One of the (very few) benefits of being in my 60s is that I can finally own up to a trait that’s pretty retro: that what I cherish most in life is my family. I might endanger my credentials as a second-wave feminist with this admission, but I’ve come to realize that the pleasure I get from being with my daughters, their husbands, and my granddaughters outshines whatever pride I take in my writing career. I will drop everything to see my granddaughters, ages 2 and almost 5, even if it means ignoring a looming deadline.
Sign up for The Atlantic’s daily newsletter.
Each weekday evening, get an overview of the day’s biggest news, along with fascinating ideas, images, and voices.
So when people talk about how the pandemic should make us slow down and learn to appreciate what really matters in life, the advice strikes me as a cruel, unfunny joke. I already know what matters in life. The pandemic isn’t clarifying that for me; it’s ripping it away.
I had delighted in being an involved grandmother from the moment I was invited into the delivery room for the birth of my first granddaughter. I had a regular date with her—and, a couple of years later, her little sister—that was the highlight of my week. Every Thursday my husband, Jeff, and I would take the one-hour subway ride from our apartment in Manhattan to our daughter’s house in Brooklyn, and we would pick up the girls at day care and pre-K. We would walk them home, sometimes stopping at the playground to let them clamber and climb; we would read books to them, build with blocks together, cook up some mac and cheese; we would bathe them and snuggle them and put them to bed.
The last time we did any of this was March 7 (we had changed our Thursday date to Friday that week, and then we slept over). We haven’t hugged our granddaughters—or, for that matter, our own adult daughters—since then, and my arms ache. When I got a look at the “cuddle curtains” people posted online—basically clear-plastic shower curtains with sewn-in sleeves into which you can place your gloved hands—to show how to make hugging Grandma safe again, I appreciated the ingenuity. But what broke my heart was the universality of the hunger for those little ones, and the gratitude for their awkward, sanitized hugs.
I know how lucky Jeff and I were to be part of our granddaughters’ lives the way we were until March 7. I know how lucky we are now, too, and not only because (so far, at least) we’re all healthy, with safe, clean places to shelter, and everyone (so far, at least) has paid employment and enough food to eat. We’re fortunate because in the middle of the upheavals of the pandemic, we have a daughter and son-in-law who worked hard to figure out how to keep us in our granddaughters’ lives. They set up a daily “Circle Time With Grandma and Grumps” as part of their new normal.
We cherish this time, even though the girls have been reduced to pixels without scent or skin. Sometimes we watch them hug each other or sit on their parent’s lap during Circle Time, and even as I delight in seeing that the girls are having a happy childhood despite so much disruption and uncertainty, I find my mind reeling. The other day I realized that, with the 2-year-old now going through potty training, I changed my last-ever diaper back in March without even knowing it. What other milestones will continue to occur beyond our Zoom lens?
More painfully, what do the girls think happened to us? Yes, we’re there on the laptop screen every morning. But why aren’t we right there with them the way we used to be? The older one recently told her mother that one of the things she misses from “before the coronavirus”—a new favorite phrase, because she loves a good five-syllable word—is “going to the playground with Grandma and Grumps.” What else do you miss? my daughter asked. “Going to the Dollar Store with Grandma to get a toy.” Anything else? my daughter asked, no doubt feeling a little wistful about the pattern she could see emerging. “When Grandma would pick me up early from school.” Everything she said she missed involved Jeff and me and our Thursday afternoons.
Last week, the girls had a FaceTime call with my brother and his wife, who are staying with their son and daughter-in-law and their 3-year-old grandson and his newborn baby brother. A few hours later, clearly mulling over the incongruities of their three-generation set-up versus ours, my older granddaughter asked my daughter, “Can we see Grandma and Grumps?”
Can we? If my brother can stay with his grandchildren, does that mean I can visit mine? If states start opening up for business and allowing small social gatherings, does that include grandparents seeing their grandchildren? All the generations in our family have been quarantining since mid-March, working from our laptops and going out only for exercise and groceries; are we safe enough now? If Jeff and I showed up at our granddaughters’ house, would we have to wear masks and stay six feet away, or could we get down on the floor and take them in our arms?
