father who left, a mother who did her best, a grim foster care placement, and the briny scrape of countless other dangers, both visible and not. This babysitter — whose heart is miraculously intact despite the damage it has endured, including a recent brush with death and viral cardiomyopathy — could I have asked her to leave?

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says she should stay. Being of use is important, it says. The fellowship of another alcoholic is crucial, it says. Still, I wish she hadn’t confessed. I wish she hadn’t told me over the kitchen island, in front of the children as they were eating spaghetti, as they were eating her every word, saving their questions for the morning when I know they will ask me, What is drinking? What is sober? Why is her face so fluffy?

They do not know what it is to be bloated. They do not understand edema or addiction. They have never seen me drink alcohol, not once, not ever. I will have to explain it to them. They share my blood, so it’s possible that this thing, this alcoholic affliction may be metastasizing in them, even now, as they lie in their beds, chattering back and forth. I will have to explain at least part of it to them in the morning.

Someday they will want to know all of it. How I stopped drinking. How I writhed as the alcohol and dope leached out of my system. How I was dry. For years I was dry, like a desert, like the air in winter, like a pile of ash. Angry. Pimpled. Thirsty. That first year, I locked myself away in a halfway house where I learned how to shower, how to clean a toilet, how to cook spaghetti, how to wash a dish, how to make a bed, why you should care about making your bed. And AA meetings every day. For three years, every day. I had the Big Book nearly memorized — the acceptance passage, the serenity prayer, How It Works, the steps and traditions. I remember so little now.

I’ve been sober 18 years, so long I don’t even think about drinking and drugs anymore. Not really, anyway. Not often. Definitely not every day. But once in a while, maybe out at dinner with friends, when someone orders a red wine, or a beer, or a vodka tonic.

Vodka. I’d like seven vodka tonics. I’d like to slip inside a bottle of vodka, to bathe in it, to slosh, just for the night, just for a little while.

That’s how I know my addiction is still there, still lurking, still hungry. After 18 years it’s probably ravenous, but it’s not starving. Starvation is something you die of, and addiction cannot be killed. You can’t excise or eradicate it. You have to contain it. Dam it. Barricade it. Even then, it whispers. Through whatever levees you erect, it gurgles. It splashes out a Morse code of desire. You become a certain kind of deaf, a certain level of numb, all the time, every day. That’s the work. That is how you progress from drunk, to dry drunk, to sober human. You’ll never be just human. You’ll always be a sober human — a person almost, but not quite.

My babysitter has nine days sober. When she tells me, she says how proud she is. I have given her my children for the night. When I go downstairs, they will be asleep, or will be in bed contemplating going to sleep. She and I will talk. I will tell her what it was like, what happened, what it’s like today. I will tell her half-truths — not even. She will tell me what it is like for her right now, today, with her nine days sober. I will believe half of what she says — not even.

Tomorrow night, she will watch my children again. She will hold them, and her soon-to-be 10 days, as tightly as she is able. I know her, I trust her. She will keep the children as safe as she knows how. I pray their laughter and shrieks and glee will keep her safe in return. These are the things alcoholics do for each other. These are the things that keep us sober. These are the things I hope someone would do for my children, should they need it.


Sarah Twombly is a writer and mother to two young children.

How to Design Your 2020 Holiday Reboot

How to Design Your 2020 Holiday Reboot

It may not be the perfect storybook holiday, but it rarely is. Why not use this year to reset and create your own traditions?

Credit…Cristina Spanò

  • Dec. 22, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

Like everything else this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned the holiday season on its head, thanks in part to restrictions on travel and gatherings.

For some, the idea of forgoing their annual holiday traditions is upsetting, especially given the difficulty of this year. But for others, who may find the usual holiday rituals stressful at best and triggering at worst, it may come as a relief. Instead of making their annual “guilt trip” home for the holidays, they’re able to use this year to reset and create their own traditions.

I talked to experts about the role traditions play in our lives and how to make the most of the nontraditional 2020 holiday season. Here’s what they had to say.

Why do traditions matter?

