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I’m Afraid I’ll Get My Boyfriend’s Mom Sick, But I Want To See Him

In this week's "How to Plague": I’m fed up with my family, and some maternal coronavirus queries.

Posted on May 9, 2020, at 10:46 a.m. ET

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I’m Scaachi Koul, a culture writer for BuzzFeed News, taking over from your trusted How To Plague columnist Katie Notopoulos (who is on maternity leave!). I'm not an expert on anything but I am very bossy, so naturally I’m here to tell you how to live during a pandemic. I’ll be doling out advice on coronavirus-related etiquette, moral quandaries, and little squabbles, sometimes with actual expert input.

My boyfriend of like seven years and I are broke-ass grad students living with our respective parents in our hometown. His mom was diagnosed with leukemia six months ago, received a bone marrow transplant, and is now on the mend. (Hallelujah!) That being said, after a bone marrow transplant your immune system is shot and pretty worthless, so, global pandemic or not, it requires that everyone in her house be extremely careful. His parents are working from home and being super cautious with this whole thing. Mine, on the other hand, are healthcare providers and are not able to be as cautious.

All of that to say, there is no safe way for me to see my boyfriend without putting his mother's health at risk and, also, I am going crazy stressing out about how long this pandemic and uncertainty will last and worrying that I won't see him again until like 2022. I saw one article this morning that said it could last another 18 months and then I promptly broke down in tears.

I know that putting his mother at risk is completely and totally out of the question, so I am not looking for you to tell me to do something insane to justify something reckless. I guess I am looking for any suggestions on how to cope with this insanity and uncertainty both in and outside of my relationship or even just an "I see you and that sucks."
—Jasmine

I see you, and that sucks.

But you’re right: You can’t go tug dicks with your boyfriend right now, no matter how sad you are. At best, you’ll hang out and feel anxious the whole time about whether you’re a carrier inadvertently transferring the virus to his family. At worst, his mother could get sick at a time when she truly cannot afford to be.

I checked with an expert on the risks your sort-of-mother-in-law is facing. Dr. Miguel-Angel Perales is the chief of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Adult Bone Marrow Transplantation Service. (God, imagine being competent enough to have that title? Mine is just Rude Word Lady, and that’s still longer than it should be.) Perales affirms what you already know to be true: Bone marrow transplant patients often take drugs that suppress their immune systems. After the transplant, Perales said, “During the first year, patients are at a much higher risk of infection than other people, and therefore have to be very careful about what they do.”

“Any patient who has had a bone marrow transplant will tell you that they are the world experts at social distancing.”

So you already know that you can’t go hang out with your boyfriend while he’s tending to his mom, and like I said: It sucks big time. But one silver lining here is that he’s helping his mom out and keeping her company during a time when she’s even less capable of going outside and enjoying her life. “Any patient who has had a bone marrow transplant will tell you that they are the world experts at social distancing,” Perales said. During the first few months — never mind during a pandemic — patients are to avoid crowds, avoid going out in public without a mask or gloves, avoid movies or restaurants, avoid anyone sick, and can’t go back to work. It might be a comfort to you to reorder your thinking, and instead of feeling like you’re being kept away from your boyfriend, view it as such a blessing that he’s able to be with his mom during this unique hell.

As for you, I know how tough it is to try to muscle through this without any clear end date, but you do have to remember that it will end. The more we stay away from each other and protect the vulnerable — like your dude’s mom — the closer we get to a point where we can start having some limited contact with each other. And just because you can’t spend time with your boyfriend the way you used to doesn’t mean you can’t interact at all.

If you haven’t set up consistent remote dates with him yet, start doing it. Watch movies together and play games. Start a protected Zoom call (make sure it has a password!) and show each other your butts for a few hours. Have a glass of wine on someone’s porch, yours or his, and stay (at least) 6 feet apart. Mask up and meet at the park for a socially distant picnic, which most experts agree is probably safe. Foster intimacy where you can. When we get through this, you — and your boyfriend’s mom — will be glad you toughed it out. We’re all going to die anyway, but let’s at least pick a way that isn’t so painful.

After a trip to India in late February, my mom was unable to return to my brother's home in Manila and had to come back to the US. She has been living with me since March 13. My son has been out of school since the beginning of March. My boyfriend was laid off from his job last week. Even though my job could be done from home (I worked from home on a two-week quarantine when my mom got back to the states) I am told to be at work for solidarity. Basically my question is: All I do is go to work and then I go home to a place where I'm the only one paying bills and I have no time to myself. I tried to go walk in a park and there are tons of people there. I have no solitude and I feel like it is negatively impacting my mental health. How do I cope with the uncertainty of my mom not getting to go back to Asia? How do I handle homeschool and work? Who do I get to complain to? I have a job and money and so many have it worse. Why can't I stop feeling sorry for my situation?
—Karly

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were discussing the time my parents visited us in New York last fall and how hard it would’ve been if they had gotten stuck with us in Brooklyn during the pandemic. Currently, they’re stuck in India. Neither are places they actually live, so it’s not clear which would be better: having them stuck with family abroad or having them stuck here, with me. Both are terrible options, since one makes me worry endlessly for them and the other would mean they’d be in my goddamn shit every single day for months and I would have surely murdered them by now.

