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How Coronavirus Is Making Strange Bedfellows of Us All

What it's really like in limbo land

Illustration of a woman sitting on a couch with her adult son laying across her using a game controller

Brian Rea

My son is home from college. Ordinarily that sentence fills me with delight. We plan fun outings, we stock the fridge, we restock the fridge.

Now, like every other parent who is sequestered with a perpetually grounded young adult, “home from college” fills me with anxiety. How long?

I feel terrible for him. His senior year was canceled and classes moved online. Dorm shuttered. All his personal possessions in limbo. He’s two months away from graduation and a new job overseas. The last thing he wants is to be stuck in a two-bedroom condo with his parents. I get it. We’re dull, we go to bed at 9 p.m. We have a deplorable lack of snack foods.

He’s a young buck, a social guy, and we have rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have rules. And he is at an age that is the zenith of “You’re not the boss of me.” He bridles against our despotic reign of safety and common sense.

Coronavirus sequestering reminds me of the inchoate terror I last felt when he was 3 years old and he slipped from my hand and crossed a highway median. Come back here! Oh my God, you’re going to get yourself killed!

Within the first 48 hours after he came home to us, March 14, he went out on a date. At 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday. With the excuse that he was just stepping out to “put some things” in his car.

And then he didn’t come back. Normally, I wouldn’t be awake, but as a hypervigilant mother, I was. I lost my flipping mind. Where are you? There is a pandemic! You’re not supposed to go out!

My husband was all, “He’s 22. That’s what young men do. He’s entitled to his privacy.”

Yeah, that advice is so March 12, 2020.

There was drama. He came back alive. With hickeys. I shouted at him about endangering others and respect. I levied the curse that someday my future grandchildren will torture him with risk-taking stunts. (Assuming we all live through this.)

He’s been good since then. (The girlfriend left for Alabama. That helps.) He stays mostly indoors, does his online homework. But this whole virus thing has stirred up my parental dread. From the moment he was born, I’ve carried this terror — that despite my very best efforts, I’ll fail at this most primal of human goals — to keep my offspring alive.

Like most, I learned to suppress the terror, not let it overwhelm me lest I become that parent — the helicopter harpy, the worrywart, the playgroup mommy who disinfects all the toys. Now, thanks to 24/7 Covid-19 coverage, I am that parent. #washyourhands.

It’s not just the germy threat he poses to himself and others. It’s that I’m anxious all the time because I live with him. For nearly four years I have not lived with him and I’ve been blissfully ignorant of any hare-brained thing he might do. As a mother, I know too intimately what he’s capable of. Like that time he broke his arm riding his bike down a flight of stairs. Or when he sliced off part of his ear in a sauna (don’t ask). I could hardly control him when I was in full possession of my parenting powers.

All this youthful energy needs structure, and I’m too damn old to patrol the perimeter any longer. It makes me appreciate how other cultures have dealt with this age group through arranged marriage and military conscription. Now I’m soft. I got used to the empty nest.

Ordinarily (will ordinary ever become a thing again?) I would welcome a little risk-taking and take a secret pride in my son’s independence and hell-bent ways. Now I want to wrap him in a cocoon of suffocating maternal love and disinfectant. Don’t leave me! Don’t touch that!

When I was his age, in 1988, I went to South Africa to interview anti-apartheid activists for a year. There was no global communication then. No email. Not even reliable long-distance phone calls. I think I sent my parents a buoyant postcard that said, “Got tear-gassed today.”

Mom, Dad, I am so sorry. I don’t know how you lived 53 years with the terror. Karma is a bitch.