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We've Reached The Secret Rule-Breaking Phase Of The Pandemic

For over two months, America did a really good job of social distancing. We did such a good job, we began to pat ourselves on the backs. Cell phone movement analyzed by Reuters showed that the majority of us stayed home through March, April, and part of May. Parents sheltered in place with their whiny, anxious, COVID-schooling progeny. We made sure to complain about it loudly across all of the various social media platforms, but we did it.

Then in mid-May, against conflicting reports and opinions, parts of America began to open back up. Some states opened restaurants, others daycares. Memorial Day weekend saw photos of crowds of people enjoying water sports, crowded bars, and the traditional picnic. Parents began to struggle with decision-making in this gray area, or Yellow Phase, as many states are calling the period after lockdown. Some families are wrestling with pressure to resume normal life before they feel comfortable, turning down play date invites, refusing to see grandparents, forfeiting their daycare spots. Meanwhile, other families are secretly breaking the rules. In the age where social media earmarks every event, they are having birthday parties and happy hours without posting about it. “COVID-shaming is a real thing,” says one Minneapolis mom (who has a secret nanny).

Dr. Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, a New Jersey psychologist, and author of Mom Brain, specializes in treating stressed mothers with cognitive behavioral therapy. She says that making comparisons is bad under normal circumstances, but particularly challenging right now. “Moms see other mothers, either on social media or in real life, navigating the pandemic in a certain way, and think about how their own pandemic response compares. The end result is almost always guilt. And of course, there’s the fear of judgment — that other moms will see what they’re doing with their kids and judge them for being too restrictive or not restrictive enough.”

Sarah, a single mother of one child in Chicago, has a secret pandemic boyfriend. “We have obviously not been maintaining social distancing, ahem… but I don’t feel that conflicted about it. I have just chosen not to talk about it.” Sarah is a hair stylist and knows that if any clients got wind she was breaking social distancing, they would ask her to bend rules for them, also, or take their business elsewhere. Like so many, she has chosen her area of risk — her new beau. “My child’s dad doesn’t even know, but he’s taken our child to Costco with no mask on, so I only feel a little guilty about it,” she says. And she’s not the only one. Sarah says Tinder has been as busy as ever through the pandemic. Potential mates are either “bored and inviting over internet strangers for sex, or reminding you to social distance to save lives!”

I’ve kept it secret, but we’ve had three purely social visits.

In Atlanta, Adeena, a mom of four boys, including one with asthma, wrestles with the weighing of risk. She feels the need to be more careful in social settings even as her county opens up and she sees friends posting about life returning to semi-normal activity. The biggest pressure in their life, though, comes from grandparents. “Both sets really want to see the kids. One set works from home, the other set has continued to work in high-contact jobs,” she explains. “We feel the need to be careful with the second set, but it doesn’t seem fair that one set of grandparents is ‘safer’ than another.”

They have ended up compromising with short, socially distant visits, but no one was happy with the result. One grandmother felt she didn’t make the visit fun enough, and no toddler understands why they can’t hug their grandparents. Overall, Adeena found it stressful and fraught with tension. She didn’t post any pictures on social media — it was as if the event never happened. Some friends would think she is overreacting by making her kids wear masks to see their grandparents, while others would shame her for seeing them at all. It was not worth a few likes.

Photo by TheStewartofNY/Getty Images

Dobrow DiMarco sees many mothers struggling with social media comparisons right now. “My patients often get completely caught up in what other mothers are doing, either on social media or in real life, and use this to guide their decision-making. However, when I ask these moms to think through their values and priorities and consider how conforming socially stacks up against keeping their child physically and mentally healthy, they usually come to the conclusion that they want to prioritize their kids’ physical and mental health.” She advises trying to limit social media during this season of life, though it can be hard when we are so bored. Instead, think through each decision within the vacuum of their family’s needs.

One San Diego family had to take a step back from all the societal noise and wrestle with some hard decisions. Lysa’s husband Juro is battling cancer, and, in order to keep their home healthcare services and protect healthcare workers, their family was issued strict rules about quarantining. Lysa understands these rules, but she has watched her husband fall apart emotionally and intellectually under the strain of social isolation. “He was giving up. I didn’t think he would make it until the end of the month,” she says. Lysa asked several friends to come see him, even though they are in the hospital daily and have constant high-risk contact. “I’ve kept it secret, but we’ve had three purely social visits. It worked, and I’ve seen him turn a corner.”

Kids don’t social distance when they play, no matter how much we admonish them.

Even doctors, who know all the risks associated with COVID-19, have struggled with the rules. Jocelyn, an internal medicine doctor in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, feels like her family should set an example of perfect social distancing. She saw her children, 10 and 8, though, suffering from devastating effects to their mental health during the shutdown. “I have a healthy respect for coronavirus. It’s easy to think ‘its not that bad’ because most people in central Pennsylvania don’t know someone who has been personally affected by the disease. But I watch the virus counts daily, and I take it seriously.”

And yet, she made the fraught decision to let her children begin to have play dates with some neighborhood friends. Kids don’t social distance when they play, no matter how much we admonish them, and she wrestles with guilt daily. “Because I work at a hospital, my family could be a source of infection to our neighborhood. I get literally sick to my stomach when I think about that.”

Her hospital has begun to test everyone coming in for elective procedures, and the number of “silent” COVID-19 cases is very low in their area. She realizes that could change in an instant, and empathizes with every mom wrestling with how to proceed in this pandemic.

“As a doctor, I know that the only way the virus burden will stay low is with continued social distancing. I feel that by letting my kids socialize I am not doing my part. But by not letting them socialize, I was hurting them, too. I’ve accepted that, honestly, I will just feel bad either way.”

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support.