“I’m terrified for my kids.”
That’s what my friend texted me last week, putting into words what I’d been feeling. Like mine, her kids are grown and in their 30’s. Two years ago we spent many happy hours talking about our kids’ upcoming weddings, planning and celebrating. Now, we are terrified.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created what feels like a second epidemic of fear and anxiety. I’m a business coach specializing in emotional intelligence, so I deal with fear and anxiety a lot. But even I wasn’t prepared for handling the terror of being separated from my grown children in a pandemic.
In my most harrowing moments, I feel that, having raised them, I have the right to tell my children to come home in an emergency. This is a mistake. They are fully fledged adults and I have no right to tell them to do anything. They are the high functioning, independent, and responsible people I raised them to be. They have their own apartment and their own jobs. As far as they’re concerned, they are home.
But emotions don’t concern themselves with rights. Emotions have their own logic and concern themselves only with the desires of the person feeling them. And right now, I have a powerful desire to have my children, however grown they are, to be with me.
A few weeks ago, I started thinking I could find a clever way to get them home with me. Now, I’ve been around long enough to be wary when I think I’m being smart. That’s usually my ego talking, and it doesn’t always express itself in ways that are helpful. Inadvisably, I listened to that clever little voice in my head. It assured me that I’m a professional and that I could employ my best coaching practices.
In my business, I help people distinguish between what they can control, what they can’t control, and what they might be able to influence if they go about it the right way. Anyone who has grown children knows that they are in the second category, what you can’t control. But I was terrified, and my fear employed my ego to convince me that maybe they were in the third category, and I should influence them. So I tried.
At first, I sent them articles from the New York Times. I talked to them about statistical probabilities, the curve, the lack of ventilators and masks, the uncertainties. I tried to sound empirical and scientific, and certainly not terrified. My daughter got an A in high school bio. She can be scientific, I thought to myself.
She simply assured me, with the cool assurance of the scientifically informed: “We are self-isolating.” On Instagram, my daughter posted a lovely dinner with candles, meat, and fresh vegetables. My son-in-law posted his running route around Manhattan. “How is that self-isolating?” I asked. They were unruffled. They are doing essential activities, just like the CDC says.
As my influencing tactics got more desperate, they got less effective. I sent another, more alarming article. “They think it’s airborne,” I texted. This didn’t faze them a bit. “It’s a good thing our building doesn’t have central air,” they replied. In the smiley face emoji that followed, I thought I detected a smirk.
This terror of being separated from our grown kids is hitting everyone I know. The fact that we can’t do anything about it makes it worse. My father is terrified about my brother who works in a hospital in NYC. My dad confessed to me. “I’m just sick about it but what can I do? I already told him I wish he’d never taken that job. Now, I can’t say anything.”
That’s the problem. Once you give voice to this terror, you have rendered it useless. Our children are defended against our anxieties and find them mildly amusing at best, annoying at worst. When they were little, that terror was mobilizing. It prompted me to put screaming babies in a lukewarm bath at midnight to bring down a fever. To make emergency trips to the doctor for a broken arm or stitches. To wake up at 2 a.m. and wonder, is my child breathing? Then to get up and go check so that I could go back to sleep. When your kids are young, fear is empowering.
This, however, is debilitating. I know that my anxiety is mine and does not serve my kids at all. Still, it needs to be served. Even though I knew I shouldn’t, eventually I laid it bare. In my lowest moment, I simply begged them to leave NYC and come home. My heart fell out on the table and lay there beating for all to see. On the tiny screen over FaceTime, I saw their compassion, the pity in their eyes, the amusement playing about their lips. They didn’t want to laugh at me, or maybe they did but were too polite.
I had done a good job raising them to be caring and independent. Now, they are far away, they are grown adults, and there is nothing I can do.
I know they are smart, healthy, and resilient. I know they will get through this without me. Maybe it’s that thought—that they really don’t need me—that hurts the most. I want them to need me, but deep down, I know the need is mine. They don’t need me. I need them.
On the news, there is a lot of talk about how younger generations should take the virus seriously, if not for themselves, then for older generations. There is no talk about the older generation’s need to be near their offspring. Every instinct we have is to keep them close.
Medically it makes sense but emotionally, the idea of socially distancing our own children feels absurd. As a mother, you don’t get over the fact that this person literally sprang from your own body. There are always moments when you have to reconcile this fully fledged adult with the child you held in your hands, so small, so vulnerable, so much a part of you, like giving birth to your own heart and holding it as beats there outside of yourself.
That feeling in the chest doesn’t change, even though they are no longer children, no longer small and vulnerable. If I were honest with myself, I’d admit that I’m the one who’s vulnerable. This is not a thought that comes easily. The last thing I want to feel is vulnerable, so instead, my clever emotions feel terror and project it onto my children, the locus of my heart.
I need to stop giving into my fears and start being a good mom again. My adult children don’t need me to tell them to come home. They need me to be confident in them so they can be confident in themselves. Their resilience comes in part from knowing that I believe in them and their ability to make good decisions, even if that decision is to stay away from me. In fact, their refusal to come home has nothing to do with not wanting to be near me. It’s what they do out of love.
So, I’ll do what I tell my clients to do with strong emotions. Acknowledge them, understand them, and use them to inform ways to act that empower and enable others to be strong and resilient. We have at least another month of social distancing, maybe much longer. So, yes, I’m terrified for my kids and want more than anything to have them here with me. But for the moment, I’ll call them and tell them they are doing the right thing and be confident that we can all ride this out, together or apart.