The guidance about the transmission and lethality of this virus keeps changing, making it hard to understand what the real risks would be of seeing and hugging our granddaughters. Early in the pandemic, the only acceptable groupings seemed to be the ones that started quarantining together on day one. COVID-19 was presented as a disease of greatest risk to people over 60; the living situations everyone was most worried about, after prisons and nursing homes, were the intergenerational households in which children could be asymptomatic carriers who might be putting their grandparents’ lives at risk. That described about 10 percent of U.S. households, according to the Census Bureau, or about 64 million Americans.
Back in March, Jeff and I, ages 68 and 66, respectively, and therefore in the high-risk demographic, briefly toyed with the idea of visiting our granddaughters anyway; we were that desperate to see them. What stopped us from driving over was, in part, the uncertainty of whether the real danger was to Jeff and me, or to our daughter and her family. Yes, the risks are highest for those of us over 60, but that doesn’t mean the risk for everyone else is zero. I personally know of four ruggedly healthy people in their 30s and 40s, the same age as our kids, who were ravaged for months by COVID-19. News accounts of the struggles of these young people are what keep me up at night. And even our granddaughters aren’t as safe as we once believed, now that doctors have identified a rare complication of coronavirus infection, a multisystem inflammatory syndrome. If something happened to our children or grandchildren because of what Jeff and I had brought into their home, I would never get over it.
In the end, the combination of so many scary omens—the wail of sirens in our neighborhood, officials’ fear of running out of hospital beds, and the pervasive belief that grandparents were in need of protection—made our nascent plan seem foolish and self-indulgent.
How long can we keep away without sending the girls the wrong message? Especially as states start opening up, and allowing some reconfiguration of out-of-household gatherings. Especially when my older granddaughter knows that her cousin is with his grandparents. Especially when, as summer traditions make families everywhere rethink their doleful separations, she hears that other kids she knows are with their grandparents too. What will she think of Jeff and me—or worse, of her own lovability—if the weeks go on and on and we’re still not there? And what does the younger one make of this all? She’s only 2 years old, and can’t possibly understand why Grandma and Grumps have changed from real-world people who held and nuzzled her into screenshots as two-dimensional as the characters on Sesame Street.
We’re missing milestones, yes, but I can deal with that; our daughter and son-in-law send enough photos and videos to make us almost feel like we’re there. What I worry about, though, is whether we’re hurting the bond somehow. During the first years of their lives, the girls learned, as we kept showing up week after week, that their grandparents could be relied on to take care of them, with love and attention, while their parents were out. Now they might be learning, at some deep level that defies rational explanation, that we’re not so reliable after all.
The deepest joy of grandmotherhood for me has been how it elongates time. I used to relax into the slow pace of those Thursday afternoons and evenings with the girls, happy to spend long, languid minutes on the floor with them, playing endless games with magnet tiles or doing puzzles or taking neighborhood walks in a way I never allowed myself as a young mother. When my own two girls were little, I would rush through playtime with them, always aware of something else I needed to be doing: getting back to my writing, making a phone call, putting dinner on the table. As a grandmother, I know how quickly childhood disappears, and how inconsequential all those chores and distractions are in the long run. In the days before March 7, whenever I was with the girls, they had my full attention for as long as they wanted it; they deserved nothing less. Now less is all I give them.
Usually when we sign off of our morning Zoom session with our granddaughters, we sing the goodbye song the girls learned at day care, everyone waves and blows kisses, and we leave the app. But about a month into this daily routine, the 2-year-old started to cry. “I don’t want ‘Circle Time Is Over,’” she said. “Grandma! Grumps!” She was still crying as we disconnected. I’ve thought about this call every day since. When we sing “Circle Time Is Over” and the granddaughters’ sweet images disappear, I feel like crying too.