Why humans care so much about traditions and rituals has been the focus of Dimitris Xygalatas’s career. “It’s especially puzzling because I’ve asked thousands of people why their rituals are important to them,” said Dr. Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut, “and the most common response is to look at you and say, ‘What do you mean, it’s just what I do,’ or ‘I don’t know — that’s just our tradition.’”

After two decades researching this topic, Dr. Xygalatas says that like others in his field, he has found that traditions and rituals serve important functions on both personal and social levels. “On the personal level, those rituals or traditions provide meaning in our lives by giving us a sense of structure and familiarity,” he explains. “And on the group level, they help shape our collective identities, and find the sense of belonging and cohesion within our groups.”

According to Marissa King, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, our commitment to holiday rituals also stems from the fact that human beings are exceptionally predictable, with many of our behaviors “guided by inertia” and an inherent need for social order and stability. “If you think about why we have rituals — whether that’s from going to get a tree, or doing an office Secret Santa — it’s really a way of reaffirming our collective identity and shared values,” Dr. King said.

Rituals around this time of year — specifically, the winter solstice — have been around for millenniums. “For as long as humans have been around, we’ve been aware of changing seasons, and the winter — in whatever hemisphere you’re in — marks a new year,” said Pam Frese, a cultural anthropologist and professor at The College of Wooster. In other words, our urge to observe or celebrate the passage of time each year in December predates any modern version of the holidays and our desire for structure and being part of a collective identity has kept the traditions alive since.

In his own research — both in the field and the lab — Dr. Xygalatas and his team have found that when people are stressed, they perform more ritualized actions. And after measuring their physiological responses, they observed that those who participated in more collective rituals tended to have lower cortisol levels and reduced levels of anxiety.

Unfortunately, this presents a challenge for us in 2020, living through a pandemic. “At the moment when we need them the most, that’s when we have the least access to those cultural typologies that we use to soothe our anxiety,” Dr. Xygalatas says.

This also offers insight into why, despite warnings and requests from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other infectious disease experts to stay home, some people are flouting the recommendations and traveling to visit family and friends for the holidays — something Dr. Xygalatas says is itself telling. “This is one way in which you see how important rituals are to us,” he explains. “There are a lot of people risking their lives to take part in them.”

Is it Time for a Reset?

Not everyone shares this enthusiasm for the holidays and their accompanying rituals. In fact for some, holiday traditions can feel more like entrapment than something to celebrate, according to Dr. King.

The good news, she says, is that this year we have the chance to reconceptualize the holidays, finding new ways to recreate stability and a sense of belonging by starting our own traditions. For example, if you’ve lost someone close to you recently and were dreading certain holiday activities because it puts a spotlight on their absence, Dr. King says we can use the unusual 2020 holiday season to our advantage.

“I think there’s an opportunity right now for us all to have that suspended reality, and create our own traditions based on what might feel more comfortable,” she explains. “Oddly, I think — particularly if you’ve had hard holiday experiences — they may, in some ways, be more authentic.”

Of course, you don’t need to have suffered to want to start your own traditions. For instance, many people in their 30s and 40s who now have families of their own may still feel obligated to travel to their hometown each year and recreate the holidays of their childhood. While this may keep their parents happy, it also makes it more difficult for them to create traditions as their own family unit.

Take inventory of family traditions

Communication tools like Zoom and FaceTime provide us with opportunities for virtual visits with family and friends that didn’t exist on such a widespread level even a decade ago. But 2020 has not only taught us how convenient it can be to have the technology that allows you to see loved ones face-to-face: we’ve also learned that using it can be exhausting.

Rather than attempting to recreate your family’s entire holiday agenda on Zoom, Dr. Eugene Beresin, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, recommends first taking an inventory of your typical traditions, and determining which make the most sense to continue remotely. This way you can devote your time and energy to the activities best suited for virtual participation.

This is also your chance to create new holiday traditions, like a virtual family game night or a remote karaoke party (where holiday songs are not mandatory). “You can invent tradition,” Dr. Frese says. “Lots of people do this. What makes it a tradition is passing it on and keeping it active every year.”

