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Holly Taylor CoolmanMarch 09, 2020

Last week, I was following the news about the coronavirus, trying to make sense of what I was reading and to figure out what exactly my family needed to do to prepare. This week, life changed a bit. My husband and I found out that two of my children had been exposed to the virus, and the Rhode Island Department of Health asked that they self-quarantine.

My husband read off the list of instructions from the department: Check for fever and other symptoms twice a day; practice social distancing with the exposed kids, even in our own house. But then my 16-year-old daughter looked at me and said, “Mom! I have to have hugs!” and the decision was sealed: We would self-quarantine along with themout of solidarity and also out of an abundance of caution. As a college professor, I had only two teaching days left before my students scattered to the wind on spring break. I decided I would conduct classes remotely and wait to see what was next.

Thus began the experiment in which we feel like both the scientist and the subject. Our family has now self-quarantined for several days and will continue to do so until our kids are in the clear. That means no school, no work, no trips to the grocery store. There has been lots of baking, lots of card games, lots of dog walks in which we wave to neighbors from afar.

My kids have struggled to make sense of the situation, swinging from “We aren’t even sick!” to “What if I have it?!” in a matter of minutes.

It has been harder than it sounds. For the first couple of days, our kids kept forgetting they were on lockdown and proposed outings or get-togethers. For our teenagers, especially, friendships really matter, and even in 2020, virtual contact does not always feel like enough. And they have struggled to make sense of the situation, swinging from “We aren’t even sick!” to “What if I have it?!” in a matter of minutes. I have been plunged into the complicated explanations that are challenging even for experts. “You may have it,” I told them. “For people like you, it’s usually no big deal. But there are other people all around us, people who are older or who are sick. We don’t want to give it to them because it would be much more serious.”

In my head, I was thinking: All of us will likely get the virus, sooner or later. Many experts now predict eventual universal spread. But I also know that if we can slow that spread, we are saving lives. Each community only has so many hospital beds, and we need to do everything we can to make sure that when someone more vulnerable gets this disease and needs a hospital bed to survive, there is one waiting for them. At one point, I said it directly to the kids, “Staying home is a way for us to show love.”

Our friends have been incredibly generous. On the second day, a pizza was delivered to our front door, courtesy of an anonymous benefactor. On the third day, a box arrived with 300 balloons, along with a pump to blow them up. On the fourth day, a friend hand-delivered a homemade dinner to our front porch. We have tried to live out concern for those around us, but it turned out that we could not begin to outdo them in generosity.

We have tried to live out concern for those around us, but it turned out that we could not begin to outdo them in generosity.

Of course, we have also conducted this experiment from the beginning with some profound advantages. We have two parents who are both able to stay home for an extended period. We live in a big house: One of us can be playing the drums in the basement while another naps on the second floor. We have the financial freedom to stock up on groceries. I have found myself thinking a great deal about how this all would have worked if I were a single parent, especially if I could not have afforded to take a day off.

One thing that becomes much clearer when one is living through quarantine is the question of privacy. If I were a single mother headed into work, I would probably prefer no one knew that I had two kids in quarantine at home. Because we have a way to stay home with our quarantined kids, we have more freedom to talk about all of this, including writing this essay.

We have tried to focus on the positive. From the start, we tried to think of it as an opportunity for strengthening family connections. Our usual schedule does not give us many opportunities to watch a movie together or roast marshmallows over a fire. Last night, the kids headed to the basement, turned on music and rotating disco lights and made a music video together—not something they do on the average school night. And when all the togetherness starts to be a bit much, we are trying to figure out how to bend and stretch and give each other space and forgiveness. My husband and I each take a long walk every day, leaving the other in charge back at home.

Not that any of this is completely unfamiliar. These are the sorts of things we strive to do all the time as a family. In a sense, everything about our little experiment functions as a microcosm. Can we lift our gaze from our own lives and recommit ourselves to the common good? Can we figure out how to “take appropriate measures” and also “not panic” at the same time? Can we learn and relearn how to make room for one another, even and especially when we are tired and anxious and impatient? These are always the questions we have to ask. We just find ourselves with an unexpected opportunity to ask them now.

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