Megan Carnaroli: Maintaining healthy relationships is critical to weathering the pandemic

Every individual or household unit has made choices about their levels of exposure, but families and friend groups all over the country are splintering because once we’ve made those choices, we don’t have a simple, objective way to categorize ourselves. So I made one. For the fifth time this month, I’ve received some version of this text or phone call

Rhode Island News: Megan Carnaroli: Maintaining healthy relationships is critical to weathering the pandemic

August 13, 2020, 11:46 am

By Megan Carnaroli

Every individual or household unit has made choices about their levels of exposure, but families and friend groups all over the country are splintering because once we’ve made those choices, we don’t have a simple, objective way to categorize ourselves. So I made one.

For the fifth time this month, I’ve received some version of this text or phone call from someone I have neither seen nor talked to in months: “Do you want to get together?” 

And for the fifth time this month, I have vacillated between wondering if I’d just imagined this whole pandemic and throwing my phone into the ocean. 

I can’t be the only one who feels like this. 

Definitions of terms like “lockdown,” “isolation,” and “quarantine” have become fuzzy and blended into the descriptors everyone is using to talk about our varying levels of physical distance from the rest of the world.  

There are lots of ways to describe what our family of four has been doing since March. We haven’t been sick, so we aren’t technically “quarantining,” and we aren’t “isolating” because we go for hikes in the woods and I venture out for food and supplies, quickly and with my mask on, once or twice per month. But we aren’t going to church. Or going into work. Or going out to eat. We haven’t been to the gym or a playground. We’re doing haircuts in the driveway. I have seen zero of my friends. Except over Zoom. So. Much. Zoom. 

My kids have also seen zero friends. One Monday in the middle of March we told my first grader that she wouldn’t be going into school, not realizing that the previous Friday was the last time she’d see her BFF in person. And our preschooler stands at the end of our driveway and yells to his buddy across the street who is standing at the end of his own driveway. We call it “scream-chatting.” It would be funnier if it wasn’t so depressing. 

We spent Easter just the four of us. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Fourth of July too. As we now have a better understanding of how this disease is transmitted, we’ve started to expand our circle to include our parents, which makes me feel silly and guilty and regretful that they weren’t in our “inner circle” at the start of this. But my mom gently reminded me that this disease is deadly and at the beginning of lockdown we weren’t sure if we even needed to wear masks and thought we could contract COVID-19 from our mail and groceries. 

So, a lot has changed. 

What hasn’t changed is the reality that we still have a long way to go. That the second wave is coming and the limits that my husband and I have placed on our family’s social interactions will need to remain tightened up, not just by our family’s edict, but by the higher authority of our governor. 

My social media has become littered with pictures of people with no masks on, out to dinner with friends, at bridal showers, going to camp…meanwhile, I just let my kid hug her grandmother for the first time in five months. I feel devastated and resentful by what I am perceiving as a lack of personal or social responsibility. Furthermore, I have friends and family that are restricting their exposure more than I am. Doing errands and going to sparsely populated parks and beaches (that let us keep a generous social distance from the general public) means that I can’t visit with some loved ones in their homes without a mask on or in some cases we can’t visit at all. I’m trading running into CVS (rather than ordering items online and waiting for delivery) and my kids’ need for some woods exploration, for not being able to visit in person with people I really care about and who could definitely use the company. This breaks my heart in about a million different ways. Am I alienating my loved ones for a few adventures collecting shells? Is running out for some maple syrup on a Saturday morning worth giving up ever visiting my immune-compromised friend until we have a vaccine? These questions are creating cracks in my understanding of how relationships are supposed to work. How can our collective cognitive dissonance be this extreme? I thought we were all in this together.

I’ve declined tepid backyard birthday invitations and texts to get together (and people have declined mine) by fumbling through conversations about how we are approaching keeping ourselves safe. Here’s how it’s been going so far – not great. I usually explain that our son has asthma and we haven’t visited with any friends. We have seen limited family, but only outside and very infrequently. This inevitably leads to some prickly questioning and judging. The “judging” typically happens on our end because as a family that is somewhat restricting our exposure, the onus is usually on us to calculate the risk of a new exposure based on an awkward interrogation of someone who wants to hang out with us. It’s not supposed to be like this. If I don’t want to go out on a Friday night, I’m supposed to say, “Sorry, we’re busy that night,” not, “Sorry, I don’t trust your assessment of the amount of exposure you’ve had to a deadly disease and I want to keep my husband and kids alive.” 

Here’s what I know to be true; maintaining healthy relationships with our friends and family is critical to weathering this storm. Until now, we have had no framework and no common language to do this and our collective mental health has suffered immeasurably. Everyone has spent an incredible amount of time and energy learning the rapidly changing nature of contracting COVID-19 and then working to prevent that at home or at work. As a result, we haven’t tended properly to our shifting relationships with one another. 