Cook together, virtually

There’s a reason so many people consider holiday meals to be among their favorites of the year: food tastes better when it’s connected to a ritual. “Our taste is shaped by our subjective experiences, and this is part of it,” Dr. Xygalatas explains. “On holidays, it might include the fact that you have taken part in the preparations, or the long wait, or all the bells and whistles that surround the ceremony. But mostly it’s because of the importance we attribute to the ceremony itself.”

And while having various members of your family gather together online to virtually share a meal can be nice, Dr. Xygalatas recommends taking it one step further. “Don’t just do the eating part: do the cooking part online, too,” he says. “Get a sense of actual, active participation in the preparation of food and decorations even. Maybe livestream the whole day.” This way, even if your version of your family’s signature casserole doesn’t look exactly like your cousin’s, the act of preparing the dish together might improve how it tastes.

Share family stories

Dr. Beresin suggests making a point of including family stories in your celebrations this year. “Our brains are wired for narratives,” he explains, adding that if no stories come to mind, you can start by looking through old photo albums. And while everyone responds to funny memories — like the year the dog knocked over the Christmas tree — Dr. Beresin says that tales of resilience can be especially beneficial for children, particularly this year.

“Those kinds of narratives are super important to make a deeper connection with the family, and to help kids realize that sometimes we get stronger when we go through hard times,” he said.

And if your family is still living off the same four stories from the Great Depression or World War II, remind them that in years to come, they’ll be able to reminisce about the year they celebrated the holidays during a pandemic.

And don’t forget to document this year’s celebrations: They are going to be great material for future generations.

Teaching My Kids to Drive While Black

Ties

Teaching My Kids to Drive While Black

I’ve raised them to be confident and to advocate for themselves. Now here I was saying, don’t do it with the police.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Dec. 18, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

There was lightning, thunder and heavy rain the recent day I accompanied my 18-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter to get their driver’s licenses in Austin, Texas.

I wish I could say I thought nothing more of the passing storm. But the air felt moody and foreboding, as if it was urging my Black family to turn around, go home, lock our door and run the clock back to when my kids were little and couldn’t go anywhere without me. To when I did not imagine that any routine police interaction might play out as horrifyingly as it did in the cases of Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Philando Castile and others.

I kept my grim thoughts to myself because my children were already beyond excited to achieve this belated milestone after the many disappointments of a pandemic year. I did not want to be the cause of another, so on we went. Neither complained about the almost three-hour wait at the D.M.V., thanks to pandemic backlog. Both grinned ear-to-ear as they showed me their new licenses. I smiled back at them and meant it. They were now officially young adults. I refused to let what might happen to them dampen what had indeed happened.

I’d once read that teenage drivers need about 1,000 hours behind the wheel before they’re truly ready to go solo. Between boarding school, summer excursions and shared custody, my kids were never in any one place long enough to make a consistent go at learning to drive, much less for me to teach them as well as I wanted to. Then they came home to me because the pandemic shut down their high school and college for the rest of the school year.

One of the few upsides of having their academic and social lives limited to screens, and the roads near empty, was that there was finally enough time for them to get in a lot of driving hours. They practiced the right speed in residential neighborhoods, learned who goes first at a four-way stop sign if two cars arrive at once and braved getting on and off the two major highways that define Austin. Their confidence grew as spring rounded into the heady promise of summer.

But no amount of confidence behind the wheel can change my children’s maple syrup-colored skin, even if they wanted to — and they don’t. All the self-love lessons I’ve been instilling since birth have taken root and blossomed mightily.

Also blossoming mightily has been my fear of the ultimate ugly, of their untimely, unjustifiable deaths.

I began emphasizing things I thought might help keep them safe on the road when they were away from me. “YOU,” I told them, “do NOT have the luxury of speeding. Or joy riding. You, yes you, must pay attention. ALL the time!”

A friend recently went through the same D.M.V. ritual with her son. She and I say the same things, “No drinking and driving, no texting and driving, don’t fiddle with your music when you are changing lanes.” We both worry because driving at this age is the cause of many deaths. But where our shared concern stops, I must continue with lessons for Black children only. I’ve realized I feel secure only when my kids are home for the night, wherever they are, no matter their age.