You, regrettably, like a growing number of other Americans, are now in that tough spot. Moms! Can’t live without them, can’t get them to shut up, shut UP, WHY WON’T YOU SHUT UP.

I chatted about this with Neil Leibowitz, the chief medical officer at Talkspace, an online therapy service. (Pretty essential right now, but more on that later.) “Cut yourself a break!” he said. “If you anchor yourself to at least I’m not dying, it’s just going to burn you out.” There’s also no reason that you alone should be shouldering all the burdens of your household. Can your boyfriend help out with homeschool for your son? Can your mom? Who is handling the bulk of the housework and the cooking? Who gets the groceries? If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s time to get your family to help you out in the places they can.

You have earned some time to be selfish for a sliver of the day, every day. 

But it also sounds like you really need some time alone. If going for walks feels fraught, then maybe you can find one corner of your neighborhood that isn’t crawling with unmasked hooligans, where you can be outside. Take a book or a podcast to that place once a day and relish the time alone. If you have access to a car, send your family out for a long drive, or tell them to go for a (safely socially distant) walk, so you can have an hour in the house without someone bothering you. Ritualize it so it’s always the same time — maybe in the morning before the fresh hell of each day starts anew, or in the evening, as a way to unwind before bed (or as I like to call my evening relaxation ritual: staring into the dark void, wondering when I will get to see my family again).

“It’s about finding things that feel normal to you,” Leibowitz said. “I’m not looking for extraordinary. I’m not looking for something that you look forward to, like your dream vacation. Just find some stuff that you can do, that you enjoy.” You have earned some time to be selfish for a sliver of the day, every day. You need to start demanding that time for yourself.

This personal time could, of course, be actual therapy. You’re handling a massive emotional and financial burden along with the anxiety about a deadly virus — it might be time to find some specialized help for coping with all this. Plus: Therapists are basically paid to listen to you complain, except they also have this annoying tendency to help you find solutions.

This Mother’s Day, get your mom something nice and try to remind yourself how comforting it is to know that she’s alive and well. But also make sure to set aside part of the day to celebrate yourself and get the space you need. And if your son and boyfriend don’t go balls-out for you, please write back to me so I can murder them myself.

My husband and I haven’t seen anyone in 6 weeks. I’ve gone to the store twice, practicing safe distancing, but otherwise have things delivered. My parents have a very similar quarantine routine. Is it safe for us to visit one another’s house on Mother’s Day? If we do, should we stay outside and remain masked? Is this a bad idea?
—Erin

You are in the incredibly fortunate position of living near your parents and being in a position where you could go visit them. I am wildly jealous. I would kill seven to nine people (depends on the people) for the chance to drive by my parents’ house and wave at my mom through a window, instead of relying on a spotty internet connection at 7 a.m. to FaceTime her and her dwindling emotional well-being, a continent away.

So for me, and people like me, do this small favor: Don’t go inside your parents’ house for Mother’s Day. You still need to keep your (literal) distance. Visiting them indoors flouts a pretty basic rule we all need to follow right now, and I also think you’ll find it hard to resist giving your mom a big hug, especially considering how cold the world feels right now.

The coronavirus does not give a shit that it’s Mother’s Day this weekend. 

I know it’s not ideal and I know it seems ridiculous since you’ve been careful and they’ve been careful, but I hope you can find other ways to celebrate your mom in the middle of a quarantine. The coronavirus does not give a shit that it’s Mother’s Day this weekend, the same way it has not cared about anyone’s birthday, due date, funeral, graduation, travel plan, preexisting condition, wedding, or circumcision.

If you have siblings or cousins, organize a Mother’s Day parade in front of her house. Bake her a cake, deliver it, and then promptly run away when she answers the door. Hand-stitch her some face masks if you’re crafty. Get her a book delivery from a beloved local indie bookseller. For my mother’s birthday last month, I got our family and a bunch of my friends to wish her a happy birthday, and stitched the clips together into a video she can watch over and over as we wait for her to get a flight home. It really cheered her up, because right now, literally any form of connectivity is an absolute joy.

These, of course, are solutions for if you like your mother. If you hate her, I have even more suggestions, which I will not write here because my mother is a succubus who will be able to hear it from the other side of the world. Happy Mother’s Day, Amma. Please don’t hit me with your slipper. I don’t know how you’d do it, but you always find a way. ●

Send me your questions at scaachi.koul@buzzfeed.com, or through this form, or sign up for our text messaging service.


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