This has been bugging me for months. Everyone has watched the press conferences and read the articles and looked at the charts that show how risky certain activities are. But we have been left to our own devices to figure out how to make the right decisions with this information. Every individual or household unit has made choices about their levels of exposure, but families and friend groups all over the country are splintering because once we’ve made those choices, we don’t have a simple, objective way to categorize ourselves. So I made one. 

Using this index as a framework, we can begin to better communicate about spending time together. Instead of tense discussions wrapped up in suspicion and unwanted judgement, we can move through conversations with clear, concise expectations and boundaries. Once you or your household have made a decision about which group you fall into, this index will be helpful as a jumping off point for discussions with friends and family.    

Here’s my proof that this works. My daughter Natalie hasn’t seen her best friend (let’s call her Emma) since March. Emma’s mother texted to see if we could get the girls together for a playdate. I decided it was time to road-test my shiny new COVID-19 Exposure Index. So I sent her a screen-shot, told her we were in Group E and said “I’m not sure the girls would be able to stay socially distant, so let’s have them FaceTime.” She replied with “Okay.” and we chatted for a few more minutes. And then something incredible happened. 

I felt bad…for Natalie. 

Because I didn’t have to explain and justify our choices, I didn’t have to slide into an awkward interrogation which would inevitably lead to me admitting, “No, Emma is too risky for my daughter to play with.” The index allowed Emma’s mom to decide what her family’s own exposure level was and the ways it didn’t match ours. She could come to that conclusion on her own without me, an acquaintance, having to point it out. I didn’t have to end the conversation with a knot in my stomach about making this mother feel bad or feel frustrated that she put me in the position of having to say no. Instead, for the FIRST time, I felt sad for my own daughter. I’ve been so immersed in this enormous cultural shift, busy trying to protect my own family’s physical health and feeling weird about having these strange conversations, that I hadn’t taken a moment to grieve or even acknowledge the loss of Natalie not seeing her best friend for the better part of six months. If that had happened to me at that age, it would have crushed me. The stakes are so high at the moment, that missing her little friend Emma seemed to be a minor side-effect of staying home all the time – but also staying alive. However, to a kid,  that’s HUGE. Having a framework to talk about our family’s exposure level in an objective, matter-of-fact, non-judgmental way gave me the gift of being able to identify the actual devastating part of this moment. Spoiler alert: It was not the two adults who were struggling to navigate these unfamiliar waters, but the two inseparable seven year olds who haven’t giggled or swung on the monkey bars or played spies together in almost half a year. 

I also wish I’d had this index about a month ago when figuring out how to return to one of my jobs. A few times per week, I do housework for a family friend. Ruth is 83 years old, lives alone, is recovering from heart surgery and hasn’t left her house or yard since March 8th. Because I am in Group E and Ruth is in Group A, I wear a mask in her house and so does she. The first time she asked me to come over again after these last few months apart, I could tell she was worried and overly apologetic about asking me to wear a mask while I worked inside. I know I’m not likely to be sick (so according to me, a mask is probably not needed) but because I am in a higher exposure group, I must be as safe as possible with someone so vulnerable and take precautions that Ruth decides are necessary to protect herself. She might have had me come back to work sooner if it had been easier to talk about what coming back would look like for both of us. 

At first glance, these seem like frivolous problems for people who are uncomfortable having difficult conversations. But if we dig a little bit, it becomes clear that there is a chasm of hurt and suspicion and heartbreak underneath. As drafts of this index and idea have made the rounds to my close family and friends for discussion and constructive criticism, the same thing happens almost every time. After I explain the concept, the anecdotes start pouring out as people realize how much tension they are storing up about loved ones they are starting to resent: “My brother-in-law thinks masks don’t work,” or “My dad wants to see the kids, but he’s going out to eat with his friends and I don’t know how crowded the restaurant was or who his friends have been exposed to and it’s a mess…” or “My grandkids went to camp and I’m afraid to see them now.” And the resentment goes both ways:  “My mother says if we want to come over we have to wear masks the whole time. How could she think I would endanger her?” These examples go on and on and on. This new dynamic among families and friend groups has created fractures that seem to be widening and increasingly irreparable. 

But Emma’s mom gives me hope. And so does Ruth, who showed this index to her own daughter and felt relieved and truly understood for the first time in months. There is so much to worry about in this moment, conversations with those we love shouldn’t be one of those things. We must not neglect our relationships but rather, tend to them with intention and grace. Armed with a new communication tool, we can start to adjust the way we are talking to one another. By creating a clear, simple framework for ourselves and our households, we can begin to write a new story about how we came out on the other side of this pandemic when all the odds were against us. Using this guide and a common language will relieve some of the pressure we are all feeling as we steer ourselves out of these unfamiliar waters together. If we do the work to listen, support and care for one another, by understanding and respecting each other’s boundaries, our relationships will not become another inevitable casualty of this never-ending year.

[Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.jpg used under the Creative Commons License]