Meanwhile, I wondered, what can Black people do without fear? When can we let go? When do my kids get to be just kids like their white friends? Sleeping; jogging; walking; wearing that teenage staple, the hoodie; heading home from a bachelor party; and leaving church have cost Black people their lives.

As they learned to give more gas going uphill and to always use their indicators, I tried pushing away the bird watcher incident in Central Park; and thoughts of the San Francisco homeowner whose neighbors insisted he didn’t live there, was illegally painting a Black Lives Matter sign, and called the police. My heart aches with each new incident, with unending, rolling waves of sorrow. I come up from one and another pulls me right back under.

I’ve drilled them on what to say: “Yes, officer. No, officer.” And with what to do: Turn your music off, especially if it’s rap; call me; start a recording on your phone before the officer gets to the car; put your hands on the steering wheel and keep them there; have your license and car registration handy.

Which left me torn about an ideal I’ve also drummed into them: Always self-advocate. Now here I was saying, don’t do it with the police. Know from Breonna Taylor’s case that things can turn deadly before you figure out what’s happening. Know that if you do speak, you might not be believed when you say you can’t breathe. I was both grateful for my son’s grace and devastated by his knowing when he said, “Don’t worry, Mom, I understand I have to live first so I can speak up later.”

The kids often said my driving corrections were too grumpy, that I yelled unnecessarily if they took a turn wide, didn’t look over their shoulder before changing lanes. I said we’d driven the same roads repeatedly, that they should know by now. I didn’t say how frustrated I was that as they continue on out into the world, they’re likely to be assessed first by the color of their skin and not the content of their character.

I’ve always known that motherhood involves starting to let go the minute the baby arrives. Earning a driver’s license is one of the great pit stops on a child’s road to independence. My kids are good drivers, but my fear remains. “It’s not you I worry about,” I tell them repeatedly, “it’s other people.”

As I watched my son adjust his mirrors, double check that he had his license and registration before nervously backing out and driving solo for the first time to a friend’s house, it was clear: I’ll need to make room to celebrate the good moments, not just mourn the bad. He waved and smiled one last time through the rearview mirror.


Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Suzanne McFayden is a writer, philanthropist and mother of three.

The Loneliest Childhood: Toddlers Have No Covid Playmates

Childhood Without Other Children: A Generation Is Raised In Quarantine

Covid-19 has meant the youngest children can’t go to birthday parties or play dates. Parents are keeping them out of day care. What is the long-term effect of the pandemic on our next generation?

No playdates in sight: Alice McGraw at the Mount Olympus monument in San Francisco. 
No playdates in sight: Alice McGraw at the Mount Olympus monument in San Francisco. Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

  • Dec. 9, 2020, 4:00 p.m. ET

Alice McGraw, 2 years old, was walking with her parents in Lake Tahoe this summer when another family appeared, heading in their direction. The little girl stopped.

“Uh-oh,” she said and pointed: “People.”

She has learned, her mother said, to keep the proper social distance to avoid risk of infection from the coronavirus. In this and other ways, she’s part of a generation living in a particular new type of bubble — one without other children. They are the Toddlers of Covid-19.

Gone for her and many peers are the play dates, music classes, birthday parties, the serendipity of the sandbox or the side-by-side flyby on adjacent swing sets. Many families skipped day care enrollment in the fall, and others have withdrawn amid the new surge in coronavirus cases.

With months of winter isolation looming, parents are growing increasingly worried about the developmental effects of the ongoing social deprivation on their very young children.

“People are trying to weight pros and cons of what’s worse: putting your child at risk for Covid or at risk for severe social hindrance,” said Suzanne Gendelman, whose daughter, Mila, is 13-months-old and pre-pandemic had been a regular play-date buddy of Alice McGraw.

“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo more than she’s seen other kids,” Ms. Gendelman said.

It is too early for published research about the effects of the pandemic lockdowns on very young children, but childhood development specialists say that most children will likely be OK because their most important relationships at this age are with parents.

Still, a growing number of studies highlight the value of social interaction to brain development. Research shows that neural networks influencing language development and broader cognitive ability get built through verbal and physical give-and-take — from the sharing of a ball to exchanges of sounds and simple phrases.

“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo more than she’s seen other kids,” said Suzanne Gendelman of her 13-month-old daughter, Mila.
“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo more than she’s seen other kids,” said Suzanne Gendelman of her 13-month-old daughter, Mila.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

These interactions build “structure and connectivity in the brain,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They seem to be brain feed.”

In infants and toddlers, these essential interactions are known as “serve-and-return,” and rely on seamless exchanges of guttural sounds or simple words.

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and others say that technology presents both opportunity and risk during the pandemic. On one hand, it allows children to engage in virtual play by Zoom or FaceTime with grandparents, family friends or other children. But it can also distract parents who are constantly checking their phones to the point that the device interrupts the immediacy and effectiveness of conversational duet — a concept known as “technoference.”

John Hagen, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan, said he would be more concerned about the effect exchanges on young children, “if this were to go on years and not months.”

“I just think we’re not dealing with any kinds of things causing permanent or long-term difficulties,” he said.

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek characterized the current environment as a kind of “social hurricane” with two major risks: Infants and toddlers don’t get to interact with one another and, at the same time, they pick up signals from their parents that other people might be a danger.

“We’re not meant to be stopped from seeing the other kids who are walking down the street,” she said.

Just that kind of thing happened to Casher O’Connor, 14 months, whose family recently moved to Portland, Ore., from San Francisco. Several months before the move, the toddler was on a walk with his mother when he saw a little boy nearby.

“Casher walked up to the two-year-old, and the mom stiff-armed Cash not to get any closer,” said Elliott O’Connor, Casher’s mother.

“I understand,” she added, “but it was still heartbreaking.”

Portland has proved a little less prohibitive place for childhood interaction in part because there is more space than in the dense neighborhoods of San Francisco, and so children can be in the same vicinity without the parents feeling they are at risk of infecting one another.

“It’s amazing to have him stare at another kid,” Ms. O’Connor said.

“Seeing your kid playing on a playground with themselves is just sad,” she added. “What is this going to be doing to our kids?”

The rise of small neighborhood pods or of two or three families joining together in shared bubbles has helped to offset some parents’ worries. But new tough rules in some states, like California, have disrupted those efforts because playgrounds have been closed in the latest Covid surge and households have been warned against socializing outside their own families.

Alice, 2, with her mother, Lindsey McGraw. Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

Plus, the pods only worked when everyone agreed to obey the same rules and so some families simply chose to go it alone.

That’s the case of Erinn and Craig Sheppard, parents of a 15-month-old, Rhys, who live in Santa Monica, Calif. They are particularly careful because they live near the little boy’s grandmother, who is in her 80s. Ms. Sheppard said Rhys has played with “zero” children since the pandemic started.

“We get to the park, we Clorox the swing and he gets in and he has a great time and loves being outside and he points at other kids and other parents like a toddler would,” she said. But they don’t engage.

One night, Rhys was being carried to bed when he started waving. Ms. Sheppard realized that he was looking at the wall calendar which has babies on it. It happens regularly now. “He waves to the babies on the wall calendar,” Ms. Sheppard said.

Experts in child development said it would be useful to start researching this generation of children to learn more about the effects of relative isolation. There is a distant precedent: Research was published in 1974 that tracked children who lived through a different world-shaking moment, the Great Depression. The study offers reason for hope.

“To an unexpected degree, the study of the children of the Great Depression followed a trajectory of resilience into the middle years of life,” wrote Glen Elder, the author of that research.

Brenda Volling, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and an expert in social and emotional development, said one takeaway is that Depression-era children who fared best came from families who overcame the economic fallout more readily and who, as a result, were less hostile, angry and depressed.

To that end, what infants, toddlers and other children growing up in the Covid era need most now is stable, nurturing and loving interaction with their parents, Dr. Volling said.

“These children are not lacking in social interaction,” she said, noting that they are getting “the most important” interaction from their parents.

A complication may involve how the isolation felt by parents causes them to be less connected to their children.

“They are trying to manage work and family in the same environment,” Dr. Volling said. The problems cascade, she added, when parents grow “hostile or depressed and can’t respond to their kids, and get irritable and snap.”

“That’s always worse than missing a play date.”